Solving the border crisis

A common complaint among vintage collectors who run across newer issues is that we miss the good old days when baseball cards had borders. Looking at cards like these 2017 Astros leaves us feeling (ahem!)…cheated.

The borders we overlooked as kids have come to symbolize all that was right about baseball cards. Joni Mitchell had us pegged. You really DON’T know what you’ve got till it’s gone. No, we’d never pave Paradise to put up a parking lot, but we sure wouldn’t mind a thin cement edge around it.

The borders on our cards have taken on almost a spiritual significance with “meaning of life” level implications. We ponder koans such as, “Is a card without a border even a card?”

The sages teach us that without nothing there could be no something. Cardboardismically speaking, the border is the yin to the image’s yang. Form needs outline.

The vintage collector therefore must find “border in the chaos,” else risk serenity and sanity alike. Should he even consider collecting cards post-2015, his best, nay ONLY, option is Heritage!

Whatever you hear on TV, friends, THIS is the real border crisis, but fear not…

Tengo un plan para eso…and it won’t even raise your taxes! (Checks new eBay policy. “Okay, so maybe a little.”)

Add just THREE CARDS to your collection and you’re gonna win on borders so much you’ll be tired of winning on borders.

1960 Fleer ted williams

Let’s start with Ted Williams. Compare his 1960 Fleer card with that of Hack Wilson or any other player in the set. That’s some serious border! Where some perfectly centered cards are said to have 50-50 centering, Teddy Ballgame comes in at 150-150!

Back in the day you might have found this card an eyesore, but that was then. Now you probably look at the card and wish the borders were even bigger!

1936-37 World wide gum Lou Gehrig

The second must-have for the border hoarder is the 1936-37 World Wide Gum card of Lou Gehrig. (Note that this issue is catalogued as 1936, but Matthew Glidden makes a compelling case that 1936-37 is more correct.)

At first you may shrug away Larrupin’ Lou’s border as nothing special, no different than that of teammate Dickey. Look closer though and you’ll see that Gehrig’s image comes to a refreshing end more than a quarter inch from the card edge. After unremarkable offerings in 1933 and 1934, World Wide Gum definitely put the Border in “North of the Border!”

1934 Butterfinger Paul Waner

Finally we come to the 1934 Butterfinger card of Paul Waner, the card that I believe sets the standard when it comes to border-to-image ratio.

While the Dizzy Dean image from the same issue flirts tantalizingly close to the card edge, the Waner card has more margin than Gould selling hammers to the Pentagon. If the card had any more border we might forget it was a baseball card altogether and assume it was a Home Depot paint sample for Gotham Gray. If Big Poison were any smaller on the card he would have been Little Poison.

Teddy Ballgame, the Iron Horse, and Big Poison. Three players who made the Hall of Fame by a wide margin, but even more importantly, three cards who made the wide margin Hall of Fame. Border crisis averted, at least for now.

What if Robert Laughlin made his 300/400/500 set today?

Baseball artist and prolific direct-to-collector publisher Robert Laughlin printed a set honoring three of the sport’s “big numbers” (300 wins/.400 average/500 homers) in 1980. If you know Laughlin’s other self-made and Fleer-published sets, its cartoonish take on legendary players fits his style.

The significance of those 300/400/500 achievements also means Laughlin’s set contains just one guy not enshrined in Cooperstown, #13 Joe Jackson, banned from baseball following Chicago’s Black Sox scandal a century ago.

One Yankee legend garnered his “500 homers” card via a statistical side door — a route we’ll take again later.

That photo head and cartoon body design should be familiar to readers of my #5 Type Collection posts about 1938 Goudey Big League Gum. Robert Laughlin no doubt intended this resemblance.

Laughlin self-published this set not long before ’80s-90s power hitting took off. As of today (2019), a tranche of modern 500+ homer guys qualify. Trading friend and many-credentialed writer George Vrechek pointed out during a recent swap session that while no new players batted .400 since 1980, our other groups added 25 or 26 members, depending how you count.

300 victories (via career leaders at B-R)

  • Greg Maddux
  • Roger Clemens
  • Steve Carlton
  • Nolan Ryan
  • Don Sutton
  • Phil Niekro
  • Gaylord Perry
  • Tom Seaver
  • Tom Glavine
  • Randy Johnson

500 home runs (via career leaders at B-R)

  • Barry Bonds
  • Alex Rodriguez
  • Albert Pujols
  • Ken Griffey, Jr.
  • Jim Thome
  • Sammy Sosa
  • Mark McGwire
  • Rafael Palmeiro
  • Reggie Jackson
  • Manny Ramirez
  • Mike Schmidt
  • David Ortiz
  • Frank Thomas
  • Gary Sheffield
  • Eddie Murray
  • Fred McGriff* (493 regular season + 10 postseason, echoing Gehrig)

Our modern lament for these 300/400/500 candidates: steroids. Do we know how many of those 26* hitters and pitchers bulked up (and improved recovery) using things borrowed from the iron-pumping world of Mr. Universe? And who cares more, baseball collectors or baseball historians? (I’m about 80% collector and 20% historian in that regard.)

1970s muscle-builder Brian Downing, shown with his like-minded hero, brought a weight-training mentality to baseball that many others followed, some with chemical help.

