Before I joined SABR I had a post on my own blog which looked at baseball cards and the role they played in developing my visual literacy. Over the past year of watching various Zoom presentations with my kids about the history of cards I’ve found myself realizing that I need to write a similar post about the way baseball cards also track the way that we, as humans developed visual literacy.
Baseball and baseball cards sort of eerily parallel the development and evolution of photography with a number of rough steps starting around the Civil War before finally coalescing in the late 19th Century around something that’s not changed much over the last 125 years. The thing though is that baseball cards are but a thin sliver of this development.
The hobby has a tendency to talk about cards and collecting as if they evolved as part of baseball history. I get it; we collect cards and aren’t photo historians. But I think it’s important to understand how, if anything, cards basically came along for the ride and that their history is less a history of baseball but a lesson on how we learned to use photographs and changed our relationship with celebrity.
A couple years ago I read Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby’s Enduring Truths. It’s a great book about Sojourner Truth and how she supported herself in part by selling cartes de visite. I went into the book expecting history about photographs and what they depict, and how they interact with issues of race, power, and privilege. Instead I came out with an appreciation of how printed images function within our society.
For most of human history, portraits were only accessible to the wealthy. You had to pay an extremely skilled artist to paint you and you only got one piece out of it. With the advent of photography in the mid-19th century things got a lot more accessible. Tintypes and ambrotypes were affordable* to a much wider range of people. However they are still one-off pieces. The negative itself is treated in such a way that it becomes a positive** and there is no way to make prints.
*In this case albumen prints from glass negatives.
Coming back to Sojourner Truth, not only were people collecting cards, notable people like Truth were producing them for sale as well, modifying them to not only be photographs but to include messages.* Card making and collecting is not only a hobby but a business that can support people whose images are in demand.
*In Truth’s case “I sell the shadow to support the substance”
Cartes de visite, stamps, autographs, etc all ended up being stored in albums and shown to visitors in ways that are shockingly familiar to any of us card collectors today. We have pages that are frequently better for preservation but both the concept and practice of the card binder emerged hand in hand with the cards themselves.
It’s impossible for me to look at sets like Old Judge or Goodwin & Company outside the collecting world which existed in this era. When images are currency and the idea of celebrity culture and “set” collection has taken such a strong hold, it’s no surprise that companies started to create cards of their own.
These are photos—cabinet cards actually—which were printed for commercial instead of personal reasons. They depict all kinds of athletes as well as actors, actresses, and other famous people. Yes they’re promotional items. But they clearly were intended to be collected and traded in the same way as the individually-produced cards were.
Cards and photography usage only begins to diverge a bit in the late 19th century when cabinet cards began to die out due to the emergence of amateur photography. At this point other forms of printed images took up the torch since cards and card collecting were firmly entrenched. Manufacturers like Allen & Ginter in the US (and many others abroad) created sports sets including baseball players, billiards shooters, boxers, and pedestrians and non-sports sets depicting animals, flowers, flags, etc. There was plenty of stuff to choose from; if you could imagine a collection there’s a decent chance there’s a set of it out there.*
*Up until World War 2 the world of trading cards was massive and wonderfully varied. This represents over eight decades of card collecting. I’ve been grabbing “pre-war”sets which cover whatever subject matter strikes my interest—from Hollywood to science to travel because they represent how cards became an affordable way to create your own wunderkammer.
One of the things I love most in this hobby is how it remains a direct connection to the way we originally used photographs. Yes I love baseball. But I also love photography and being able to experience how the the world of cartomania still survives today is fantastic.
It’s why I love the non-sport elements of the modern Ginter sets. It’s why things like exhibit cards fascinate me. It’s why I enjoy Jay Publishing, team-issued postcards, and other card-related photopacks which are aren’t necessarily cards. I can see all these different directions that the hobby could have gone in. Different ways of designing sets and releasing cards. Different concepts of who is worth depicting.
It all reaches back to the 19th century when we realized how images are currency. Something people are willing to purchase and save and trade. The history of card collecting depicts baseball. But it embodies how we learned to see and how we learned to use images.
I’d been sitting on the idea of this article for a while, and I finally decided to “check it off” when I saw an exchange between fellow SABR Baseball Cards blogger Matt Prigge and prewar savant Anson Whaley (with a guest appearance by Jeff Smith) on the first numbered baseball cards.
Interesting question. The N48 cards are generally cited as being from 1886. These featured women as baseball players and since those are some of the earliest baseball card sets in general, I’m thinking those could be it. No guarantees. Just a guess. https://t.co/5uO0MlW67B
Today the idea of numbered cards goes hand in hand with that of a (contemporaneously published) checklist. However, that was not always the case. While numerous examples abound, one famous numbered set with no checklist was 1933 Goudey. Likewise, we will encounter sets that had checklists but no numbered cards. This article will not be exhaustive, so don’t use it as a checklist. Rather, it will just highlight some of the variety attached to what in my collecting heyday was considered the most boring card in the pack.
Had I written this article a year ago, I might have assumed erroneously that on-card checklists were a hobby dinosaur. After all, why waste a card in the set when it’s easy enough to post a checklist online? However, the lone pack of 2019 Topps update I bought last fall included a surprise on the back of my Albert Pujols highlights card.
Though I have to imagine the past three decades of baseball cards have more of a story to tell, I’m going to quickly jump all the way back to what otherwise was the last time I remember pulling a checklist from a pack.
The very last packs of cards I bought before entering my long “real life took over” hiatus were in 1992. I don’t recall buying any mainstream sets that year, but I liked the Conlons and their close cousins, the Megacards Babe Ruth set, of which I somehow still have the box and three unopened packs.
The Ruth set had no checklist, but the Conlon issue had several, much in the style of the Topps cards of my youth, right down to the checkboxes.
While there’s something to be said for the familiar, I was an even bigger fan of the checklists I pulled from packs of 1990 Leaf.
Checklists adorned with superstar players was new to my own pack opening experience. However, as with most “innovations” in the Hobby, it wasn’t truly new, as we’ll soon see.
This was my absolute pack-buying heyday, and it was a great time to be a checklist collector, assuming there is such a thing. Yes, we had the standard checklist cards each of those years…
…but we also got team checklists, either on the backs of manager cards…
…or on the back of team cards.
As a quick aside, I’ll note that EVERY collector I knew in 1978 sorted his cards by team and used the team card to mark progress, making the set checklists (e.g., 1-121) completely superfluous.
Though I’m skipping most years, I’ll make a quick stop at 1974 to highlight two features in particular. In addition to the standard checklists AND team photo cards without checklists, the 1974 Topps set used unnumbered team signature cards as team checklists. (Aside: Though unnumbered cards had a mile-long history in the Hobby and are hardly extinct today, I rarely ran across them as a kid apart from the 1981 Donruss checklists or the 1981 Fleer “Triple Threat” error card.)
A final note on these team checklists: they did not include late additions from the Traded set (e.g., Santo on White Sox), so a separate “Trades Checklist” was provided also.
If I had to declare a G.O.A.T. checklist it would come from 1967-69 Topps, all possible inspirations for the 1990 Leaf card I showed earlier. (In fairness, 1984 Fleer might have played a role.)
At first glance I mistakenly thought these checklists brought more than just a bonus superstar to the mix. Take a look at entry 582 on the back of card below.
Could it be? Were we looking at the pinnacle of 1960s artificial intelligence technology: checklists with the self-awareness to check themselves off? Sadly, no. We were just looking at an abbreviation for “Checklist – 7th Series.” After all, this “smart checklist” was card 504 in the set and the ostensibly checked off card was a completely different card.
While our friends at Topps were having a ho-hum year, checklist-wise, as if there’s any other kind of year to have, checklist-wise, I do want to provide recognition to the efforts at Fleer. Haters of the Keith Shore #Project 2020 designs will probably not be fans, but I’m a sucker for this cartoony, colorful approach to checklists.
Even the title, “Player Roster,” is a nice twist, don’t you think?
The first appearance of numbered checklist-only cards from Topps came in 1961. Each checklist featured a baseball action scene on both the front and back of the card, and collectors can have fun trying to identify the players. (Side note: I believe these are the first ever game-action photos ever used by Topps.)
While the image on the back persisted across the set, the images on the front differed with each card. For example, here is Mr. Cub on the front of the second checklist. (Banks also appears prominently on the fifth checklist!)
Meanwhile in Philadelphia, Fleer introduced its first ever checklist cards.
The series one checklist featured Home Run Baker, Ty Cobb, and Zach Wheat well past their playing days, while series two did the same for George Sisler and Pie Traynor.
Incidentally, a similar approach was used 15 years later by Mike Aronstein in the 1976 SSPC set.
While Fleer had baseball sets in 1959 and 1960 as well, neither used checklist cards. However, this was not because the concept had not yet dawned on them. On the contrary, here’s a card from one of their more notable non-sport issues way back in 1959!
Note that the card pictured is #63. Cards 16 and 64 in the set are also known to have “checklist back” variations. However, the much more common versions of these same cards simply feature humorous descriptions or jokes.
I referred to the 1961 Topps cards as checklist-only because there were in fact numbered checklist cards issued in the 1960 set. The 1960 cards were the perfect (or anti-perfect) hybrid of set checklists and team cards, perhaps offering a glimpse of the “why not both!” direction Topps would ultimately adopt.
Shown below is the Braves team card, but the back is not a Braves checklist. Rather, it’s the checklist for the set’s entire fifth series!
But wait, how does that even work? The set only had seven series but there were 16 teams, right? Yes, somewhat inelegantly Topps repeated checklists on the back of multiple team cards. For example, the A’s and Pirates each had sixth series backs.
Ditto 1959 Topps…
We have to go all the way back to 1957 to see checklist-only cards. Aside from being unnumbered and landscape oriented, these cards check off all the boxes of the staid checklist cards I grew up with.
The 1956 set did the same but with an unusual turn, and not just the 90-degree reorientation. While the 1957 card shown includes the first and second series, the 1956 cards included non-adjacent series. The card below is for the first and third series, while a second card has series two and four.
The 1956 checklists also featured the first (that I could find) appearance of checkboxes. As such, it wouldn’t be wrong to regard (or disregard!) all predecessors as mere lists, unworthy of the checklist title.
The crumbiest card in the set?
It may have looked like Topps was blazing new trails with their checklist cards in 1956 and 1957, but take a close look at the second card in this uncut strip from the Johnston’s Cookies set, series one.
You may need to be the judge as to whether this qualifies as an actual card in the set vs a non-card that just happens to be the same size as the other cards.
On one hand, why not? On the other, how many collectors would consider the “How to Order Trading Cards” end panel a card?
