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.

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!

Burdick Award finalists

The Awards Subcommittee of the SABR Baseball Cards Research Committee is appreciative of the many nominations from membership. At this time we are pleased to announce the five finalists for our inaugural Jefferson Burdick Award for Contributions to the Hobby and particularly gratified to see that the process resulted in such a broad range of nominations.

The Award was not designed to honor the biggest or best collection or the person who made the most money through the hobby—not that either of those things would be disqualifying. Rather, it was simply created to recognize individuals who in any variety of ways have made the Hobby better for the rest of us.

Dr. Robert Fitts

Our first finalist is Robert Fitts. Dr. Fitts, our committee’s featured speaker at #SABR49, boasts an impressive resume of accomplishments and scholarship including the 2006 Sporting News-SABR Research Award, the 2012 Doug Pappas Award for best oral research, the 2013 Seymour Medal for Best Baseball Book of 2012, and the 2019 McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award.

He is best known in the Hobby for his unmatched expertise and research in the area of Japanese baseball cards. While this committee has primarily focused on U.S. card releases, Fitts’s expertise and enthusiasm for Japanese cards and the way they interact with the hobby in the U.S. expands our understanding of what cards can be. This is not just a US-centered thing and baseball is a worldwide game.

Bert Blyleven and Mike Noren

Our second finalist is Mike Noren, the artist behind Gummy Arts and Cecil Cooperstown. Mike’s whimsical baseball card creations are currently featured in the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s “Shoebox Treasures” exhibit, and his set of 1919 White Sox strip cards were a crowd favorite at SABR’s Black Sox Scandal Centennial Symposium.

Mike’s cards have inspired many collectors to reconnect with the Hobby, and his daily posts to social media platforms have inspired numerous other baseball card artists. He references designs from the entire history of baseball cards and in so doing, transforms old designs into wholly new and modern creations. Meanwhile his pop-culture creations hint at the long history of collecting photos and cards and confirm how the concept of a Baseball Card™ transcends the sport.

Dr. James Beckett

Our third finalist, Dr. James Beckett, has a name nearly synonymous with the unprecedented growth of the Hobby in the 1980s and 1990s, though his continuing contributions to the Hobby span nearly half a century. In the tradition of our award’s namesake, Dr. Beckett has contributed to the identification and cataloging of numerous sets, and his publications such as the Sport Americana Baseball Card Price Guide (with Dennis Eckes) and the Beckett Monthly brought both checklists and price guides to the mainstream of the Hobby.

For the generation of collectors who came of age in the 1980s, Beckett is their Burdick. It is impossible to imagine the hobby without him and his publications were not merely price guides but captured the zeitgeist of an entire collecting generation.

Keith Olbermann

Our fourth finalist is broadcasting legend Keith Olbermann, whose contributions to the Hobby began while he was still in high school as an editor for “Collectors Quarterly” and the writer for the card backs of the 1975 Sports Stars Publishing Company (SSPC) baseball set. He would go on to contribute photos to 1981 Donruss while amassing a world class collection of cards and memorabilia.

Keith has used his collection as reference material for his encyclopedic knowledge of the Hobby, which he frequently shares in articles and social media posts. Whenever we have a question about the Topps photo archive or who produced a set of cards, he is our resident expert. Keith was our committee’s featured speaker at #SABR47 and represents how baseball cards can turn someone into a baseball fan.

Mike Aronstein with son Andrew

Our last finalist and the winner of the 2020 Jefferson Burdick Award for Contributions to the Hobby is Michael Aronstein. Best known as the “MA” in TCMA, the company he co-founded with Tom (the “TC” half) Collier in 1972, Mike’s Hobby resume also includes:

  • Card show pioneer, having arranged and hosted (in his basement!) one of the very first “conventions” in 1970 and having gone on to co-organize the biannual American Sports Card Collectors Association shows in New York City;
  • Publisher of Collectors Quarterly magazine;
  • One of the Hobby’s first full-time dealers, providing collectors with alternatives to mainstream sets along with collecting supplies such as plastic sheets before they were widely available anywhere else;
  • Producer of hundreds of minor league team sets, including the “pre-rookie cards” of Rickey Henderson, Cal Ripken, Jr., and Wade Boggs, and re-launching the minor league card industry in the process;
  • Challenger of the Topps monopoly with his Sports Stars Publishing Company (SSPC) 660-card set consisting almost entirely of current players;
  • Exclusive distributor of the 1981 Donruss set (but we won’t hold that against him!);
  • Founder of Photo File, supplying the Hobby with high quality 8×10 photos to be signed by athletes.

More importantly, TCMA cards were touchstone for many, if not all, of us as the only cards we could find/afford of baseball legends. In a way that no book can touch, TCMA cards taught kids about baseball: who the legends were and why, what they looked like, etc. If Topps is the card of record representing which players were relevant for the current season, TCMA were the cards of history and how we learned about baseball itself.

We look forward to honoring Mike at our national convention, SABR 50, in Baltimore. We hope you’ll make plans to join us as we celebrate Mike’s lifetime of contributions to the Hobby. Over the next couple months we’ll share more information about this and other baseball card happenings planned for SABR 50.