42 in ’47: The Baseball Cards of Jackie Robinson’s Dodger Debut

Author’s Note: This article is part of a larger SABR Century Committee effort commemorating the 75th Anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s historic 1947 season. Head here for the full series.

When Jackie Robinson trotted out to first base on April 15, 1947, his steps were no less historic than those of Neil Armstrong just over two decades later. Baseball’s senseless and shameful Color Barrier had at last been breached and with it the customs and traditions of Jim Crow America itself were on notice. This is not to say equality had come to Baseball. Far from it as even the Dodgers merely tiptoed into integration while several other teams waited a decade or more to add their first Black player. As for managers, eleven more men after Armstrong would leave footprints on the Moon before a single Black man would take the reins of a Major League team.

Even today, as Jackie’s legacy is rightfully celebrated, it’s fair to wonder whether a modern Jackie Robinson would even choose Baseball, just as it’s fair to wonder whether any teams would notice him and sign him if he did. Were he living in the Dominican Republic, absolutely, but in his birthplace of Cairo, Georgia, or his childhood hometown of Pasadena, California, who’s to say? While a modern Jackie could win games for a general manager of any color, there are none in front offices today who look like him.

The same could be said for domestic baseball card issues prior to 1947, only one of which featured a Black player. While it would be easy to discount the utter lack of Black faces as merely reflective of the times, such an explanation fails to account for the many Black boxers who made their way onto trading cards, going back to at least 1909. Ultimately, the whiteness of baseball cards was due solely to the whiteness of what was then perceived (and enforced) as Organized Baseball. Jack Johnson, Joe Jeannette, and Joe Gans were professional boxers. The Philadelphia Stars, Newark Eagles and Homestead Grays meanwhile? These were semi-pro.

Thus the 1947 season brought with it not only the integration of Baseball but (several rungs down the ladder of importance) the opportunity to integrate baseball cards as well. All that was missing were the baseball cards themselves!

While today we take it for granted that a new baseball card set (if not dozens of different ones) will come out every year, such was not the case in the 1940s. Following the three-year run of Gum, Inc., and its Play Ball sets from 1939-41, the War and other national priorities left American baseball without a major set to chronicle its players until 1948, when Gum, Inc., baseball cards returned to shelves, this time under the Bowman name.

In the meantime, where baseball cards were produced at all, they most often took the form of smaller regional issues, often connected to food or other household products, cards that today many collectors classify under the umbrella of “oddball.” As such, this review of Jackie Robinson baseball cards from 1947 will feature bread, slacks, and even cigarettes but not a single stick of gum.

1947 BOND BREAD

Bond Bread will feature in this article twice. This first instance is to highlight a 48-card release comprised of four boxers and 44 baseball stars. The selection of baseball stars included Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Stan Musial but most notably a baseball card of Brooklyn Dodgers rookie Jackie Robinson.

Cards were packaged in loaves of Bond Bread, and at least one theory for their rounded corners is that the cards were less susceptible to damage that way. Importantly for collectors today, the rounded corners help distinguish these cards from near-identical versions that emerged as a standalone product sold as “Sport Star Subjects” in 1949. The square cornered versions are far less collectible, though widespread misidentification, including by a prominent grading company, has created sufficient confusion to elevate prices among uninformed buyers.

While both the Bond Bread and Sport Star Subjects cards have blank backs, a third version of the Robinson card features a back that’s anything but blank.

“1947” ELGEE PRODUCTS

Precise dating for this issue is unknown and may well be after 1947. A mix of baseball and movie star photos, the baseball images match those of the Bond Bread issue but are easily distinguished in at least two ways. One, they are perforated. Two, their backs include other cards from the set or, in some cases, advertising. The Robinson card, for example, features actor James Cagney on the reverse.

As with the Sport Star Subjects, these cards are also frequently misidentified as Bond Bread cards, even by third party grading companies and auction houses. Post 391 in this Net54 Baseball Forum thread shows the front and back of an uncut sheet, including the ELGEE branding. Post 386 in the same thread provides additional background on the company.

1947-50 BOND BREAD JACKIE ROBINSON

In addition to the 48-card set above, Bond Bread also released a second set of 13 cards dedicated entirely to Jackie Robinson. The set is catalogued as a 1947 issue. However, independent research by collectors Mike Knapp, Shaun Fyffe, and Michael Fried, which I’ll attempt to summarize here, has produced a broader timetable for the cards while also providing information on distribution.

The set began 1947 with a single card featuring a signed portrait of Jackie, a brief bio, and a product testimonial. This card was not distributed in packaged loaves but rather was given out by store owners (with free slices of bread!) to promote Bond Bread among African American consumers. (Post 49 in this Net54 Baseball Forum thread includes an article from the New York Amsterdam News detailing the marketing strategy.)

From there, it’s unclear whether any of the set’s remaining twelve cards dates to 1947. The aforementioned collector-researchers speculate subsequent releases of three or six cards at a time taking place sometime between 1947 and 1950, though I lean more toward the cards being issued one at a time. Either way, a clue that helps group the cards is the advertising on the back.

These six cards, assumed to be the earlier of the twelve, exhort consumers to eat the same bread as Jackie. Fielding poses show a first baseman’s mitt, which Jackie would have used primarily in 1947.

Before proceeding to the second group of six, I want to highlight two photos in particular, one of which may be very familiar to non-collectors. Though the background has been removed and Jackie has even changed teams, the card of Jackie waving with his glove draws its image from this iconic photograph.