Aside on Brian Downing: Back in my mid-80s salad days, I hated Downing’s pounding of Seattle pitching. Over 156 career games versus my Mariners, he hit a blistering .920 OPS. If you count those 156 games as a “season,” just five players registered better one-year numbers in the same era: Eddie Murray three times, Reggie Smith twice, Ken Singleton twice, Tim Raines once, and Howard Johnson once. (I do my best to impress on others how good Downing was to spread that searing, nostalgic pain around.)

But settle down! Let’s not get too serious about performance-enhancers today. Can a wholesome law-enforcement cartoon keep us in the “just enjoy our hobby” mindset?

If we extend Laughlin’s 300/400/500 set into today, I start with this cartoon head on our cartoon body. No reason to waste nicknames like “Crime Dog!”

Who else should we add to an extended checklist? Using just the aforementioned 10 pitchers and 16 sluggers gives me pause, because of our complete zero at .400. Just two modern guys came close, George Brett (.390 in 1980) and Tony Gwynn (.394 in 1994).

Laughlin set a 20th century cutoff for his 1980 set. What if we turn back time and net 19th century stars like Kid Nichols, Wee Willie Keeler, and Hughie Jennings? Given how few power hitters that era produced, I like this option better than going without adding any .400 hitters at all.

Potential old-school .400 members

According to Baseball-Reference.com, 23 batting seasons reached .400+ (and qualified for the batting title) in the pre-World Series era, 1871-1902. Some guys did so multiple times.

  • Billy Hamilton (1894)
  • Cal McVey (1871)
  • Cap Anson (1872)
  • Davy Force (1872)
  • Ed Delahanty (1894, 1895, 1899)
  • Fred Dunlap (1884)
  • Hugh Duffy (1894)
  • Hughie Jennings (1896)
  • Jesse Burkett (1895-96)
  • Levi Meyerle (1871)
  • Nap Lajoie (1901)
  • Pete Browning (1887)
  • Ross Barnes (1871-73, 1876)
  • Sam Thompson (1894)
  • Tip O’Neill (1887)
  • Tuck Turner (1894)
  • Wee Willie Keeler (1897)

Italicized seasons played less than 100 games, so sit below the stature of other 300/400/500 candidates. Let’s strike those.

Furthermore, Laughlin’s 300/400/500 contains Lajoie at #9. We can trim those 17 guys to ten “significant” 19th century 400 hitters not already in the original.

  • Billy Hamilton (1894)
  • Ed Delahanty (1894, 1895, 1899)
  • Fred Dunlap (1884)
  • Hugh Duffy (1894)
  • Hughie Jennings (1896)
  • Jesse Burkett (1895-96)
  • Pete Browning (1887)
  • Sam Thompson (1894)
  • Tip O’Neill (1887)
  • Wee Willie Keeler (1897)

Newspaper and ballcard photos exist for all ten, making it straightforward to create head-on-cartoon versions. While they played in a different era of hitting rules and equipment quality, modern analysis also diminished batting average overall. Fewer 21st century guys hallow it as a statistic that needs rigid defense. Loosening our lasso to pull in 19th century players gives historical depth to a list that already carries PED baggage.

Proposed 300/400/500 Extended checklist

  1. Title card
  2. Greg Maddux (300 game winners)
  3. Roger Clemens
  4. Steve Carlton
  5. Nolan Ryan
  6. Don Sutton
  7. Phil Niekro
  8. Gaylord Perry
  9. Tom Seaver
  10. Tom Glavine
  11. Randy Johnson
  12. Billy Hamilton (.400 hitters)
  13. Ed Delahanty
  14. Fred Dunlap
  15. Hugh Duffy 
  16. Hughie “Eeyah!” Jennings
  17. Jesse Burkett
  18. Pete Browning
  19. Sam Thompson
  20. Tip O’Neill
  21. Willie Keeler
  22. Alex Rodriguez (500 HR sluggers)
  23. Albert Pujols
  24. Ken Griffey, Jr.
  25. Barry Bonds
  26. Jim Thome
  27. Sammy Sosa
  28. Mark McGwire
  29. Rafael Palmeiro
  30. Reggie Jackson
  31. Manny Ramirez
  32. Mike Schmidt
  33. David Ortiz
  34. Frank Thomas
  35. Gary Sheffield
  36. Eddie Murray
  37. Honorary: Fred McGriff

Big thanks to Nick Vossbrink for this sharp and stylish custom Barry Bonds, befitting our modern 300/400/500 motif.

Now there’s just the matter of designing and printing our other 36 cards and engaging a lawyer to deflect “unlicensed photo depiction” civil claims! What do you think, does this checklist meet the bar set by its predecessor?

Baseball cards that remember the past

When I got back into collecting around 2014, my first goal was to finish my Hank Aaron collection, which at that time included just over a dozen of his base cards, a few assorted all-stars and record breakers, and a handful of cards that came out after his playing career. Having been gone from the hobby for more than 20 years I assumed another 10-15 cards would finish the collection, maybe 20-30 if I really needed to have everything.

Of course the true number was in the thousands! At the time I’m typing this Trading Card Database puts the Hammer at 4,255 different cards, and by the time you read this I suspect that number will be even higher.

There’s a stat people love to quote about Hank Aaron. Take away his 755 home runs and he would still have more than 3,000 hits. My guess is you could take away every card from Aaron’s playing career and he’d still have more than four thousand cards!