When is a checklist not a checklist?
In 1950, Chicago-based publisher B.E. Callahan released a box set featuring all 60 Hall of Famers. The set was updated annually and included 80 Hall of Famers by 1956, the last year it was issued. At the very end of the set was what appeared to be a checklist for the set, but was it?
As it turns out, the card back wasn’t so much a checklist as it was a listing of all Hall of Famers. Were it intended as a checklist, it presumably would have also listed this Hall of Fame Exterior card and perhaps even itself!
Simple logic might also suggest that a checklist would have been particularly superfluous for cards already sold as an intact set; then again, stranger things have happened.
No checklist but the next best thing?
Prior to 1956 Topps a common way to assist set collectors, though a far cry from an actual checklist, was by indicating the total number cards in the set right on the cards, as with this 1949 Bowman card. Note the top line on the card’s reverse indicates “No. 24 of a Series of 240.”
Though this was the only Bowman set to cue size, Gum, Inc., took the same approach with its Play Ball set a decade earlier. The advertised number of cards in the set proved incorrect, however, as the set was limited to 161 cards rather than 250.
Goudey too overestimated the size of its own set the year before. The first series of 24 cards seemed to suggest 288 cards total…
…while the second series indicated 312!
Add them up and you have a set of 48 cards evidently advertised as having more than six times that number. In fact, some collectors have speculated, based among other things on the similarity of card backs, that the 1938 issue was a continuation of the 1933 (!) issue. Add the new 48 to the 240 from 1933 and you get 288. Perhaps, though the number 312 remains mysterious either way.
Tobacco card collectors are no stranger to the advertised set size being way off. Consider the 1911 T205 Gold Borders set for starters. “Base Ball Series 400 Designs” implies a set nearly twice the size of the 208 cards known to collectors and perhaps hints at original plans to include Joe Jackson, Honus Wagner, and many other stars excluded from the set.
As for its even more famous cousin, the 1909-11 T206 set. How many cards are there? 150 subjects? 350 subjects? 350-460?
The return of set checklists
While I’ve just highlighted several non-examples of checklists, there are several, probably dozens, of sets pre-1956 Topps that include checklists. The most common variety involved printing the entire set’s checklist on the back of every card in the set, as with the 1933 George C. Miller card of Mel Ott shown here.
As evidenced not only by Ott’s name but also brief biographical information unique to Master Melvin, the Miller set provided a unique card back per player in the set. As we travel further back in time to examine earlier checklisting, you’ll see that a far more common approach involved applying the same card back to multiple players in the set, often by team, by series, or across the set’s entirety.
The return of team checklists
It’s been a while since we’ve seen team checklists, but some great early examples come our way from the 240-card 1922 American Caramel set.
As the small print indicates, the set included 15 players apiece from each of the 16 teams, leading to an even 240 cards. As the Ruth back suggests, all Yankees in the set had identical backs, as was the case for all team subsets within the set. Rival caramel maker Oxford Confectionary produced a much smaller set (E253) the year before and was able to fit the set’s entire 20-card roster on the back of each card.
The golden age of checklists
Though neither the T205 nor T206 sets included checklist cards, many other sets of the era did. A fun one, checklist or no checklist, is the 1912 Boston Garters set. Note the back side (of the card, not the player!) lists the 16 cards in the set. (These are VERY expensive cards by the way. For example, the card shown is easily the priciest Mathewson among his various cards without pants.)
Another such set was the 1911 Turkey Red set where, as with the 1922 American Caramel cards, every card was a checklist card (subject to back variations). Low numbered cards had a checklist for cards 1-75 or 1-76, and high numbered cards had a checklist for cards 51-126.
The 1910 Tip Top Bread set provided collectors a much kneaded set checklist and team checklist for their hard-earned dough. Of course, this was by default since all the subjects in the set were all on the same team. While the checklist suggests numbered cards, individual cards have do not include a card number as part of the design.
The 1908-1910 American Caramel E91 cards similarly provided a checklist for each year’s set and the three teams that comprised it. For example the 1910 set (E91-C) listed Pittsburg, Washington, and Boston players.
And just to show these sets weren’t flukes, there are the 1909 Philadelphia Caramel (E95), 1909 E102, 1909-1910 C.A. Briggs (E97), 1910 Standard Caramel (E93), 1910 E98, 1911 George Close Candy (E94), and 1913 Voskamp’s Coffee Pittsburgh Pirates, and various minor league issues of the era.
Size isn’t everything
Another early approach to checklists is illustrated by the 1909-1913 Sporting News supplements.
The picture backs were blank, but sales ads provided collectors with the full list of players available.
By the way, the highlighting of “SENT IN A TUBE” provides a hint that collectors even more than a century ago cared at least a little bit about condition.
Obak took this approach a step further in 1913 by including a complete checklist in every cigarette box.
Though not technically a card, one could make some argument that this Obak insert represents the very first standalone checklist packaged with cards.
I don’t know enough about this 1889 (!) checklist of Old Judge cabinet photo premiums to say whether it was inserted with the cigarettes and cards as was the Obak or lived somewhere else entirely as did the Sporting News ad.
Either way, it won’t be our oldest example of a checklist.
Where it all began…almost
There aren’t many baseball card sets older than the 1888 Goodwin Champions and 1887 Allen & Ginter World Champions issues. Ditto 1887 W.S. Kimball Champions (not pictured). Take a look at the card backs, and it becomes evident that checklists are almost as old as baseball cards themselves.
And while most of the card backs I’ve seen from these issues are rather dull, here is one specimen that makes me smile.
It’s not the easiest thing to see, but I do believe the collector crossed Kelly off the checklist…
…before running out of money, running out of ink, or just moving on like any good player collector.
As my examples demonstrate, baseball card checklists have taken on many forms, and the question of which baseball card checklist was first is one that depends on your definition of a checklist and perhaps even your definition of a baseball card.
Though it’s risky to infer motives from men long since dead, it seems reasonable that the creation and publication of baseball card checklists indicates a recognition that the cards themselves were not simply throwaway novelties but items to be collected and saved. What’s more, this was evidently the case as far back as 1887!
Note also that these checklists weren’t simply offered as courtesies. They reflected the at least an implicit assumption that set checklists were more valuable (to the seller!) than other forms of advertising that would otherwise occupy the same real estate whether the product was bread, tobacco, or candy. A standard Hobby 101 education teaches us that cards were long used to help sell the products they were packaged with. What we see here is that the allure wasn’t simply a baseball player or his likeness on cardboard but also the set of such likenesses that kept the pennies and nickels coming.
I started this article with a question. Are checklist cards the most boring cards in the set? By and large, yes, I think they are. However, that’s only true most of the time.
For with every checklist, at least those put to purpose, there is that one moment of glory, of sweetness, and of triumph when the checklist—formerly mocked and yawned at—informs collectors young and old that their springs and summers were not spent in vain but rather in pursuit of the heroic, the noble, and the—holy smokes, it’s about damn time!—DONE!
A fixture of many modern sets are cards older collectors might dismiss as “the shiny stuff.” I’ll resist a complete taxonomy, but two major genera here would be metallic cards (e.g., chrome, foil) and cards displaying “advanced” optical properties such as refraction, holography, and “magic motion.” And of course, there are cards that check off both these boxes if not more, for example this (hurry, put your sunglasses on!)2020 Topps Heritage Chrome Gold Refractor of Kevin Pillar.
The recent history of such cards is either completely irrelevant to most older collectors or the lived experience of younger collectors, so I will skip all of it based on the assumption you either know far more than I do or care far less.
These cards checked off all the boxes back then. They were literally everything and a side of bacon!
For collectors wanting to go “off menu” for dessert, all that was needed in 1991 was a trip to the corner 7-Eleven where “magic motion” coins had been packaged under Slurpee cups on and off since 1983.
And speaking of magic motion, Sportflics had been a major player on the card scene since 1986, more or less mimicking the 7-Eleven technology but onto standard 2-1/2 x 3-1/2 inch rectangles.
At least to a certain extent, precursors to the 7-Eleven and Sportflics offerings came from Kellogg’s, who had been pumping out 3-D cards on and off since 1970.
As for truly shiny, though, the first “cards” I remember buying as a kid came from the Topps Stickers sets of the early 1980s. While most of the stickers were of the standard variety, the sets included special foil inserts. Each of the Dave Parker stickers from the 1981 set is shown below.
“Okay, fine,” you say, “but what about true vintage, y’know, pre-1980?” Not a problem! If you were opening packs between 1960 and 1978 (but not 1974) I’m sure you ran across the occasional shiny trophy on your cardboard.
I mentioned earlier that the 3D sets from Kellogg’s date back to 1970 (see also Rold Gold), but I know some of you are thinking “3D” barely even qualifies as shiny. Then how about two sets that combine genuine shine and 3D: the 1969 Citgo Coins set, and the 1965 Topps Embossed set.
Though the shine was limited to the very edge, the 1971 Topps coins set warrants mention as well.
Ditto the 1964 Topps Coins set, but as with the 1980s sticker sets the all-stars get some extra shine.
Old London also included baseball coins with some of their snack products in 1965. If they look familiar, it is because they were produced by the same company that worked with Topps in 1964 and 1971.
And finally, before we leave the coin realm for good, the Cardinals put out a set of “Busch Stadium Immortals” coins in 1966 and were kind enough to dedicate one entire slot from the 12-coin checklist to a St. Louis Brown!
It’s been a while since we saw any magic motion, but the mid-1960s has that too. In commemoration of their championship season the Dodgers put out a set of three “flasher” pins: Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, and “Our Champs.”
In much of this post we are pushing the definition of baseball card a fair amount, and it’s possible most readers will feel I’ve gone too far in including this next set: 1950 Sports Stars Luckee Key Charms. Then again, if we keep the charm affixed to the packaging, just maybe!
Backing up several decades we get to a very early gold-bordered set. Ah, but not the one you’re thinking of. I’m talking about the 1915 PM1 Ornate-Frame Pins, a somewhat mysterious set with about 30 different players known thus far to make up the checklist.
An even earlier shiny set was also the first to have stats, bios, and even autographs. At last we’ve come to the masterpiece known as 1911 American Tobacco Company Gold Borders (T205). I believe the use of three significantly different designs (National League, American League, Minor Leagues) is also an innovation of this set, but perhaps a reader can verify.
However, among the firsts the T205 set accomplished, gold borders was not one of them. Two years ahead and one entry up in the American Card Catalog is the 1909 Ramly Cigarettes (T204) set, which not only features gold borders but additional gold framing around the player images.