A second card among the six does some early “photoshopping” of a Montreal photo as well.

Much later in this article we will see yet another occasion where a Montreal photo is doctored for use on a Brooklyn card. For now, we will return to the other six cards in the set. Note here that all fielding poses show a standard infielder’s glove.

The “smoking gun” that places these cards (or at least one of them) after 1947 comes from the image on the last card, believed to source to a photograph taken just after this one. (Note Jackie’s cap has fallen a bit farther on the card and his body has separated more from his trailing arm.) If so, the card could not have been issued any earlier than July 2, 1949, the date the photograph was taken.

With the set no longer confined entirely to 1947, we arrive at several possibilities for its overall release schedule. Barring further information, I’d be inclined to settle on the first group of six cards coming out across the six months of the 1948 baseball season and the second group of six following suit in 1949.

“1948” OLD GOLD CIGARETTES

The situation with Jackie’s Old Gold cards is precisely the opposite as here collectors regard what may be two cards from 1947 as if they came out the following year.

As Anson Whaley notes in his article for Sports Collectors Daily, two clues on the card backs suggest a 1947 release.

  • Robinson is listed as 28 year old, which was only his age through January 30, 1948
  • His 1947 Rookie of the Year Award (announced September 19, 1947) is not listed among his career highlights

Certainly each of these clues could merely point to bios written ahead of time, hence do not point definitively to a 1947 release of the actual cards. Still, absent any information affirming a 1948 release, the clues are at least intriguing.

1947″ PLEETWOOD SLACKS

Continuing the theme of uncertain dates is this rare 5″ x 8″ promotional issue from Pleetwood Slacks. While catalogued as a 1947 issue, I am unable to find any source that provides independent corroboration. Notably, the Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards indicates that “the [1947] date of issue cited is conjectural.”

When I do find “hits” on Pleetwood Slacks, never mind Jackie, they only come in the Black press of late 1948, specifically October through December. Here is a typical example.

Alabama Citizen, December 18, 1948

Perhaps information is out there somewhere establishing the Pleetwood Slacks card as a 1947 issue. In the meantime I’d just as soon date it to late 1948 where timing it’s would better match the print advertising campaign for the brand.

1947 CHAMP HATS

Collector and Hobby historian Bob Lemke (1941-2017) featured this 8 x 10 “card” as a new find on his blog in 2015.

As detailed on Bob’s blog, both Bob and the previously mentioned Sean Fyffe regarded 1947 as the most likely year for this piece.

1947 DODGERS TEAM PHOTO PACK

Many teams sold photo packs of their players and other personnel, going back to at least the 1930s. The 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers photo pack consisted of 25 photos, 6” x 9” in size, including this one of Jackie Robinson.

The image is a sharper and cleaner version of the ones used on his Bond and faux Bond issues and a reminder that many cards of the era used photos provided by the teams or their photographers. Furthermore, the presence and identical placement of Jackie’s signature on the Bond and pseudo-Bond cards leads me to wonder if those cards didn’t originate from the original photograph but from this photo pack card. Either way, I suspect the photo pack Jackie is the earliest of his various 1947 issues.

1947-66 EXHIBIT SUPPLY COMPANY

One of the most common and (formerly!) affordable early baseball cards of Jackie Robinson is his 1947-66 Exhibit Supply Company (Chicago, IL) postcard-sized issue. However, despite “1947” right there in the naming of the set, there is no evidence that Jackie’s exhibit cards date back that far.

Rather, the “1947-66” label simply means that the overall set of 300+ different cards spanned 20 years. The presence of later stars such as Aaron, Banks, and Kaline suffice to show that “1947” hardly applies to all players.

The Keyman Collectibles site provides a guide for the precise dating of Exhibit cards. Having reviewed more than a dozen so far, I have not yet run across a Robinson any earlier than 1948.

Side note: A 1948 release would have left plenty of time to find pictures of Jackie as a Dodger. However, the photograph used on the Exhibit card, as was the case with two of the Bond Bread cards, dates to 1946, as evidenced by Jackie’s Montreal uniform.

SUMMARY: THE JACKIE ROBINSON CARDS OF 1947

All told I’ve reviewed 22 different Jackie Robinson cards correctly or incorrectly associated with his Barrier Breaking debut season in Brooklyn. From this number, there are only three where I believe the 1947 dating is firmly established:

  • 1947 Bond Bread multi-player set
  • 1947 Bond Bread Jackie Robinson set – portrait with facsimile autograph
  • 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers photo pack

For the reader only reasonably acquainted with the world of collectibles, it might seem a tame question to then ask which of these cards is Jackie Robinson’s rookie card. Could it really be that the answer is none of them!

EPILOGUE: JACKIE’S ROOKIE CARD

Modern collectors focus heavily (if not obsessively!) over the notion of a rookie card, particularly when the player concerned is a Hall of Famer. In a simpler world, a player would have one card for each year of his career, and the first such card would be his rookie card. In the real world, however, the situation is far murkier, complicated by any number of wrinkles, depending on the collector.

For example, any of the following may be treated as a disqualifying when it comes to rookie card status.

  • cards that pre-date a player’s major league status (e.g., a minor league card)
  • cards from minor, regional, unlicensed, or non-US releases
  • cards that aren’t really baseball cards (e.g., a postcard, mini-poster, or bobblehead)
  • cards with uncertain release dates

In the case of Jackie Robinson, all four of these come into play. While I did not feature it in this article due to its 1946 issue date, there is a highly sought after Parade Sportive newspaper insert featuring Jackie Robinson, which checks off each of the first three bullets above.

