Legitimacy

1952ToppsJRobinson

I have been reading about or studying the integration of baseball for many years, at first principally because I wanted to write about the effect that integration had on the quality of the game. Obviously if you add Jackie Robinson to a league, that league is not just ethically and morally better, the quality of play is also better. Much better. I mean, this is JACKIE ROBINSON for God’s sake. And then Doby, and Campy, and Irvin, and on and on.

Jackie Robinson and the extraordinary cohort of people who integrated the game in the 1940s and 1950s will always be baseball’s best story, one that can not be over-told. We (myself included) have been guilty of treating this story as a culmination rather than as an important chapter in an ongoing struggle. Today’s decreased number of Black American players, to say nothing of managers and executives, is one constant reminder of progress yet to be made. Another are the tales of just how difficult the lives of black players can be in today’s Major League Baseball. Like the rest of America, baseball has a long, long way to go.

Additionally, my integration-era research has led to collateral damage in my relationship with Jim Crow (pre-1947) baseball, and its cards. I still appreciate the history, and the stories, and I understand how great Wagner, Cobb, Ruth, and DiMaggio were, but the stories are a little less romantic, and maybe the players were all a little less great than I thought. It’s the other side of same coin–you can’t believe that Robinson, Mays and Aaron made the game significantly better without also believing that not having them made the game significantly worse.


For Christmas in 1981, I was given a beautiful 1982 calendar which I believe had been advertised in the New Yorker. With brief exceptions, it has hung on a wall in my dorm/apartment/house/office for the past 38 years–it is six feet away from me as I type. (In 2021, for the first time since 2010, the days will align.)

Its 12 pages tell the story of baseball cards chronologically–January is for 19th century tobacco cards, while the last row of December shows 1981 Topps. If you lay the calendar on a table and flip through months (the only way to really do it–the pages are 22″ x 14″), you get a high level view of 100 years of the hobby. And of Major League baseball.

IMG_1935

What the calendar also shows, visually and starkly, is Jim Crow: page after page, row after row, of White dudes.

The first Black face belatedly shows up in August, in the penultimate row, appropriately the 1949 Bowman Satchel Paige. The final August row features 1951 Topps, and includes both Monte Irvin and Luke Easter. These three men were the 7th, 10th, and 11th Black players in the Major Leagues in the 20th century. There are four more Black faces on the page for September, which highlights the 1951 and 1952 Bowman sets.

My calendar almost always (as now) is hung so as to display October. I don’t know if it was deliberate on the part of the designer, probably not, but October’s top row is like a punch in America’s face, and the next three rows don’t really let up.

IMG_1934

Here is a thought experiment. Imagine seeing a binder of 1956 Topps cards, except that all of the Black players have been removed. No Mays, no Aaron, no Jackie, no Banks, no Clemente, no lots of other stars. There are still great players in the binder–Mantle, Williams, Koufax, Feller, and more–but its obviously a worse group than the real set. Not just a little worse, immeasurably worse.

In other words, it would be … just like 1934 Goudey. Or 1940 Play Ball. Or T-205. Looking through that denuded 1956 binder would be at the very least uncomfortable, and more likely offensive, to a modern collector. And that is why I struggle with all the pre-war cards sets.

As Nick wrote a couple of years ago, “while cards have always existed, their role in defining who ‘real’ ballplayers are cannot be ignored.” If I collect cards to celebrate the baseball of the time, I have to ask myself: do I really want to hang a frame on the wall that glorifies segregated baseball? The 1934 Goudey card set, the T-206 set, and all pre-war card sets, perpetuate the lie that “organized” baseball sold America for decades, that these were the best players, the “real” players.

While major league baseball was barring great Black players from playing in its leagues, and most white newspapers were complicit in not reporting on the Negro Leagues, companies like American Tobacco and Goudey  were not putting Black players on baseball cards. There were a lot of minor league cards or sets in these years, there were sets for pilots, and actors, and dogs, and trees, but nothing for the many fans of Oscar Charleston or Bullet Joe Rogan or Biz Mackey. Didn’t they smoke, or chew gum?

Had any of these companies chosen to make a Negro League set, or, better yet, incorporated Negro League players into their flagship sets, it might have led to increased and earlier calls for integration, and would have made these players “real” to kids all over America. But they did not.

When it comes to baseball cards, the lie began to dramatically unravel in the 1950s.  By the end of the decade, nearly 10% of the players on the field had dark skin, and many of these were among the best players in the sport. If you collected, some of the best and most sought after cards depicted players who you might not have heard of had they played a decade earlier.  In 1956, ten years after White America wondered if Jackie Robinson would be good enough, there were 52 Black players on big league diamonds.  Nine of them are in the Hall of Fame. Nine.

I have been dabbling in the cards of the early 1950s in recent years. I don’t have any of the sets and doubt I ever will, but enjoy picking up an occasional example, including Ted Williams or Yogi Berra or Duke Snider.

Sing the praises of pre-war cards and players as you wish.  But the 1950s are the first time when the best players were allowed in the major leagues and in baseball card sets. Both enterprises, belatedly, had become legitimate.

 

The first HOF baseball card for every team (part one)

Author’s note: All teams noted refer to their most recent MLB incarnation. For example, the San Diego Padres here are the MLB team and do not include cards/players from the PCL franchise of the same name.

This post celebrates a set of cards largely off the radar to most collectors but historic nonetheless, and it begins with an ambiguous question. What was the first baseball card to depict a Hall of Famer for each of baseball’s current and historic franchises?

Huh?

To help clarify, I’ll start with a couple of teams featured on SABR Baseball Cards Twitter.

Montreal Expos

When most collectors imagine an early Montreal Expos card of a Hall of Famer, good chance they picture this.

However, this didn’t become an Expos card of a Hall of Famer until 2003 when Carter made the Hall. What I’m looking for here is the first time a collector could hold up an Expos card and say, “Hey, this guy’s in the Hall of Fame!” and this would have been 23 years earlier when Expos legend Edwin “Duke” Snider headed to Cooperstown.

At that time, there was only this single card depicting Snider in his Expos colors, his coach card from the 1976 SSPC set. (Yes, I’m ignoring team cards and team issued photos here.)

This Snider card remained the only Expos baseball card of a Hall of Famer until Larry Doby made the Hall in 1998, conferring HOF status on this Topps/OPC card from 1973.

San Diego PadreS

Continuing through the 1969 expansion teams, the answer is once again a subject better known for his tenure on other teams. When you think Billy Herman, you probably think of the ten-time all-star second baseman and baseball cards like this, if not his 1950s and 60s coach/manager cards with the Dodgers and Red Sox.

But the first time a young Padres collector could put a Hall of Famer in his pocket to take to school was in 1978, thanks to this Family Fun Center card of the Friars batting coach. As the back of the card notes, Herman got the call from New York in 1975, making this card a HOFer card the moment it was issued.

Kansas City Royals

It’s hard to think of Royals Hall of Famers and not instantly (or exclusively!) think of George Brett, who made the Hall in 1999. However, that didn’t mean Royals collectors had no Hall of Famers in their collections until then.

Eight years earlier, well traveled hurler Gaylord Perry made the Hall, thereby promoting several of his 1984 cards to Hall of Fame status. The Fleer set alone had three, including one with Brett, to go with two highlights cards from Topps.

Six years before Perry, in 1985, Hoyt Wilhelm’s plaque went up in Cooperstown. Like Perry, Wilhelm had pitched for seemingly every team. Unlike Perry, his cardboard legacy with the Royals was quite thin, paper thin to be exact. In fact the knuckleballer’s only card came courtesy of the 1969 Topps Stamps set. (UPDATE: Per Tim Jenkins, Wilhelm was also a Royal in the Deckle Edge set that same year.)

Of course the prior year another Royal saw his plaque go up. The Killer became a Hall of Famer in 1984, elevating his 1976 SSPC card with Kansas City to HOF status.

In reality, however, Royals collections were well stocked with Hall of Famer cards well before 1984, thank to Bob Lemon’s induction in 1976 and his early 1970s Topps and O-Pee-Chee manager cards.

Seattle Pilots

The final 1969 expansion team was the Seattle Pilots. As the team existed for only a single season and wasn’t exactly stocked with talent, there is not a single Pilots card of a Hall of Famer. This Ichiro retro card from 2010 may be as close as the Pilots ever come.

UPDATE: Thank you to David Bender for alerting us to this 1992 Leaf Studio Heritage card of Class of 2014 Hall of Famer Paul Molitor decked out in Seattle Pilots gear. If only!