A bit of gold could also be found in the 1910-11 Turkey Red (T3) cabinets, both in the nameplate and around the edge of each image. (See also 1911 Sporting Life Cabinets.)
You might expect by now we’ve reached the end of our journey, one that’s taken us back more than a century from the Kevin Pillar card that started this post. In fact we will go back another 20+ years to the 1888 H.D. Smith and Company (formerly known as Scrapp’s Tobacco) die cuts. Admittedly I’ve never seen one of this cards in person, but the lettering on the St. Louis player and the lacing on the Detroit player seem to have some gold sprinkled in.
Finally, just because I like to do this kind of thing, I’ll go back even one year earlier to 1887 and suggest an Honorable Mention, the 1887 Buchner Gold Coin (N284) tobacco series. I know, these cards don’t look shiny but they do have “Gold” in their name. In addition, this set had all the ingredients. Not only do we have plenty of Orr but we even have some Silver Flint!
And if that’s still not enough to warrant an honorable mention, here are two other cards in the set, Billy Sunday and Old Hoss Radbourn.
The man on the left, once he left the diamond, was known to tell his flock, “Give your face to God and he will put his shine on it.” And the man on the right? He’d be the first to tell you to take your cigarette cards and put ’em where the sun don’t shine!
With the festive frivolity of the holiday season upon us, I bring you a post even more frivolous than my usual lightweight offerings. Before reading, I suggest adding a pint of rum to the eggnog-which will ensure that you forget that this blog is connected to an august body like SABR. So, toss on another yule (Blackwell) log on the fire, grab a plate of cookies (Rojas and Lavagetto) and contemplate this ancient carol (Clay) within your decked-out halls (Jimmy and Tom).
A Partridge in a Pear Tree: Jay Partridge was the starting second baseman for Brooklyn in 1927. I could not locate a card from the time, but an auction site did have a small newsprint photo described as a panel. Fortunately, Mr. Partridge has a card in the 1990 Target Dodgers set. If you insist on a card issued while the player was active, this 1977 TCMA of Glenn Partridge falls into that “family.”
Apparently, no players with the surname Pear or Tree ever appeared in a professional game. But Matt Pare shows up on the 2017 San Jose Giants. I had to go the minor league route as well to find a “tree.” Mitch Trees was a catcher for the Billings Mustangs in 2017.
Two Turtle Doves: Spokane Indians assistant coach “Turtle” Thomas has a 2017 card, but I’m going with 1909-11 T206 “Scoops” Carry of the Memphis Turtles. As for Doves, Dennis Dove has several prospect cards, including this 2003 Upper Deck Prospect Premiere. However, this 1909-11 American Caramel card of “Buster” Brown on the Boston Doves wins out. After all, Buster lived in a shoe, and his dog Tike lived in there too.
Three French Hens: For this one, I must go with Jeff Katz’s acquaintance Jim French. The diminutive backstop toiled for the Senators and Rangers. Dave “Hendu” Henderson was the best hen option, outside of any Toledo Mud Hen.
Four Calling Birds: This 1982 Larry Fritsch card of Keith Call on the Madison Muskies certainly “answers the call” for this word. Although, Callix Crabbe is in contention based solely on the awesomeness of his name. For the bird, I heard the call of the “royal parrotfinch” and went with longtime Royals pitcher Doug Bird.
Five Golden Rings: It would be a cardinal sin if I didn’t go with the Cardinals’ Roy Golden on this 1912 T-207 “brown background” card. Phillies pitcher, Jimmy Ring, gets the nod with this 1921 National Carmel issue.
Six Geese a Laying: Since Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat, Rich Gossage would have been a logical choice. But I can’t pass up making Seattle Pilot Greg Goossen my fowl choice. His 1970 card is so amazing that all I can do is “gander” at it. This 2019 card of Jose Layer on the Augusta Greenjackets is the best fit that I could lay my hands on.
Seven Swans a Swimming: After answering a personal ad in a weekly newspaper, I met my future wife for a drink at the Mirabeau Room atop the SeaFirst Building in Seattle on June 9, 1990. That evening, Russ Swan of the Mariners carried a no-hitter into the 8th inning against Detroit. Viewing this mound mastery sealed our lifelong bond, for which the “swan song” is yet to be sung.
I must “take a dive” into the Classic Best 1991 minor league set to find someone who fits “swimmingly.” I ended up somewhere near Salinas and found the Spurs’ Greg Swim.
Eight Maids a Milking: Since no Maids are found on “Baseball Reference” and the players named Maiden don’t have cards, I was “made” to go with Hector Made and his 2004 Bowman Heritage.
This may qualify as “milking” it, but the best fit I could find was the all-time winningest general manager in Seattle Pilots history, Marvin Milkes. This DYI card uses a Pilots team issued photo, which shows off the high-quality wood paneling in Marvin’s Sicks’ Stadium office.
Nine Ladies Dancing: The 1887-90, N172 “Old Judge” card of “Lady” Baldwin and the 1996 Fritsch AAGPBL card of Faye Dancer are a perfect fit.
Ten Lords a Leaping: This wonderful 1911 T205 Bris Lord card coupled with a 1986 Dave Leeper doesn’t require much of a leap to work.
Eleven Pipers Piping: Former Negro Leaguer Piper Davis has a beautiful 1953 Mother’s Cookies card on the PCL Oakland Oaks. In fact, the card is “piping” hot.
Twelve Drummers Drumming: You can’t get much better than this 1911 Obak T212 card of Drummond Brown on the PCL Vernon Tigers. Or, you could “bang the drum slowly” with this specialty card of Brian Pearson (Robert De Niro) from the movie “Bang the Drum Slowly.”
I realize that Santa will fill my stocking with coal and “Krampus” will punish me for having written this, but the spirit of the season will endure. I wish you and all those you hold dear a wonderful holiday season and a prosperous new year.
Last week I received a surprise mailing of pre-war cards from Anson Whaley, the proprietor of prewarcards.com who many of us turn to whenever we have questions an anything pre-war. I treat these mailings as an opportunity to google the subjects of the cards and hopefully come across an interesting Wikipedia page that leads me down a rabbit hole.
In this case, it wasn’t a Wikipedia rabbit hole I fell in to but rather a Google Books one. Anson sent me a dozen 1901–02 Ogden’s Cigarettes General Interest cards. A couple sporting subjects but mostly non-sports miscellany—actors, politicians, ships, etc.
At first I thought this must be a different Richard George Knowles but I figured it was worth flipping through the book just to make sure. Lo and behold on page 65 I found an author photo. To my eyes it looks like the same face (no comment on the hairstyle).
This is pretty cool. My general interest card just turned into a baseball card. So I went back and downloaded the PDF from Google so I could take a deeper look at the book. It’s basically a baseball primer for an English audience more familiar with Rounders and Cricket but is also a great snapshot of the state of the game in the mid-1890s on both sides of the Atlantic.
The player lives in a world limited to three bases, a home plate, and two foul lines, and, for a couple of hours or so, finds relief from business cares, and snatches a holiday for his brain.
The first chapter is about baseball in general. It starts off building baseball up as a game of intelligence where draws are impossible, skills are required in all facets of the game, and failure can be minimized due to the number of repeated chances a batter gets. Much of this reads as an implicit comparison to Cricket which doesn’t feature baserunning and a batter only gets to bat twice a match.
It then goes into describing how to lay out a baseball field. It’s impossible for me to state how much I love this section so I’ll just paste the full text in here in case anyone wants to lay out their own baseball field.
Procure a heavy cord one hundred and eighty feet in length. Tie three knots in it, one at sixty feet five inches, one at ninety feet, and the other at one hundred and twenty-seven feet four inches.
Then, at the outer point of the home plate, drive a peg in the ground, and attach the line to it. Extend the line straight out to the third knot, and at that limit mark the second base. The knot is the centre of the base. Care must be taken that the cord be kept taut, and absolutely straight from the peg at the home plate to the centre of the second base, for the first knot, at sixty feet five inches, must now be taken to indicate the centre of the pitcher’s plate. When this has been duly marked, have one end of the hundred and eighty feet line held at the centre of second base, and keep the other end secured at the home plate as before. Then take hold of the second knot, at ninety feet, which is, of course, in the exact centre of the cord, and walk out with it to the corner of the diamond which is to mark the first base. Keep walking until the line is taut on both sides, and, at that point, mark the first base. Repeat this in the opposite direction, and mark the third base. The diamond is then complete.
That R.G. Knowles goes on to say that when he was a kid he used to carry a ball of string with the requisite knots in it just in case he needed to create a diamond for other kids is just wonderful. Do I think he’s telling the truth? Of course not. (since when have kids cared about proper dimensions when playing a game) But I love the sentiment.
The man who evinces a quick grasp and comprehension of the points of play, and who is also gifted with the capacity of being witty, is a very desirable person for the post.
The second chapter describes each position, including the “coachers” and umpire. Not much to say about the players except to note that second base is treated as the key position on the diamond. The umpire is similarly familiar in how he’s charged with being in control of the game. The coaches though are specifically the first and third base coaches and get a lot more description than any of the fielders. Aside from coaching the baserunners one of their jobs is to distract the fielders with banter.
Chapter three is the rules of the game. I didn’t read this one thoroughly since it appears to be mostly the same as current rules. I did notice however that things like the 18″ “pine tar” rule as well as the 3-foot running lane to first base already exist.
The next chapter though is great since it’s all about keeping score. Seeing different scoring methods is one of my favorite things and this section’s method is one of the most distinct ones I’ve come across. While it looks superficially like modern scorekeeping it’s vasty different.
To start off, shortstop is position #5 and thirdbase is #6. But everything else is different too. Instead of being a progression around the diamond each square is read left to right.
We also don’t have the now-standard abbreviations that I learned as a kid and which I’ve taught my kids. Take for example the following progression.
This represents a single, stolen base, advancing to third on an error (wild throw), and scoring on a passed ball. The only thing recognizable about this is putting an X or coloring int he diamond when someone scores.
Outs are a lot more familiar. This represents a ground out to the shortstop for the first out of the inning. Aside from the difference in position numbering this is pretty much the same thing I do today.
The rest of the chapter includes a bunch more examples of dealing with other possibilities available during a game. S–O are strikeouts. TI means advancing on a throw. S–H is a sacrifice. FF is a foul out. Very much the same kinds of things that happen in today‘s game and definitely sets baseball apart as a game which has always been obsessed with detail and replaying the events of games past.
The last four chapters of the book discuss the state of the game in 1895. Two chapters each devoted to Baseball in England and Baseball in America.