As for Jackie’s Bond Bread cards, many collectors regard the releases as too minor to warrant rookie card status. Add to that for many of them an uncertain release date as well. Ditto for Elgee Products, Old Gold Cigarettes, Pleetwood Slacks, and Champs Hats, with the latter two having only questionable baseball card status as well.

The Brooklyn photo pack card, which may well be first of Jackie as a Dodger, also challenges the most rigid definitions of “baseball card” while adding the potential disqualifier of a regional release. Finally, the Exhibit card is not quite a real baseball card to many collectors while also carrying uncertainty as to dating.

Also lacking card status to most collectors are the various Jackie Robinson buttons and pins that were popular among fans in the late 1940s. I omitted lengthier treatment in this article but will show six of them here.

Source: Robert Edward Auctions

The result of all this is that many collectors would not consider any of the Jackie Robinson cards profiled so far to be Jackie’s rookie card. Instead, the coveted label is most often applied to Jackie’s card from the set known popularly in the Hobby as 1948 Leaf.

“This is the only true rookie card of baseball’s first African-American representative and hero to all,” according to PSA, the Hobby’s largest grader and authenticator of trading cards.

Though my revenue, Hobby or otherwise, is a far cry from that of PSA, I nonetheless challenge this assertion. For one thing, despite the typical designation of the set as “1948 Leaf” (or sometimes 1948-49 Leaf), there are compelling reasons to believe the Robinson card (if not the entire set) dates to 1949.

  • 1949 copyright date on the back of the card
  • Reference to Jackie’s 1948 statistics as “last season” on the back of the card
  • Standard Catalog entry indicating the set was “produced by Chicago’s Leaf Gum Co. for issue in 1949”
  • Hall of Fame and Beckett cataloguing of card as 1949

Erroneous dating aside, I’ll also note that the Leaf cards, at least of some players, were unlicensed, which can often be a rookie card disqualifier. That said, collectors tend to give the set a free pass on this point.

At any rate, if we regard the Leaf card as a rookie card, we should then confer rookie status on Jackie’s other significant release of the same year, issued as part of the 1949 Bowman set of 240 cards.

Alternatively, we might turn our attention to a card that genuinely does date to 1948, Jackie’s Sport Thrills card from Swell Bubble Gum.

From a rookie card perspective, this card beats Leaf and Bowman by a year, has unambiguous baseball card status as opposed to some of the other 1947-48 contenders, and originates from a more major release than its contemporaries and predecessors. At the same time, not all collectors treat the Sport Thrills set as major enough, and its focus on highlights rather than players equally reduces the appeal.

Ultimately, the question of Jackie’s true rookie card is a complicated one, confounded by the uncertain or erroneous dating of his early cardboard and curiously subjective notions like “major release” and “baseball card.” On one hand the lack of a definitive rookie card opens the door for individual collectors to apply their own criteria and judgment. On the other hand, the same fuzziness creates opportunities, intentional or accidental, to misrepresent and misinform. In the end, perhaps the only truism when it comes to Jackie’s rookie cards is this: If you have to ask, you can’t afford it!

2022 Burdick Award Winner

The Jefferson Burdick Award for contributions to the Hobby, now in its third year, is this committee’s most prestigious award. To date, our winners have been Mike Aronstein (2020) and Doug McWilliams (2021). This year, our winner needs little introduction as his very name is synonymous with the rapid growth of card collecting in the 1980s and 1990s. We are pleased to announce that the winner of the 2022 Jefferson Burdick Award is Dr. James Beckett.

For an entire generation of collectors, cracking open the latest Beckett Monthly was a ritual as exciting if not more than ripping actual packs of cards. Which new players made the Hot List? How much did the year’s most expensive rookie cards go up? Can I retire right now off my cardboard or do I really have to finish 9th grade first?! 😊

Instant access to the latest prices, which almost always went up, rarely down, surely had its drawbacks. What collector of a certain age doesn’t regret trading away a prized Sandy Koufax or Henry Aaron for a high numbers Todd Zeile or Donruss Eric Davis rookie? How much extra plastic had to be produced when at least three or four cards per pack went straight into penny sleeves if not screwdowns? And did anyone just collect for fun anymore?!

At the same time, was the Hobby ever more exciting for a greater number of people? In the Beckett’s heyday, not only were cards everywhere but collectors were too. Shows were seemingly every weekend, at least in some parts, and the Hobby was enjoyed by young and old alike. Sure, the very idea of a nine-year old cardboard day trader gave many purists pause, but in hindsight we just didn’t know how good we had it.

Kids everywhere having a blast collecting cards. Forget the why. That’s the Hobby at its best. Oh, and thanks to the Beckett, what mom in her right mind was still throwing away her kids’ collections?

But what of so many young collectors who lost their shirts chasing Kevin Maas and Brien Taylor rookies? Aren’t they bitter?

“My grandmother sent me money for my birthday one year, and I bought a subscription to Beckett,” recalls SABR member and artist Scott Hodges.
“Every month when the new issue came I would read every page and study the prices over and over. Years later, I found out my (then) wife and I were having a girl. I just knew this little girl was going to be my favorite thing in the world, just as my Beckett Monthlies had been as a kid, so there was only one logical name to give her. So yes, our daughter is named after a baseball card price guide, but really she’s named for the joy of being a kid.”