Though my collector gene at least beckons me to collect them all, the “often needs to blend in as a normal adult” gene in me somehow proves dominant and forces me to restrict my collection’s personal Hammer Time to the years 1954-1976. Still, whether through overly broad eBay searches or through the generosity of fellow collectors who send me stuff I do manage to at least notice if not add at least some of Aaron’s post-career cardboard. In fact, one of my favorite mail days of the year was when fellow collector Matt Malone sent me this gorgeous 2019 Topps Heritage “box loader” card for nothing!

If I had to create a Favorites category it wouldn’t be the shiny stuff, the serial numbered stuff, the relic stuff, or the “anything else” stuff. It would 100% be the regular stuff that looks like all the other regular cards in the set. For example, here is a 2019 Topps Series 1 “Legends” card next to a base card of Clayton Kershaw…

…which finally brings me to the actual subject of this article!

While the modern and welcome tradition of mixing retired greats in with current players is new compared to the heyday of my collecting (very extended) youth (roughly 1978-1992), just as most things cardboard and in life it’s not something truly new.

“Ahem,” you say! “There were tons of retired greats in the sets of your youth, Jason,” thinking I can somehow hear you right now, so let me explain. I’m not talking about cards like this…

…even if they came in the same packs as these.

I’m talking strictly about the cards that blend right in with the rest of the set. Otherwise I’m afraid this article would practically go on forever. (Editor’s note: It already has!) What follows is hardly a comprehensive list, so as always I invite readers to add their favorites to the Comments.

The first instance of these “legends in disguise” that I became aware of as a collector was the 1949 Leaf card of the (at the time) very recently deceased Babe Ruth, even if 1) I thought of it as 1948 at the time, 2) it’s pretty hard to disguise Babe Ruth, and 3) even if many of the “current players” are legends themselves by now.

Beyond the Bambino it’s worth noting that Honus Wagner also had a card in this same set. Though you’ll see soon enough how inconsistent my criteria are, I won’t quite count Wagner since he’s in the set as a coach and not a retired great. (You could easily dispute this and probably win in that Wagner is the only coach/manager in the set, a fact that strongly suggests Wagner was in the set as Wagner vs coach.)

Of course the tradition didn’t originate with the Leaf set. Just months before a tiny entrant into the gum card market showed up with a large set of cards, not all baseball, that mixed the likes of Ruth, Hornsby, Mathewson, Wagner, and Cobb with Lou Boudreau!

By the way, these cards are known as 1948 Topps Magic Photos. While I don’t dispute the date it’s worth noting that the non-legend portion of the baseball set focuses on the 1948 World Series, hence the Boudreau, which of course didn’t occur until October. As such, it wouldn’t shock me if much like the Leaf set this particular set did not arrive on the scene until early 1949.

Speaking of 1949, readers of my earlier article on the 1949 M.P. & Company baseball issue may recall that the set included a Jimmie Foxx card, recycled from six years earlier, alongside active players like Mel Ott Alvin Dark.

Evidently nostalgia ran large in the 1948-1949 as there was yet a third issue that mixed the old with the new. The 1948 Blue Tint (R346) checklist made room for Lou Gehrig whose last game was in 1939 while mainly consisting of modern stars such as Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, and Joe DiMaggio.

One could place the R346 Hank Greenberg card in either category. On one hand he played a full season in 1947 with the Pirates so a card in 1948 wouldn’t be completely unusual (though more so back then than now). On the other hand the lack of a team designation followed the design of the Gehrig in the set as opposed to the active players. (The set also includes a Mel Ott manager card with no team noted. However, this was later corrected to indicate “N.Y. Giants.”)

Lest you imagine this kind of thing could only happen in America, I’ll highlight the Cuban 1946-1947 Propagandas Montiel issue as yet another set from the era open to all comers.

At any rate, the battle for first place involves none of these late 1940s issues. After all, the most sought after card from the start of the decade is one of many “Former Major League Stars” that Play Ball camouflaged into its 1940 set.

Did I mention my criteria were pretty inconsistent? Oh, good, because otherwise I’d have no place taking us into the 1933 Goudey set where not one, not two, but two-and-a-half retired legends make an appearance. The first of these is Shoeless Joe’s 1919 White Sox teammate, Eddie Collins, who technically cracks the set as a vice president and business manager, two categories so far fetched that it’s safe to say he simply cracks the set as Eddie Collins.

Next up is the part-owner of the Kansas City Blues because of course every set needs a card of a part-owner!

And batting third is the set’s Holy Grail, Napoleon Lajoie, who is 100% retired great, 0% owner, vice president, business manager, or otherwise.

In fact, old Larry was so far removed from the business of baseball by then as to be the Lloyd Dobler of his time. (“I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.”)

Still, while Lajoie’s status as pure “retired great” is uncontaminated there are a few reasons to assign his card only partial credit in meeting the criteria for this article.

  • One, his card couldn’t really be said to blend in with the rest of the set seeing as it wasn’t even released with the rest of the set. As is well known, Goudey didn’t issue the card until 1934 and only then to the relatively small number of collectors who sent them hate mail about their missing card 106.
  • Two, the card’s design doesn’t even match the rest of the 1933 (or 1934) set, instead reflecting a hybrid of the two designs.

While we’re on the subject, there is yet another retired baseball legend who cracks a 1933-1934 Goudey checklist, but this time it’s with the “Sports Kings” issue, where Ty Cobb slides in alongside two active players, Babe Ruth and Carl Hubbell.