Among the people present at this christening of the game in London were: Buffalo Bill, General B. Williams (U.S. Army), Colonel Ochiltree, Mrs. Mackay, Mrs. Henry Labouchere, Mrs. T. P. O’Connor, Mrs. Alice Shaw, Dr. Maitland Coffin, Miss Blanche Rooseveldt, Mr. and Mrs. Tyars, Miss Hallett, Miss Helen Dauvray, Mrs. Conover, and Mr. W. Chapman. As a pressman summed it up, it was an audience of society folk, mummers and Mexicans, Cowboys and Cossacks, Gauchos and Indians.
The England chapter starts off listing a few exhibitions by American teams that failed to make any impressions before getting into a description of an exhibition between the Clapham Common nine—a team of Americans living in London who also appear to be members of the London Thespians—and a team of the Cowboys attached to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show at Earl’s Court. The game took place on July 13 1892 and Knowles includes an absolutely wonderful box score.
Where our author is batting third and playing second base in the scorecard, in the box score he’s batting fifth and playing second base (and pitcher) for the London Thespians Club.* This means that not only is my Ogden a card of a baseball writer, it’s of an actual nineteenth-century baseball player. Also the descriptions of the day jobs of the Wild West club players are something I could never in my wildest dreams have dreamed up.
*Especially appropriate given how Knowles is identified on his Ogden as a comedian.
Clearly fielding was not a strong suit for either team though I find it noteworthy that the concept of earned runs is prominent enough to be mentioned as a team stat. I also notice that the Wild West pitcher struck out 14 Thespians and that those putouts appear to be credited to the pitcher instead of the catcher. Oh and despite a cumulative 34 errors the game only lasted just over two hours.
The rest of the England chapters describe the growth of the league over the following years, the difficulty in finding good umpires, additional visits from American teams, hybrid baseball vs cricket exhibitions, and descriptions of a half-dozen baseball grounds.
The following chapter is all biographies of men associated with baseball in England from the President of the London Baseball Association Thomas Dewar to representative English players and representative American players in England.
The greatest interest centres in the professional teams that bear the names of such cities as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Brooklyn, St. Louis, Washington, Louisville, and Cleveland.
This takes us to the final two chapters which detail the state of baseball in America in 1895. America seems baseball mad with an insatiable appetite for the results of games in progress. The growth of the professional game from individual teams to multiple leagues is markedly different than the amateur struggles Knowles describes in England.
Instead of detailing individual games like he does with the England summary, the 1895 season is described as a pennant race where the standing for a given day are reported instead of the game results until Baltimore clinched the pennant for the second year in a row. Burkett, Delehanty, and Keeler are listed as the top batsmen with Hawley, Rusie, and Young being the best pitchers.
Then we have essentially a biography of Harry Wright, the “Father of Professional Baseball,” as written by Henry Chadwick to close out the book. There’s a glossary, some more rules, an index, and a whole bunch of great advertisements which are too good not to share.
Author’s note: My goal here isn’t to list EVERY set with Traded cards. In many cases, the set I highlight will stand in for similar issues across a number of years, before and after.
1981 Topps Traded
The first Traded set I became aware of as a young collector was in 1981. At the time the main excitement for me was that Fernando Valenzuela finally got an entire Topps card to himself. Of course, as the name suggested, it was also a chance to see players depicted on their new teams, such as this Dave Winfield card portraying him in a Yankees uniform.
Dozens of similar Traded or Update sets followed in the coming years, leaning considerably on the 1981 Topps Traded set as a model. However, 1981 was definitely not the beginning of the Traded card era.
1979 O-Pee-Chee/Burger King
My first encounter with O-Pee-Chee cards was in 1979. While most of the cards in the 1979 O-Pee-Chee set had fronts that–logo aside–looked exactly like their U.S. counterparts, every now and then an O-Pee-Chee required a double-take. Back here in the US, I was not yet familiar with the 1979 Topps Burger King issue, but they took things even a step further.
1979 Topps Bump Wills
Not really a traded card, but here is one that at least might have looked like one to collectors in 1979. Having been a young collector myself that year, I can definitely say Bump and hometown hero Steve Garvey were THE hot cards my friends and I wanted that year.
The most fun Trades cards are ones where the player gets a genuinely new picture in his new uniform like the 1981 Topps Traded Dave Winfield. Next in line behind those are the ones where the team name on the card front changes, such as with the 1979 O-Pee-Chee Pete Rose. Distinctly less exciting but still intriguing are cards were a “Traded line” is added. We will see some sets where such a line makes the front of the card, but much more often we’ll see it as part of the small print on the back.
Here is Buddy Bell’s card from the 1979 set.
And here is Ken Reitz from the 1977 set.
In case it’s a tough read for your eyes, the second version of the Reitz back, at the very end of the bio, reads, “St. Louis brought Ken back in a trade.” The Bell card has a similar statement. Admittedly these cards are a bit bizarre in that the card backs already have the players on their new teams, even in the initial release. Because of that, one could make an argument that the second versions are less Traded cards than “updated bio” cards, but let’s not split hairs. However, you slice it two Reitz don’t make a wrong!
Similar cards can be found in the 1974, 1975, and 1976 Kellogg’s sets as well.
Not really a Traded card but a great opportunity to feature a rare 1977 proof card of Reggie Jackson as an Oriole, alongside his Topps and Burger King cards of the same year.
1976 Topps Traded
This set features my favorite design ever in terms of highlighting the change of teams. Unlike the 1981 Topps Traded set, these cards were available in packs and are considered no more scarce than the standard cards from the 1976 Topps set. While the traded cards feature only a single Hall of Famer, this subset did give us one of the classic baseball cards of all time.
Side note: Along with Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Lou Brock, Lee Smith, and Joe Carter, Oscar Gamble was “discovered” by the great John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil. Well done, Buck!
1975 Topps Hank Aaron
Collectors in 1975 were rewarded with two cards of the Home Run King, bookending the classic set as cards #1 and #660. Aaron’s base card depicts the Hammer as a Brewer, the team he would spend his 1975 and 1976 seasons with. Meanwhile, his ’74 Highlights (and NL All-Star) card thankfully portrays Aaron as a Brave.
1974 Topps – Washington, National League
The National League’s newest team, the San Diego Padres, wasn’t exactly making bank for ownership in San Diego, and it looked like practically a done deal that they would be moving to D.C. for the 1974 season. As the cardboard of record at the time, Topps was all over the expected move and made sure to reflect it on their initial printings of the 1974 set. Because there was no team name yet for the D.C. franchise-to-be, Topps simply went with “Nat’l Lea.” (Click here for a recent SABR Baseball Cards article on the subject.)
Of course these San Diego/Washington cards aren’t true Traded cards, but that’s not to say there weren’t any in the 1974 Topps set.
1974 Topps Traded
This subset may have been the most direct precursor of the 1981 Topps Traded set. While cards from later printings were randomly inserted in packs, the subset could be purchased in full, assuming you threw down your $6 or so for the ENTIRE 1974 Topps factory set, traded cards included, available exclusively through J.C. Penney.
The Traded design is a bit of an eyesore, and the subset includes only two Hall of Famers, Marichal and Santo. For a bit more star power, we only need to look two years earlier.
1972 Topps Traded
As part of the high number series in 1972, Topps included seven cards to capture what the card backs described as “Baseball’s Biggest Trades.”
The star power is immense, though some collectors see this subset more as a case of what might have been. One of the seven trades featured was Nolan Ryan-for-Jim Fregosi. However, as the bigger name at the time, Topps put Fregosi rather than Ryan on the card.
Net54 member JollyElm also reminded me about another big miss from Topps here. Yes, of course I’m talking about the Charlie Williams trade that had the San Francisco Giants already making big plans for October. “Charlie who?” you ask. Fair enough. Perhaps you’re more familiar with the player the Giants gave up for Williams.
This next example is not a Traded card, but it is one of the most unique Update cards in hobby history. RIP to the Quiet Man, the Miracle Worker…the legendary Gil Hodges.
You might wonder if OPC gave its 1973 Clemente card a similar treatment. Nope. And if you’re wondering what other cards noted their subject’s recent demise, there’s a SABR blog post for that!
Though the first Topps/O-Pee-Chee baseball card partnership came in 1965, the 1971 O-Pee-Chee set was the first to feature Traded cards. (The 1971 set also includes two different Rusty Staub cards, which was something I just learned in my research for this article.) My article on the Black Aces is where I first stumbled across this 1971 Al Downing card.
Where the 1972 OPC Hodges and 1979 OPC Rose cards were precise about dates, this one just goes with “Recently…” Of course this was not just any trade. Three years later, still with the Dodgers, Downing would find himself participating in one of the greatest moments in baseball history.
At first glance, these two cards appear to be a case of the Bump Wills error, only a decade earlier. After all, Donn Clendenon never played a single game with the Houston Astros, so why would he have a card with them? However, this is no Bump Wills error. There is in fact a remarkable story here, echoing a mix of Jackie Robinson and Curt Flood. I’ll offer a short version of it below the cards.
Donn Clendenon played out the 1968 season with the Pittsburgh Pirates, which explains his uniform (sans airbrush) in the photos. However, at season’s end he was selected by the Expos in baseball’s expansion draft. Still, that was a good six months before these cards hit the shelves so there was time for a plot twist.
Three months after becoming an Expo, Montreal traded Clendenon, along with Jesus Alou, to the Astros for Rusty Staub. Based on the trade, Topps skipped Montreal altogether and led off their 1969 offering with Clendenon as an Astro. But alas, Clendenon refused to report to Houston, where several black players had experienced racism on the part of the team’s manager, instead threatening to retire and take a job with pen manufacturer Scripto. Ultimately the trade was reworked, Clendenon was able to remain an Expo, and he even got a raise and a new Topps card for his trouble.
Thanks to Net54 member JollyElm for providing information on this set and providing the occasion to feature Bob Uecker to boot. While the card fronts in these years gave no hints of being traded cards the backs indicated team changes in later printings. Here is an example from each year. In 1966, the only change is an added line at the end of the bio whereas 1967 has not only the added bio line but also update the team name just under the player name area.
Note that the corresponding OPC card backs follow the later (traded) versions of the Topps cards.
Topps League Leaders – 1960s and beyond
In August 2018 Net54 member Gr8Beldini posted a particularly devious trivia question. The subject was players whose Topps League Leaders cards depicted them on different teams than their base cards in the same set.
These 1966 Frank Robinson cards are among 11 instances where this occurred in the 1960s and 70s. If you can name the other 10, all I can say is you REALLY know your baseball cards!
1961-1963 Post Cereal
We’ll start with the 1962 and 1963 issues, which feature the now familiar Traded lines. Note however that there were no prior versions of these same cards minus the Traded line. Roberts is from the 1962 set, and McDaniel is from the 1963 set.