How about collector and author Tanner Jones who amassed the most expansive Jose Canseco collection on the planet? “The Beckett was everything to me back when I was a kid. I lived and died by the up/down arrows and articles. Now that I know Jim personally, I’m proud that my son, Beckett, has his name!”

Of course even before “the Beckett” was a thing or the baby name of choice for a generation of collectors turned parents, Dr. Beckett was already a household name thanks to the annual price guides he created along with co-author Denny Eckes of Den’s Collectors Den fame.

While the primary intent of these books was to attach prices to the cards and sets in our collections and want lists, they did much more than that. In the pre-internet era in which they were produced, they also provided every collector with $6.95 to spare or a birthday coming up with an inventory and checklist for virtually all the major sets in the Hobby. Four different Babe Ruth cards in 1933 Goudey? An entire set of Ted Williams cards in 1959? Cards even older than T206? For many collectors, this was how we learned such things. Jim brought baseball card knowledge and history to the masses.

Here at SABR Baseball Cards we tend to avoid the financial or business side of the Hobby. In creating our Burdick Award we were not simply looking to honor the person who amassed the most valuable collection or made the most money in the Hobby. At the same time, success is neither a disqualifier.

In his six decades (and counting) in the Hobby, Dr. James Beckett built what can rightly be called a multisport Hobby empire, one that today includes publications, grading services, livestreams, a marketplace, and a large, vibrant collecting community. The Beckett baseball “hobby talk” forum, for example, has over 800,000 posts! However, Dr. Beckett did not merely build something big. He built something special.

For at least a generation of collectors, Dr. Beckett and his monthly magazines practically were the Hobby. Even as many of the up arrows have turned to down and most of the 1990s hot lists have gone cold, the memories have continued their one-way march toward that rare air once thought only tenable by Gregg Jefferies rookies. That is to say they’ve become priceless. We thought the cards of the that great 1980s and 90s boom would fund our retirements, and we weren’t far off at all. Just take away the “d.”

Congratulations, Dr. Beckett, and thank you to all our readers who submitted a nomination. We’ll be honoring Dr. Beckett this August at the SABR annual convention in Baltimore, and we hope you can join us, either in person or virtually.

Call for Nominations – 2022 Jefferson Burdick Award

Through January 31, the SABR Baseball Cards Research Committee is accepting nominations for the Jefferson Burdick Award for Contributions to the Hobby.

NOMINATION CRITERIA

Nominations should come from active SABR members (click here to join) and honor a living person who has made significant contributions to the hobby of baseball card collecting in such areas as—

  • Research/scholarship
  • Design/production/innovation
  • Collector resources (e.g., publications, websites, communities, events)
  • Expanding access to or enjoyment of the Hobby

In short, we are looking for the individuals who have made baseball card collecting better for the rest of us.

NOMINATION AND AWARD PROCESS

Have someone in mind? Here is what we’d like you to do.

  • No later than January 31, use the Contact form on this website to let us know your nominee(s) along with with a very brief description of their role or contributions. A few sentences is sufficient at this stage in the process.
  • Be available for follow-up in case more information is needed.
  • Publicize this Call for Nominations to other SABR members with an interest in baseball cards.

On our end, we (your committee co-chairs, Nick and Jason) will vet the nominees and then work with our Awards Subcommittee to choose the award winner.

PAST RECIPIENTS

ABOUT JEFFERSON BURDICK

For a wealth of great articles on our award’s namesake, head to the Burdick section of the “Old Baseball Cards” library.

2021 Burdick Award Winner

The Awards Subcommittee thanks everyone who made nominations for this year’s Jefferson Burdick Award. Last year we listed the finalists before announcing the winner. A large part of this was to demonstrate the breadth and variety of nominees. Due to the overlap in nominees between this year and last year as well as the fact that we consider anyone who’s been named a finalist to always be a finalist, we’ve chosen to not feature the finalists this year and just cut straight to the big reveal.

So without any further ado, we are pleased to announce that the 2021 winner for the SABR Baseball Committee’s Jefferson Burdick Award for contributions to the baseball card hobby is photographer Doug McWilliams.

Doug’s work as a baseball card photographer speaks for itself. All of us have seen his work. All of us own his work. He even donated 10,000 negatives to the Hall of Fame,* creating a huge digital collection of color images of all kinds of players from the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

*Why yes, you can search his archives there.

If you’ve ever held a baseball card from the 1970s in your hand, you’ve likely admired the impeccable artistry of Doug McWilliams’s work. His brilliant use of color, unsurpassed mastery of light, and natural rapport with his subjects made for thousands of unforgettable and classic cards, each miniature masterpieces of the genre.

—Tom Shieber, Senior Curator
National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

What makes him award-worthy though is his willingness to pull back the curtain and show us the process of how photographs end up on cards. Doug has been very generous giving interviews to both the Hall of Fame as well as this blog. These interviews are a treasure trove of information about what kinds of photos Topps wanted and the technical requirements that they had.

That cards are essentially cheap, mass-produced photos makes them a visual record of photographic technology. Being able to read about what kind of film, cameras, and lenses he used is invaluable in grounding our understanding of cards as part of that visual record.

Doug’s comments about Topps’s technical requirements on the other hand are a fascinating look at how corporate workflows and standards shape the final products in ways that most of us don’t understand. Much of the Topps “look” that we’re used to is explained by these standards which dictated what kinds of lighting and what kinds of film were to be used.

While there’s a world out there of photographs that he wanted to take but wasn’t allowed to, the photos he did take have formed an indelible part of all of our lives and we’re so much richer for him sharing the process with us. Congratulations and thank you, Doug!

