One of My Favorite Things

As a child who grew up in the heyday of Topps Traded, Donruss Traded, Fleer Update, Score Rookies and Traded, and Upper Deck Extended, the idea that companies would issue cards whenever players changed teams was something I just took for granted. I didn’t even have to wait for the following year, odds were that I could find multiple updated cards the same season of the team change.

This kind of thing didn’t exist in previous decades. As I’ve gotten into vintage cards, especially in the lower grade realm where my budget lies, I’ve started running into evidence of how differently kids in the previous generation collected cards. Mark’s touched a bit on this in how he kept his cards sorted based on current team and it shouldn’t surprise me at all that the generation of kids that truly used cards versus storing them would take things into their own hands and modify cards to keep them current.

I don’t seek out these modified cards but they’re quietly becoming one of my favorite things to encounter when I thumb through a pile of low-grade vintage. In addition to just being fun reminders of how different collecting used to be, they serve as indications of the player’s future beyond the back information.

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The first such card in my collection was this 1958 Willie Kirkland. As a player about whom I was wholly unfamiliar, seeing the two corrected teams encouraged me to actually look up his career information.

I was kind of shocked to see that the previous owner had updated this card twice over 7 seasons to reflect his 1961 move to Cleveland and his 1964 move to Baltimore. I was also a little confused that the owner updated the Baltimore affiliation at the beginning of 1964 but didn’t update it again that summer when Kirkland moved to the Senators.

Still, the annotations suggest the wonderful concept of a child so enamored by baseball that all their cards are updated each season to reflect current teams. It’s not enough to just sort them to be in the correct teams, the cards themselves have to track the transactions.

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My 1964 Jose Pagan is an interesting case where rather than updating the team only the position has been changed. As a Giants fan, I don’t associate Pagan with Third Base at all (for good reason since he only played around 20 games there compared to close to 500 at shortstop). But he did switch to playing a lot more at Third when he was traded to the Pirates in 1965.

That the team name isn’t updated makes me wonder if this card was instead used for some other purpose. I’m imagining a game of some sort where kids would create a lineup out of cards they owned.

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The last of these cards I’ve come across is probably the best one in that it captures the 1966 Orlando Cepeda trade on a 1966 card. This is one transaction and career trajectory I was very familiar with. Yes I know that trading Cepeda sort of unleashed McCovey but it still pains me to be reminded that the Giants had to let him go.

I see this being an annotation done in 1966 so as to make that year’s set correct. Cepeda was traded in May and this is card number 132. Topps had no chance. And I’m sure Mark has this card paged with the Cardinals too.

As I stated previously, I’m not actively seeking these out. I just love coming across them and will totally set them aside when I do.

What do Baseball Cards Want?

There was a bit of an interesting discussion/freak out on card twitter this week over a restored T206 Honus Wagner card. Restoring in this case involves cleaning the card front and back, replacing the trimmed borders with material from other T206 cards, and filling in missing pigments.

Predictably and understandably, many collectors were appalled and outraged at this. We, as a group, tend to treat our cards as items whose aging must be arrested. We lock them away inside increasingly-secure plastic holders and handle them with kid gloves on the rare occasions that we look at them.* The idea of modifying a card by accident—let alone on purpose—is anathema to the collecting ethos and immediately makes people suspect malicious intent or ignorance.

*One of the things I’ve enjoyed about this SABR group is how frequently it champions the use of cards. Sorting and re-resorting things. Changing the contest in which they’re displayed, etc. etc.

So there were lots of reactions about how this is destroying the card. Or how it was no longer worth anything. Or how it was setting up the opportunity for someone to defraud an unsuspecting buyer.

My reaction though was one of excitement as this represents one of those occasions when baseball cards cross over into the art world. The issue of art restorations is one that’s fascinated me for a long time; the first thing I did was re-read Rebecca Mead’s wonderful New Yorker piece, remind myself of all the different ways that we’ve both “preserved” and “restored” items in the past, and think about what it means for us to have invested so much money and/or emotional weight in small pieces of printed cardboard.

“People always ask, ‘Who do you feel responsible to?’ If a collector comes in and says, ‘I want to have a piece fixed this way,’ do you do it as the collector wants it, or as the artist wants it? I always say we are responsible to the art work, not to the artist or to the collector.”

