When William Klein died I tweeted out a quick RIP from the official account where I stated that he was one of the blog’s favorite photographers. If you were browsing Twitter on your phone it would’ve been easy to miss the details in the photo and realize why I tweeted it. For me as both an art museum goer and a card collector though, Klein represents one of the few genuine overlaps in my interests. Yes it’s great to be able to visit the Burdick Collection at The Met but it’s even more fun to see cards pop up in other parts of the museum.
I’ll start with Klein both because he’s what prompted this post and because this is the oldest piece. And yes, the title of this photo is indeed “Baseball Cards.” I’m not going to write a ton about him as a photographer on here but his book of street photos in New York is justly famous in part because of how it taps in to imagery that where you not only feel like part of the scene but suggests that the scene may be familiar to you.
Sometimes, like with “Gun 1,” the familiarity is disturbing. Other times, such as with “Baseball Cards” the scene is one that should resonate in a pleasant way with every reader of this blog. Kids showing off their stacks of cards. Kids showing off a favorite player. It’s why we started collecting and in many ways the feeling we’re trying to hold on to while we keep collecting.
If you only saw the tweet on your phone you might not have noticed that the kids were holding stacks of 1955 Bowman. Blowing up the image you can see that the central card is one of the few light wood borders and is pretty obviously Gil McDougald. I had to comb through the set to identify the other card. I’m pretty sure it’s Randy Jackson—the dark background plus the long sleeves plus the placement of name box is pretty distinct—but there are a decent number of righthanded batters which I had to choose from.
I’ve written about these before on here so there’s no need for me to write much more. That said, at the time of first writing I hadn’t identified everyone in the cards and it took a committee effort in the comments of that post (as well as on Twitter) to both identify the actual 1979 Topps cards that were the basis for these.
I don’t think anyone’s identified the Rookies card but the other five are Steve Henderson (JOE), Bob Randall (JERK), Steve Kemp (HOT DOG), Ed Glynn (BUS PASS), and John Matlack (WALLY). The Mets Team Card meanwhile shows up on what we’re using as the checklist for these.
Most of us here probably recognized immediately that Warhol used a new photo and didn’t just copy either of Rose’s 1985 Topps cards. But the cards are clearly part of the piece. One of the things I like about Warhol’s Rose prints is how they combine the Campbell’s Soup elevation of industrial design into Art™ with his larger-than-life pop culture celebrity portraits and it says a lot about baseball cards and Topps that they were worthy of this treatment.
And yeah. A small short checklist so far which I hope to be able to add to in the future. But also a very fun one that speaks to baseball cards’ larger importance as part of our culture.
There are many mascot races in the major and minor leagues these days, but it all began at Milwaukee County Stadium on June 27, 1993, when a modest scoreboard animation suddenly burst into live action on the playing field.
That Sunday afternoon, the original Klement’s Famous Sausages—the Bratwurst, the Polish and the Italian—surged out from behind the left field fence and began running haphazardly toward home plate, weaving uncertainly back and forth in their seven-feet from head to knee lederhosen, red-and-blue striped koszulka, and tall chef’s hat.
Brainchild of Milwaukee graphic designer Michael Dillon of McDill Design, the racers were an instant hit with the 45,580 Brewer fans in attendance. At first, the races were only held on dates when a big crowd was expected. Later, the races occurred every Sunday. Finally, they became a ritual between the sixth and seventh innings at every game. In the mid-1990s, a Hot Dog was added to the County Stadium line-up. A fifth sausage, the Chorizo, later broke into the regular line-up.
The races continued after the Brewers moved to the then-named Miller Park. On July 9, 2003, Pittsburgh first baseman Randall Simon took a playful tap of the bat at the back of the Italian Sausage as the runners passed the third-base visitor’s dugout. The poke knocked the mascot to the ground, and the hot dog tripped over the fallen racer. Young women were playing the role of each racer. Both suffered cuts and bruises.
Sheriffs at the ballpark took a dim view of Simon’s interference and launched a criminal investigation. Judicial proceedings ended with a $342 fine levied against the Pirate for disorderly conduct. Major League Baseball elbowed into the act and suspended Simon for three days.
Despite the Simon incident, a friendly rivalry evolved between the Sausages and the Pierogies of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the two mascot teams now face off with each other in an annual home and away relay race.
But don’t expect anything similar with the Racing Presidents of the Washington Nationals. There’s some bad blood between the mascots, with the Presidential team mocking the Milwaukee originals as cardboard “Un-talian sausage,” “No-lish Sausage,” “Not-Dog,” “Not-Wurst,” and “Choriz-No.”
No matter. The Racing Presidents baseball card is the ugliest baseball card produced so far in the 21st century.
The American League adopted the Designated Hitter (DH) rule in 1973. Of course, card collectors had to wait for the 1974 set to find cards with the players’ positions “designated” as DH. So, who was the first player to have a card solely labeling him a DH?
The answer is card number 83 in the numerical sequence, the Red Sox Orlando Cepeda. At this point in Cepeda’s career, the DH rule was a godsend. The veteran slugger’s knees would no longer allow him to play in the field. Interestingly, Topps would us “Des.” Hitter as the abbreviation for the position.
Several other gimpy, veteran sluggers show up as Des. Hitters: Tommy Davis , Jim Ray Hart, Tony Oliva, Deron Johnson and “Swingin’” Gates Brown.
Topps produced several cards where the position is a hybrid of DH and either 1B or OF. Sometimes the DH appears first, other times last. I thought this might correlate to the number of games played at each position, but this is not the case. The placement is entirely random. Topps would also toss a curve ball by labeling Harmon Killebrew as a First Base-DH.
The players who have DH-1B as a position are Ron Blomberg—the first player to come to the plate as a DH—and Tony Muser.
The only 1B-DH combo belongs to Gail Hopkins.
Players whose cards show them as DH-OF are Frank Robinson, Bob Coluccio and Alex Johnson, and the ones as OF-DH are Carlos May and Hal McRae.