UPDATE: Watch Doug’s award ceremony on YouTube!

Don Sutton, 1945-2021

If you avidly collected baseball cards in the 80s, like I did, Don Sutton was a constant presence. From his last couple of Dodgers issues in 1980 and 1981, through his years with the Astros, Brewers, A’s, Angels and eventual return to the Dodgers in 1988, you never cracked a box of wax packs without getting a Don Sutton. The only thing that seemed to change was the color of his trademarked tight-knit and voluminous puff of curly hair. Steel grey for 1980 Topps to stark white in 1988 Score. Don Sutton always showed up and you were happy to have him.

Similarly, Don Sutton was always there for his team when called upon. In fact, in his 23 years in the Major Leagues, he never missed a start due to injury. Think about that amazing feat. He answered the bell through the presidencies of LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan without missing a single start. Also, Don Sutton did not just show up every four days, he excelled every four days. 324 wins, 3,574 strikeouts, a 3.26 career ERA and a 1.14 WHIP. An amazing feat, especially for someone who pitched in the shadows of other legends like Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton.

Perhaps the most amazing fact about Don Sutton is that he is the only Dodgers Hall of Famer who never played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Duke, Sandy and Pee Wee all played at Ebbets Field and Mike Piazza dons a Mets cap on his plaque in Cooperstown.

So, there he is, Don Sutton, standing alone as the only Los Angeles Dodgers Hall of Famer, at least until he is eventually joined by Clayton Kershaw. So, tonight after work, go on eBay and buy a box of mid-80s junk wax. When you get a Don Sutton card, and you will get a Don Sutton card, don’t rush by it to search for a bigger star. Turn over that Sutton card, check out his stats for yourself, and just appreciate his consistency and excellence.

Magnifying glass not included

Rest In Peace, Don Sutton.

Hank Aaron, 1934-2021

“We still have Henry.”

As we lost Hall of Famer after Hall of Famer last year, this was my mantra. As the calendar turned to 2021, which we might now more correctly call “2020 Update,” and we lost Lasorda, then Sutton, “We still have Henry.” There were mornings I’d wake up and check espn.com for one sole purpose: to make sure Henry Aaron was still with us.

And now, of course, he isn’t.

It would be impossible for me to put into words the excellent life he lived or the greatness of his career. The best you’ll find all in one place is the outstanding biography, “The Last Hero,” by Howard Bryant.

Instead I’ll share a couple stories and some collection highlights as a personal tribute to my favorite player of all-time.

Don’t meet your idols?

When an event sells out in all of about ten seconds there’s no need to publicize it much. Such was the case with the “Chasing the Dream” benefit put on by the Milwaukee Brewers Community Foundation off and on over the past decade or so.

An afternoon hanging out with Hank Aaron at the ballpark? Yes, please! The first year I’d heard about the event it was of course too late. No tickets left. Try again next year. I did, and I was right about to enter my credit card info when I realized I had a business trip I couldn’t reschedule. Strike two. Still, like the Hammer, I knew to keep swinging.

Come 2016 I had my Google Alerts set up and started “hammering” the Brewers event staff any way I could with calls, emails, calls to see if they got my emails, emails to see if they got my calls, etc. Had they blocked my number and put me on their spammer list, the only fair question would have been “What took you so long?” Instead, one day I got an email from an employee that read something to the effect of, “Jason, I think you are the person who keeps calling us about the Hank Aaron event. Tickets are going on sale tomorrow. Or if it’s easier for you, just let me know how many you need.”

Fast forward to the morning of the event and I’m up at the crack of dawn sorting through my Hank Aaron collection for just the right item to get autographed. Since my wife (then girlfriend) Jodee was joining me, I’d no doubt bring a second item she could have signed. Of course I couldn’t decide so we hit the car with 5-6 articles and, me being me, I worried the whole drive that maybe I left something even better behind.

“Wait, if the event is at 3, why are we leaving here at 11?”

Fair question.

“I want to make sure we’re not late.”

Milwaukee was about 90 minutes from where I lived, so I’d added another hour in case of traffic, thirty minutes in case we needed to stop somewhere, and another thirty minutes for making our way through the stadium. Oh, and another half hour just in case.

“In case of what?”

“I don’t know. Just in case we need it.”

We didn’t.

Not only were we the first car to arrive at the stadium, but the parking lot itself was not yet even open. I would have asked someone why the gates were locked, but we were so early there was not even anyone to ask.

About 45 minutes later another car pulled up behind us, and this was vindicating to me. “Yep, good thing we left when we did.”

Once the gates opened I parked as close as I could to the gate where our event paperwork directed us.

“Why are you running?” I heard a woman call out some distance behind me. It was Jodee. I slowed down.

“We need to hurry so we can get good seats.”

We compromised by speed-walking the rest of the way. There was only one problem. I had no idea where I was going. Most of the directions we were able to get from the handful of employees already working were of the “Hmm, not sure. Maybe up a couple more levels” variety.

Finally we came to a cozy, mid-sized room filled with tables, chairs, a stage, trays of meats and cheeses, and walls covered with Hank Aaron décor. Somehow we were too early. Nobody was here yet but us, meaning there wasn’t even anyone who could help us figure out our table.

When someone did come in, I was a little worried she was there to kick us out. Maybe this was some sort of VIP room, and the actual event I had tickets to was in a different part of the stadium. Damn.

“Are you here for the Hank Aaron event?”