Milwaukee Brewers

Following the 1969 season, Bud stole the Pilots and renamed them the Milwaukee Brewers. Unlike the other three teams covered thus far, the first Hall of Fame Brewers card is very likely the one you would have guessed.

In 1982, Hank Aaron became the first Brewer to enter the Hall. Among his many Brewers cards, 1975-76 and post-career, we’ll go with card #660 from 1975 Topps.

Texas Rangers

With the new locale and nickname in 1972, I’ll distinguish the Rangers from their not very long and not at all storied history as the (new) Washington Senators. If we don’t see Rangers on the jersey or a “T” on the cap, it doesn’t count.

Unless it’s Teddy Ballgame, in which case an airbrushed cap, psychedelic team lettering, and satin collar is all we need!

Seattle Mariners

Major League Baseball returned to the Pacific Northwest in 1977 with the arrival of the Seattle Mariners. For the first 14 years of their existence the Ms had no Hall of Fame baseball cards. That changed when Gaylord Perry entered the Hall in 1991. Perry has dozens of cards with Seattle, but his earliest comes from the 1982 Topps Traded set.

Toronto Blue Jays

1977 also marked the first year of the Toronto Blue Jays franchise. McCarthy postcards issued that same year included 1972 inductee Early Wynn and 1986 inductee Bobby Doerr.

However, my focus in this article is on “true” baseball cards, a notion we often note around here could be a whole series of posts in itself. With this stricter criterion in mind, Jays collectors would need to wait two more decades for a card of a Hall of Famer.

With Phil Niekro’s induction in 1997, his lone Toronto card (1988 Classic) became the inaugural Hall of Famer baseball card in Blue Jay collections and it would remain the only such card for more than a decade until Rickey Henderson’s 2009 induction.

Colorado Rockies

The Rockies, who began play in 1993, famously had a total of zero Hall of Famers until the recent election of Larry Walker to the Class of 2020. Not surprisingly then, Walker provides (or will provide, if you want to be technical) Rox collectors with their first ever Rockies HOF card.

Walker, of course, has over a billion different Rockies cards (okay, not quite), but I’ll feature his 1995 Topps Traded and Upper Deck cards as among the many from his first year with the squad.

Florida/Miami Marlins

Entering the league the same year as the Rockies, the Marlins can boast baseball cards of numerous Hall of Famers and may even add another if the new Jeter/Topps collaboration extends into the dismal GM chapter of his career. The first time Marlins collectors could know the joy of a Hall of Famer in their midst was thanks to the 2002 Topps set, which included a manager card (okay, eight different-ish ones) of recent inductee Tony Perez (HOF 2000).

Arizona Diamondbacks

The D-Backs joined the National League in 1998, and have so far had two Hall of Famers on their roster: Roberto Alomar (2011) and Randy Johnson (2015). Their first HOF card is therefore of Alomar, and you can take your pick from nearly 200 of them, all from 2004.

UPDATE: Am thankful for our terrific readers, including fellow SABR Baseball Cards author Artie Zillante, for turning up this nugget from the 2002 Keebler Arizona Diamondbacks set. If you’re good with the shared real estate, then Yount (HOF 1999) definitely nudges Robbie Alomar aside.

Tampa Bay Rays

The team formerly known as the Devil Rays entered the American League in 1998 with the instant star power of Fred McGriff and Wade Boggs, quickly followed the next year by Jose Canseco. Of the three, Boggs (2005) is the only one in Cooperstown, hence the man responsible for the first Devil Ray HOF cards. He has too many cards to count in the various 1998 sets, but here are two.

Washington nationals

With the change in both geography and nickname, I’ll treat the Nationals franchise as distinct from its Expos ancestry and just treat it as if the Nats were a brand new team that appeared out of nowhere to start the 2005 season. While the Nats may claim Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, Walter Johnson, and even Josh Gibson in their Ring of Honor, I’m starting the franchise with Ryan Zimmerman.

Regardless, Nats fans didn’t have to wait before adding a HOF card to their collections. All they had to do was get lucky opening packs that year.

Houston Astros/Colt .45s

Having looked at baseball’s newest franchises from 1969 forward, we’re now ready to go in reverse. First up are the Houston Astros, who entered the National League in 1962 as the Colt .45s.

Of the future Hall of Famers (Nellie Fox, Eddie Mathews, Robin Roberts, Joe Morgan) lurking in 1960s Astros sets, the first to make the Hall was Roberts in 1976. Another Astro, Yogi Berra, made the Hall four years earlier but his first Astros cards didn’t come until much later. Therefore, Roberts it is!

New York Mets

The Rajah had been a Hall of Famer for 20 years when he joined the Mets as their third base coach in 1962. However, there was no immediate cardboard to herald his arrival. The closest we come is a 1966 James Elder postcard.

Baseball card purists (emphasis on “card”) may prefer this 1962 Topps card of Casey Stengel, which gained Hall of Fame status upon the Old Perfessor’s 1966 induction. Not the airbrushing department’s best work, but perhaps it was part and parcel for the altogether woeful season Mets fans endured that season.

los angeles/california/anaheim angels

Too many official name changes to keep track of here, but you know who I mean. The Halos joined the American League in 1961, the same year MLB adopted the 162-game schedule. Their wait on a HOF baseball card was decidedly longer than that of Mets fans. It was not until Frank Robinson made the Hall in 1982 that Angels collectors could add a HOF card to their binders.

Robinson’s first Angels “card” is from the hard-to-find 1972 Topps Candy Lid test issue, and is much like the 1962 Stengel in that Frank appears as an Angel in name only.

Rather than rectify the wardrobe malfunction the next year, Topps may have actually made things worse with its 1973 release.

His 1973 photocard aside, it was not until 1974 that Angel fans (and Rodin fans!) truly had a Robby card they could be proud of.

Washington Senators II

These are the Senators, 1961-1971, not to be confused with the Senators, 1901-1960, which means there will be no Walter Johnson cards to consider. As was the case with the Rangers team they became, their first HOF card was Ted Williams.

Minnesota Twins

Just as the new Senators started up in D.C., the old Senators headed to the Minnesota and became the Twins. The star of the team at that time also (in 1984 upon induction) gave Twins fans their first Hall of Fame baseball card.

baltimore orioles

The team formerly known as the St. Louis Browns began play in 1954 and would not have an eventual Hall of Famer on a baseball card until 1957 when they added three to the cardboard lineup.

1957 Topps #230 George Kell Front1957 Topps #328 Brooks Robinson Front1957 Topps #59 Dick Williams Front

However, it was not until 1983 that even the first of these men received his call from Cooperstown. First Orioles HOF baseball card honors instead went to Robin Roberts who made the Hall in 1976 and had cards with Baltimore as early as 1963.

what’s left?

My focus in this article has been on expansion teams or franchise moves that ditched both the city and the nickname. As such I skipped over the Oakland A’s, Kansas City A’s, Los Angeles Dodgers, and the like. All told, that leaves me with 16 modern-era franchises left to cover in a future article.

Unlike the cards identified in this article, where any one of them could be had in good shape for less than $10, the cards in the next article would be a bit more difficult to collect, with pre-war cards of Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, and Babe Ruth representing nine of the sixteen teams.

My Card Collections

All of my collections

I started collecting baseball cards in the late 1970s. The earliest cards I remember having were Brewers from the 1979 Topps set. Unfortunately, though I have obtained them again, I did not hold on to those cards. The card that has been in my possession the longest is a 1980 Jerry Augustine card. And I still remember the first “old” card I got, a 1974 Bill Parsons that I received in a trade in about 1985.

1980 Jerry Augustine and 1974 Bill Parsons

In the 1980s, I bought wax packs, usually Topps, though I did get ‘82 and ‘83 Donruss and ‘85 Fleer. I remember opening the packs and sorting and resorting the cards. Sometimes I sorted them by team, sometimes by position, sometimes by making teams of my favorite players. By the time I was in high school, I started to focus on a collection. I decided that I wanted to collect all of the Topps Brewer cards.

Hunt For Brewer Cards

1979 Milwaukee Brewers

When I started this collection, Topps had four main sets: Main, Traded, Tiffany, and Traded Tiffany. The two Tiffany sets were almost identical to the other two, except they had a higher quality print. I decided to limit my collection to the Main and Traded sets. I also decided to include the ’69 and ’70 Seattle Pilots.

