We may have something fun going on where your help would be awesome. Though the final product will likely take the form of a series of nearly 100 blog articles, it’s also fun to think of this as a really long book, one where each page tells the story of a different baseball card and the book, collectively, not only tells the story of baseball cards but baseball itself.
Think of this post as an example of how the book might begin, though your feedback and ideas may well replace the examples here with even better ones. Definitely let us know your thoughts in the comments, and more importantly, add your card ideas to our Google Sheet.
When card collectors think of the number “one,” the card they think of may depend on their age and collecting interests. For collectors of 1952 Topps, it’s Andy Pafko. For Goudey collectors, it’s Benny Bengough. For very new collectors, it may well be Shohei Ohtani or Mike Trout. And for just about everyone in between, the answer is Junior.
Ken Griffey, Jr., not only led off Upper Deck’s debut set but did so emphatically. As if the tamper-resistant packs, the hologrammed cards, the color photo backs, and the high sticker price weren’t enough to make the Hobby take notice, the positioning of Junior at the top of the checklist boldly announced that this was the company that loved unproven rookies just as much as you did.
It’s also possible that this “one” impacted all future “ones.” Prior to 1989, the top slot often went to top stars but sometimes went to record breakers, league leaders, and team cards of World Series winners. Post-Griffey, card one is nearly always a stud if not a statement.
The number two is largely ubiquitous in baseball: double plays, two-base hits, a number two starter, and of course the doubleheader. As luck would have it, Topps not only issued a second set of cards, Double Headers, as a companion to its 1955 offering, but the set just happened to include the Hall of Famer most synonymous with doubleheaders, Mr. Let’s Play Two himself. (Apologies to the Iron Man McGinnity die-hards out there.)
The 1955 Topps Double Headers set must have struck young collectors as completely unique and original: a card that could be folded into a different card (not to mention cards that could be arranged with other cards to build ballpark panoramas)! Older collectors, however, may have recognized its origins and inspiration in a set 44 years earlier, the 1911 Mecca Double Folders. (And for the McGinnity fans, yes, he has a card in it!)
The number three in baseball is practically synonymous with a certain Yankee slugger, but we’ll go here instead with a Yankee slayer, Lew Burdette.
Burdette famously pitched and won three complete games, the last two by shutout, to defeat the New York Yankees in 1957 and bring Milwaukee fans their first and only World Series title. In burying the Bombers, Burdette became the first pitcher of the live ball era to record three complete game victories in a World Series, a feat since repeated by both Bob Gibson (1967) and Mickey Lolich (1968).
While cards celebrating historical achievement are commonplace in today’s Hobby (e.g., ToppsNow and Topps “Turn Back the Clock”), this was not always the case. However, the period from 1959-62 was something of a golden age for honoring the past. In addition to the Nu-Cards sets of 1960 and 1961, Topps included “Baseball Thrills” subsets in 1959 and 1961. (The 1961 set also honored past MVPs.) Topps followed this with a “Babe Ruth Special” subset in 1962.
Fleer, meanwhile, made its return to baseball in 1959 with an 80-card set celebrating the life and career of Ted Williams, following up in 1960 and 1961-62 with sets of “Baseball Greats.” Golden Press also joined the fun in 1961 with an all-time greats set issued magazine style.
With apologies to Mel Ott, Hack Wilson, and Duke Snider, baseball’s iconic number 4 will always be the Iron Horse, Lou Gehrig. Fittingly, Gehrig is also card #4 in the underrated and under-the-radar 1994 Upper Deck All-Time Heroes set.
The scene depicted by the card is one that define’s Lou Gehrig’s life and legacy even more than his statistics or famous streak. “…Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
The 1970s blessed the Hobby with no small number of amazing catcher cards, cards which by the way hold their own nicely against any of the top cards of the decade. Rather than declare best, we will focus on first. Five cards into the 1971 Topps set, collectors were greeted with cardboard perfection.
Seriously, what’s not to like? The groovy landscape layout, the black borders, the sizeable All-Star Rookie trophy, a head-first and helmet-free Chuck Dobson, the glorious Oakland green and gold…oh, and the great Thurman Munson! This card has it all!
Nobably, the 1971 Topps Thurman Munson also represents a true rarity in the modern Hobby: a second-year card more coveted than the player’s rookie card. (Another good example is Ron Cey, but the reason is very different. Ditto Cey teammate Steve Garvey.)
Many great players have worn the number six, and one top-shelf immortal even carried the nickname Big Six. Still, we’ll go a different direction in selecting a “six” card. Here is Gus Zernial of the Philadephia Athletics seemingly defying the laws of physics with his bat and six baseballs.
The card must have caught the eye of many a young gum chewer in its day, but what does the picture represent? Why six baseballs? Flip the card over and you find the answer: “Gus also tied the major league record for the most home runs in 3 straight games with 6 circuit clouts and hit 7 in 4 straight games to tie the American League mark.”