Post mixes it up a bit more in 1961 in that there were numerous variations between cereal box versions of the cards and mail-in order versions. The Billy Martin cereal box version (left) lacks a Traded line, but the mail-in version (right) indicates Martin was sold to Milwaukee in 1960.
BTW, thank you to Net54 member Skil55voy for pointing me to the Post Cereal variations.
Thanks to Net54 member RobDerhak for this example, which follows (really, precedes) the examples from 1966-67 Topps. Note the last line of the bio on the second card back: “Traded to Washington in March 1959.” (You might also enjoy an unrelated UER on both backs. See if you can find it!)
1956 Big League Star Statues
A tip of the hat to Net54 member JLange who took us off the cardboard and into the a fantastic set of early statues, possible inspirations for the Hartland figures that would soon follow and an early ancestor of Starting Lineup. Doby’s original packaging puts him with his 1955 club (CLE), but later packaging shows his 1956 club (CHW).
You know those Traded lines that O-Pee-Chee seemed to invent in the 1970s, at least until we saw them from Topps on the card backs of their 1967, 1966, and 1959 sets? Well, guess who the real inventor was?
Bowman’s Traded line didn’t make its debut in the 1955 set, however. Here is the same thing happening with their 1954 issue.
Is this the first set to add a “traded line” to the front or back of a card? As it turns out, no. But before showing you the answer, we’ll take a quick detour to another early 1950s issue that included team variants.
1954 Red Man
George Kell began the 1954 season with the Red Sox but moved to the White Sox early in the season. As a result, Kell has two different cards in the 1954 Red Man set. There is no “traded line,” but the Red Man artists did a reasonably nice job updating Kell’s uniform, and the team name is also updated in the card’s header information.
Red Man followed the same approach in moving outfielder Sam Mele from the Orioles to the White Sox. Meanwhile, Dave Philley, who changed teams prior to the start of the season, enjoyed those same updates and a traded line.
1951 Topps Red Backs
Notice anything different about these two Gus Zernial cards?
Yep, not only does the Chicago “C” disappear off his cap, but the bio on the second card begins, “Traded to the Philadelphia A’s this year.” So there you have it. At least as far as Topps vs. Bowman goes, Topps was the first to bring us the Traded line. And unlike so many of the examples we’ve seen from 1954-1967, it’s even on the front of the card!
1947-1966 Exhibit Supply Company
If there’s anything certain about issuing a set over 20 years is that some players are going to change teams. As such, many of these players have cards showing them playing for than one team (or in the case of Brooklyn/L.A. Dodgers more than one city.) Take the case of Harvey Kuenn, who played with the Tigers from 1952-1959, spent 1960 in Cleveland, and then headed west to San Francisco in 1961.
The plain-capping approach used in the middle card might lead you to believe that the Exhibits card staff lacked the airbrushing technology made famous by Topps or the artistic wizardry you’ll soon see with the 1933 Eclipse Import set. However, their treatment of Alvin Dark’s journey from the Boston Braves (1946-1949) to the New York Giants (1950-1956) actually reveals some serious talent. (See how many differences you can spot; I get five.) I almost wish they just went with it for his Cubs (1958-1959) card instead of using a brand new shot, which somehow looks more fake to me than his Giants card.
1948 Blue Tint
In researching my Jackie Robinson post, I came across this set of cards from 1948. Among the variations in the set are the two cards of Leo the Lip, who began the year piloting the Dodgers but finished the year with their National League rivals. No need to take another picture, Leo, we’ll just black out the hat!
And if you’re wondering how many other players/managers appeared as Dodgers and Giants in the same set, we’ve got you covered!
1934-36 Diamond Stars
We’re going way back in time now to capture a Traded card sufficiently under the radar that even Trading Card Database doesn’t yet list it. (UPDATE: It does now, but PSA does not!) Its relative obscurity might lead you to believe it’s a common player, but in fact it’s Hall of Famer Al Simmons.
After three years with the Chicago White Sox, Bucketfoot Al joined the Detroit Tigers for the 1936 season. As a set that spanned three years, Diamond Stars was able to update its Simmons card to reflect the change. The cards appear similar if not identical at first glance. However, the Tigers card omits the Sox logo on Al’s jersey, and the card reverse updates Al’s team as well.
Another Hall of Famer with a similar treatment in the set is Heinie Manush. Some collectors are familiar with his “W on sleeve” and “no W on sleeve” variations. These in fact reflect his move from the Senators to the Red Sox. This set has so many team variations, most of which are beneath the radar of most collectors, that I wrote a whole article on the subject for my personal blog.
The 1933 Goudey set included some late-season releases, including a tenth series of 24 cards that included key players from the 1933 World Series. Even the most casual collectors know the Goudey set included more than one card of certain players–most notably four of the Bambino. What not all collectors realize is that the set includes a Traded card.
Hitting great Lefty O’Doul was originally depicted as a Brooklyn Dodger, the team he played with until mid-June of the 1933 season. However, when the final release of trading cards came out, Lefty had a new card with the World Champion New York Giants.
Of course, if Lefty’s .349 lifetime average isn’t high enough for you, there is an even better hitter with a traded card in the set. His move from the Cards to the Browns on July 26 prompted a brand new card highlighting not only his new team but his new “position” as well.
1933 Eclipse Import
Another hat tip to Net54 member JLange who offered up a set not even listed yet in the Trading Card Database. Also known as R337, this 24-card set may be where you’ll find one of the most unusual Babe Ruth cards as well as this priceless update. Not technically a Traded card since the player is with Cleveland on both cards (and was with the Tribe continuously from 1923 until midway through the 1935 season), but…well, first take a look for yourself, and then meet me on the other side!
Yes, that is the Philly mascot on Myatt’s uniform. After all, he played for Connie Mack’s squad back in…wait for it…1921! But no problem. Let’s just find someone with pretty neat handwriting to scribble Cleveland across the uni on our next go-round. Problem solved!
My thanks to Net54 member Peter_Spaeth (whose worst card is 100x better than my best card!) for tipping me off to this set and allowing me to use his card of Old Pete. In a move that perhaps inspired future O-Pee-Chee sets, here is Grover Alexander, Cubs uniform and all, on the St. Louis Cardinals.
Other HOFers with mismatched teams and uniforms are Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, and Tris Speaker. In case you haven’t guessed it already, if you want to see a ton of star power on a single checklist, you owe it to yourself to take a look at the HOFers in this set.
1914-1915 Cracker Jack
If you view the 1914 and 1915 Cracker Jack sets as two different sets (that happen to have a gigantic number of nearly identical cards), then there are no Traded cards. However, if you view the two releases as a single set, then there are numerous Traded cards. Among the players to appear on two different teams, the biggest star is unquestionably Nap Lajoie. who appears in 1914 with his namesake Cleveland Naps and in 1915 with the Philadelphia Athletics. In addition to the change in the team name at the bottom of the card, you can also see that “Cleveland” has been erased from his jersey.
Another notable jumper in this set is HOF pitcher Eddie Plank who has his 1914 card with the Philadelphia Athletics and his 1915 card with the St. Louis Terriers of the Federal League.
I will take any excuse to include cards from this set in a post, so I was thrilled when Net54 member Gonzo alerted me to the team variations in this set. Here are two players who were traded from the Boston Rustlers (who?) to the Chicago Cubs. David Shean went packing on February 25, 1911, and George “Peaches” Graham made his move a few months later on June 10.
Gonzo also notes that many of the images from the 1911 T205 set were reused, uniforms and all, for the 1914 T330-2 Piedmont Art Stamps set. (I will freely admit to never having heard of this issue.) One HOF jumper is double-play man Johnny Evers, whose picture has him on the Cubs but card has him on the Braves. There are also several players attached to Federal League teams though their images still show their NL/AL uniforms.
1911 S74 Silks
It was once again Net54 member Gonzo for the win with this great find! On the other end of the aforementioned “Peaches” Graham trade was Johnny Kling, depicted here in his Cubs uniform while his card sports the Boston Rustlers name and insignia.
Another multi-year set, the Monster includes a handful of team change variations. The Bill Dahlen card on the left shows Dahlen with his 1909 team, the Boston Braves. Though he would only play four games total over his final two seasons in 1910 and 1911, the cardmakers at the American Tobacco Company saw fit to update his card to show his new team, the Brooklyn Dodgers.
1887-90 Old Judge
If T206 isn’t old enough for you, then let’s go even farther back to the juggernaut of 19th century baseball card sets, N172, more commonly known as Old Judge. According to Trading Card Database, Hall of Fame pitcher Amos Rusie has cards with both the Indianapolis Hoosiers (1887) and the New York Giants (1889-90). I was unable to find what felt like a real NYG card of Rusie, but I did find one where a strip of paper reading “New York” had been glued over the area of the card that had previously said “Indianapolis.” My immediate thought was that a collector was the culprit behind this cut-and-paste job. But how funny would it be if this is how the Old Judge cardmakers did updates back then!
When I first stumbled across Traded cards, it was love at first sight. What a thrill to end up with two cards of a top star, and what better way to turn a common player into a conversation starter. To the extent baseball cards tell a story and document the game’s history, Traded cards hold a special role. Unfortunately, these cards have a dark side as well. At least in 1983 they did. If you ever doubted that 8 3/4 square inches of cardboard could rip a kid’s heart out, stomp it to bits, and then spit all over it, well…here you go.
Just so everybody here doesn’t think that as a defender of card grading, I’m a shill for PSA, I’ll share a weird experience I had a few years ago with an amazing goof on a card I sent to be graded.
I needed a graded card of Hall of Fame umpire Hank O’Day to add to my “unrestricted” set of Hall of Fame cards. “Unrestricted” means any card of any year, even if it’s long after a person played or lived, including graded Hall of Fame plaque postcards or Dick Perez portrait postcards. Generally, people create such sets with cards they already have from other more standard issues, but obviously folks like me buy other PSA graded cards to fill holes in these kind of sets. To each, his own. It’s how collecting works.
Yes, I know. I don’t consider these postcards really standard baseball cards but – rationalization here – some HoF members have very few real cards, and the one or two that exist are outrageously expensive in any form. So sometimes, I have settle for HOF postcards (which, proudly, I bought at the HOF gift shop in Cooperstown. The clerk was interested to know why I was buying these obscure players’ and execs’ postcards.)
Well, I sent PSA a Conlon card (early 1990s. obviously) of Hank O’Day to be graded. Silly me, I thought it looked pretty good and might rate a PSA 7 grade. Duh. It came back as a 5.5; pretty much worthless in graded form for a card from this set. (I eventually added it anyway as a Conlon to my set.)