1969 Seattle Pilots

At the time, the only way to get older cards was to go to a card shop or a card show. I spent many Saturdays at card shows rifling through boxes of older sets looking for Brewers that I did not have. I always brought my notebook that had all of the players that I knew were in each set, helped tremendously by the Topps Baseball Cards of the Milwaukee Brewers picture book that was a giveaway at one of the Brewer games. I still remember the TV commercial for that, with broadcaster Mike Hegan having his 1976 card pointed out.

1976 Mike Hegan

It took me close to 20 years to complete the set. Now I make two or three orders a year to collect the Series 1, Series 2, and Update sets. Currently, I am only missing one of the 2019 Keston Huira Update cards (#150). I will pick that up when I get the Series 2 cards this summer.

Collecting The Faves

Jim Gantner

Right around the time I started to get close to completing my Brewer collection, I started to collect cards of my favorite players. I stuck with Topps Main and Update (or Traded) sets. The first players I collected were Ozzie Smith, Jim Gantner, Pudge Rodriguez, and Brooks Robinson.

Of those players, the only cards that I’m missing are of Robinson. I still need his ‘57 rookie card, his ‘67 main card, and a ‘67 checklist that has his picture on it. I have two of each of the Gantner cards, one for my Brewer collection and one for my player collection.

Brooks Robinson

I have since added three other players. I have a complete set of Jonathon Lucroy and Gary Carter, adding to the former when a new card comes out. The other player that I collect is Jose Altuve. I am only missing his 2011 Update rookie card. I’m not sure if I will continue collecting Altuve in light of the cheating scandal.

Gotta Love The Team Portraits

My most recent collection is Topps team portrait cards. They were some of my favorites when I first started collecting. Topps had them almost every year from 1956 through 1981, and then from 2001 through 2007. For some reason, they did not have them in 1969, and some teams were not represented in 1968. Houston had a card in 1963, but did not have another until 1970, when they were renamed from the Colt .45s to the Astros.

1956 Team Cards

The team cards are my favorite to collect right now. All of my other collections are either complete, I’m missing some expensive cards, or are just getting the current cards. The team cards still involve the hunt, trying to find as many as possible in one shop to save on shipping. In all, there are 729 team portrait cards, and I have almost half of them.

Paging Through The Boys Of Summer

There are currently 2,097 cards in my collections, which are currently housed in four binders. I only order cards two or three times a year, but each time I pull out all of the binders and go through them.

1980 Team Cards

Usually, that brings me back to summers spent riding my bike to the store to buy packs of cards. Sometimes it reminds me of a particular Brewer memory. And sometimes I remember being seven years old in the back yard, pretending to play a game with a lineup made up of the names on the back of the team cards.

Rethinking the Hobby’s most iconic cards

If you came here to read about the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle or 1989 Fleer Billy Ripken, you came to the wrong place. I’m here to talk about true baseball card icons…these!

These are of course the position icons Topps used on their 1976 flagship set. Now that you see where the post is headed, I’m only going to get the ball rolling and look to you, the readers, to finish it for me.

Use the comments area either to fill a vacant slot or upgrade one of the existing slots. Together I believe we can assemble a team of the most iconic baseball cards ever, and I wouldn’t even be surprised if the entire collection could be had for only a few bucks.

Catcher

I was reasonably happy with the 1988 Score Bob Boone card, but I suspect there’s something better out there. Terry Steinbach had a couple that were very close but facing the wrong way.

Right-handed pitcher

As in the 1973 set, Topps used different icons depending on whether a pitcher threw righty or lefty. Until a better match comes along, here is the iconic 1991 Topps Donn Pall card in the righty slot.

Left-Handed Pitcher

Hunting for the LHP icon proved harder than I thought and introduced me to just how much variation in follow-through there can be from pitcher to pitcher. As with all of these, feel free to upgrade.

First Base

No entry yet.

Second Base

Though not a second baseman, Walt Weiss comes close to the Topps icon with his 1991 Topps card. My guess is one of you will find something better though, and bonus points if your sliding baserunner is a match too.

An honorable mention from the vintage division is found on another shortshop card, the 1956 Topps Pee Wee Reese. (And you thought only his 1953 Bowman was iconic!)

Third Base

For some reason when I look at the third baseman icon I see George Brett in my head. He has a few near matches like this 1982 Topps In Action. Still, I suspect another player will make for an even closer match.

Shortstop

No entry yet, but I’ll use this third baseman’s card as a placeholder.

Outfield

No entry yet.

Designated hitter

Pinch-hitting for the DH until something better comes along is the 1992 Topps Jay Buhner. For some reason, even though the batter is a righty, this position icon always reminds me of Yaz.

Not satisfied?

If near matches weren’t what you had in mind, have I got the set for you. Let’s call it the Topps equivalent of participation trophies, a set where EVERY player is iconic: 2004 Topps!

P.S. I kind of like these!

Tobacco Cards See Daylight Again After the Walls Come Down

Carriage house walls come down in 1979.

The first house that an old high school buddy and his wife owned was built in 1850. Adjacent to the house was a carriage house that had been converted into a garage. Shortly after moving into the house in 1979 it was apparent that some of the support beams in the carriage house needed to be replaced.

To get at the support beams the walls in the carriage house needed to come down. Much to the surprise of my friend, behind the sparse insulation and the horse-hair was a mishmash of early 1900s Americana that included advertising signs, newspapers, pins, and tobacco cards that were also being used as insulation.

Some of the historical artifacts were carted off to the dump along with the debris from the construction. Some items, like the “Modern Women Use Crisco Instead of Whale Blubber” sign, were tossed in 2012 due to mold build up. However, for some reason my friend decided to keep the tobacco cards and the pins that he found behind the walls.

T206 Nap Lajoie Portrait card found behind the wall.

The tobacco cards and pins remained tucked away in a drawer for over 40 years until last month when he posted a couple of group shots of the items on Facebook. In the post he asked – “Does anyone know if they are worth anything?”

I immediately called him and gave him some information about the cards, pricing guides, and grading services. I also emailed him links to online sources of information that included checklists.

It was impossible to determine which tobacco cards he had from the group shots, so I asked him to email me individual photos of the front and backs of each card.

From the photos I determined that he had T205, T206, and E91 baseball cards and T-218 Champions and Prize Fighters cards.

Behind the Walls Checklist

I have listed below the cards by set that my friend found behind the walls. I have also included the photos of the individual cards that my friend sent me organized by set.

T206 Set (all have Sweet Caporal backs)

Jack Hayden

Tom Jones

Nap Lajoie (Portrait)

Matty McIntyre

William O’Neil

Mike Powers

T205 Set (all have Sweet Caporal backs)

Bill Bailey

Frank Lang

E91 American Carmel (American Caramel back)

Robert “Bob” Unglaub

T-218 Champions and Prize Fighters (Mecca backs)

Tom Collins

Harry Lewis

Melvin Sheppard

My friend also saved some assorted pins that he found, including a President McKinley pin.

President McKinley pin and Perfection Cigarettes pin.

My friend and his wife sold the house in 1982. When I asked my friend if he had taken down all of the garage walls. He replied – “I am not sure. It might have been only two walls.” My follow up question was – “Did you take down any of the walls in the house?” He said – “No. We just wallpapered over the walls in the house.”

My buddy and I are now planning a road trip to see the current owners of his first house. We want to see if they would be interested in some free wall demolition work on the condition that we do a 3-way split on the proceeds of any T206 Honus Wagner cards that might be found during the wall removal process.

The Big Sadowski

“This is a very complicated case Maude. You know, a lotta ins, a lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous.”

In the 1960s, the dudes who ripped wax had to abide by one rule of acquisition, your odds of pulling a Sadowski were very high. The best approach was to remain calm and mellow while adding the cards to the duplicate pile.

Prior to the 1963 Season, infield prospect Bob Sadowski rolled like a tumbling tumbleweed from the White Sox of Chicago to the City of Angels, where he joined the Los Angeles Angels of Chavez Ravine.  Topps thought enough of his potential to float his head on a 1962 Rookie Parade card (him and three other guys).  When Bob the infielder showed up for spring training, he discovered that the Halos had another Sadowski on the roster.

Catcher Ed Sadowski was selected from the Red Sox organization in the expansion draft prior to the 1961 season.  Ed’s weak stick marked his destiny as a backup catcher.  He hung on with the Angels in that capacity through 1963, at which point Ed was ordered to stay out of Malibu.

Ed did not receive a solo card after 1963, but was teamed with Bob “Buck” Rogers on the “Angels Backstops” combo card in 1964.