“Yes, is this the right place?” I asked, hoping my Hank Aaron Milwaukee Braves throwback jersey would make me seem a little more VIP than I really was.

“Yes, you’re a little early, but feel free to have a seat.”

“Okay, do you know where?”

“You two are first, so anywhere you like.”

And yes I was gonna be that guy who grabs the table right in front of the stage where he’ll be literally three feet from Hank Aaron the entire time. I had better seats than Billye Aaron, and perhaps I should have offered to trade. Then again, it’s not like she didn’t see Hank Aaron all the time.

The event was unbelievable. Hank Aaron telling stories and taking questions from the crowd for over an hour, about as up close and personal as can be. The ten pounds of cheese and roast beef I ate were awesome too, but that’s another story. I sat there mesmerized the entire time, in the presence of baseball royalty. A true American hero in literal spitting distance from Jodee and me.

At the event’s conclusion there was time for each attendee to shake hands and get their picture taken with the Hammer. Mr. Aaron complimented me on my jersey, which I thought was funny. I had imagined that morning that half the crowd would be reppin’ #44, but it turned out I was the only one not in some variation of Dockers and a dress shirt. How Jodee predicted this I have no idea!

The collection

Hank Aaron had been an idol of mine since I first learned, around the age of 9, that he was the Home Run King. I had a book that included various leaderboards, and there was Hank Aaron’s name above even that of Babe Ruth. Little distracted by sabermetric nuance at that time, I simply figured things this way: Home runs are the best hit you can get, and Aaron has the most home runs. Ergo…

I practically shat myself in 1979 when I opened a pack of Topps cards and pulled a Hank Aaron. A friend at school had Aaron’s 1976 Topps but he would have sooner traded his whole house and family than let go of that card, so an Aaron of my own seemed impossible. And then it wasn’t.

Over the next few years, some friends and I made it to enough card shows and did enough trades that at various times I might have enough Hank Aaron cards to keep one in each of my pockets. This obviously did little for the condition and value of the cards but did wonders for my self-esteem.

With a series of unfortunate events nearly biblical in proportion, my Hank Aaron collection (along with my entire collection) would ultimately dwindle down to zero by high school, only to be rebuilt around my junior year of college when I figured out I could buy some top notch cardboard if only I stopped spending my work-study checks on overpriced textbooks. I proved to be worse at bookless school than I thought I’d be, but my (generous) C in Mathematical Analysis and F in Quantum Mechanics were a small price to pay for the Hank Aaron rookie card that remains in my collection to this day.

Over the next few years I continued to add to my collection through card shows and the Kit Young catalog. Hank Aaron wasn’t my sole focus, but I was slowly working toward a goal of collecting his entire career. This was pre-internet, so I had no idea just how many cards this would entail.

Fast forward more than two decades and I’m 44 (!) years old, sitting on a beat up couch in a small rental where for the first time in forever I open a box containing about 100 cards in yellowed top loaders. Along with my guitar and a coffee mug, this was the only thing I took with me when I separated from my ex-wife. There were some great cards in the box: Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Hack Wilson, … but the cards that brought back the fondest memories were the Aaron cards. After making it once through the stack, I went back through it again to pull and sort the Aarons. I had 12 cards from his Topps base run, roughly half his career. Instantly I had a goal.

Hobby Rip Van Winkle that I’d become, my first thought was to look for a card show heading to town. A few web searches later I discovered that cards were really, really easy to buy nowadays. I found eBay too intimidating and ended up at Dean’s Cards where the selection was ample and the searches didn’t turn up tons of reprints and fakes.

It was a very tough stretch in my life but one made far better by the Dean’s shipment that hit my mailbox every week or so. Once I had my base run, I moved on to All-Star cards, off brands, combination player cards, etc. As the want list got smaller but exponentially pricier, I diversified my collecting to include magazines, bobbleheads, artwork, and other Hank Aaron collectibles.

Hell, I even ran Hank Aaron 5Ks!

With the arrival of Hammer’s elusive 1960 Lake to Lake Dairy card last week and his 1969 Topps Super last year, I have finally reached the point where my Hank Aaron collection may well be complete, give or take a handful of League Leader cards. Either way, my love and admiration for Hank Aaron will never fade.

It was a somber thing today to walk through our basement bedroom, affectionately dubbed the Hank Aaron Suite. What was once my Tribute is now my Memorial to the Hammer.

The great Hank Aaron who survived so many other baseball legends in 2020 and early 2021 has now joined them. Henry Aaron is still with us, but only in our hearts, our memories, and our record books.

The King is dead. Long live the King.

UPDATE: Watch Jason’s SABR presentation, “The History of Baseball Cards as Told by Hank Aaron.”

RIP Tommy Lasorda (1927-2021)

Editor’s note: We welcome SABR’s newest member, Brian Kritz, to the Baseball Cards blog. Brian is a longtime Dodger fan and collector who was gracious enough to share this remembrance of Tommy Lasorda literally minutes after joining SABR.

Most baseball-loving kids who grew up in Southern California in the 1970s and 1980s likely have a similar story. The day they met the ultimate Dodgers legend, Tommy Lasorda. Yes, the Tommy Lasorda of the career 0-4 record and a 6.48 ERA (or for the younger stat heads, a -1.3 career WAR).