—Christian Scheidemann

Centering the discussion on the card itself allows me to really think about what restoring does and what it means to restore a card. I proceeded to jump down a rabbit hole and read posts about when museums have chosen to restore objects.* When they haven’t.** Plus discussions about how restoration is really a commitment to having to maintain the artwork over the course of its lifetime.***

*MoMA’s restoration of a Jackson Pollock is interesting in how it addresses previous restoration efforts as well as emphasizing the fact that the restoration is not intended to make the painting new but rather let it show its age while taking care of it and stabilizing the artwork.

**I found myself thinking especially about Cleveland’s bombed (literally) copy of The Thinker here.

***SFMOMA’s post about its “unconventional” approach to Barry McGee’s work is a great read.

In everything I read it was clear that restoring artwork is about balancing the immediate health of the item with its long-term prospects while keeping it “true” to itself. Restoring an old item so it looks brand new is not the point. It should appear old and reflect its history without looking like it’s going to fall apart.

Interventions should also be obvious without being distracting. The goal is to make it clear that things have been mended yet foreground the original piece. This is a delicate balance and is the reason why the restoration cannot be thought of as one-off fix. The item will continue to age along with the restoration and there’s no way for anyone to know for sure how their relationship will work in another 50 years.

All this makes a lot of sense for me when it comes to trying to preserve an item that’s been kept in reasonably good condition. It’s less relevant for items which are heavily damaged—such as the T206 Wagner in question. Sure, the question of being true to the item still remains. But which truth? The item as it was originally or the item as it’s become today?

Comic books have already ventured into this territory with restoration companies bragging about the level of restoration they can accomplish. The restored Wagner is very much in a similar vein. As much as I appreciate that it wasn’t restored to look pack-fresh and instead still looks like the century-old card that it is, something about doing that much addition just doesn’t sit right with me. The damage is part of the history of the card and obscuring that feels dishonest.

I found myself returning to a post The Getty made about how to display a collection of vase fragments since it points at a middle way of restoring a piece. While representing a much more extreme example of damage, the final restoration suggests the finished original while also being clear about what’s original and what’s new.

*The Getty’s post has more detail but lacks the side-by-side comparison that the Tumblr post has.

This approach is one that I feel would work great for damaged baseball cards where instead of rebuilding the trimmed areas and missing pigment so things look perfect, the restored areas were called out by using neutral pigments or a slightly-differently-toned paper. We would still be able to appreciate the card in its complete state while also being able to see how the original was altered over the years.

On the other hand, all the cleaning and soaking to remove dirt and accreted material—specifically the paper glued to the back—is something I’m still struggling with. Much of that material contains a lot of information about how the card has been used over the years and I hate to get rid of it. It’s good to know how it had been displayed before (in this case, pasted into an album) and be reminded that every generation’s best practices will likely give a subsequent generation hives.

There’s also always the risk of removing too much material. There’s a long history of over-cleaning objects in art world.* Even in sportsland the Hall of Fame just recently underwent a massive restoration project on its Conlon photos which, while it cleans up the photos, completely obliterated the history of how those photos had been used in print.

*Sometimes by accident. Other times, such as with removing all the paint from Greek and Roman sculptures, on purpose.

Do I know how I’d want to restore a damaged card like the Wagner? Of course not. Nor do I fully trust anyone with a single concrete answer as to the best solution. The discussion and thought experiment about how different approaches could help or hurt our understanding though is one which I’ve enjoyed and hope to see continue in the comments here.

A team by any other name

On December 1, 1970, the Red Sox traded infielders Mike Andrews and Luis Alvarado to the White Sox for shortstop Luis Aparicio. Red Sox trades were always somewhat startling to me at the time, much like hearing that we had traded our family dog for a cat on the next block over. Why?

Once I recovered, at some point in the next few days I got out my baseball card locker and moved my most recent Mike Andrews card (probably this one) to the White Sox slot, and moved Aparicio to the Red Sox. (Alvarado did not yet have his own card–for simplification, I will ignore him for the remainder of this post.) Then I got out the team stacks and tried to figure out who would play where. This was my childhood, basically.

As Topps was preparing its 1971 baseball card set, the relevant question for me: was this December trade early enough in the off-season for Topps to put the players on their new teams, or would they be left with their old teams?

The answer: “its complicated.”

Teammates?

Andrews (card 191) was in Series 2, too late for Topps to switch his affiliation, but Aparicio (740) was in Series 7 and got transferred. Today this seems ironic–the extra time allowed Topps to give Aparicio a worse card.

This has always been a problem for Topps, but especially in the days of multiple series — Topps’ team designation often depended on when the guy was traded and what series his card happened to be in. My favorite example of this was the 1969 Dick Ellsworth — the Red Sox traded him to the Indians in April, after the season started, but he still got onto a (hatless) Indians card late that summer.