One could hazard a guess that Ed was taken aback by the presence of the new infielder, Bob Sadowski, since he had a younger brother named Bob who was working his way up as a pitcher in the Braves chain. (How ya gonna keep em down on the farm once they’ve seen Karl Hungus?!)

Bob Sadowski the pitcher (the other Bob Sadowski) was called up to Milwaukee in 1963 resulting in two Bob Sadowskis being active on major league rosters.  You can imagine their first meeting—”Okay sir, you’re a Sadowski, I’m a Sadowski. That’s terrific, but I’m very busy, as I can imagine you are. What can I do for you sir?”

Brother Bob had enough stuff to hang with the Braves through 1965 before he was peddled to Boston, where in 1966 he traded his spikes in for a pair of bowling shoes. Strong men also cry.

But, my friends, this is not the end of the Sadowski saga.  In 1961, Topps issued a card for the third Sadowski brother, Ted. (Ahh, separate incidents). The Twins prospect received the rookie “star” on his one and only card.  Not exactly a lightweight, Dude. Like his brother Bob, Ted was a thrower of rocks.  He made 43 appearances with the Senators/Twins between 1960 and 1962.

Incidentally, on May 27, 1962 (the day after Shabbos) Ted faced Bob the infielder (no relation) in a league game (Smokey) between the Twins and White Sox.  This Sadowski showdown resulted in Bob collecting two singles with two RBI in two plate appearances.  Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes… well, he eats you. And sometimes the bear’s name is Bob Sadowski, who would henceforth be referred to by all other Sadowskis as His Dudeness (or Duder, or El Duderino, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing).

If you are still with me, you are undoubtedly hoping I will wrap it up soon. “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” For I happen to know there was another little Sadowski on the way.

Jim Sadowski, nephew of the three Sadowski brothers, surfaces with the Pirates in 1974, pitching in four games before returning to the minors.  Topps did not issue a card for Jim, but we got some leads about a  publicity still and a Venezuelan Winter League sticker that exist. We’ve been working in shifts to find them.

The non-related Bob hung on in the minor leagues though 1969, which netted him a Seattle Angels popcorn card in 1966. “Did you ever hear of the Seattle Angels? That was me… and twenty four other guys.”

And finally, like a rug can really tie a room together, I will wrap a bow on this post by showing you a page I have from a San Francisco Seals autograph book signed by Ed Sadowski. With that, I bid you farewell. I’m going to go see if they got any of that good sarsaparilla.

Editor’s note: Thanks to guest editor, good friend, and Big Lebowski scholar, Russ, for his help with this piece. He’s a good man…and thorough.

On cropping and layers

For most of baseball card history there have been two basic types of card designs. Either the photo is placed in a box* or the player is silhouetted onto a background.** Both of these designs are pretty straightforward with their image requirements in that designers only have to think about what is and isn’t shown in the photos.

*Straightforward but none more pure of an example than 1953 Bowman.

**1914 Cracker Jacks, 1949 Bowman, 1958 Topps, and many of the inserts from the 1980s to today.

There’s a third design though which took over cards in the 1990s and has made photo cropping difficult ever since. Rather than putting photos in boxes the trend toward full-bleed cards has created design after design that layers text and other graphic elements on top of the photo itself.

While it’s true that this design took over in the 1990s and was made extremely easy to do by foil stamping, it’s important to realize that its ancestry has been in cards for decades and in fact tended to surface every decade. So let’s go back to one of the first such designs.

Yup. 1957. I sometimes jokingly refer to this as proto-Stadium Club except that the photos themselves are pretty standard Topps photos that you’d expect to see until about 1991 or so. Posed shots showing a player’s upper body, headshots, and a few full-body “action” (at this point still posed) images.

The first thing to point out here is that Topps likes to put the players’ heads as high in the frame that it can. The next thing to look at—specifically in the Kluszewski and Thompson cards—is how Topps deals with the text overlapping the image. Topps likes to crop at players’ waists and at their necklines. In 1957 this is frequently where the top of the text starts but there’s another half inch of image visible under the text.

On the upper-body portraits this extra half inch can give us a little more information about the location of the photo and allow us to see the field and stadiums.

Photographically, these photos were also composed somewhat loose since the image area of the film is huge* and the photographer knew things would be cropped later. This is why in the Gomez card there’s so much grass in the foreground.

*at least 2 and a quarter inches square and quite likely more like 4 inches by 5 inches.

Now we flash forward a decade. On a lot of other sets* before this the image frame is knocking off a corner of the photo. This isn’t the same kind of design/photography issue since most of the photos are somewhat centered so there’s rarely something of import in the corners.

*eg. 1962, 1963, and 1965. Plus in 1966 there’s a layering effect in the corner.

1967 though is exactly like 1957 only there’s text at both the top and the bottom of the card now. Topps is doing the same thing as it did in 1957 too except that the players’ heads are now a little lower in the frame so that the names and positions can fit. The waist and neckline croppings though are pretty close to the 1957 croppings.

The net result here is that we get to see a lot more stadium details in many of the cards—giving the set a photographic character which differs from the other 1960s Topps offerings.

The Fuentes card though shows the dangers of this kind of design. Unlike the 1957 Gomez, Fuentes’s feet—and even his glove—are covered by the team name. This isn’t a big problem with a posed “action” photo but becomes much more of an issue when we move into the age of action photography.

I’ll jump to Japan for the 1970s since the Calbee sets of that decade deserve a mention. It’s obviously doing something very similar with extending the photo under the text. At the same time the simplicity of the text almost makes it an absence of design. In a good way.

It might be because I can’t read the text but the way it’s handled encourages me to not see it. Not because it’s not readable. Quite the opposite in fact. The way the text changes from black to white on the Sadaharu Oh card is handled masterfully in how my brain barely notices it. It’s there as information but manages to not take anything away from the photos.

It is worth noting though that the cropping on Oh and Davey Johnson is pretty similar to Topps’s standard cropping. And that third card of Hisao Niura tying his shoes has enough foreground space to give the text plenty of room to be legible.

Toppswise I skipped 1969 since it’s such a photographic nightmare that I don’t feel like it’s a fair to look at the photos. (Offhand though it’s interesting to note that it tends to crop the photos tighter at the bottom than 1967’s or 1957’s designs do.) 1980 is close, super close, to being included but it still feels like more of a corner-based design. Which brings us to 1988.

Not much to note with 1988 except for the layering of the player on top of the team name which is on top of the background. This is a wonderfully subtle bit of design that allows the photos to feel like they’re cropped similarly to the rest of Topps’s cards. Instead of getting more image area the layering doesn’t affect the image too much.

1991 brought us Stadium Club and the beginning of the full-bleed era of cards. Looking at this first set shows both that Topps was being pretty considerate with its cropping and how things would start to break.

Where earlier sets had the benefit of posed photos which could be cropped, as action photography began to be the priority for card companies the room for cropping started to decrease. For every card like Kent Anderson where there’s enough room for the graphics there’s a card like Damon Berryhill where the graphic is starting to intrude into the image.

1992 Stadium Club shows an alternative to just slapping a graphic on the bottom of the card. That Topps moves the graphic depending on where it best fits the photo is fantastic.

It’s also a lot of work since it requires each card to be designed individually. Instead of positioning an image into a template, this design requires the image and graphic to be adjusted until they work together. Find the best cropping, then adjust the graphic. This extra amount of work is probably why this approach hasn’t really been revisited since 1992.

By 1993 the standard operating procedure had been set. This design captures the way most sets ever since have been designed. A basic template, drop the picture in. Don’t worry if the graphic obscures an important part of the photo.

One of my pet peeves in the full-bleed era is when there’s a photo of a play at a base and the graphic obscures the actual play. The Bip Roberts is a textbook example of this. Great play at the plate except the focus of the play is obscured by the Stadium Club logo.

This is a shame since in 1993 Upper Deck showed how to do it right. The layering effect like 1988 Topps at the top allows the image to be cropped nice and tight at the top of the frame. Upper Deck though selected photos and cropped them to have empty space at the bottom.

You wouldn’t crop photos in general this way but as a background for the graphics it works perfectly. It forces the photos to be zoomed out enough that you can see the entire player and get a sense of what he’s doing within the game.

Most of the 1990s and 2000s however look like these. I could’ve pulled a bunch more sets—especially from Pacific and Upper Deck—here but they’re all kind of the same. Big foil graphics that cover up important parts of the photo. Some sort of foil stamping or transparency effect that cuts off the players’ feet.