My approach so far has been to start with 1949 and work my way backward. As I’m not aware of any examples (aside from coaches/managers) before 1933, I’ll close the article with a few post-1949 honorable mentions.

The 1960 Fleer Baseball Greats set technically qualifies as a set that mixed old and new. The checklist consists of 78 retired stars and exactly one active player, Ted Williams.

The 1967 Venezuelan Topps set includes a “RETIRADO” subset that doesn’t at all blend in with the set’s other cards. However, the design of the retired players reflects at least some attempt to match the base cards of active players.

The next honorable mention comes in 1982 from both Topps and Fleer.

I’m sure there was no intent to include the great J.R. Richard as a retired legend. Nonetheless, with J.R.’s final trip to the mound coming in 1980, his spot in the 1982 sets proved unusual. Naturally, Topps and Fleer were banking on a successful comeback that unfortunately never materialized.

Overall I’m a big fan of packing retired legends into modern sets. I can only imagine how much I would have loved it to open packs of 1978 or 1979 Topps and pull cards like these!

Of course, if the kids opening packs today are like the players I coached in Little League a few years ago, they may not have the same reverence for yesteryear that we once did. To quote one of kids on the squad, “Hank Aaron? Is he from the 1900s or something?”

“Beckett Vintage” highlights Black Sox baseball cards

One hundred years after the 1919 World Series, baseball cards of the players involved in the Black Sox Scandal continue to attract collectors.

Beckett Media’s Mike Payne and Andy Broome compiled a comprehensive list of every baseball card featuring one of the “Eight Men Out” from their playing careers, ranging from about 1908 to 1920. The list was printed in the August 2017 issue of Beckett Vintage Collector magazine and reprinted in the SABR Black Sox Scandal committee newsletter by permission.

Some of those cards, like Shoeless Joe Jackson’s 1914 Cracker Jack card, regularly sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars at online auctions. Others, like Fred McMullin’s only individual card — a 1915 Zeenut made when he was still in the minor leagues with the Los Angeles Angels — are virtually impossible to find today.

“I still receive a number of requests for Black Sox cards and material, but I suspect that many of these inquiries are from flippers,” longtime vintage card dealer and SABR member Mark Macrae told Beckett. “The highest demand has always been for Jackson. The toughest is McMullin. The most plentiful, and the player that seems to hang around the longest in stock, is Eddie Cicotte.”

By virtue of having the longest major-league career, Cicotte has more cards (70) of the 268 in Beckett’s list than any other Black Sox player. His cards range from a 1909 supplemental card published by the Boston Herald to a 1920 D327 card issued in packages of Holsum Bread.

Macrae says one of the most sought-after sets, and one of the least expensive for casual collectors, is the 1919-21 W514 strip card series that included seven of the eight Black Sox (all except McMullin). Beckett offers recommendations with the most “affordable” cards for each player and the W514s fit the bill for Buck Weaver, Happy Felsch, Lefty Williams, and Swede Risberg. For Cicotte, his T205 card issued in 1911 is relatively easy to find and sometimes sells for less than $100. Chick Gandil’s T206 card from 1910 — in the same set as the most valuable baseball card in the world, the iconic Honus Wagner card — is regarded as the Black Sox first baseman’s most affordable card, according to Beckett.

Most Shoeless Joe Jackson cards could hardly be considered “affordable,” usually selling for anywhere between $1,000 and $500,000. Beckett also includes a list of “dream” cards for each player, and Jackson’s list includes two cards from early in his career, a 1909 E90-1 American Caramel card and a 1910 T210-8 card, plus the well-known 1914 Cracker Jack card.

Beckett’s “dream” cards for the other players include:

  • Cicotte: 1914 Cracker Jack #94
  • Felsch: 1916 M101-4
  • Gandil: 1914 Cracker Jack #39
  • McMullin: 1917 White Sox Team Issue
  • Risberg: 1916 Zeenut (Vernon Tigers)
  • Weaver: 1911 Zeenut (San Francisco Seals)
  • Williams: 1915 Zeenut (Salt Lake Bees)

The only set that features all eight Black Sox players is the 1917 White Sox “Team Issue” cards, produced by Davis Printing Works in Chicago and sold as a complete boxed set by the team. The cards feature full-length, black-and-white photos of the players on a light background, with the player’s name and position underneath. Only one original set is known to exist, according to the late baseball card historian Bob Lemke, and it was last sold in 2001 for more than $50,000. (A reprint set was issued in 1992 by card dealer Greg Manning, who had bought the original cards a year earlier.)

Many of the cards in Beckett’s list are from the same M101-4 and M101-5 sets issued in 1916, but they each feature different business names on the back, from The Sporting News to the Weil Baking Company. Chicago-based printer Felix Mendelsohn produced these sets of cards and took out an ad in The Sporting News to sell space on the cardbacks to other businesses. TSN began offering the cards with their own company information stamped on the back later that summer. Six of the eight Black Sox (all except McMullin and Williams) were included in the Mendelsohn card sets.

While a majority of these cards may remain out of reach for even the most dedicated Black Sox collector, the list compiled by Beckett should be a useful resource for years to come.

Click here to download the SABR Black Sox Scandal committee newsletter with the full list of Black Sox baseball cards(PDF)

Cards of Cards of Cards

As a kid few things sucked more than being dragged to Kmart by my mom. All that changed one day in 1982 when I saw these on the shelves by checkout.