Mike Lahoud was one of the Brewers DHs along with Ollie Brown. Both players were traded to the Angels prior to 1974. Lahoud’s card mentions his DH position on the back only.
Oscar Gamble was Cleveland’s main DH in 1973, but his card only lists outfield. However, his 1974 Topps stamp includes DH as a position.
I will let you get back to hitting balls off the tee under the stands to keep warm between at bats. I’m sure this DH thing is just a passing fad. Soon you will be flashing leather on the field as God and Abner Doubleday intended.
One of the elements of Topps Heritage that routinely catches my eyes are the Heritage News Flashbacks. For a small insert set which is purportedly about the heritage year’s news highlights, I’ve found it to be an interesting window into what kind of things Topps considers mass-market newsworthy.
Given Topps’s coverage of the 1950s–1970s we have a lot of civil rights firsts,* a lot of space exploration, and a lot of Vietnam War related events. All things which are conceivably politically neutral. In many years though Topps also commemorates legislation and other political achievements. These were clearly highly political at the time but also frequently remain political even today. When I look through the insert checklists it’s these cards that catch my eye in the way that they have one foot in both “this is something worth commemorating” territory and “this is what people say we shouldn’t talk about in the hobby” territory.
*The number of “first black” or “first woman” events Topps chose to celebrate is both refreshing to see and an indictment of who has been traditionally allowed to succeed in our society.
Not only do these legislative inserts catch my eye but they frequently have an interesting context outside of the just the card. This 2009 card commemorating the 1960 Civil Rights Act for example came out the same year that Barrack Obama became the first Black President and the year that Congress authorized the Civil Rights History project to collect oral histories from people who were active in the struggle during the 1950s and 1960s.
The thing with these news flashbacks cards though is that they also tend to frame history as a series of accomplishments rather than a continuing struggle and discussion. Looking at this card gives the impression that we’ve achieved equality at the polls and that no further work needs to be done to maintain things let alone improve on them further.
In 2010 we have acknowledgment of how Washingon DC residents were disenfranchised through the 1960 election with a card the commemorates the ratification of the 23rd Amendment. It’s definitely a good thing that their presidential votes count now but the struggle for DC statehood and representation continued after this amendment.
In terms of the context of this 2010 card it’s important to mention DC’s statehood has been endorsed by multiple Presidents now and that there was a referendum in 2016 in which 86% of DC voters expressed a desire for statehood.
In 2013 we pick up where 2009 left off with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As with the 2009 card this states plainly that segregation is outlawed as well as discrimination against ethnic, racial, and religious minorities plus women. This card doesn’t note how the Civil Right Act of 1964 is what prompted Southern Democrats to switch parties and drastically rearrange the political geography of the United States.
Coming out in 2013 is kind of some amazing immediate context too. Between the Trayvon Martin murder which spawned the Black Lives Matter movement and the Fisher v U of Texas case that threatened to roll back Affirmative Action the discussion about how relevant the Civil Rights Act of 1964 still was and whether its protections were still needed make this card anything but politically neutral.
The 2014 card which commemorates the Voting Rights act of 1965 is the card which prompted this post. For Topps to publish this the year after Shelby v Holder feels almost like an intentional political comment. With a headline about securing voting equality despite the mechanisms for actually keeping voting equality having just been ripped out of the act this card reads almost as a eulogy for what was rather than a milestone that was reached.
The ensuing decade has confirmed my sense of it being a eulogy as we’ve seen increased attacks on voting access nationwide.
We’ll skip a few more years and land in 2017 with yet another Civil Rights Act, in this case 1968’s, which was in the news a bit that year. This act contains within it the Fair Housing Act which prohibits discrimination in both renting and sales. The list of protected categories started off as including just race, religion, and national origin but has expanded to include sex, disabilities, and children. In 2017 sexual orientation and gender identity were added to this list via the judicial system (but never got anywhere in Congress).
This act also included some anti-riot language which made it a crime to travel between states in order to participate in a riot. It was notably used on the Chicago Seven and came up again in the aftermath of the Unite the Right rally in 2017 in which the courts ruled that its language was over-broad.
While this isn’t a legislative card I’ve included the 2018 card of the 1969 Stonewall Riots because of how much of a lighting rod it would be in today’s political landscape. This is history—both from a Gay Rights point of view and the fact that Marsha P. Johnson was a black transgender woman—which is currently being actively legislated against in multiple states nationwide and Topps just had it as a card only four years ago.
This card also came out in the aftermath of the 2015 Obergefell decision which legalized gay marriage and resulted in years of stories of workers and businesses who refused to acknowledge those rights and insisted that their rights to discriminate were more important.
After having maybe one political card per year, Topps went a bit nuts in 2019 and released four of cards of things the government did in 1970. Some of these like expanding voting access to 18 year olds don’t require much comment. Others like the PBS card are noteworthy in the timing of how free educational television was moving to streaming services with shows like Sesame Street only releasing new episodes through HBO Max.
The Earth Day and creation of the EPA cards though are fascinating to see in an age of runaway climate change, the complete abdication by the US Government to do anything about it, and the shortsighted focus on immediate profits over a sustainable world.
Back to only one card in 2021 but it’s a doozy for a year which was threatening to roll back many of the protections that women fought for in the 1970s as Covid had a greater impact on women’s jobs and abortion is getting outlawed nationwide.
In any case it’s pretty clear at this point that the biggest habitat threat is climate change and while the explicit protections and goals of the Endangered Species Act are laudable a larger, more-global, solution will be required moving forward.
And that’s the list. When looked at together it’s easy to reach a conclusion that Topps thinks that discrimination based on race, nationality, and gender is bad, that protecting the environment is good, and that voting should be accessible to all citizens. But it’s also easy to reach a conclusion that Topps considers that all of that has been accomplished already and something we can look back upon and celebrate much in the same way the Major League Baseball commemorates Jackie Robinson as a way of ignoring its current track record on racial equity.