Instead of cropping loosely like 1993 Upper Deck most of the cards in these decades feel like the photos were cropped before being placed in the graphics.

It’s easy to blame the card companies here but this is also a photography thing. Portrait photographers often find the crop after they take the photo. They use larger-format film and understand that the publication might need to crop to fit a yet-to-be-determined layout. Action photographers though get in tight and capture the best moment. This is great for the photos but not so great with baseball cards.

Baseball is a horizontal sport and there’s no reason to include dead foreground space. The only reason to include that space if you know that you’re shooting for a baseball card design that’s going to need it.

We’ll make a brief stop at 2008 though. This isn’t a transparency or overlay design but it’s doing something similar. Rather than the usual cropping at a corner of the image box, Topps placed its logo in a uvula at the top of the image box. Right where it would normally place the players’ heads.

The result? Very similar to 1967’s effect where the photos get zoomed out  a little and you see more background. The problem? These photos are already somewhat small and the change to mostly-action means that in most of them you’re just seeing more blurry crowds.

Fred Lewis is emblematic of the standard cropping. Small player image with lots of wasted space in the upper corners. That the posed photos like the Matt Cain are often bare skies at spring training locations instead of in Major League stadiums makes the added “information” there generally uninteresting.

All of this is a shame since the Tim Lincecum shows that when a selected photo is not impacted by the uvula, not only is the photo area not that small but the design can actually look pretty nice.

Okay. To contemporary cards and Topps’s recent dalliance with full bleed designs in flagship. I’m looking at 2017 here since it’s kind of the worst but 2016 to 2018 all do this. The transparency at the bottom of the cards is huge now. Yes it gets blurred out a bit but the photo information still needs to be there and as a result the cropping has to be even tighter.

As much as Topps was drifting toward in-your-face all-action shots, the actual designs of these cards sot of prevents any other kind of action. They also prioritize action that focuses in the top half of the frame. Any plays at a base gate stomped on by the design and even photos like the Chase Headley which don’t focus low in the frame are pretty much ruined too.

It’s easy to blame the TV graphics in Flagship but even Stadium Club—a set I love—has this same problem. On action photos the name/type often gets in the way of the image (compare Tim Anderson to the 1993 Upper Deck Lou Whitaker) but it’s the otherwise-wonderful wide-angle photos which fare the worst.

As the angle gets wider and the players get smaller, the odds that the text becomes intrusive increase tremendously. On Dexter Fowler’s card he’s the same size as the text and, as great as the photo is, the design of the card ruins it. Same goes with the Jose Berrios where the text is covering the entire mound and the ground fog Topps adds for contrast covers the whole playing field.

Which brings us to 2020 and a design that gets a lot of flak because it features sideways names.* What isn’t mentioned very frequently is how moving the transparency effect to the side of the card results in tremendously better photos and photo cropping.

*I don’t mind the sideways names except that I think they should’ve been rotated 180° so that when paged the horizontal cards don’t end up upside down.

All of a sudden we can see players’ feet again. Images aren’t all as in-your-face. We can have action images at second base where you can actually figure out what’s going on. Instead of cropping out the bottom of an image which a photographer has already framed, this design uses the space the photographers already provide for players to “move into.”*

*In action photography you’re generally trying to give the subject some room to move into the frame.

More importantly, it opens up the possibility for great photos that would never have worked in the previous full-bleed designs. For example, Omar Narvaez’s image is impossible to use in any design that puts transparency at the bottom of the card. Even Stadium Club. But 2020 Topps is flexible enough that it can use a wider variety of images.

I hope Topps learns some lessons from 2020 and that if we’re to see further full-bleed designs that they’ll be done in such a way so as to not get in the way of the images or to take advantage of the Transparency to give us more interesting photos.

213

1967.jpg
1967 #213

I started collecting cards in 1967, at the age of 6. I had no idea who any of the players were–I was a geography nut, so I started off just knowing the cities and states, then gradually added the team names, the positions, and a basic understanding of the statistics on the back, and eventually started to figure out who the players actually were. Soon, I was an expert in separating the scrubs from the regulars, the stars from the superstars.

Eventually, not right away, I could pull a card like this Jay Johnstone, and realize that he was a superstar. He had 3 home runs in 1966, and home runs were obviously good things. Soon I realized that Topps used certain card numbers to designate the best players in the game, which made things easier.

For example, I learned, by deduction, that Topps set aside card #213 for a really special player. I did not see this for years, hence my delay in understanding how great Johnstone was–had I known that they had given Fred Newman #213 in 1966, obviously I would have connected the dots. In these days before hobby magazines, I had to figure out this pattern for myself.

1968
1968 #213

My second year collecting, Topps came back hard with this legend, fresh off an -0.3 WAR season with the Reds. When you put Chico’s card together with teammates Pete Rose, Lee May, and Tony Perez, and with rookie Johnny Bench showing promise, my friends and I began to call them the Big Red Machine. Honestly, I felt like this nickname should have caught on, as almost all of these players remained stars for many years.

1969.jpg
1969 #213

I am embarrassed to admit that even after pulling this PSA-10 Arrigo out of a pack, I still had not put together the #213 pattern! Of course I understood that this was an inner circle star, but I just didn’t pay attention to card numbers back then. This was a 3rd series card, likely coming out in May, and the only excuse I can offer is that I was too distracted with the Apollo 10 launch to follow the tense Arrigo-Seaver duel for the Cy Young Award.

1970.jpg
1970 #213

I have written about the genius of the 1970 bat rack photos before, and it is only right that Topps put one of them on #213. And not just anyone, they didn’t waste the slot on Harmon Killebrew, they gave it to the starting catcher (against left-handed pitchers) for the best team in baseball. In addition, it must be said, he was the best looking player in baseball. This was the year — finally! — that the light came on about the glories of 213.

1971
1971 #213

Most famous for hitting two home runs in 1911 World Series, earning the nickname “Home Run,” the ageless Frank Baker was still hanging on 60 years later. While not quite the superstar he had been, you can’t blame Topps for giving the old legend the prime card spot one last time.

1972
1972 #213

Kinda ballsy of Topps to anoint not just one, but THREE, players with the superstar position in the set. Obviously they knew something, as these three hot prospects ended up racking up -0.1, -1.5, and -0.5 *career* WAR, for a mind-boggling total of -2.1. All on one card! Good luck finding this beauty at an affordable price. Clearly, the 213 Gambit paid off for Topps Bubble Gum, Inc.

1973.jpeg
1973 #213

What can I say, Topps just blew it. Not only did they put a no-name on the card, someone destined for mediocrity, but we can’t even see his face! The only thing I can think of is that they meant to give #213 to Joe “Say Hey” Lahoud, but some intern swapped the images and Joe ended up on #212. Sad, but Topps had built up so much good will in my house by this point in my life that I decided to let it go.

1974.jpg
1974 #213

I also heard a rumor that Topps *wanted* to put Rader on #213 in 1973, but didn’t want to jinx the kid with only one fine season under his belt. But once he put up his .229 batting average with nine home runs in 1973, he kind of forced their hand. After the Garvey Debacle, it must have been a relief for Topps to have this slam dunk candidate to carry the torch.

1975.jpg
1975 #213

Oscar could play, or at least hit, and one can imagine a different timeline where he holds a full-time job for 10 years and makes a bunch of All-Star teams. And, of course, everyone dug Oscar’s ‘fro (the second best in his family), which made him a household name in all the cool households that dropped the names of platoon outfielders in casual conversation. But, let’s not kid ourselves. Oscar got the coveted #213 slot for his trendy top-hand-only batting glove game, which we all knew would catch on.

1976
1976 #213

Everyone knows that Heaverlo was the Mariano Rivera of the late 1970s, but, truth be told, Topps gave him star billing in 1976 because of his head. Fashioning himself the “Anti-Oscar,” Heaverlo was the first baseball player to shave his entire dome. Unlike Seattle Supersonics star Slick Watts, our hero did not get the credit he deserved because tradition dictated that he always don a cap. Perhaps in admiration for this sacrifice, Topps gave him a sort of Mr. Congeniality nod with the #213.

1977.jpg
1977 #213

Until 1976 Leon seemed destined to live in the considerable shadow of his father Sergio, the acclaimed director of such Spaghetti Western classics as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. Heroically, young Max finally broke through with his monster 2-win, 44-strikeout performance in 1976. By the time I first saw the 1978 cards hit the store shelves in Ledyard, CT, suffice it to say that there was little remaining suspense about who #213 was going to be.