But to a couple of generations of Southern California kids, Tommy was the biggest and most important Dodger of them all. Bigger than Garvey, Lopes, Russell, or Cey. Bigger than Dusty Baker, Reggie Smith and even bigger than Orel Hershiser and Fernando Valenzuela. When Kirk Gibson hit his game winning home run in Game One of the 1988 World Series, to whom did NBC pan? It was Tommy, trotting in joy out of the Dodgers dugout.

When I was 11 years old, I visited the Dodgers clubhouse before a game against the Atlanta Braves. After meeting and getting autographs from Dodgers greats such as Jerry Reuss and Bob Welch as well as obscure former Dodgers such as Terry Whitfield and Jack Fimple, I was taken to meet Tommy in his office. He was sitting behind his desk, larger than life, with pictures of him with Frank Sinatra and Ronald Reagan in the background.

He rose from his desk and made me feel like the most important person in the world when he told me to sit in his chair. I was floating on air and asked him to sign my copy of his 1982 Donruss card. He did, and then pulled out a postcard of himself from his desk and signed it To Brian, a future Dodger, Tom Lasorda.

Being a very literal kid, I pretty much figured that Tommy had just signed me to a contract and that I would play for the Dodgers some day. Tommy would see to it personally. He was Tommy Lasorda, he could do anything. Having collected baseball cards for the last forty years, and having turned my baseball card hobby into a business since eBay came along, I have seen probably three hundred signed Tommy Lasorda items with that same tag line, To [Fill In Your Name], a future Dodger, Tom Lasorda.

That was Tommy. He made you feel special, he made you feel like you could be a Dodger one day, he made you Bleed Dodger Blue. Rest in Peace, Tommy. Thank you for making us all feel special.

Call for Nominations – 2021 Jefferson Burdick Award

The SABR Baseball Cards Research Committee is once again taking nominations for the Jefferson Burdick Award for Contributions to the Hobby. It was an honor and privilege to present the inaugural award to Hobby pioneer and Renaissance man Mike Aronstein of TCMA fame. (Click here for the star-studded, online ceremony.)

And no, your eyes don’t deceive you! Mike’s trophy features the highly coveted Mike Aronstein rookie card designed by Committee co-chair Nick Vossbrink.

Looking ahead to our 2021 award, here are the criteria we’d like you to consider in your nominations.

Award criteria

Yes, we are looking for YOU to nominate a worthy recipient who has made significant contributions to the hobby in such areas as–

  • Baseball card research/scholarship
  • Baseball card creation/production/innovation
  • Developing/maintaining resources (e.g., publications, websites, communities, events) for collectors
  • Increasing access, knowledge, or enjoyment

In short, we are looking for the individuals who have made baseball card collecting a better hobby for the rest of us. (Click here to see profiles of last year’s finalists.)

Award process

Have someone in mind? Here is what we’d like you to do.

  • No later than January 31, use the Contact form on this website to let us know your nominee(s) along with with a very brief description of their role or contributions. A few sentences is sufficient at this stage in the process.
  • Be available for follow-up in case more information is needed.
  • Publicize this Call for Nominations to other SABR members with an interest in cards.

On our end, we (your committee co-chairs, Nick and Jason) will vet the nominees and then work with our Awards Subcommittee* to choose the award winner.

*Subject to availability, those committee members who contributed at least 10 posts to the SABR Baseball Cards blog in the preceding year.

Award rules

A couple quick notes before closing this post and putting the ball in your court:

  • Nominees should be living at the time of nomination (and we’ll hope for their sake still alive by SABR 51!)
  • You must be a SABR member to participate in the nomination process. If you are not yet a member, please join!
  • The nomination deadline is January 31, 2021.

More about the award’s namesake

Finally, for a wealth of great articles on Jefferson Burdick himself, head to the Burdick section of the “Old Baseball Cards” library.

Dick Allen: A Chicagoan Remembers

In the late 1980s, Dick Allen took part in an old-timer’s day event in St. Louis that featured such greats as Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Curt Flood, and others, including Negro League immortal Cool Papa Bell. Afterward, Allen excitedly related a conversation that he had with Bell. “He said I could have been one of them,” Allen recalled. “He said I had power and I could run, the two most important requirements in Negro League baseball. It’s funny. Back in their day, the Negro League players all wanted to be big leaguers. They felt deprived because they could never get in. And there I was, in my day, a big leaguer who felt like he lost out because he never got a chance to play in the Negro Leagues.” Dick Allen, Negro League immortal? It’s easy to imagine. If Allen had spent his career in the Negro Leagues—playing in a league full of people who could relate to the sort of trials Allen hadexperienced since birth—Dick’s life might have been quite a bit less stressful. But the rest of us would be the poorer for it.        

When the Chicago White Sox acquired Dick Allen from the Los Angeles Dodgers in December of 1971 (for Tommy John, an outstanding pitcher, and scrub infielder Steve Huntz), I was one of many excited—and apprehensive—Sox fans. Allen was well-known for his prodigious talent with the bat, but the White Sox would be his fourth team in the last four seasons. Bill James described Allen as “the second-most controversial player in baseball history, behind Rogers Hornsby,” and it’s an apt comparison. While continuing to excel on the field, Hornsby had been shuffled from the Cardinals to the Giants to the Braves and then to the Cubs between 1926 and 1929. For Allen, it was from the Phillies—where he had been the first Black star for a franchise with an ugly racial history—to the Cardinals, the Dodgers, and finally the White Sox.