I’ve had a running joke on Twitter about how “when I was your age rainbows looked like this” where “this” refers to the multiple different colors of the late 80s and early 90s Donruss releases. From 1985 to 1992 Donruss released smaller—often 56-card—box sets around certain themes like Highlights, Rookies, Opening Day, All Stars, or the more-generic “Baseball’s Best.”
These sets are fun both because they’re often super-focused thematically and because they always presented a color variation on the base Donruss design. Highlights were orange in 1985 and 1986. Rookies were green from 1987–1992 except in 1991. The other themes had no consistent colors.
Occasionally players would appear in all the different sets in a year. The result of this is that you can collect something that appears similar to the modern parallel rainbow collecting where you can see what the base design looks like with different border colors. The only one of these I have in my collection is Pete Stanicek’s 1988 rainbow* but it occurred to me that it would be fun to go through and see how many guys had a proper rainbow each year.
*Yeah he’s one of my PC guys.
For the purposes of this post I’m only looking a years where there are at least three different sets available. This rules out 1985, 1991, and 1992 since 1985 only has a set of Highlights while 1991 and 1992 only have a Rookies set. I’m also not counting small sets like the Grand Slammers or any of the inserted bonus cards. Nor am I looking at sets which use a different design whether it’s the oversized Action All Stars or the close-but-not-quite 1988 All Stars.
There aren’t a lot of rookies in the Highlights set but since two of the Highlights cards each year are the Rookie of the Year winners, those are the two most-likely ones to have rainbows. In 1986 both of these winners also had cards in the base Donruss set (and Worrell even had two Highlights to choose from).
I actually really like the Highlights set concept with all the monthly and yearly awards, other records broken or unique achievements reached, and Hall of Fame inductees. Is a very nice quick summary of that season of baseball and I really wish it had lasted more than just from 1985–1987.
Just a single rainbow available. With four sets in 1987 I wasn’t sure there’d even be one. As it is, Kevin Seitzer is in all three box sets but for some reason doesn’t have a base Donruss card and Mark McGwire apparently wasn’t an Opening Day Starter.
It’s worth noting here that while in 1985 Donruss kept the black borders and changed the red stripe to be orange for highlights, in 1987 Donruss is doing the full border color swap.
Opening Day is one of my favorite sets of all time. The idea of having a set of just the Opening Day starting lineups is absolutely wonderful. It bookends highlights as a “state of the league in the beginning of the season” marker and is the kind of hyper-specific checklist which I’d love to see more of.
In 1988 Donruss stopped making a Highlights set and switched to a larger, 336-card set called “Baseball’s Best.” This was more of a star-based set and the larger checklist combined with the looser specification meant that instead of looking for the on or two rainbows we have fifteen of them. This is more than 25% of the Rookies checklist. Heck, almost half of these guys didn’t even qualify as Rated Rookies.
Like 1987, 1989 features three extra sets in the same design as the base cards. With the rainbow already existing as part of the base design it would’ve been unlikely to be able to build a real rainbow of parallels. The All Star design however did use a completely different color scheme compared to the base cards (not so much Baseball’s Best or The Rookies). Unfortunately there are no Rookies in he All Star set and so there’s no possibility for a proper rainbow.*
*It is however worth noting that every card in the Grand Slammers set this year comes in all five color options available in the base set.
This is the last year where a rainbow is possible and is very much the same as 1988. Twelve of the Rookies are also in one of the two Best sets* though at least most of them are Rated this year.
*For the purposes of this post I’m combining “Best of the AL” and “Best of the NL” into one set since hey share the same color and by being league-specific have no overlap.
One of the fun things about looking at the Donruss rainbows is how they reveal different directions the base design could have gone. A lot of base Donruss designs are very much things you either love or hate and the color choice is a huge part of that reaction. I’m not going to pass judgement on any of the options other than to say that as a Giants fan I prefer the orange versions of 1986 and 1988.
This article, however, will look at the first widely available baseball cards produced in the United States to showcase Negro Leaguers as Negro Leaguers. In other words, a card of Satchel Paige as a Cleveland Indian (1949 Bowman, 1949 Leaf) or St. Louis Brown (1953 Topps) would not qualify while a card of Satchel Paige as a Kansas City Monarch most definitely would. Should a working definition of “widely available” prove helpful, take it to mean there is nearly always at least one card from the set available on eBay.
Hall of Fame postcards (1971 to present)
I’ll leave it to readers individually to decide whether to count postcards as baseball cards. If you are in the “no” camp, feel free to skip this first entry. If you are in the “yes” camp then we’ll kick things off with the postcards issued and updated annually by the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
While one could quibble that more than half the text on the Paige card, first issued in July 1971, relates to his post-Negro Leagues career, I’ve chosen to count this postcard because A) Paige was selected by a special committee on the Negro Leagues, and B) he is not shown in an Indians, Browns, or Athletics uniform. The Gibson postcard, which carries no such ambiguity, was first issued in July 1972, as was a similar postcard of teammate Buck Leonard.
1974Laughlin Old-Time Black Stars
Bob Laughlin, also known for several collaborations with Fleer, independently produced this 36-card set in 1974. At time of issue, Satchel Paige (1971), Josh Gibson (1972), and Buck Leonard (1972) were the only Hall of Famers in the set. (Cool Papa Bell was inducted in 1974 but after the set was released.) Now an impressive 22 of the 36 cards in the set depict Hall of Famers, with all 14 of the remaining presenting compelling cases for enshrinement.
1975-76 Great Plains Greats
Thanks to Ted Chastain in the reader comments for identifying this 42-card set. Per the Standard Catalog the cards were produced by the Great Plains Sports Collectors Association. Cards 1-24, which includes Cool Papa Bell, were produced in 1975 and sponsored by Sheraton Inns. Cards 25-42 were produced the following year and sponsored by Nu-Sash Corp.
1976 D&S Enterprises Cool Papa Bell
In 1976 John Douglas of D&S Enterprises issued a 13-card set in conjunction with and James “Cool Papa” Bell, who was the subject of the set.