1978.jpg
1978 #213

It has been said of Willie Mays that an admirer could enumerate myriad reasons for his greatness without even mentioning his power, his 660 home runs. There was just so much to brag about.

It’s kind of like that with Alan Bannister too. On his 1978 card, one of a long line of Rembrandt-level cardboard in his great career, Topps spent so much time waxing rhapsodically about his speed (including his mind-blowing 27 steals at Triple-A Eugene in 1973) and versatility (playing both infield and outfield), that they ran out of space before they could even mention that he hit a league-leading 11 sacrifice flies in 1976. Think about that for a second. They ran out of space.

1979
1979 #213

What more needs to be said, at this juncture, about Bill Travers?

1980
1980 #213

In retrospect it seems like a bold move on Topps’s part to delay the anointing of Jorgensen until several years into his career. But it paid off in spades after he put up 9 and 16 RBI in back-to-back seasons with the Rangers. In 1979 he took a run at Hack Wilson’s all-time single-season record, before cooling off in September and falling 175 RBI shy. By the time this card got in our hands, Jorgensen had been traded to the New York Mets, and he proved the missing piece in their extraordinary leap forward from 65 to 69 wins.

I could go on, but you likely knew all this already. By 1981 Topps had competition and things became a bit of a mess. But for most of my glorious childhood, I could point to Topps baseball cards numbering as the primary way I learned how to figure out who the great players were. There were other premium numbers, to be sure–#329 had a run of Phil Roof, Rick Joseph, and Chris Cannizzaro that is hard to beat–but I will always have a soft spot for #213.

1: A History

  1. Andy Pafko

That’s a pretty obvious way to start this, right? Pretty much anyone who has spent time in the baseball card hobby knows how that digit and that name go together, that Andy Pakfo, as a Brooklyn Dodger, was card #1 in the landmark 1952 Topps baseball card set.

72716-5246575Bk.jpg
The reverse of a 1909 Philadelphia Carmel card, perhaps the earliest example of an organized numbering system in a baseball card set. (All images courtesy tradingcardb.com)

I’ve often wondered why Andy Pafko, of all people, got the fabled #1 spot in that set. But did it matter in 1952 that he was card #1? When it card #1 start mattering? The earliest example of a card set with a clear numbering system was the 1909 Philadelphia Carmel set. The cards aren’t individually numbered, but rather featured a numbered listing on the back for the 25-card set, with Honus Wagner is the #1 spot. Wagner was (and is) a huge name in the sport, but given that 10 of the 25 subjects of the set are Hall-of-Famers, it’s likely that Wagner was listed first, well, just because he was listed first. The 1910 Philadelphia Carmel set had the same numbering system, this time with Athletics’ first basemen Harry Davis is the #1 spot, with the checklist arranged by team and Davis in the top spot for no obvious reason.

The first true #1 seems to be Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown in the 1911 Turkey Red Cabinets set. This set, too, features a list of all subjects in the set on the backside of each card, but each card is also numbered, with “No. 1” gracing the backside of Brown’s card. The number system had a purpose – smokers could collect coupons from certain Turkey Red products and exchange them for the cards, instructed to “order by number only.” As for Brown’s place in the #1 spot, it isn’t clear whether not is was supposed to mean anything. There’s a haphazard alphabetical ordering to the set, but many of the names are out of place, including Brown’s. And while Brown was one of the biggest names in the sport at the time, the set is loaded with similarly famous names. The 1914 and 1915 Cracker Jack sets were also numbered, with no clear system to their assignment. The #1 card in each (the 1915 set re-issued most of the 1914 set) was Otto Knabe of the Baltimore Terrapins of the Federal League. Knabe had a few good years with the Phillies of the National League, but was hardly a star in Baltimore and was out of baseball by the end of the 1916 season. Again, we find a #1 with no obvious reason behind it.

The 1933 Goudey set is a landmark in hobby history, but no one cared to memorialize this occasion with it’s opening card. The spot went to Benny Benough, a career back-up catcher who had played his final season in 1932. But in the 1934 Goudey set, Jimmie Foxx – winner of the AL MVP award in both of the previous seasons – was given the lead-off spot. This is the first obvious example of the #1 used as an honorarium. And it would be the last until 1940, when the Play Ball set devoted the first 12 spots in its 240 card checklist to the four-time defending champion New York Yankees, with the #1 spot going to reigning MVP Joe DiMaggio. But in 1941, Play Ball went with Eddie Miller as card #1. Miller was an all-star the year before but, as a member of the moribund Boston Bees, was hardly a household name.

The first two major post-war releases honored a pair of reigning MVPs with their #1 spots – 1948-49 Leaf with Joe DiMaggio and 1948 Bowman with Bob Elliot. But Bowman got a little more obscure with their 1949 #1, picking Boston Braves rookie Vern Bickford – a member of a pennant-winning club, but hardly a national stand-out. Bowman’s 1950 #1 was Mel Parnell, an all-star and a sensation on the mound in ’49, and in 1951 they opened with rookie Whitey Ford, who’d helped lead the Yankees to another World Series win. Both were stand-out players and names collectors would have known, but neither are as convincing as purposeful picks for #1 as Foxx, DiMaggio, or Elliot. For Topps’ 1951 Game release, there were a pair of #1s (for both the blue and red back sets) – Yogi Berra and Eddie Yost – who, like Parnell and Ford, don’t really indicate any obvious attempt to use the number as an honor, particularly given the small size of 1951 issue.

36-1Bk.jpg
An unlikely #1, Dusty Rhodes had his heroics made clear on this 1955 Topps card.

So that brings us to “Handy” Andy Pafko. And tells us… well, not much. Sometimes the top spot was used to pay tribute and sometimes it was just used and sometimes it’s kind of stuck in between. But after Pafko, Topps would use the #1 spot for a variety of purposes, some honorific, others utilitarian. The 1950s were a mixed bag: a jumble of superstars (Jackie Robinson in 1953, Ted Williams in 1954, 1957, and 1958), executives (AL President William Harridge in 1956 and commissioner Ford Frick in 1959), and a postseason hero (Dusty Rhodes in 1955). The 1960s featured award winners from the year before (Early Wynn in 1960, Dick Groat in 1961, Roger Maris in 1962, and Willie Mays in 1966), mixed in multi-player league leader cards and a tribute to the 1966 Baltimore Orioles World Series win. Between 1970 and 1972, the #1 card honored the World Series winner with a team photo. 1973-1976’s top spots went to Hank Aaron, honoring his chase and breaking of Babe Ruth’s home run and RBI records. But this run of #1s could have been little more than a coincidence. After Aaron’s 1974 card (which is actually his base card, the front given a unique design to commemorate the home run records that he hadn’t actually set yet) was a pure #1 honor spot. But the ones that followed fit into a pattern that Topps would mostly use for the next decade – opening the set with either Record Breakers or Highlights and ordering those cards alphabetically. A fellow named “Aaron” setting records and making highlights was bound to take those top spots. (You can find Beckett’s visual guide to Topps #1s here)

84-1Bk.jpg83-1Bk.jpg

Despite an boom in card production, the 1980s would see dark times for #1 cards. Fleer and Donruss joined Topps in the baseball card market in 1981 and both companies put player base cards in their #1 spots. Fleer honored the veteran Pete Rose and Donruss led off with young shortstop Ozzie Smith, a decision that – in the context of the great work on the ’81 Donruss set by Jason in a recent post here – seems to not have been much of a decision at all, leaving their brand’s Hall of Fame leadoff man more of a coincidence than a tribute. But by 1982, all three companies had locked themselves into numbering formulas that left little room for creativity at the top. Topps went with Record Breakers or Highlights, bottoming out in the #1 game in 1983 when Tony Armas took the honors with a card commemorating him fielding 11 fly balls in a single game, breaking a five-year-old record. Donruss debuted its famed ‘Diamond Kings’ subset in 1982 and opened each set of the 1980s with it, leading to some big names at the top, but never really lining up the assignment with any big event from the prior year (only Ryne Sandberg’s #1 card in 1985 followed up on a major award win). Fleer, arranging its checklist by team, opened up each set with the previous year’s World Series winner. But with the players within each team arranged alphabetically, their #1s went to guys like Doug Blair and Keith Anderson as often as they went to stars. What’s more, Fleer goofed in 1989 and opened the set with the Oakland A’s (Don Baylor at #1), even though the Dodgers won the World Series in 1988. And just two years later, Fleer would make the same mistake,  handing the A’s a premature crown for the 1990 season by leading off with catcher Troy Afenir, who had 14 at bats the year before and hadn’t played at all in the postseason. Their habit of honoring (or at least attempting to honor) the World Champions at the open of their set was dropped after that year.