Remarkably, PSA had somehow encapsulated this Conlon card as an 1887 N172 Old Judge. Gosh, I wish that had been what it really was! At that point, it was in the PSA registry as if the company had graded a 1887 Old Judge 5.5, which would be quite a find.
I posted this card for sale with the scanned image on eBay, clearly pointing out that it was NOT an 1887 Old Judge. Since I had another raw O’Day card, I was hoping to recoup the grading cost and mailing fee (both quite steep, as those who submit cards to PSA know well). Normally when I list a nice card on Ebay, I might get half a dozen bids and maybe two dozen page views. If I recall, this card got more than 15,000 views in a day.
Immediately, the administrative assistant to PSA’s CEO contacted me, asking that I take down the listing and send the card back to be re-slabbed. Well, I wasn’t born yesterday (literally). PSA does correct what it calls mechanical errors free of charge, and I have taken advantage of this a couple of times, much to my benefit. Player’s names or years sometimes are incorrect on PSA cards out there. Mistakes happen.
But this Old Judge snafu seemed especially egregious, and I wasn’t inclined to send this card back to PSA just to get something pretty much worthless in return. I asked for a couple of free gradings, which were agreed to (though l still had to pay shipping) in addition to the corrected holder for my 5.5 Conlon card back. I probably could have driven a better deal, but I wasn’t looking to cheat or hurt anyone.
I do not share this experience to knock PSA. I understand the grading critieria. I pay to be a Collectors Club member, and I enjoy reading the monthly magazine articles about different sets, many of which are written by SABR member Kevin Glew, a journalist who is a major Canadian baseball authority (and who I have encouraged to post here). I enjoy and appreciate the Set Registry, which is free to participate in.
PSA told me the mistake happened after the card itself was graded. I accept that, but my gosh, I hope a better final checking process is now in place. I’m sure thousands of images of this card were downloaded when it was up for sale on Ebay, so I don’t hesitate to post it here.
If you bought packs in 1981 try to remember the first thing about 1981 Donruss that jumped out at you. The paper thin stock? The occasional typo? The cards sticking together? This mismatched uniforms and team names?
Okay, come to think of it those were all salient features of the debut baseball set from Donruss. Still, the one I was hoping you’d say is the multiple cards of can’t-miss Hall of Famers like Pete Rose!
As a young collector I’d certainly seen multiple cards of the same player before. The Topps Record Breakers and 1972 Topps “In Action” cards were prime examples. However, what distinguished the Donruss cards was that nearly all of the extras looked just like the base cards, at least from the front.
As I learned more about collecting, thanks to some local shows and my first Sport Americana price guide, I began to realize the Donruss extras had ancestors in the hobby. What follows here are the sets I learned about in the order I learned about them.
There are numerous examples in the 1933 set, particularly given the 18 repeated players on the set’s final “World Series” sheet. However, the first one I encountered was the most famous of them all: cards 53, 144, 149, and 181 of the Sultan of Swat.
It would have been around that same time that I also learned of the two Lou Gehrig cards (37, 61) in Goudey’s 1934 follow-up release.
My eleven-year-old self resolved almost immediately to eventually owning each of these Ruth and Gehrig cards. (Spoiler alert: 38 years later I’m still at zero.) In the meantime, the multiple cards of Rose, Yaz, Stargell, and others from my 1981 Donruss shoebox would have to do.
Ever since I got my 1976 Topps “All-Time All-Star” Ted Williams, I decided he was my favorite retired player. As I flipped through my price guide looking for older Ted Williams cards I might be able to afford, I at first thought I found a typo. How could the Splendid Splinter be the first card and the last card in the 1954 Topps set?
There was no internet, and I certainly had no friends with either of these cards. I was simply left to wonder. Were there really two cards? Did they look the same or different? It took visiting a card show to finally learn the answer. Cardboard gold.
It was much later that I learned Topps had been unable to make cards of the Kid in their 1951-1953 offerings. As such, his Topps debut in 1954 was long overdue and something to be celebrated. Perhaps that’s how he ended up bookending the set on both sides. Or maybe it’s just that he was Ted Freaking Williams.
The tobacco areas of the Sport Americana were a bit intimidating to me as a kid. I recall parenthetical notes next to some of the names (e.g., “bat on shoulder”), but the checklist was dizzying enough that the notes went in one eye and out the other. Again it took a card show for me to see that these cards were my great-grandfather’s Donruss.
1887 Old Judge
Fast forward about ten years, and I received a gigantic book for my birthday with pictures of thousands of really old cards. It was here that I first learned about “Old Judge” cards, including the fact that some players had more than one card.
As an aside, that second Radbourn card looks more like a crime scene from Clue than an action pose, but okay.
“1971 OPC? That was unexpected,” you may be saying to yourself. Wouldn’t the OPC cards match the 1971 Topps set, which had no duplicate players at all? I thought the same thing too until I ran across this pair.
The card on the left, number 289 in the set, is known to high-end collectors as “Staub, bat on shoulder” while the card on the right, number 560, is known as “Staub, bat off shoulder.”
More for convenience than accuracy, I’ll lump various “Exhibits” issues under a single umbrella. Perhaps because these cards were issued across more than four decades and seemingly included zillions of players, it seemed unremarkable to me initially that the same player might have multiple cards in these sets. I’d known this fact for years, but it wasn’t until I reached the “gosh, what am I missing” part of this post that I made the connection between these cards and their Donruss descendants.
As an aside, I just love that second one of the Splinter. As Anson Whaley notes on his Pre-War Cards site, these sets provide some of the most affordable vintage cards of top-shelf Hall of Famers. On my office wall side-by-side right now are Exhibit cards of Williams and DiMaggio that I paid about $25 apiece for. Along with these Life magazines from 1939 and 1941, the cards really hold the room together.
It’s at this point in the post when I have nothing left in my own head and have to rev up the research engines. Time thumbing through the cards “gallery” of great players is never a waste of time, whether or not I find what I’m looking for, but here is a great pair I ran across in my review of Stan the Man.
A quick look at the set checklist indicates that not just Musial but all thirty subjects in the series had both a portrait and an action shot. Can you imagine if Donruss had done the same in 1981? Consider the boldness of crashing the baseball card world as an utter newcomer and not just competing with Topps but unleashing a 1,100+ card behemoth of a set with multiple cards of every single player!
No joke! Many was the day I pulled two Cliff Johnson cards from the same pack, but unfortunately they were the same Cliff Johnson cards. This portrait-action pair, on the other hand, would have taking the situation from blown penny to blown mind!
1922 American Caramel (E121)
Similar to 1952 Wheaties this is another set that features multiple cards of numerous players, such as this Max Carey pair.
I got a bit of a laugh from Trading Card Database when I saw the names given to each of the variations. The first card, not surprisingly, is referred to to “batting.” The second card is referred to as…so okay, back in high school I was getting ready to take the SAT. I wasn’t much of a reader back then, and I knew the test would include a lot of words I didn’t know. A few evenings before my testing date, I set out to memorize the entire dictionary. Naturally, this proved to be a bigger job than I could really tackle so I finally gave up after the word “akimbo.”
I only once in my life after that–and definitely not on my SAT–encountered the word in print, and I took pride in not having to look it up. And then this morning, more than 30 years after memorizing the dictionary from aardvark to akimbo, here is is again.
If you don’t know the word perhaps you can guess it from the card: it simply means hands on hips. And for any young readers preparing for their own SATs, nothing helps you remember a word more than having a mnemonic, so here you go: Mutombo akimbo.
But back to our main topic…
1941 Double Play
A tip of the hat from Red Sox collector extraordinaire Mark Hoyle for sharing this one with me. The 1941 Double Play set includes 150 cards (or 75 if you didn’t rip the pairs apart). Most of the images are portraits, but the set includes 10 (or 20) action shots that provide extra cards in the set for many of the game’s top stars such as Burgess Whitehead–okay, Mel Ott.
But yes, Whitehead does have two cards as well.
Thanks again to Mark Hoyle for this one! As this 192-card set was issued over three years, I suspect but don’t know for certain that the repeated players in the set were released at different times. As the two Gehringer cards below show, there are also small differences between the earlier and later cards including where the card number is located and how wide the cards are.
1934-1936 Diamond Stars
I’ll close with one of my favorite sets ever. Perhaps because I never managed to own more than 6-7 cards from this set, I never paid any attention to an oddity of its checklist. The last dozen cards, numbered 97-108, are all repeats of earlier cards in the set. Here is a listing of the players and their card numbers.
And here is an example of the cards themselves.
The card fronts appear to be identical, while the backs differ in not only the card numbering but also the ink color and the stat line. In particular, the first Dickey card provides his batting average for 1934 and the second provides his average from 1935. (Read this post if you’re interested in more significant variations.)
Aside from my Dwight Gooden collection, my collection tops out at 1993. However, as I see other collectors show off the more modern stuff, it’s clear that extra cards of star players are practically a fixture in today’s hobby.
As the examples in this post illustrate, 1981 Donruss was by no means the first set to include extra base cards of star players. However, we can definitely credit Donruss with being the first major modern set to re-introduce this great feature into the hobby. And you thought the only thing that stuck from that set was its cards to each other!
Author’s note: I’d love it if you used the Comments area to plug other pre-1981 sets with extra base cards of the big stars. Some categories I’m intentionally ignoring are errors/variations/updates, single player sets (e.g., 1959 Fleer Ted Williams), team issues, and sets focused more on events than players (e.g., 1961 Nu-Card Baseball Scoops). Thanks, Jason
The first Topps World Series card I pulled from a pack was bittersweet. On one hand it was Reggie, the biggest star in the game; on the other hand, it memorialized his merciless dismantling, five homers and all, of my hometown Dodgers. Though I wasn’t yet enough of a fan in 1977 to have watched the Series, I remember the gloominess and despair that took over the faces of my classmates. Tears were shed.
Most collectors already know that 1978 was just one of many years that Topps included a postseason subset. For a complete catalog from 1958-1981, see this excellent post from Adam Hughes of Wax Pack Gods.
My goal here is to connect these Topps World Series cards to their long ancestry across the hobby’s history. Rather than jump straight in to the years before 1958, I’ll set the table by beginning at 1960, the year of the first true Topps World Series subset.
Though Topps would include single cards connected to the World Series in each of the prior years, the 1960 release marked the first year of an actual multi-card subset. The subset spanned cards 385-391, including the only Maury Wills card Topps would issue before 1967.