The year of the record, 1951, was the first of three 30+ home run campaigns for Zernial, his high of 42 coming in 1953. While his 1952 Topps card is more famous today than his stat line, Gus actually retired in 1959 36th on the all-time home run list.
Records aside, the Zernial card stands out in a set filled with portraits and staid baseball poses and offers a “fun factor” that stacks up with even the most whimsical Fleer cards that followed three decades later.
Seven can mean many things in baseball: Nolan Ryan’s no-hitters, the number of innings in each half of a Manfred doubleheader, and of course the Mick’s iconic jersey number. Or it can mean a really incredible day at the plate.
Or an amazing run of home run crowns…
Or an amazing run of strikeout crowns!
The number eight in baseball most famously (or infamously!) is associated with scandal: the “Eight Men Out” in the wake of the 1919 World Series. Apart fom later tribute sets, there is no “playing era” set that includes all eight of the Black Sox banned for life. However, the W514 strip card set of 1919-21 comes the closest, offering seven of the eight.
For readers unfamiliar with strip cards they were, as the name implies, cut from longer strips. In most cases, the cards themselves were not inserted in products the way tobacco and gum cards were. Rather, they were given out to customers as rewards or premiums for buying other things. For example, you might imagine a customer spending a penny on some gumballs and then receiving one of these cards as a token of appreciation for the purchase.
The heyday of strip cards was without a doubt the 1920s, a decade that–along with caramel cards–filled the gap between the tobacco era (1880s-1910s) and the gum era (1930s-1990s). Many collectors find strip cards unappealing due to their hand-cut nature or (often) low quality artwork and printing. If you search the web you will find no shortage of hideous examples. That said, the W514 set is an important one in Hobby history if for nothing else its abundance of Black Sox, and a later strip card set from 1923 is equally notable as it represented the debut of Fleer baseball cards in the Hobby.
Nine innings, nine players to a side, and ninety feet between bases…few numbers are more important in baseball than the number nine. Likewise, few players have been as accomplished in baseball as Boston’s number 9, Ted Williams.
The 1959 Fleer set serves as a cardboard tribute to #9. Its 80 cards chronicle his life and career from boyhood to (then) present day, both on and off the field. At the time it was produced, it was by far the largest single player set to date. (Notable but much smaller sets featured–of course–Babe Ruth and–more surprisingly–Rabbit Maranville.)
Card 44 in the set depicts Williams, still very much in the prime of his career, hanging up his famous jersey as he prepares once more to go off to war. Overall, Williams would miss nearly five full years of baseball in service to his country, and one can only imagine what numbers those five years might have added to his career totals. Fairly conservative estimates might be 170 hits and 30 home runs per year, taking the Splendid Splinter from 2654 hits to around 3500 and from 521 home runs to nearly 700.
Of course, what Ted did do during those five missing seasons mattered too and perhaps added to his legend even more than the extra numbers would have.
When modern collectors think “10,” it’s the grade they hope their card receives from popular grading services like PSA, Beckett, or SGC. Where grades are concerned, 10 is synonymous with gem mint, the very top of the scale (ignoring silly modifiers like black diamond elite).
Certainly their thoughts are a million miles away from the obscure ballplayers of more than a century ago who patrolled the outfields of the rainy Pacific Northwest. Or should I say Ten Million miles away?
The unusually named Ten Million made his only cardboard appearance in the 1909-11 Obak tobacco card set, a set that carried a similar design to the contemporary T206 set of Honus Wagner fame. His card, as you might imagine, represented the largest number (at the time) ever seen on a baseball card, topping the previous record by a factor of a hundred.
Other researchers will have to determine the current record, but we will offer here, perhaps surprisingly, that Ten Million was at least matched a few years later by the 1914 Cracker Jack set.
Evidently, before there was junk wax, there were junk jacks!
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
So all of what you just read is the main idea here, but now picture the “pages” extending well beyond 1-10, potentially as high as 792, 793, or even higher. Would there be long stretches of numbers with no interesting cards? Maybe. Would it take forever to finish (or even read!) such a project? Probably! Would readers second-guess many of the cards selected? Definitely!
Well, also in the “definitely” category is that this is way too much work for one or two people to do themselves. Ideally some of you will be interested in–
- Suggesting cards to feature – add your nominations here!
- Doing the write-up for a ten-card run, similar to what’s in this sample article
- Providing some early feedback on what will make this megaproject awesome – feel free to use the Comments area below.
A particular question to consider is whether you’d like to see a strict match between the number we’re writing about and the number on the back of the card, as was the case with Griffey, Gehrig, and Munson above, or if you prefer the variety provided by the Eight Men Out or Ten Million.