10130-517493Bk.jpg
Sportflics took a direct approach it its #1s.

The truest honorary #1 spot from the big three in the 1980s was the 1986 Topps Pete Rose. His base card – a “pure” card – was given top billing and followed by a series of career retrospective cards to commemorate his breaking of the all-time hits records in 1985. It was the first time since Willie Mays in 1965 that a player’s pure base card was given #1. 1986 also saw the debut of Sportflics, a gimmicky set, but one that took its #1 seriously. George Brett led off the set and, for the next four years, the set would always open not just with a star, but with a player sought after in the hobby. In 1988, the Major League Marketing, parent company of Sportflics, debuted the more standard Score set, which opened with Don Mattingly at #1, continuing the trend set by Sportflics and bringing it into the collecting mainstream.

136-0Bk.jpg
Ken Griffey Jr’s Upper Deck was a landmark card, but didn’t change how the #1 was assigned.

1989, of course, would be the year Upper Deck changed the hobby forever, in no small part to opening up their debut set with – for the first time ever in a major release – a player who has yet to make his Major League debut. This card, of course, was the iconic Ken Griffey Jr. rookie. It would become one of the hobby’s most recognizable cards and would join the Pafko as a famed #1. But oddly enough, it didn’t really change the trajectory of #1s. In fact, Upper Deck, who owed so much to that one card, didn’t even bother putting a player in the #1 spot in 1990 or 1991 – using that spot instead for checklists. The next big deal rookie to get a #1 spot from any brand was Mark Wohlers in the 1992 Donruss set. And who remembers that?

165-1Fr.jpg
Perhaps the classiest #1 ever made.

The heart of the junk wax era saw some interesting uses of #1. In 1990 and 1991, Donruss’s new Leaf Set – among the first line of upscale releases – didn’t even have a card #1, instead opening with unnumbered card with the Leaf logo. The 1991 Bowman set opened with a tribute to Rod Carew. Intended as a fun set for kids, Donruss’s 1992 Triple Play set opened with a card of Skydome. And to showcase the classiness of its first upscale set, Topps put Dave Stewart at the 1 slot for its debut Stadium Club set – dressed in a tuxedo and a baseball cap. There were a few true head-scratchers from this era as well, such as 1993 Donruss opening with journeyman reliever Craig Lefferts. Or Bowman giving its #1 in 1993 to Glenn Davis, who was 30 games away from the end of his career (it was actually Davis’ third straight year getting a #1, as he got the spot in 1991’s Studio set and 1992’s Fleer Ultra due being the first alphabetical player for the Baltimore Orioles, the first alphabetical American League team).

225-100001RepBk.jpg

224-1Bk.jpg
By the mid-90s, #1s like these had pretty much gone extinct.

By the mid-1990s, nearly all major releases – save for Fleer, who clung to their team-based numbering system that gave no attention to #1 – had taken up the practice putting a base card of a star player with hobby appeal in the top spot. That trend continues today, with Topps offering an online vote to determine who gets #1 each year, and the winning players – Aaron Judge, Mike Trout, Ronald Acuna, very much fitting that mold. So it ended up not being the legacy of Andy Pafko or Ken Griffey Jr. or Diamond Kings or broken records or hot rookies that live on as #1 in our binders today, but that of Sportflics and Score, who made things no more complicated than taking a player both talented and popular and putting him at the top of stack.

For a more complete list of #1 card, you can visit the Vintage Twins blog’s “First Cards” Page.

Donruss Diamond Kings breakdown

The quarantine has allowed me to spend more times with my card collection. And that leads to ridiculous ideas such as a deep dive into Donruss Diamond Kings. I took all of the Diamond Kings from sets in 1982 (the first Diamond Kings) through 1991 (the last year they were part of the base set before becoming an insert set in 1992). I considered ignoring the 1991 Diamond Kings since they started doing full-body action shots (hated that) rather than strictly headshots (which I like much more), but in the end I included them. I examined the Diamond King selections using the stats from the prior season, so for example 1984 Diamond Kings will be judged by their 1983 stats, etc.

Of course, this isn’t perfect since Donruss avoided selecting the same players in consecutive years, and they also had a few examples of “lifetime achievement” selections. I only used the Diamond Kings at the beginning of the sets (the cards numbered 1-26 in every Donruss set from 1982-91) and did NOT include examples such as the standalone “King of Kings” cards such as Pete Rose’s #653 in the 1986 set or Nolan Ryan’s  #665 in the 1990 set. So with all of this being said, here’s more than you ever wanted to know about the Donruss Diamond Kings run from 1982-91!

In all, there were 260 Diamond King cards, one per team, 26 teams for 10 years. There were 232 different players, which means there were 28 players who had repeat performances. But none with more than two.

Diamond King highlights & nuggets by year

1982

Pete Rose is card #1 – technically the first Diamond King. He also appeared in 1986 as a “King of Kings” – card 653 –  but I’m not counting it in this project. Pete looks great in the helmet. On average, there were about 2 or 3 helmet cards per 26-card Diamond King set.

Ivan De Jesus was a 1982 Diamond King after hitting .194 the season prior. It’s the worst batting average of any position player DK.

Carlton Fisk looks particularly amazing in the 1976-81 White Sox collared uni.

There were four position players to be a Diamond King after a season where they hit no home runs. Three of them were 1982 Diamond Kings – Pete Rose, Ozzie Smith & Ivan De Jesus. The other one was Ozzie Smith again (1987).

1983

1982 & 1983 Diamond Kings are almost identical on the front. There was some blue printing on the back of the 1982s, only black on the 1983s.

Rollie Fingers has arguably the best mustache of any Diamond King. That’s two great Brewers in a row (Gorman Thomas in 1982 was awesome).

Willie Stargell’s card is maybe the most perfect Diamond King card ever made. Great looking headshot (with the Pirates pillbox cap), but the subtle row of Stargell’s Stars in the background are a nice touch.

The SOX on Britt Burns’ cap looks a little off, but the warmup jacket looks amazing. There weren’t many pitchers pictured in warmup jackets, but this is the best one.

1982 & 1983 both boast 10 Hall of Famers. Most of any 26-card DK set from 1982-91.

11 of the 26 Diamond Kings were pitchers – the most of any DK set from 1982-91. In 1984 & 1988, there were only five pitchers.

1984

This is the only Diamond King set (1982-91) without the traditional “Diamond Kings” gold ribbon across the top. Instead, there’s decorative bunting along the top of the card. Also, the mini action shot is in a rectangular frame, which is also exclusive to 1984.

There are three bespectacled Diamond Kings in 1984. Ron Kittle, Leon Durham & Andre Thornton. In the other 9 DK sets from 1982-91, there are three players with eyewear combined.

Four 1984 Diamond Kings are pictured with batting helmets. Along with 1987, that’s the most of any of the ten DK sets featured here.

Wade Boggs had the highest batting average (.361) leading to his Diamond King selection (among position players).

1985

Don Sutton’s action shot is engulfed by his large poof of gray hair, which is amusing.

Alvin Davis is one of THREE Mariners Diamond Kings following their rookie year. Matt Young (1984) & Ken Griffey Jr. (1990) are the others.

DK DETOUR: Diamond Kings as a rookie

  • Mariners: Matt Young (1984), Alvin Davis (1985) & Ken Griffey Jr. (1990)
  • A’s: Jose Canseco (1987) & Mark McGwire (1988)
  • Angels: Wally Joyner (1987) & Devon White (1988)
  • Others: Benny Santiago (1988), Chris Sabo (1989), Delino DeShields (1991), Mark Grace (1989), Ron Kittle (1984), Kent Hrbek (1983), Juan Samuel (1985) & Sandy Alomar Jr. (1991).

1985 (CONT’D)

Rich Dotson (4.3 WAR) had the highest WAR of any White Sox Diamond King season. The collective 28.0 WAR by White Sox Diamond Kings from 1982-91 was lowest of any team. Cubs were second lowest at 28.2.

DK Detour: Lowest WAR by by team (1982-91)

  • White Sox (28.0) – highest contribution was a 4.3 WAR season by Richard Dotson (1985). Three seasons of 1.9 (Ron Kittle 1984, Britt Burns 1983 & Greg Walker 1987)
  • Cubs (28.2) – dragged down by the two worst WAR seasons of all 260 cards
  • Braves (32.5) – a season of 0.2 by Gerald Perry (1989) and a 1.2 by Phil Niekro (1982) don’t help.