Interestingly, one of the cards in the set is a “card of a card” featuring Bell’s 1974 Laughlin card, updated with facsimile autograph.
1976 Laughlin Indianapolis Clowns
A second Laughlin set of note is his 42-card 1976 Indianapolis Clowns issue, mostly coveted by collectors today for its card of a young Henry Aaron.
In 1975 pizza chain Shakey’s issued a small 18-card set of Hall of Famers, followed up in 1976 by a much larger set featuring all 157 members of the Hall (and a second Robin Roberts card) in order of their induction. The latter set therefore included several Negro League stars: Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Monte Irvin (New York Giants photo), Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson, and Oscar Charleston.
Not counting the Hall of Fame’s own postcards, which may or may not be regarded as baseball cards by some collectors, I believe this Shakey’s set is the very first to feature both “traditional” (i.e., white) major leaguers and Negro Leaguers on its checklist.
1978Laughlin Long-Ago Black Stars
Four years after his initial Negro Leagues set, Laughlin produced a sequel, employing a similar design. Aside from a brand new checklist of 36 cards, the most evident updates were the replacement of “Old-Time” with “Long-Ago” and a greenish rather than brownish tint.
1978 Grand Slam
This 200-card set may have been produced with autographs in mind as (I believe) all 200 of the early baseball stars it featured were still living at the time the set was planned. While nearly one-fourth of the set featured current or future Hall of Famers, there was no shortage of lesser stars such as Bibb Falk and Ed Lopat. The set even included an outfielder with a lifetime OPS of .182.
More to the point, the set included cards of Negro Leaguers Buck Leonard, Judy Johnson, and Cool Papa Bell.
1980-87 SSPC Baseball Immortals
When initially issued in 1980, this SSPC set included all 173 Hall of Famers, i.e., the Shakey’s Pizza roster plus the 16 players inducted between 1977 and 1980. As such, it included the same Negro Leaguers as the Shakey’s set but also added Martin Dihigo (1977) and Pop Lloyd (1977).
Following the initial release, SSPC updated the checklist multiple times through 1987 to include the Hall’s more recent inductees. As such, cards of Negro Leaguers Rube Foster (1981) and Ray Dandridge (1987) were subsequently added to the set.
P.S. No, I don’t really know what’s happening on that Foster card, and don’t even get me started on the Josh Gibson!
1982 “TCMA” Baseball Superstars
Two different “Baseball Superstars” sets were produced in 1980 and 1982 that may or may not have been produced by TCMA. (Andrew Aronstein, son of TCMA co-founder Mike Aronstein, believes the cards were sold by TCMA but not produced by TCMA. The Standard Catalog notes the cards were probably produced by Card Collectors Closet in Springfield, MA.) The second of these sets included a lone Satchel Paige card on its 45-card multi-sport checklist.
1983 Sporting News 1933 All-Star Game 50th Anniversary
This 60-card set was released by Marketcom to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first All-Star Game, and it’s first 48 cards featured the 32 players from the American and National League All-Star rosters plus various other players of the era such as Johnny Hodapp and Chick Fullis. Likely in recognition of the first East-West Game, also in 1933, the final dozen cards in the set consisted of Negro League greats selected by the Sporting News.
These same twelve Negro Leaguers would be reappear in their own 1933 All-Star tribute set in 1988.
1983 ASA Bob Feller
ASA was a big name in the early 1980s when it came to single player tribute sets, with Bob Feller the subject of one of its 1983 offerings. Card 5 in the twelve-card set includes a cameo by future teammate Satchel Paige in his Kansas City Monarchs uniform.
Note that a “red parallel” of the card (and entire set) exists as well.
1983 Donruss Hall of Fame Heroes
In 1983, Donruss augmented its slate of Hobby offerings to include a 44-card “Hall of Fame Heroes” set. While the majority of the set featured National and American League stars, it was notable at the time for being the first “mainstream” card set to include Negro League legends.
Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson are the two unambiguous Negro Leaguers in the set, and I would further count Satchel Paige in spite of his St. Louis Browns uniform.
Collectors hoping to get even more of artist Dick Perez’s talents applied to the Negro Leagues would be in luck the following year.
1980-2001 Perez-Steele Postcards(sorted in this article as 1984)
Beginning in 1980, the Perez-Steele Galleries issued a set of 245 postcards over the course of 22 years. The first of the releases to include Negro Leaguers was Series Five in 1984, which included Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell, and Judy Johnson. (The same series also included Satchel Paige as a Cleveland Indian and Monte Irvin as a New York Giant.)
1984 Decathlon Negro League Baseball Stars
Apart from the copyright line, this set is identical to its far more plentiful reproduction in 1986 by Larry Fritsch.
Consisting of 119 cards, it would take nearly four decades for a set to provide more Negro Leagues firepower than this one.
1985 Decathlon Ultimate Baseball Card Set
Decathlon returned the following year with a 15-card set of baseball legends, highlighted by Josh Gibson.
In addition thirteen white players, the set also included a “second year” card of Moses Fleetwood Walker.
If the artwork looks familiar, it was done by Gerry Dvorak of 1953 Topps fame.
1986 Larry Fritsch Negro Leagues Baseball Stars
Here is the aforementioned reissue of Decathlon’s 1984 offering, still available from Larry Fritsch Cards. I believe you can also pick up a set in person at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum gift shop.
1987 Dixon’s Negro Baseball Greats
Salute to historian, author, and Negro Leagues Baseball Museum co-founder Phil Dixon, whose 45-card set was the first ever set of baseball cards produced by an African American.
Phil also worked with the Ted Williams Card Company on its Negro Leagues subsets in 1993 and 1994.
In addition to Charles Conlon photographs of five white major leaguers, this six-card set also included a card of Cool Papa Bell.
Though the small print on the Bell’s card suggests a Conlon photograph, it should be noted that Charles Conlon passed away in 1945 while Bell did not become the manager of the Monarchs until 1948.