There was no World Series subset in the 1959 Topps issue. However, the Hank Aaron card in its “Baseball Thrills” subset was dedicated to the Hammer’s game 4 home run and overall awesome performance in the 1957 Fall Classic.
As we consider the ancestry of the World Series subsets, this card presents us with two “mutations” from the classic subsets that would follow.
It is the only postseason card in the set (and in fact from an entirely different subset)
It does not feature the prior year’s Fall Classic, instead reaching two seasons back.
As we go further back in time, most of the cards we look at will share these or other departures from the classic Topps World Series subsets of later decades. As usual, were we not to bend the rules a bit, there would be very little article to write!
1959 Fleer Ted Williams
I have featured this set in every one of my prehistory articles to date with the exception of Traded Cards. (And who the hell would even think of trading Ted Williams, right?) Sadly, it is impossible to tell the story of the Splendid Splinter without bringing up the heartbreak of the 1946 World Series, memorialized by card 31 in the set.
As an aside, the 1959 Fleer Ted Williams set comes across largely as a (justified) hagiography of the greatest freaking hitter who ever lived. It is odd then that their “Sox Lose the Series” card makes no mention of the fact that Williams played the series injured and instead attributes the Kid’s disappointing performance to a slump.
It is the Hammer once again in the 1958 Topps set, and this time he brought a friend. Okay, a foe! (As an aside, it would be fun to trace the use of the word “foe” on baseball cards over the years. We used to see it a lot more, and I worry we are lesser today for its absence.)
Oddly the card’s reverse makes no reference to the World Series but simply finds (quite easily) nice things to say about each of the featured players.
1948 Topps Magic Photos
Though off the radar (and out of the price range) of casual collectors, the very first Topps baseball cards came four years before the iconic 1952 set. The majority of the set’s baseball checklist was devoted to all-time greats such as Ruth, Cobb, and Wagner. However, 5 of the 19 cards were dedicated to the 1948 World Champion Cleveland Indians. These cards are light on detail, but the two cards known as “Cleveland Indians 4-1” and “Cleveland Indians 4-3” reference games 2 and 7 respectively.
1948 Swell “Sport Thrills”
Sorry, Dodger fans. Here comes another heart breaker. Mickey Owen’s dropped third strike from the 1941 Fall Classic was one of eight cards in this 20-card set to feature World Series highlights.
The Sport Thrills set wasn’t the only baseball set that Swell issued in 1948. They also issued a 28-card “Babe Ruth Story” set to go along with the movie of the same name. While the Bambino did appear on some of the cards, he was more often portrayed by William Bendix, the actor who starred in the film. Card 15 features Babe Ruth’s (okay, William Bendix’s) “called shot” home run from the 1932 World Series.
1940 Play Ball
For a brief stretch from 1939-1941 Play Ball cards sat atop the cardboard universe. The 1940 Play Ball release is known mostly for the cardboard return of Shoeless Joe. A less ballyhooed aspect of the set was the pennant flags adorning the cards of the Yankees and Reds players. (Oddly, the managers and coaches received no such decoration.)
Unlike the majority of the cards discussed so far, these “Pennant” cards also doubled as the main (only) card of each player in the set. An interesting comparison will be the 1933 Goudey set, where this is true for some but not all of the players.
1936 R312 National Chicle Pastels
My favorite thing about writing these articles is discovering cards I didn’t know about originally. In this case, the prize goes to these beautiful premiums from National Chicle. The full set contains 50 unnumbered cards with significant star power, including (arguably) a Joe DiMaggio rookie card. There are also a large number of multi-player cards, such as this one of Arky Vaughan receiving playing tips from the great Honus Wagner.
Most relevant to our topic, however, are several cards that explicitly reference the 1935 World Series between the Tigers and the Cubs.
First, here is Gabby Hartnett after his World Series home run in game 4.
Next, here is Schoolboy Rowe drawing a crowd, even in enemy territory. No wonder they call it the “Friendly Confines!”
And finally, although Tommy Bridges pitched the Tigers to a 4-3 complete game victory in the clincher, here is Alvin Crowder looking very much like he just won it all for the Tigers. In fact, the “General” is shown here following his own complete game to take game 4.
Finally, there are four other cards, a disproportionate number for the set, that include multiple Cubs or Tigers. The photo sleuths among us might let me know if these photos are from the World Series or just “random” shots from during the season.
1936 R313 National Chicle Fine Pen Premiums
Collectors had choices when it came to the 1935 Fall Classic. Among the 120 cards included in this 1936 release was at least one World Series card, #120, showing the throw from Lon Warneke to Phil Cavaretta arriving ahead of Goose Goslin.
As with R312, there are also some multi-player cards that may or may not be connected to the World Series. Card 116, showcasing the “Fence Busters” on the Chicago squad, is one of a few examples.
1934 Gold Medal Foods (R313A)
First a tip of the hat to Net54 member PowderedH2O for alerting me to these cards.
The parent company of Wheaties, Minneapolis-based Gold Medal Foods, issued a set of postcard-sized cards to commemorate the 1934 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and the “Gas House Gang” St. Louis Cardinals.
The “Standard Catalog” lists only 12 players while PSA lists 19 while indicating the set has 22. This suggests to me there may yet to be cards discovered here, either to the delight or chagrin of Hank Greenberg supercollectors.
Forgive Goudey for its numbering antics, but sure enough cards 107-114, 121-127, and 232-240 were created specifically to highlight the participants in the 1933 World Series. Those not as familiar with the set might wonder if 1933 was a typo. After all, this is 83 BTN (before “Topps Now”) we’re talking about. “Are you sure you don’t mean THIS World Series?”
Sure enough, the folks at Goudey were hard at work in late 1933 pushing out the tenth and final release of their iconic baseball debut. The sheet featured twelve participants from each of the pennant winners (New York Giants, Washington Senators) and even included records and results from the Series, as evidenced by this card of Master Melvin.
Something important to consider in assessing the place of these cards in our prehistory is that they weren’t merely cards issued late enough in the season to include tidbits about the Series in the bios. Rather, they reflected an explicit World Series issue, and a 24-card one at that! Quite remarkable really.
As a final note, nine of the Giants and nine of the Senators already had “base” cards in the set, meaning the World Series cards could be thought of as dedicated postseason extras for these 18 players. However, for six of the players, the World Series card reflected their only representation in the set.
1928 Fro-Joy Ice Cream Babe Ruth
Among the six cards in this 1928 set entirely devoted to Babe Ruth is this one, highlighting the first of his two home runs in the 1927 World Series against the Pirates.
1919-1920 Cincinnati Reds postcards
Black Sox Scandal completists will want to collect this 24-card set of postcards featuring players from the 1919 World Champion Cincinnati Reds team. There are two variations of each card. Later printings include the caption “World’s Champions” whereas early printings include only “Champions of National League.”
As an aside, Anson Whaley of Pre-War Cards just published an excellent five-part series on the baseball card legacy of the Black Sox Scandal. Part one is here.
1921 Koesters Bread (D383)
Hat tip to Net54 member brianp-beme for this one. This 52-card set uses the same card fronts as the 1921 American Caramel (E121) set but has different backs and restricts its checklist to only Yankees and Giants, the two participants in the first Subway Series.
If you have a minute, you may want to look at the fantastic card of Hall of Fame hurler Waite Hoyt.
1912 Technical Book Publishing postcards
Not for the budget collector, but these postcards were sold at the World Series itself and doubled as scorecards on the back. The card on the left shows the Boston Americans, and the one on the right shows the New York Giants.
1911 Philadelphia Athletics (E104-I and D359)
I’ll take some liberty here and merge what pre-war collectors would normally regard as two or three different sets. Certainly they will look more alike than different to the casual collector. In each case, I am a huge fan of the World Champions designator.
The first card, Frank “Home Run Baker,” comes from the 1910 E104-I (sometimes seen as E104-1) Nadja Caramels issue. Variations abound, including cards without the “World’s Champions 1910” banner. The next two cards, Charles “Chief” Bender and Harry Davis, could be construed as Baker cards as well, in that they come from the 1910 D359 Rochester Baking and Williams Baking issues respectively.
For any of the card displayers or binder folks out there, I have to imagine the variety of background colors would make these cards look incredible arranged as a group.
1910 Tip Top Bread Pittsburgh Pirates
It’s funny how life works sometimes. Just as I’d reached the end of my personal knowledge, augmented by the easier digital searches available to me, I did what I always do: reach for my Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards. But this time I didn’t even have to open it. Here was the 1910 Tip Top Bread Honus Wagner right on the cover, with the caption “WAGNER, World’s Champions.”
Indeed, this was a 25-card set honoring the 1909 World Champion Pirates team that bested Cobb’s Tigers four games to three. Here is team president Barney Dreyfuss from the same series.
1910 American Caramel Pirates (E90-2)
This tough regional release of American Caramel focused exclusively on the 1909 World Champion Pirates team. Unlike the Tip Top set of the same year, the cards themselves do not refer to the championship. (Hat tip to Net 54 member steve B for this one!)
1907 Geo. W. Hull Chicago White Sox postcards
These 16 postcards honor the 1907 World Champion Chicago White Sox, as noted by the “World’s Champions” caption below the player name. You might imagine the “Every One A Pennant Winner” title above the lines of hanging white stockings is another standard feature of the postcards in this set. However, that is just one of many titles used. Others include “A String of World Beaters” and “A String of Game Fish — No Bull Heads,” whatever that means!
1905-06 Lincoln Publishing Am. League Champs
The Philadelphia Athletics lost the 1905 World Series to the New York Giants, but they did not come up empty on the cardboard side of the ledger. All 20 postcards in this set were devoted to the American League champs and featured the achievement prominently in the card design.
1902-1911 Sporting Life Team Composites (W601)
For ten years, Sporting Life offered readers the chance to be individual team cards or the complete set as a bound volume. In addition to these very large poster-cards (13″ x 14″), postcard-size team composites were also offered some years. Pennant winners and World Series winners were specially noted below the team name.
Readers may be puzzled by the “1904 National League Champions” marker here since the Pirates finished the 1904 season in fourth place, 19 games behind the Giants. One thing to note is that the “National League” portion of the marker simply indicates the Pirates were a National League team. This can be seen by comparing the Pirates composite against others in the series. Finally, the “Champions” portion of the marker should be read as “defending champs,” which is how the 1904 Pirates began their season, fresh off the first ever World Series of the modern era.
At this point you might imagine we’re done. You can’t get much earlier than the first World Series, right? Not so fast…if you’ve read my other posts you know I love to go WAY back, even if it means bending the rules a bit, kind of like how a biologist might spend 58 minutes of the lecture talking about man’s descent from apes and the final 2 connecting us to amoebas or something.