I don’t recall the price, but it was damn low for a set that included Mantle, Mays, and Aaron, and it was even low enough for me to somehow twist my mom’s arm into adding it to our cart. On top of that, these were no ordinary cards. These were a Limited Edition!

Opening the box on the way to the car, I was pretty thrilled with the look of the cards, the first 41 of which featured images of earlier Topps baseball cards. At least that’s what I thought.

In fact, the set not only included cards of cards but also cards of cards that never were.

The set also gave me my first Topps Traded card since the designers smartly eschewed the 1981 Rollie Fingers base card in favor of his Brewers update.

However, the most intriguing cards in the set were these five. Even as a Dodger fan, I had to love the idea that these were cards of cards of Cards!

Thanks to some trades and card show visits, I already had some cards of cards from 1975 in my collection.

Three cards in the 1975 Topps MVP subset even included cards that never were.

The Wills card appears to be the same one used seven years later by Kmart, which leads me to wonder if a “real” 1962 Topps Maury Wills was created but never released or if someone in 1982 simply said, “Hey, wait a minute! No need to make a fake Wills. We still have that one from ’75.”

The 1951-style Campanella seems to work well, but the 1955 is a bit of an eyesore. Not only did Topps aberrantly go black and white on the head shot but they “capped off” the anachronism by placing Campanella in L.A. three years early. (Collectors of the 1958 or 1962 Jay Publishing sets may recognize the source of the 1955 Campy fauxtaux.)

But I digress. What you really want to know is were there cards of cards of Cards, and of course the answer is YES! As the set’s theme was identical to the Kmart set and the time frame wasn’t too different either, we see the same cards of cards of Cards as Kmart, minus Keith Hernandez who of course hadn’t won his MVP award yet.

And just the year before that Topps recapped the entire cardboard career of the Hammer with its five-card “Hank Aaron Special” subset.

North of the border, the same subset was issued but with some twists I never understood until reading Matthew Glidden’s terrific article on the subject. While the first and last cards are largely the same as the U.S. issue, the middle three cards were split into six.

On the heels of their 1974 and 1975 successes, Topps created another “cards of cards” subset for 1976. Though there were no cards of cards of Cards, the “Father & Son” cards featured five (then) current players along with the 1953 or 1954 Topps cards of their Big League dads.

I’m not aware of other cards of cards between the 1976 Father/Son cards and the Kmart set. However, cards of cards had a strong run from 1985-1990 thanks to another Father/Son series, featuring (yes!) a card of a card of a Card…

…and the five-year reboot of a classic Topps subset that debuted in 1977.

Where the 1977 subset used ordinary (or sometimes extraordinary) photos, these later sets adopted a Kmartesque cards of cards design. There were five cards in the 1986 subset, but none were cards of cards of Cards, nor were there even cards of cards that never were. The closest we come to a novelty is the use of Fernando Valenzuela’s 1981 Topps Traded card.

The 1987 subset again featured five cards but sadly no cards of cards of Cards. What it did include was the by now familiar Maury Wills card that never was.

Finally in 1988 were are rewarded with two cards of cards of Cards, and these weren’t just any old Cards but two of the greatest ever to wear the uniform.

The 1989 subset had just about everything under the sun: a card that never was of Tony Oliva, a card of a card of a Card, and a card of my cardboard crush, the Topps XRC of Dr. K. Oh, and Hank Aaron and Gil Hodges are in there too!

Following the subset into 1990, equipped with airplane bag to stomach its design, we find no cards of cards of Cards, but we do see a tighter cropping of the Kmart Fred Lynn, more closely matching his actual RC, and a card reminding Cards fans of recent postseason agony.

The 1986 Topps set also doubled down on the Hank Aaron Special design to honor Pete Rose’s breaking of Ty Cobb’s career hits record.

Where Topps had already turned the multiplayer RC of Fred Lynn into a solo card for Kmart (and would do similar for Oliva and Lynn again), Topps left Rose’s iconic 1963 rookie card in its original format. Also breaking with card on card tradition, Topps ran with Rose’s main 1984 issue rather than his update card on the Expos. In retrospect we might regard this as the beginning of the end for Montreal baseball.

Before closing the article, I want to highlight one more card on card that depending on the release date may in fact be the first of its kind. The same year Topps issued the Hank Aaron Specials, Fleer and Bob Laughlin blessed the baseball world with a 42-card set of Baseball Firsts. Card 12 in the set describes the first baseball cards and the front depicts a tobacco-style card that never was of Beaneater hurler (pardon the visual!) Kid Madden (SABR bio).

Oh how I would have loved it had Madden been a Cardinal so I could end with a card of a card of a Card. About the closest I can come is to note that the James O’Neill mentioned on the back of the card did spend seven years in St. Louis, but of course his team was the Browns.

I’m curious to know if you’re aware of any cards of cards earlier than 1974 or know whether the Fleer set beat Topps to the shelves (or mail order catalogs). For those of us trying to collect the baseball card’s rookie card, if not the master set, this kind of thing matters a lot!

From our readers

Thanks to @DonSherm for supplying us this “cards on card” card a year before the Hank Aaron Specials and the Fleer Kid Madden.

The card back shows several cards, though it’s impossible to know whether any are cards of Cards or even cards of cards of Cards!