1988 Pittsburgh Negro League Stars
This 20-card set, highlighted on the SABR Baseball Cards blog in 2020, was given to fans by the Pittsburgh Pirates on September 10, 1988. Biographical information on the card backs comes from historian Rob Ruck.
Befitting a Pittsburgh-themed set, nearly all subjects are Crawfords or Grays, though there are some exceptions such as Monte Irvin.
1988 World Wide Sports 1933 Negro League All Stars
This 12-card set features the same twelve Negro Leaguers as the 1983 Marketcom set and also shares a common theme, that of the inaugural All-Star Game (or East-West Game). Additionally, many of the cards use identifcal source images apart from differences in cropping. However, this set is a standalone Negro Leagues set whereas the 1983 set included 48 players from the white major leagues.
The Negro Leagues set itself wasn’t scandal-free as it managed to confuse its two best players!
Counting the Hall of Fame postcards that began this article, we’ve now looked 20 years of Negro League baseball cards. Though the numbers of cards and sets may have been more than you imagined for this period from 1971-90, it’s fair to say that nearly all such sets might warrant the “oddball” label. Notably, we saw nothing at all from the biggest name in all of baseball cards, Topps.
The omission of Negro Leaguers by Topps could certainly be seen as a sign that Topps deemed these players unworthy of their precious cardboard. To an extent I buy the argument, but I’ll also counter with the fact that Topps operated “by the book” when it came to licensing, permissions, etc. I suspect many of the sets profiled in this article provided no financial compensation to the players or estates involved, meaning their honoring of the Negro Leagues may have been part celebration but also part exploitation. If so, perhaps Topps deserves kudos for not following suit.
Though I may have overlooked a card or set somewhere, I believe the first Topps Negro League cards appeared in 2001, most prominently as part of a “What Could Have Been” series.
Though unintentional, the set led off with a “what could have been” to top them all: Josh on the Kansas City Monarchs. Such would surely end all greatest team ever debates right here and now!
A reply to a recent SABR Baseball Cards social media post led me to think about the baseball players more famous for their baseball cards than for any of their on or off the field exploits. Here are ten who I believe fit the bill.
Ripken lasted twelve years in the big leagues as an infielder, including an all-star caliber season in 1990. Today he is a frequent co-host on MLB Network. His brother is baseball’s ultimate Iron Man and one of the greatest shortstops in history. And still, say the name Billy Ripken and card collectors think only of one thing: his 1989 Fleer F*ck Face card.
His career on the diamond lasted only half as long as Billy Ripken’s but he spent six years as the regular second baseman for the Rangers and Cubs, topping 30 steals four times while batting a respectable .266. Like Ripken, baseball also ran in his family. Of course any kid who collected baseball cards in 1979 will know him best for this seemingly impossible cardboard trickery.
BRANDON PUFFER AND JUNG BONG
Puffer played four years in the big leagues, appearing in 85 games for the Astros, Padres, and Giants. Jung Bong played one fewer season, appearing in 48 games for the Braves and Reds. The two pitchers combined for a WAR of -1.2. Though never teammates, the duo shared Future Stars cardboard in the 2003 Topps set on card #331, known to collectors (and chronicled by David Roth) as the “Bong Puffer card.”
Legitimately one of the best hitters of his time, scouted by the legendary Buck O’Neil, and the man behind the classic line, “They don’t think it be like it is, but it do,” Oscar Gamble would be remembered fondly even if he had no baseball cards at all. Fortunately that’s a hypothetical we need not ponder long when this pure cardboard gold is right in front of us.
SHERRY MAGEE AND JOE DOYLE
Magee built a borderline Hall of Fame career from 1904-1919 that included more than 2000 hits, four RBI titles, and 59.4 WAR. Even with those credentials I suspect many readers can only hazard a guess whether his name is pronounced Maggie, McGee, or Madgee.
Doyle, on the other hand, had a completely undistinguished career, seeing limited action on the mound over five seasons at roughly replacement level.
Whatever their on-field exploits, each of these players will forever be cardboard legends, with their error cards comprising half of the T206 set’s “Big Four.”
BENNY BENGOUGHAND ANDY PAKFO
Bengough was a career backup catcher who compiled 0.3 WAR over his ten seasons in the big leagues. When the 1933 Goudey set came out, he was already out of baseball.
Pafko, on the other hand, was a four-time all-star who batted .285 over 13 seasons with a career OPS+ of 117. His 1952 season (.287/19/85) was uncannily similar to his lifetime per 162 slash line of .285/19/85, and his midseason move from the Cubs to the Dodgers the prior year was one of the season’s biggest trades.
While neither player would top any list of all-time greats, each player topped many stacks of baseball cards, thanks to being numbered one in the 1933 Goudey and 1952 Topps sets respectively. Until the Upper Deck Ken Griffey, Jr., rookie card came along in 1989, I suspect these two players were the Hobby’s most famous set starters. Certainly both cards, in reasonable shape, carried a premium comparable to lesser Hall of Famers due to rubber banding, spills, and the myriad other ways stack toppers suffered disproportionate damage in collections prior to the advent of plastic sheets.
I’ll end the article with what may be my most contentious selection. Without a doubt, Wagner is a top shelf baseball immortal, considered by many to be the greatest shortstop of all-time if not the single greatest player of the Deadball Era. (In both cases, Pop Lloyd deserves consideration as well.) To an audience well versed in baseball history, therefore, Wagner is most famous for his tremendous playing career, even if most fans still pronounce his name wrong.
Yet whatever his accomplishments on the diamond, I suspect the Flying Dutchman is best known today, whether in the collecting world or the general public, for a single, transcendently pricey cardboard rectangle, our Hobby’s Mona Lisa.
Who else would you nominate for this elite club where ERR trumps WAR and even backup catchers can be number one? Sound off in the Comments!
Umpire cards are practically as old as baseball cards themselves, with several appearing in the 1887-90 Old Judge (N172) set.