When I got the Andrews/Aparicio cards in 1971, likely in April and August, respectively, I put them on their correct teams — my team stacks were always current. But the point of this post, and yes this post does have a point, is: how do I sort them now?

If you own a set of baseball cards — 1971 Topps, 1987 Fleer, whatever — you probably either store them in a binder of protective sheets, or in a long storage box. In either case, you probably either organize them numerically, or by team. (There are other ways to organize them — I will not judge.)

I am a “team guy.” When I look at my cards, I use them to immerse myself in a season, to recall (or imagine, if it was before my time) what the 1967 Cardinals or the 1975 Reds looked like, who their players were. Taken as a whole, the box or binder can represent a baseball season — with the league leaders, the post-season cards, the Highlights cards, helping to tell the story.

So that’s the first thing — the cards look backwards. Although I bought the 1975 cards in 1975, they do not (today) do a great job of telling the story of the 1975 season. The “Home Run Leaders” cards are the 1974 leaders. The stats on the back stop at 1974. My team was the Red Sox — how can I revel in the 1975 Red Sox with no true cards of Jim Rice and Fred Lynn? If I want to revel in 1975 (and I do, believe me), I need to be looking at these Rembrandts.

Excuse me, I need a moment.

OK, so that’s the solution — sort the 1976 Topps cards by team, and create a 1975 Red Sox starting lineup using the cards. Right? The 1976 cards depict 1975 teams. The end.

Well, no. We still have the Aparicio/Andrews problem. Although Topps placed both men on the 1971 Red Sox, they were two ships passing in the night. Looking at this from the White Sox perspective, you can’t use the 1971 “Topps team” to make a legitimate 1970 lineup (no Aparicio) nor a 1971 lineup (no Andrews). For the Red Sox, you can make a fake lineup with both players.

The solution, it seems to me, is to put the players on their correct teams. Either you organize by their actual 1970 team (putting Aparicio back on the White Sox) or by their actual 1971 team (putting Andrews on the White Sox). Pick one, but you cannot make them both Red Sox without promulgating a lie.

Since I already claimed that baseball cards look back a year, the best way to use the cards is to allow the 1971 Topps set to celebrate the 1970 season. So Luis goes back to Chicago.

If you look at my 1971 Topps set, organized by team, about 90% each team is the same as how Topps designates them, and a handful are mismatches. It looks a little funny, but my “team” depicts a group of players who played together in real life. So it works for me.

So you’ve got some work to do.  But before getting to all that, I leave you with Dick Allen of the 1970 Cardinals.

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Popcorn Refill

My previous post on Seattle Rainiers and Angels popcorn cards from the ‘50s and ‘60s omitted a unique promotion that allowed kids to trade the popcorn cards for photos. Much to the chagrin of modern collectors, this exchange unintentionally created a scarcity of high grade cards from certain years.

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From ’56-’58 a local drive-in chain (Gil’s) and grocery store (Ralph’s Thriftway) sponsored the card exchange promotion. The merchants gave away an 8X10 glossy photo–identical to the card or a full version of the cropped card shot–in exchanged for nine popcorn cards. The accompanying ad from a 1956 Rainiers program whetted kids’ appetites for popcorn and the card swap. Former major league star Vern Stephens is featured in the ad.

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Popcorn card

 

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8×10 photo
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Popcorn card

 

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These Bobby Balcena and Bill Glynn cards and photos are examples of the exchange. By the way, Balcena was the first Filipino-American to play in MLB. He had a “cup of coffee” with the Reds in ’56. Glynn played for the Phillies and Indians in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s.

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Employees at Ralph’s and Gil’s would stamp, punch or mark the cards before returning them to the kids in order to prevent them from presenting the same cards to get additional photos.   The Vic Lombardi card shows both a stamp and mark. Note the ad promoting the card/photo exchange on the backs. Lombardi was in the starting rotation of Brooklyn Dodgers in the late ‘40s. He started and lost game two of the ’47 World Series. The Milt Smith card shows a hole punched by a “soda jerk” at Gil’s. Milt had a brief stint with the Reds in ’55.

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I will conclude this “corny” narrative with a player whose off season job was atypical for a “jock.” Eddie “Fiddler” Basinski was Brooklyn’s starting shortstop during the war year of 1945. With the return of the regulars from the war effort, Eddie took up residence with the Portland Beavers of the PCL for 11 seasons. He played for the Rainiers in ’57 and ’58. After the season, Eddie returned home to Buffalo where he was a violinist in the Buffalo Symphony.