Now going way back, I’m reminded that some very early non-baseball cards of cards were issued in 1906 (!).

I’ll let you read about this fantastic six-car set over on my co-chair’s blog.

Curiosities

Have you ever looked at a baseball card? Sure, there’s the players name, their position, the team … all the basics. On the back there’s the usual stats (batting average, RBI, HR, OBP, etc.) along with some of the players’ vitals. That’s what you see when you look at a baseball card.

If you look a bit closer, however, you’ll find a few curiosities. These curiosities could range from either a small variation like a different photo or a nickname instead of the players’ real name to something more of an oddity like players in odd uniforms (example: teams they never played for or teams they spent a very short time with) or players listed for teams that never existed (ex: 1974 Topps Washington cards).

While I was filing some cards away the other day, I came across several examples of cards of players in a uniform of a team they never played for. I don’t know if there is an official name for these cards. Some bloggers use the term “zero-year cards” as christened by a fellow blogger named “Dime Box Nick”. Nick runs the blog “Dime Boxes” and has been pretty good at keeping an ongoing list of these types of cards that are out there.

The question becomes then how exactly do cards like this, of players in uniforms of teams they never played for, come to exist? Well, the examples I found cover several difference instances of how these curiosities, for lack of  a better term, can happen.

preacher_roe

1. Retirement

Let’s start with one of the earliest known example of one of these types of cards, that being this 1955 Bowman Preacher Roe. Roe is best known for being a four-time All-Star with Brooklyn in the later 40s and early 50s with his best season during that time being 1951 where he went 22-3 over 33 starts. After the 1954 season, the Dodgers swapped him to Baltimore. Instead of suiting up for the Orioles, Roe decided to retire instead due to nagging injuries.

addy_russell

2. “Before They Were Stars” Trades

Bowman’s current focus is cards of rookies and draft picks and issuing cards of them in the uniform of the major league team that drafted them. Now, an argument could possibly be made for those types of cards classifying as a “zero” card but I’m going to focus this more on cards of those who have appeared in a major league game. With that, a more modern example of a “zero” type card is those who were traded before they were stars. Take this Addison Russell card for example, here he’s shown with the A’s who originally drafted him. But in July of 2014, he was traded to the Cubs and made his debut in April 2015.

ryan_madson

3. Injuries

Injuries are another modern example of how these cards come into existence. Let’s look at this Ryan Madson card. I’ll bet you didn’t know that Ryan Madson played for the Reds, right? Well, he actually didn’t. He was signed to be their closer in 2012 as Spring Training approached but suffered a shoulder injury during camp which led to Tommy John surgery. In turn, he never appeared in an official game for the Reds.

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4. One Last Shot

If you take a look at the list I mentioned earlier from Nick’s blog, you’ll find one of the biggest causes of “zero” cards, that being players who are going for one last shot. Take for example this Manny Ramirez card. When I picked this up as part of a trade, my first thought was “I don’t remember Manny playing for Oakland.” Turns out, I was right. He never did. His last best shot at the big leagues came when he signed with Oakland in February of 2012. The closest he got though was 17 games at Triple-A before getting his release.

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5. Teams That Didn’t Exist

I’ve written about this previously and while they don’t fall into the direct pantheon of “zero” cards (as in players in uniforms of teams they never played for) they still have a place on this list. First, there’s the infamous 1974 Topps Washington error cards which feature several San Diego Padres as members of the unnamed “Washington Nat’l Lea.” team. Four years earlier though, in the 1970 set, Topps also printed cards of the Seattle Pilots. One small problem with that though, there was no Seattle Pilots team in 1970 as the ill-begotten Pilots packed up shop after one season in Seattle and headed east to Milwaukee to be rechristened as the Brewers.

I’m sure there are other variations out there of “zero” cards such as errors and what-not but I think I covered most everything else so I’ll pose two questions to the readers:

1. Besides error cards and the reasons I mentioned here, are there any other types of reasons a “zero” card could come into existence?

2. Is there an earlier example out there of a “zero” card besides the 1955 Bowman Preacher Roe?

The ghost of Gaylord Perry

As an eight-year old collector it was a thrill to pull this card (or any Record Breaker) from a pack.

Trivia question: Who were the two American Leaguers referenced in the card back’s final sentence?

An obvious thing the card had going for it was that it was of Brooks Robinson, who I’d already read about as the greatest fielding third baseman ever. A more subtle thing it had going for it was that Robinson had no other card in the 1978 Topps set.

“Can they do this?” I wondered once I’d figured that out. I checked all my other Record Breakers, and sure enough they all had base cards. Weird. The concept of an error card hadn’t yet entered my consciousness, but I tended to treat my Brooks Robinson card as something very special and prized, maybe even the one thing even better than a baseball card of a superstar: a mistake made by a grown-up somewhere.

My whole universe of baseball cards consisting of a thousand or so 1978 Topps cards, a rubber-banded stack of 43 cards from 1974 that I bought at a carnival for 50 cents, and the lone pack I bought at the end of the 1977 season, I was unaware that this Brooks Robinson Record Breaker card had precedent. For example, the 1976 Record Breaker cards featured a player whose previous Topps card (outside of Venezuela) came in 1964!

And just two years before that there was half the answer to my earlier trivia question.