Umpires made it into a number of other sets over the next half century, but didn’t reappear in any major releases (apologies to Al Demaree Die-Cuts and Schutter-Johnson fans) until Dolly Stark’s inclusion in both 1939 and 1940 Play Ball.
Of course this was just prelude to the 1955 Bowman set, which dedicated an entire Baskin Robbins worth of umpires to its high numbers series.
The cards fronts followed the standard 1955 Bowman color television design, though I suspect few umps ever scored such close-ups on actual broadcasts. The card backs featured bios and a trivia question in place of stats. Umpire ancestry was often provided, which I’m sure young gum chewers appreciated quite a bit.
“What kind of name is Honochick?”
“He’s SEE-zetch, you moron! Don’t you read the backs?”
I don’t have any real theory on why Bowman went from zero umpires in its 1948-54 sets to 31 in 1955. Could the umps have been filler to replace unsuccessful player contracts? Was there a buzz in the Hobby over the 1953 Hall of Fame inductions of Bill Klem and Thomas Connolly? Was Bowman trolling collectors on its way out of business? Or were these umps just that darn interesting?
For now, let’s assume the latter, because, YES!, they were pretty darn interesting. In this article, I’ll attempt to offer the three most interesting things about each one.
First graduate of umpire school to make the big leagues
Former meat cutter
Victim of extortion attempt when men broke into a hotel room to photograph McKinley and fellow umpire Ed Runge with two women
J.A. PAPARELLA (ITALIAN)
Holds record for most games umpired during 154-game schedule (169 in 1950)
Holds record for most games umpired during 162-game schedule (176 in 1962)
Third base umpire for Eddie Gaedel game in 1951
EDDIE ROMMEL (GERMAN)
Two-time 20 game winner (1922, 1925) for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics
Card back notes that Rommel was “widely accredited as the discoverer of the knuckle ball”
First umpire to wear glasses on the field (along with Frank Umont) in 1956
LARRY NAPP (ITALIAN)
Professional boxer and boxing referee
Third base umpire for Don Larsen’s perfect game in 1956 World Series
Right field umpire for “The Catch” in 1954 World Series
JOHNNY STEVENS (SLOVAK)
Third base umpire for “The Catch” in 1954 World Series
College basketball referee
Godfather of retired NBA referee Steve Javie
EDWIN HURLEY (GERMAN-IRISH)
Behind the plate for Eddie Gaedel game in 1951
Appeared on “What’s My Line?” television show in 1953
Confiscated Mickey Mantle’s illegal bat in 1958…and kept it!
AL BARLICK (GERMAN-AUSTRIAN)
“He’s going to be the greatest umpire in baseball history.” — Bill Klem
First base umpire for Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers debut
Outfielder with Tigers, Reds, and Cubs from 1940-46
First base umpire for Dock Ellis no-hitter in 1970
Third base umpire when Miracle Mets won 1969 World Series
Umpire for Ernie Banks first and 500th home runs.
ARTIE GORE (IRISH)
Former minor league shortstop
Professional basketball referee
Left field umpire for Joe DiMaggio’s final game (1951 World Series, game six)
FRANK DASCOLI (ITALIAN)
Fired by National League president Warren Giles during 1961 season, ironically for noting Giles was not sufficiently supportive of umpires
First base umpire when Dodgers finally won World Series in 1955
“I’ll tell you how tough a job an umpire has. When I got back home that year a guy comes up to me and says, ‘Frank, you blew that call. I saw it. I was 10 feet away.’ I asked the guy how he could have been sitting 10 feet away when the box seats were at least 40 feet away? ‘I was watching on television,’ the guy says.” — Frank Dascoli on controversial safe at home call that resulted in Roy Campanella’s ejection from key game during 1951 pennant race
TOM GORMAN (IRISH)
Pitched four games for New York Giants in 1939
Home plate umpire for Bob Gibson’s record setting 17 strikeout game in 1968 World Series opener
Buried with his ball-strike counter sent to a full count
LEE BALLANFANT (BELGIAN-IRISH)
Minor league infielder from 1915-25
Third base umpire when Dodgers finally won World Series in 1955
“I can truthfully say I never did like umpiring. I stayed with it because I had to eat.” — Lee Ballanfant
DUSTY BOGGESS (SCOTCH-IRISH)
Minor league third baseman, catcher, and shortstop from 1921-33
Disqualified from high school baseball competition when it was found he was also playing professionally under the pseudonym Bogus!
Scout for Chicago White Sox and Pittsburgh Steelers
LON WARNEKE (NO ETHNICITY INDICATED)
Three-time 20-game winner with Chicago Cubs (1932, 1934, 1935)
One of five subjects (along with Dick Bartell, Phil Cavarretta, Charlie Grimm, and Al Lopez) with cards in 1936 World Wide Gum and 1955 Bowman
County Judge for Garland County, Arkansas, from 1963-72
BILL ENGELN (GERMAN)
Former batboy for St. Louis Browns
Attacked by two women after a controversial third strike call in contest between Portland Beavers and Seattle Rainiers
Traveled with San Francisco Seals to Hawaii for their 1946 Spring Training
JOCKO CONLAN (NO ETHNICITY INDICATED)
Outfielder, pinch-hitter, and pinch-umpire for Chicago White Sox in 1934-35
Owned flower shop in Chicago
Elected to Hall of Fame in 1974
FRANK UMONT (NO ETHNICITY INDICATED)
Guard for New York Giants (NFL) from 1943-47, teaming with fellow 1955 Bowman umpire Hank Soar from 1943-46
First umpire to wear glasses on the field (along with Eddie Rommel) in 1956
Home plate umpire for 1971 All-Star Game
BABE PINELLI (NO ETHNICITY INDICATED)
8-year major league career as infielder with Reds, Tigers, and White Sox
Finished 13th in NL MVP voting in 1924
Behind the plate for Don Larsen’s perfect game in 1956 World Series
HAL DIXON (NO ETHNICITY INDICATED)
Former minor league pitcher
Third base umpire for first ever National League game on West Coast (Dodgers at Giants on April 15, 1958)
Worked the first World Series game on the West Coast (1959 World Series, game three)
LARRY GOETZ (NO ETHNICITY INDICATED)
Umpire on the left in famous Norman Rockwell painting “Tough Call” (or “Bottom of the Sixth”)
Took up umpiring as hobby while working in Cincinnati post office
“When I’m right, no one remembers. When I’m wrong, no one forgets.” — Larry Goetz
A.J. DONATELLI (NO ETHNICITY INDICATED)
Held prisoner by the Nazis for 15 months
On the cover of the first Sports Illustrated with Eddie Mathews and Wes Westrum
Created the Major League Umpires Association in 1964
CAL HUBBARD (SCOTCH-IRISH)
Played in the NFL from 1927-36
Only member of Baseball and Pro Football Hall of Fames
Voted greatest NFL tackle of all-time in 1969 by Pro Football Hall of Fame Committee
BILL SUMMERS (NO ETHNICITY INDICATED)
Called Jackie Robinson safe on steal of home in 1955 World Series
Noted on card back as “gifted after-dinner story-teller”
Professional lightweight boxer
Well that’s all I got for the 31 umps of the 1955 Bowman set: 4 NFL players, two 20-game winners, a hotel room scandal, war heroes, two classic magazine covers, beer commercials, a television game show, and countless boos in some of the most famous baseball games ever.