1985 (CONT’D)

Of all the Diamond King years from 1982-91, 1985 had the best combined WAR of 116.8. That total (remember, it’s stats from the season before – in this case 1984) was led by Cal Ripken’s 10.0, Ryne Sandberg’s 8.6 & Bert Blyleven’s 7.2.

DK DETOUR: Combined WAR by year (26 Diamond Kings totaled)

  • 1982        63.1 (1981 was strike year)
  • 1983      106.7
  • 1984        81.3
  • 1985      116.8
  • 1986        95.0
  • 1987      110.0
  • 1988      111.6
  • 1989      96.8
  • 1990     101.1
  • 1991      114.6

Diamond Kings with the highest & lowest WAR by year (remember, the stats are from the year prior). Everything here is using baseball-reference WAR, by the way.

1986

Jerry Koosman is one of two players (along with Willie Stargell in 1983) to be a Diamond King following his last career MLB season. Koosman’s 4.62 ERA is the highest of any Diamond King pitcher, though it’s more of a lifetime achievement selection.

Dwight Gooden’s 13.3 WAR is the highest of any Diamond King during the 1982-91 run.

1987

The first year of repeat Diamond Kings. From 1982-86 there were 130 Diamond Kings (just counting cards 1-26), all different players. Dale Murphy, Dave Winfield, Fred Lynn, George Brett, Jack Morris & Ozzie Smith are the first two-time Diamond Kings. By the way, in all, from 1982-91 there are 28 two-time Diamond Kings; 17 of them with the same team, 11 with two different teams.

Same team (17)

  • Dave Winfield, Yankees, 1982 & 1987
  • George Brett, Royals, 1982 & 1987
  • Dwight Evans, Red Sox, 1982 & 1988
  • Alan Trammell, Tigers, 1982 & 1988
  • Carlton Fisk, White Sox, 1982 & 1989
  • Jack Morris, Tigers, 1983 & 1987
  • Dale Murphy, Braves, 1983 & 1987
  • Dave Stieb, Blue Jays, 1983 & 1991
  • Robin Yount, Brewers, 1984 & 1989
  • Dave Righetti, Yankees, 1984 & 1991
  • Cal Ripken Jr., Orioles, 1985 & 1988
  • Don Mattingly, Yankees, 1985 & 1989
  • Frank Viola, Twins, 1985 & 1989
  • Tony Gwynn, Padres, 1985 & 1989
  • Lou Whitaker, Tigers, 1985 & 1990
  • Ryne Sandberg, Cubs, 1985 & 1991
  • Roger Clemens, Red Sox, 1987 & 1991

Two different teams (11)

  • Dave Parker, Pirates 1982, Brewers 1991
  • Ozzie Smith, Padres 1982, Cardinals 1987
  • Fred Lynn, Angels 1984, Orioles 1987
  • Jack Clark, Giants 1984, Cardinals 1988
  • Pedro Guerrero, Dodgers 1984, Cardinals 1991
  • Andre Dawson, Expos 1986, Cubs 1988
  • Kirk Gibson, Tigers 1986, Dodgers 1989
  • Johnny Ray, Pirates 1986, Angels 1989
  • Willie Randolph, Yankees 1986, Dodgers 1990
  • Steve Sax, Dodgers 1987, Yankees 1990
  • Bob Welch, Dodgers 1988, A’s 1991

1987 (CONT’D)

Keith Moreland (-1.7) is the lowest WAR of any Diamond King. The second lowest season WAR by a Diamond King from 1982-91 is also a Cub (Ivan De Jesus, 1982, -1.3).

1987 is the least mustachioed group of Diamond Kings (7 of 26 players; 8 if you count Hubie Brooks, who’s questionable).

1988

The “Bash Brothers” are Diamond Kings following their rookie years in both 1987 (Jose Canseco) & 1988 (Mark McGwire).

Danny Tartabull has the odd distinction of being a two-time Rated Rookie (1985 and 1986) and a Diamond King (1988). Same with Sandy Alomar Jr. (1989 and 1990 Rated Rookie, 1991 Diamond King). The pattern in the background of Tartabull’s card reminds me of a Mondrean-esque grid. I like it.

Here are all the players to be Rated Rookies and Diamond Kings within the span of 1982-91:

DK DETOUR: Rated Rookies who were also Diamond Kings (DK year in parentheses)

  • 1984: Tony Fernandez (1988), Ron Darling (1988), Kevin McReynolds (1987)
  • 1985: Danny Tartabull (1988), Mike Bielecki (1990), Billy Hatcher (1988)
  • 1986: Kal Daniels (1988), Fred McGriff (1989), Cory Snyder (1989), Andres Galarraga (1989), Danny Tartabull (1988), Jose Canseco (1987)
  • 1987: Benito Santiago (1988), Bo Jackson (1990), Rafael Palmeiro (1991), Devon White (1988), Mark McGwire (1988)
  • 1988: Roberto Alomar (1991), Mark Grace (1989)
  • 1989: Sandy Alomar Jr. (1991), Ken Griffey Jr. (1990), Gregg Olson (1991)
  • 1990: Sandy Alomar Jr. (1991), Delino DeShields (1991)

1988 (CONT’D)

If you glance at Paul Molitor’s card, the pattern in the background makes it look like he’s wearing a cowboy hat.

Ivan Calderon’s card is missing his signature gold chains.

Tommy John is the oldest Diamond King – following his age 44 season.

1989

The most mustachioed set of Diamond Kings (18 of 26 players).

With the skyline and baseball laces, the background design of David Cone’s card looks like the Mets logo.

Chris Sabo is the only Diamond King to wear goggles.

Dave Henderson is the second A’s Henderson to be a Diamond King (Rickey Henderson 1983).

Speaking of Daves, 11 different Daves were Diamond Kings from 1982-91. Concepcion, Dravecky, Henderson, Kingman, Magadan, Parker, Righetti, Schmidt, Stewart, Stieb &Winfield. And that’s NOT counting David Cone or Davey Lopes!

1990

This DK set had Bo & Junior but is the most underwhelming lineup of the bunch. Only two Hall of Famers. Ken Griffey Jr. is the youngest Diamond King (following his age 19 season).

Steve Sax has a card that looks like somebody dropped pick-up sticks in the background.

Dave Stewart rocking a sweet jacket.

Ellis Burks has a sweet background. Multi colored splashes of color. Looks great.

Pete O’Brien looks like he exploded onto the scene.

Mike Bielecki is the only Cubs pitcher to be a Diamond King (1982-91). The Angels (Chuck Finley in 1991) are the only other team with just a lone pitcher over the ten-year run. The Astros, Brewers, Dodgers, Mets, Orioles, Phillies & Yankees had pitchers four out of ten years.

1991

1991 changed format; no more small action shots along with large headshots. Some were full body action shots. Gone were the patterns in the background. I’m not a fan of the break from tradition. At least they were in the base set.

The first (and only through 1991) Diamond King appearance by Barry Bonds.

Cecil Fielder is the only player to be a Diamond King following a 50+ HR season.

Craig Biggio was the first full-size headshot in a catcher’s mask (some of the smaller action shots had featured catchers in gear). Sandy Alomar Jr. & Brian Harper were in catcher’s gear as well.

For the first time, players without hats/helmets!  Dave Parker & Pedro Guerrero both show off their heads of hair.

Roger Clemens led the way with 10.4 WAR. Red Sox Diamond Kings (1982-91) had the highest collective WAR of any team.

DK DETOUR: HIGHEST WAR BY BY TEAM (1982-91)

  • Red Sox (54.4) – including seasons by Roger Clemens of 10.4 (1991) and 8.8 (1987), 7.8 by Wade Boggs (1984) & 7.5 by Mike Greenwell (1989).
  • Tigers (48.4) – led by a season of 8.2 by Alan Trammell (1988) and 6.5 by Cecil Fielder (1991).
  • Dodgers (47.1) – led by Bob Welch’s 7.4 (1988), Kirk Gibson’s 6.5 (1989) and Orel Hershiser’s 6.3 (1986).

A few more observations

In 1992, Diamond Kings were taken from the base set and turned into an insert set. Whereas the previous Diamond King sets (well, not exactly 1982-84) had the card design border, these new inserts were borderless. It just wasn’t the same anymore. And in my opinion, the heyday of the Diamond King was over. But I hope you enjoyed going back in time with me and giving a fresh look at some really great cards.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js