Aside from a single card, Topps had no Highlights/Record Breaker cards in the 1974 set, but thanks to its World Series subset we hadn’t yet seen the last of the Say Hey Kid.

Though I’ve looked backward thus far, the Brooks Robinson card was hardly the last of its kind. Two years later, Lou Brock’s entry into the 3000 hit club would earn him a bonus card in the 1980 set.

Then came the flood. Gaylord Perry received two bonus cards, one of which doubled as a bonus card for fellow Hall of Famers Johnny Bench and Carl Yastrzemski.

I’ll take a quick detour here just to acknowledge what a terrific job Topps did with the final base cards of each of these three players.

After 1984 players who lacked base cards but earned last hurrahs practically disappeared. Committee co-chair Nick reminded me of one more from 1988 (the Phil half), and I hope you’ll let me know of others in the comments.

As for the very modern, I wondered if maybe Ichiro could be a 2019 example thanks to his #ToppsNow cards from the Japan series, but then I saw he managed 700+ other cards this year, just as he may well have 700+ cards next year and every year after.

Though I initially considered my Brooks Robinson card a fluke, if not a mistake, you can see here that at least for the 1974-1984 stretch it was practically a feature of the Topps sets to include bonus cards of players who had otherwise reached cardboard retirement.

Bonus cards like the Brooksie and Brock will always carry something bittersweet about them. On one hand, we get one last cardboard look at a legend of the game. On the other hand, we are staring at a ghost. The player’s main card has vanished from the set, and this specter is all that remains, as if to remind us of another season gone, another career in the books, and a fate that will eventually reach us all.

P.S. The other answer to the trivia question? Definitely not Gaylord Perry! It was Brooks Robinson! 🤦 Pretty tricky, Topps!

Extras from our readers

I’ll use this space to acknowledge all the additions to the list supplied by readers, either here or on our Twitter/Facebook sites.

1967 Topps Sandy Koufax – No base card but three League Leader cards as the winner of the Triple Crown for pitchers.

Author’s note: A few days after publishing this piece I stumbled upon a very similar article on the terrific Wax Pack Gods site. Had I seen it earlier I probably wouldn’t have bothered with my article. Still, I think mine does enough that’s different to keep it here. Either way, all credit goes to Adam at Wax Pack Gods for getting there first.

Under Construction

As a team collector I’m spared a lot of the worries that set collectors have because my search list is quite a bit more focused. I don’t need ~700 cards, I’m only looking for ~30. Sometimes though I’m jealous of the set collectors. Where my albums tend to consist of three to four page runs of cards that all have the same color scheme, set collectors have pages that are full of wonderfully different colors.

So I started thinking about ways to put a sample page together for each set which would give me some of that color without being prone to mission creep. After looking through piles of 1970s cards I realized that the theme I was looking for was pictures of Candlestick Park. As a Giants collector I would already have a number of cards taken at the Stick. But there’s something about putting a page together of other teams and getting a bit of the flavor of the larger set which is very appealing.

I’ve mainly been pulling 1970s cards for now. Yes there a few cards in 1959 to 1962 which were shot at Seals Stadium but through most of the 1960s it doesn’t appear that anything was shot at Candlestick. Then in 1972 it all changed.

Looking at the Giants cards from this year doesn’t really show anything interesting. There are a lot of photos showing that trademark chain link fence and the red seats. It’s only if you take a really close look at Frank Reberger’s card that you see something’s up in the stadium.

It’s not super obvious unless you’re familiar with Candlestick but there’s a lot of construction going on behind Frank. On the left side of the photo there’s a press box being built. On the right side there’s a glimpse of some unfinished second deck.

What’s going on? Despite feeling like a member of the multipurpose donut family, Candlestick was a baseball-only facility for the first decade of its usage. Only in 1971 did the 49ers move from Kezar Stadium. This move prompted the installation of artificial turf and enclosing the stadium with an upper deck that completely circled the playing field.

Much of the construction occurred during the 1971 baseball season. Meanwhile, for the first time in a decade Topps was taking photos at Giants games. The result? Lots of construction shows up in the backgrounds of 1972 cards. That new press box being installed behind Reberger? That would be the football press box, which overlooked the 50-yard line.

I didn’t notice the Reberger photo until I’d noticed more obvious construction on a number of other 1972 cards. In many of the cards throughout the set* the concrete skeleton is not only visible behind the player but is clearly a non-decorative yet also non-functional part of the stadium.

*Much to my relief they appear across each series. In other words, I should be able to fill up a page without having to deal with the high numbers.

As a Giants fan it’s interesting to me how much of the skeleton feels like the Candlestick I remember. The park obviously didn’t look like this when I was going to games there. But the beams were there, visible from underneath the grandstand whether looking up from the lower deck, the second deck concourse, or from outside.

Many of the card photos taken at Candlestick are of players from the National League West.  Lots of Astros, Braves, Reds, and Padres—all of which are teams I remember seeing a lot of as a kid.* There are also a decent number of Expos, Cardinals and Pirates in the mix. Every once in a while though I’ll find a card of an American League team that was taken at Candlestick.

*Yes I watched a lot of Dodgers games too but for whatever reason I’ve yet to come across a 1970s Dodgers card which was taken at Candlestick.

The 1972 Frank Duffy is one such card.* That it said “Indians” meant that my Candlestick radar was sufficiently dulled and I didn’t recognize either the stadium or the fact that it was under construction.