1888 H.D. Smith and Company (formerly known as Scrapp’s Tobacco) die-cuts
Some recent detective work has added to our knowledge of this ridiculously old set and its origins. At first, you might just see too old-time ballplayers with caps you wished you owned.
However, these aren’t just any players, though that had been my first guess. Thanks to the 1976 SSPC reboot, I now know these are the participants from the 1887 World Series between the St. Louis Browns and Detroit Wolverines! Here is a look at one of the 1976 cards. Kudos to SSPC for their work on this beautiful reissue, which admittedly is almost harder to track down than the 1888 original!
1887 Tomlinson Studio Cabinets
If 1888 just isn’t old enough for you, you may be in luck. Even the “Standard Catalog” is stumped in terms of the reach of this set and the extent of the checklist, but here is at least one.
1887 Old Judge Browns Champions
And for those of you saying, “Hey, was that even a baseball card?” I’ve got an even better one for you! (Hat tip to Net54 member Gonzo for this one.)
It is at this point in the tour that the bus finally runs out of gas. As always though, I hope the result is an appreciation of some older cards you might not have known about and further reinforcement of the adage that “what’s new is old,” at least when it comes to the baseball card “innovations” of our youth.
As always, additions and corrections are welcome.
Appendix – Ancestry Report
Something I’ve toyed with and was encouraged to dig into more deeply based on a reader comment is an “ancestry report” that evaluates each entry against the key traits of the standard Topps World Series subsets. I won’t belabor the coding scheme or column headers unless asked, other than to acknowledge that blue represents mutations that go beyond the Topps standard. (In this case, I used blue for cards that feature the current-year World Series rather than the prior year.)
Anyone wanting to play with the raw data can find it here. Let me know if it’s useful at all. If so, I can do similar for Record Breakers and other prehistory work I’ve done.
One of my favorite posts on the SABR Baseball Cards blog is Matthew Prigge‘s “Like a Broken Record” (March 2017), in which he detailed the progression of the Topps Highlights and Record Breaker cards from their respective origins in the 1975 and 1976 sets. In what I hope will be my first of many posts for this blog, I will go backward instead and focus on the ancestry of these cards, following a prehistory that goes back to more than a century ago.
Before jumping in, I’ll give a few examples of cards I will not include, along with my rationale for omission, as sometimes the best way to define one’s scope is to identify what falls just outside it
World Series cards
The first Topps World Series multi-card subset was in 1960, consisting of seven absolutely beautiful cards that told the story of the 1959 Fall Classic between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox.
If we consider single card subsets as a thing, then the very first Topps World Series subset came two years earlier with the 1958 Topps World Series Batting Foes (Mantle/Aaron) card. Because Topps would continue to push out World Series subsets with regularity, even in years with Record Breaker/Highlight cards, we will exclude World Series cards from our study. True, they feature highlights from the prior season, but they are a large enough sub-genre to warrant separate treatment.
The same logic will apply to the 1961 Topps (cards 471-486) and 1975 Topps (cards 189-212) MVP subsets. While MVP cards lacked the perennial quality of the World Series cards, they still feel more like their own category of cards than exemplars of the Record Breakers/Highlights category.
All-Stars, All-Star Rookies, etc.
Finally, while one could consider being named an All-Star or All-Star Rookie a highlight—at least very broadly—we will exclude these subsets for the same reasons as each of the others.
Pre-1975 Highlights and Record Breaker cards
Having identified what doesn’t make the cut, we are now ready to begin our journey, starting off where Matthew’s original article left off. As I like to do, we’ll proceed in reverse chronological order, though the article should accommodate a bottom-to-top if you prefer it that way.
Well there’s this guy of course!
1974 Bob Parker 2nd Best
It’s fitting that the second set we encounter on the way to the Topps run of Highlights and Record Breakers is a set honoring players who came in second! In addition to providing budget collectors with a shot at “Shoeless Joe,” the Vic Power card is a must have for “cards that say robust on the front” supercollectors.
A major differentiator between these cards and the Record Breaker/Highlights cards Matthew profiles are that these cards reach back across the vast history of the game whereas the more modern cards focus on the season immediately prior. Were we to treat this distinction as fatal, this article would be very short indeed, so we’ll continue under the assumption that cards such as these are allowed into the ancestry.
In addition to the various Fleer sets he worked on, artist R.G. Laughlin also put out his own set of cards in 1972. There were 51 cards in all, along with multiple color variations.
1971 Topps Greatest Moments
This 55-card release from Topps is without a doubt one of the toughest of the 1970s, and unfortunately for player collectors on a budget one that is filthy with Hall of Famers. Unlike the Fleer sets of the early 1970s the checklist consists entirely of (then) current players, but again the feats themselves span multiple years.
The nine cards from 311-319 in the 1962 Topps set are commonly referred to as “In Action” cards. Many of the cards, such as “Ford Tosses a Curve,” would strike only the most easily impressed baseball fans as highlights; however, this same subset does feature the biggest record to be broken in at least 20 years. In a move we might today regard as trolling, Topps chose this same year to dedicate a full ten cards to the previous record holder!
As with the “In Action” cards, the “Babe Ruth Special” cards were a mix of Record Breaker and non-RB cards. Ruth’s card 144 (no, not THAT 144), titled “Farewell Speech,” is particularly relevant to this post in that the front featured a career-capping highlight–the speech–while the back listed Babe Ruth’s various records.
The 1961 set marked second time in three years that Topps put out a “Baseball Thrills” subset in its main release. There were ten cards in all, including a mix of current (Larsen, Mantle, Haddix) and retired players.
1961 Nu-Card Baseball Scoops
While the Topps set offered the opportunity to beef up ones knowledge of baseball’s greatest achievements, the go-to set that year for history buffs was put out by Nu-Card. Numbered 401-480 for reasons unknown to me, these 80 cards presented collectors with nearly the complete canon of baseball feats. Even to this day, if you could choose just one set to learn the history of baseball from, I believe this would be it.
1960 Nu-Card Baseball Hi-Lites
This 72-card offering is similar in many ways to the set that followed it one year later, the most salient difference being their postcard size. Many highlights were reused from one set to another, as shown by the “Aaron’s bat…” cards in each set. (I believe the image on the 1960 card incorrectly shows Aaron’s pennant-clinching home run against the Cardinals, a problem which could have been solved by interchanging this images on his two cards in the set.)
While the 1961 Topps subset included long retired greats of the game, the 1959 “Baseball Thrills” cards exclusively featured active players. Between the immense star power of the players and the fantastic artwork, these cards crack my top two all-time for greatest vintage subset ever.
1959 Fleer Ted Williams
This 80-card set really covers the gamut as far as Ted Williams highlights are concerned, including highlights from his time in the military and his off-season hobbies of hunting and fishing. As an aside, you can see many of the photographs these cards were based on in Ted’s 2018 PBS documentary.
1954 Topps Scoop
A beautiful set off the radar of many baseball card collectors is the 1954 Topps Scoop set, which features 154 historical events, including a handful from the sporting world. The four baseball subjects are Bob Feller’s 18 strikeouts in a game, Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs in a season, the Braves move to Milwaukee, and a very long game between Brooklyn and Boston.
As a quick spoiler alert, if you have not already seen the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” avoid purchasing this set. Card 82 completely gives away the ending.
Though the name of the “Sport Thrills” set suggests other sports beyond baseball (and one card is even titled “Football Block”), all 20 cards in this set feature baseball highlights and records. A notable is the Jackie Robinson card, which I believe to be the earliest card front to refer to a player’s rookie season. (And if I’m wrong about that, it’s still a Jackie Robinson card from 1948!)
The Sport Thrills set wasn’t the only baseball set that Swell issued in 1948. They also issued a 28-card “Babe Ruth Story” set to go along with the movie of the same name. Naturally, as this is the Bambino we’re talking about, the set includes several highlights. While some of cards include Ruth himself, it should be noted that the most common “Ruth” on the cards is William Bendix, who played Ruth in the movie. An example is card 15, which shows Ruth…I mean Bendix…calling his shot in the 1932 World Series.
1938 Wheaties “Biggest Thrills in Baseball” (Series 10)
The back panel of Wheaties boxes featured a player from each major league team along with a highlight from the player’s career. While I didn’t include it here, the Wheaties “100 Years of Baseball” set from the following year could be said to feature highlights as well, though a typical example is “Crowd Boos First Baseball Glove!”
1925 Turf Cigarettes (UK)
In 1925 London tobacco manufacturer Alexander Boguslavsky Ltd issued a set of 50 “Sports Records” cards. The very last card in the set featured American baseball and George Sisler’s recent batting record. (I’m not sure why they wouldn’t have gone with Hornsby’s record, but perhaps news traveled slow back then.)
1912 T202 Hassan Triple Folders
I often end pieces like this with a wild card entry, one that may not meet the criteria applied to other sets but scores bonus points for its age. The middle panel of each T202 card features a great action shot, which is then described further on the card’s reverse. Most of these cards simply focus on a single play–exciting or not–that fails to rise to the level of a Record Breaker or Highlight.
However, the set does include some cards with narratives that do in fact rise to the level of a Highlight. An example of this is the Bergen/Barger “A Great Batsman” card, which on the back describes Napoleon Lajoie’s 227 hits in 1910 as breaking the American League record, even if today we no longer believe it! (At the time Lajoie’s 1901 hit total was thought to be 220, but he is now credited with either 229 or 232 hits, depending who you ask.)
A handful of other sets are worth mention here, even if they didn’t earn top billing. The 1972 Topps “In Action” cards and 1964 Topps Giants cards both featured highlights on the backs of the cards. Meanwhile, the very rare 1914 E&S Publishing postcard set includes background cartoons with captions that in some cases rise to the level of significant highlights or records.
The 1975 Topps set marked an important innovation in the history of the hobby in that it was the first major release to dedicate baseball cards, specifically its “Highlights” subset, to the most important historical feats of the prior season. However, like all innovations, this one did not appear out of a vacuum. Rather, it drew–intentionally or by happenstance–on a long and rich legacy of cardboard that came before it.
I hope this article allowed you to enjoy the cards and sets profiled not only as fantastic in their own right but also as important evolutionary stops along the way toward the Highlights and Record Breaker cards so many of us collected in our youth, if not the Topps Now cards many collectors still collect today.
Jason joined SABR in January 2019. Collecting interests include Hank Aaron, Dwight Gooden, and Sir Isaac Newton. You can find him on Twitter as @HeavyJ28 or on the Web here and here. He lives in the Chicago area but originally hails from Los Angeles.