Then again, maybe those weren’t chants of “kill the umpire” after all. Could it be the fans are really on their feet, raining bottles onto the field, hollering “collect the umpire?” Well, that’s what some guy at Bowman heard anyway, and the rest is history.
I started this amazing project last September. The first purchase was a Billy Parker card on 9/2/20, and on 7/8/21 I found the Larry Doby card I wanted to complete it all. I had so much fun assembling this mix of well known cards, as well as some I never knew existed.
Sixteen players out of the 86 did not have an MLB card produced, which made things very interesting. I had to dig for autographs, Minor League cards, original photos, and even game cards. The back stories of these great players were so interesting: the journey, the struggle, the closed doors eventually pushed wide open.
I learned so much about the players and their families, the Negro League and its origins. I’m a bit bummed it has come to an end but happy I was able to share it with all of you. Thanks to SABR Baseball Cards and the whole SABR team for giving me their platform to share it. So here we go, it’s the bottom of 9th, time for a walk-off!
George Crowe 1953 Topps. As you know I love the ’53 Topps set. So ahead of its time. Big George with the frames as a member of the Boston Braves. Crowe was an outstanding basketball player, and enjoyed the game better than baseball. He was smart enough to know there was more money in baseball back then. In 1947 he joined the New York Black Yankees where he hit .305 in 141 at bats. In ’52 he made his debut with the Braves. He played 11 years in MLB, in ’57 he had his best season smashing 31 dingers along with 92 ribbies for Cincinnati.
🐐fact: “Crowe was the most articulate and far-sighted Negro then in the majors. Young Negroes turned to him for advice.” – Jackie Robinson
Joe Black 2001 Fleer Stitches in Time Autograph. Figured I would go the auto route with Joe, it’s a super clean signature, and a card I have never seen before. Black pitched for 3 MLB teams over 6 years. His best season was his rookie year playing with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He finished 41 games, sported a 15-4 record with a 2.15 era, 15 saves, and took home NL ROY as a 28 year-old. Joe played for the Baltimore Elite Giants of the Negro League.
🐐fact: Along with Jackie Robinson, Joe pushed for a pension plan for Negro League players. After his retirement from baseball, he remained affiliated with the Commissioner’s Office where he consulted players about career choices.
Quincy Trouppe 1978 Laughlin BVG 8.5. This card was from a set of 36 cards by sport artist R.G. Laughlin honoring outstanding black players from the past. Quincy was one of the players in this project who was never featured on a MLB card. He only appeared in 6 games with Cleveland as a 39 year-old. That was his MLB career, but Quincy was a legend in the Negro Leagues! He was a big switch-hitting catcher, 6′ 2″ and 225 pounds. Excelled as a player, manager, and scout. Trouppe was a baseball lifer who did many great things for the game.
🐐fact: In 1977 Quincy self-published a book entitled, “20 Years Too Soon”. He also had a vast collection of photographs, and supplied Ken Burns with most of the Negro League video footage for his legendary documentary.
Hector Rodriguez 1953 Bowman RC. Hector played one year for the Chicago White Sox in 1952. He was a natural shortstop, and a native of Cuba. A member of the New York Cubans in the Negro League. Even though he only played a short time in MLB, he was a fixture in the International League for the Toronto Maple Leafs. As you can see on this awesome Bowman card with Yankee Stadium in the background, he’s about to sling that ball sidearm. He was known for his underhand flip throws from deep in the hole just like someone I enjoyed watching growing up, Tony Fernandez.
🐐fact: Hector sported a great eye at the plate. In 1952 with the White Sox, he struck out only 22 times in 462 plate appearances!
Frank Barnes 1960 Topps RC. This is a really sharp card, not centered well, but great condition. Barnes played in 1957, 1958 and 1960 for the Cardinals, he pitched in only 15 career MLB games. If you notice, Frank is a member of the White Sox on his baseball card, but he would never appear in a game for them. Barnes played for the Kansas City Monarchs, he was later sold to the Yankees along with Elston Howard.
🐐fact: Barnes continued to pitch professionally in the minor leagues and Mexico until age 40 in 1967.
Joe Durham 1958 Topps PSA 7 RC. Joe had his first taste of the big leagues in 1954 as a 22 year-old OF with the Baltimore Orioles. He missed the ’55 and ’56 seasons due to military service. He returned to the O’s in ’57, then finished his career with the Cards in ’59. Durham started his professional career with the Chicago American Giants of the Negro League. After his playing career was over he became the O’s batting practice pitcher, and then moved into the front office. He was a member of the Orioles organization for over 40 years.