*Also on this list are the 1974 Denny Doyle and 1978 Goose Gossage.

I like seeing the American League cards since, despite the airbrushing, they offer a chance to add some real variety to my binder page. This Duffy is also a lot of fun because it’s a short-term stop card in disguise. Duffy’s actually a Giant here; Topps has just replaced the SF with the wishbone C. Since this is a high number he’s shown with the correct team but if his card had come out earlier in the season there’s a decent chance he’d be with the Giants and I’d have a card commemorating the George Foster trade.

It must have been a weird experience to be at a game in an unfinished park with all the exposed beams and concrete in the outfield. It certainly made for a few baseball cards that don’t have the usual stadium backgrounds.

SABR Black Sox Symposium trading cards

At the Memorial Day Weekend Baseball Cards Research Committee meetup in Cooperstown, I was lucky enough to meet the great Mike Noren in person. Even if the name doesn’t ring a bell his artwork is probably familiar to you.

Mike, whose work now hangs at on the walls of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, is the artist behind the wildly popular “Gummy Arts” trading cards posted daily to Twitter and (if you’re lucky) available in packs online.

I recently saw that Mike had begun putting together a new W514-style set commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Black Sox Scandal.

With the SABR Black Sox Scandal Centennial Symposium coming to town here in Chicago I wondered if there might be a way I could put some of these cards into the hands of attendees. Thinking there might be a good 30-40 SABR members and guests on hand for the event, I thought “Hmm, maybe.” Then I checked with conference organizer Jacob Pomrenke and got the bad-news-for-me-good-news-for-everyone-else that he expected more than 200 attendees!

Never mind, right? It’s not like I could ever imagine Mike’s being willing to put together this many cards! (He cuts every card himself, including the rounded corners.)

Well, what do you know! And thank you, Mike! Sure enough, the first two hundred guests on hand Saturday morning will be able to pick up an envelope with five cards from the full set of 19.

Here is the checklist for the complete unnumbered set of 19 cards.

I can’t thank Mike enough for making his cards available in such large numbers to SABR for this once-in-a-century event, and I hope the Symposium guests will enjoy these cards as much as I do.

I have a bad feeling that after printing and cutting more than a thousand cards Mike will never want to make, much less see, one of these cards again. Nonetheless, I encourage readers to follow @gummyarts on Twitter just in case Mike decides to make additional cards or sets available to the public. If not, get in touch with your friends who made it to Chicago. In the spirit of the Black Sox, they might not be above taking bribes to help you complete your set!

Detroit’s heroes go wild!

Periodically, I have added commemorative team sets to my collection.  The sets may mark a championship year or other noteworthy occurrence, famous or infamous.  Additionally, sets are issued to celebrate an anniversary year or a players’ reunion.  For example, I did a blog post on cards given to attendees of a banquet honoring the 1969 Senators.   Although this may prompt some of you to cancel your SABR membership, I will post additional pieces on commemorative sets from time-to-time.

First up is a 1988 set issued by Domino’s Pizza that commemorates the 20th anniversary of the Tigers 1968 World Series Championship.  Most of you remember that Detroit bested St. Louis in a classic seven-game series.  This World Series resonates with me since it is the first that I remember watching on TV.

All the photos in the 28-card set are black and white.  Many of the shots are unfamiliar to me, which was part of the appeal-along with being cheap.  All the unnumbered cards have a synopsis of the season printed on the back along with the players’ 1968 regular season and World Series stats. 

The cards were given away at Tiger Stadium during an “Old Timers” game featuring the ’68 Tigers players.  It is possible that they were also available at Domino’s locations.  Perhaps a Tiger fan in my vast readership remembers.

Of course, I must include the cards of Ray Oyler and Wayne Comer.  Both players were selected in the expansion draft by the Seattle Pilots after the World Series.  You may recall that the light hitting Oyler was benched in the World Series, with outfielder Mickey Stanley moving into the shortstop slot.  Both Comer and Oyler have memorable turns in Jim Bouton’s Ball Four.

Two Tigers icons-Willie Horton and “Swingin’” Gates Brown-are caught “in action.”  Willie was the big offensive force for the “Motor City Kitties” in 1968.

Speaking of icons, casual fan may not remember that Hall-of-Fame member, Eddie Mathews, closed out his career in a limited role with the Tigers in 1968.

The other Hall-of-Famer in the set is, of course, Al Kaline.  The all-time great is honored with two cards.  Ironically in Al’s only championship season, he suffered a broken arm after being hit by a Lew Krausse pitch, missing three months.

1968 was the “Year of the Pitcher” and Denny McLain was instrumental in creating this designation.  Fueled by endless bottles of Pepsi, Denny won an astonishing 31 games on his way to the AL Cy Young and MVP awards.

Another great Tiger hurler who came up big in the World Series was Mickey Lolich.  The portly “twirler” won three games in the World Series, including a decisive seventh game victory over Bob Gibson.

Although the Tigers rarely made errors in ’68, there are two error cards in this set.  Pitcher Pat Dobson has a version with the photo showing Jon Warden (card on right).  Additionally, leadoff man Dick McAualiffe has a version that leaves off the “e” from the end of his name.

I will end my Motown meanderings now, since I’m sure you are wishing that I was “looooong gone!”  Plus, I need to go to the Tiger Stadium concession stand and redeem this Domino’s coupon.