“Allen was labeled baseball’s biggest outlaw,” wrote Tim Whitaker, who collaborated with Dick on Allen’s wonderful autobiography, Crash: The Life and Times of Dick Allen. “He was undisciplined and outspoken, a free spirit who abided by no rules. He was accused of missing curfews, skipping spring training, drinking on the job, getting high, fighting with teammates, having managers fired, and even doodling cryptic messages on the infield dirt. He never did want to be bothered with sportswriters. He was as enigmatic as he was recalcitrant.”

Some of those accusations were true; many were not. As for Allen’s problems with sportswriters, how would you feel about people who refused to address you by the name his family had called you since birth? “Don’t call me Richie,” he would say. “My name is Dick.” But until he got to Chicago, he was “Richie Allen,” or sometimes “Rich” to writers and team officials and even on his baseball cards. (“Bob” Clemente could undoubtedly relate to this.) With the White Sox, Allen was finally referred to as Dick… at least by most people. Jerome Holtzman, the dean of Chicago sportswriters and future official MLB historian, was among the Allen antagonists who continued to call him “Richie.”

Whatever people called him—“Richie” being the mildest of insults hurled at this strong, unflinching Black man—we in Chicago quickly learned that Allen could play. In 1972, his first season with the White Sox, Allen led the American league in on-base percentage, slugging, home runs (a then-team record 37), and runs batted in while winning the league MVP award. In 1973, he was again among the league leaders when he suffered a broken leg in midseason; even this was steeped in controversy, as a White Sox physician insisted Allen could have returned. In 1974, Allen was again leading the league in home runs when he abruptly left the team in early September, announcing his retirement a few days later. He was so far ahead in the home run race that he still led the league, despite not playing a game after September 8.

There were wondrous moments, like a three-run pinch-hit home run in the bottom of the ninth in June of 1972 to defeat the Yankees, 5-4 (I still have an audiotape of that game). There was the game against the Twins a month later that featured two inside-the-park home runs from Allen—a reminder of what a fearsome baserunner Dick Allen was. There was Allen’s 460-foot home run into Comiskey Park’s center-field bleachers—a drive that nearly hit Sox broadcaster Harry Caray, who was doing the game from the bleachers that day. The ball was caught by young Mark Liptak, who later would become a leading White Sox historian.

But Allen being Allen, there were plenty of controversies as well. There was the special treatment—constantly harped upon by the Chicago press—given to Allen by Sox manager Chuck Tanner, who allowed Allen to skip batting practice and come late to the ballpark. Allen sometimes took advantage of that treatment. On at least one occasion, he missed the start of a game, with the White Sox covering his tracks by saying he was sick. There was the controversy over the extent of his injury in 1973 (Allen did attempt to return for one game, but was shut down after limping noticeably). His final year with the White Sox featured a season-long feud with new teammate Ron Santo; “I felt confused, disoriented, but mostly depressed,” Allen recalled about the 1974 season. Even Harry Caray, an early Allen supporter during their White Sox years together, turned on him, referring to Allen with the name that Dick hated. “Every time I try to compare Richie Allen to Stan Musial, I want to vomit,” Caray said. In those days when you lost Harry Caray, you lost Chicago.

Given an opportunity to return to his first team, the Phillies, under more positive circumstances, Allen reconsidered the retirement and finally met his goal of reaching the postseason in 1976. But his skills had diminished, he was bothered by injuries, and the second Philadelphia tenure ended unhappily as well, as did a brief finale with Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s (Dick Allen and Charlie Finley did not get along? Amazing!)

Allen is gone now, and the outpouring of love he received from former teammates after his December 7 passing make it clear that a lot of the things that people said about Dick Allen were clearly wrong. Prima donna? Bad teammate? Killer of clubhouse morale? Not according to guys like Mike Schmidt and Goose Gossage and Larry Bowa and Jim Kaat and Steve Stone. All of these major stars not only respected Dick Allen; they revered him.

“I wonder how good I could have been,” Dick Allen said in perhaps his most famous quote. “It could have been a joy, a celebration. Instead, I played angry. In baseball, if a couple of things go wrong for you, and those things get misperceived, or distorted, you get a label. After a while, the label becomes you, and you become the label, whether that’s really you or not. I was labeled an outlaw, and after a while that’s what I became.”

Damn the labels. Richard Anthony Allen was a proud Black man in a sport, and a country, that has never felt comfortable with what Geoffrey C. Ward, biographer of the great boxer Jack Johnson, called “unforgivable blackness.” If Allen “played angry,” he had plenty of reason for doing so. He is at peace now, and remembered by many of us with deep affection. I felt privileged to watch a few years in the life of Dick Allen, and I mourn his passing.

50 at 50

Sending out an alert for anyone who follows this blog but isn’t on Twitter or Facebook. SABR has been celebrating its upcoming 50th anniversary by having each committee contribute a 50 at 50 article on the SABR website. The Baseball Cards Committee’s contribution went up today.

Rather than making it a top-50 list or some other ranking, we decided to go a different direction and treat baseball cards as timeline that they are with a post of 50 cards for 50 years.

Baseball cards aren’t just something to collect. They mark the seasons and document the game as it happens. Looking back at them shows us the history of the game. Who played. What was important. What happened. How we analyzed things. Cards may fall under the category of “ephemera” but the ephemeral nature of what they record is what makes them such an important chronicle of the game.

Our list is not intended to be definitive or authoritative. Both the history of the hobby and the history of the game are way too interesting for each year to be able to be summed up in a single card. Instead we look forward to the discussion and critiques that always follow such lists.

While Jason and Nick are credited with compiling the contents, we wish to thank the multiple other experts who allowed us to pick their brains and challenged our choices.