🐐fact: “I was in the Negro American League because I couldn’t play in anything else. People talk about racism in Mississippi and Alabama. Mississippi was bad, and Alabama was bad, but Chicago was just as bad as any of them.” – Joe Durham.
George Altman 1958 Topps RC / 1964 Topps Autograph. This is a really crisp rookie card, obviously not centered well, but an overall nice card. The Altman autograph came from Ryans Vintage Cards, a really cool Instagram account that sells random vintage cards in re-packs. George played 9 years in MLB as an OF and 1B. He was a 2x All-Star with the Cubs. In ’61 he led the league with 12 triples, batting .303 with 27 HR and 96 RBI. He started his pro ball with the Kansas City Monarchs, mentored by the great Buck O’Neil who taught him how to play 1B. The Cubs signed George, as well as Lou Johnson and J.C. Hartman all from Buck’s word.
🐐fact: After his time in MLB, Altman went on to play ball in Japan, amassing 205 HR until he retired at the age of 42.
Lino Donoso 1956 Topps Pirates Team Card. Donoso was one of the toughest players to find anything on. It took me months to realize he was on the Pirates ’56 team card. It’s Clemente’s second year, so it’s not a cheap card even in poor condition. Lino was a lefty pitcher, a Cuban native who started his professional career in 1947 with the New York Cubans of the Negro National League. He made his MLB debut in 1955, and played a few games for Pittsburgh in ’56 as well. He had a long career in the Mexican League, and was elected to their Hall of Fame in 1988.
🐐fact: Donoso was a teammate of Minnie Miñoso for the New York Cubans in ’47. He sported a 5-2 2.18 ERA as a 24 year-old.
Editor’s Note: You can enjoy the rest of this series right here on the SABR Baseball Cards blog.
Our collecting habits are almost certainly influenced by time and place, and my own certainly are. The players I collect were primarily active in the 1980s and 1990s, the team I collect was on top of the baseball world in 1986 with their spring training site moving about two miles away from my house, and, with my formative collecting years being the late 1980s and early 1990s, I find having a single card producing company with a full MLB license maddening.
At some point, probably in the early 2000s, I began collecting “cards” of players from the area in which I grew up. “Cards” is in parentheses because I have other items of the non-card variety, including Starting Lineup figures for the few who had them as well as other assorted card-like items. While the definition of a card varies by individual, my own definition of a “card” is broad.
Port St. Lucie was small when I lived there – the title of the post shows how much the area codes changed due to population growth over the span of about 15 years. There was not actually a high school in the city of Port St. Lucie until 1989 (I was in the second class that could possibly have attended the school all four years) – so I branched out a little into the rest of St. Lucie County as well as neighboring Martin and Indian River counties. But despite its size there were a few players who made it to the show.
The most famous player from the area is almost certainly Rick Ankiel. A highly touted pitching prospect who likely would have gone higher in the draft if he didn’t have Scott Boras as his agent, he finished second in Rookie of the Year voting to Rafael Furcal then proceeded to struggle with control against the Braves and Mets in the playoffs. He of course made it back to the majors as an outfielder, which, according to his book, may not have happened had he not had Boras as his agent. It’s that story which likely elevates him to the most famous player from the area.
Charles Johnson went to Fort Pierce Westwood and was drafted in the first round twice – once out of high school and once out of the University of Miami. I believe his dad was the baseball coach at Westwood for many years. He is probably the best player (at least according to WAR) to come out of the area, or at least he was until Michael Brantley came along. Again, there are dividing lines for a collection – I don’t collect Brantley because I had left the area before he became a local player. He was in the right place just at the wrong time. Brantley’s time in that area did overlap perhaps an even more famous individual from the area – you may have seen Megan Fox in a movie or two.
There are other players from the area, more minor players in the history of the game. Ed Hearn, who was born in Stuart and went to Fort Pierce Central, was a favorite of my best friend’s mom. He also happened to play for the 1986 Mets, which is good enough for me. Like Charles Johnson, Terry McGriff is a catcher out of Westwood and is actually Charles Johnson’s uncle. He’s also a cousin to Fred McGriff (who I also collect in a limited fashion though that has nothing to do with location – it has everything to do with time). A friend of mine in elementary school got Terry McGriff’s autograph when Terry visited my friend’s elementary school. Eventually that card ended up in my collection through a trade of some sort.
Danny Klassen, who went to John Carroll High School, is the closest in age to me, and while I didn’t play baseball with him (I was on the north side of Port St. Lucie and played at Sportsman’s Park; he was playing on the south side at Lyngate Park) I know many people who played on teams with him in Little League and Legion Ball. I believe he has a World Series ring with his time on the Diamondbacks. Wonderful Terrific Monds was a player I didn’t know much about, but (1) a good friend of mine’s parents couldn’t stop talking about how good he was and (2) his name is awesome. He never made it to the majors, but he has minor league cards and a handful of cards from mainstream sets due to being in the minors at the right time (a prospect in the early 1990s).
I should probably have a Jon Coutlangus collection, but alas, I think he was a year too late. At one point I identified Joe Randa as the best MLB player to attend Indian River Community College (which is now Indian River State College), so I started a Randa collection, though I don’t remember much about his IRCC career.
The more prominent players (Ankiel, Johnson, and Randa) have some game-used and autographed cards; most have parallel cards in one product or another. Okay, Ankiel has over 100 different autographed cards and over 50 memorabilia cards according to Beckett; he was a hot prospect at a time when there were multiple fully-licensed producers. He’s also popular enough that he has autographed cards in recent Topps issues, well after his retirement from baseball. Hearn, McGriff, Monds, and Klassen only have a handful (or what I would call a handful – less than 75) of cards. It’s usually easier to find the rarer cards of the bigger names because sellers will list them, with the cards of the less popular players coming up occasionally.
While the cards of these players aren’t going to set records at an auction or allow me to buy an island, the collection provides a tie to my formative baseball playing and baseball card collecting years. For me, those types of connections are why I collect.