Ten quirks of the 1934-36 Diamond Stars set

The 1934-36 Diamond Stars set from National Chicle is a personal favorite thanks to its bright colors, its creative backgrounds, and the overall personality of its artwork. It’s also a set that makes for interesting study due to a variety of quirks and even a possible mystery.

10. NO Ruth or Gehrig

Though the Diamond Stars checklist is stacked with Hall of Fame talent, the set does not include the era’s two biggest stars, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Other notable absences include Dizzy Dean and Chuck Klein. While the omissions detract from the set in the eyes of many collectors, they may prove a blessing in disguise to set collectors on more modest budgets.

The standard theory, which I subscribe to, on why these players are missing is that they were locked into contracts with Goudey and/or mega-agent Christy Walsh. However, Ron Rembert offers an alternate explanation in his article, “Idols and the 1934-36 Diamond Stars Set.”

9. AUSTEN LAKE BIOS

The back of each Diamond Stars card features a novel biographical format that doubles as a baseball instruction manual and scouting report tailored to the featured player. The byline on this content is Austen Lake of the Boston American.

1934-36 Diamond Stars Lefty Grove with Austen Lake bio

Lake himself has an interesting bio, having at one time tried out as a catcher with the Yankees, played football professionally, and rose to prominence as a war correspondent during World War II. Of course, some vintage collectors might know the name (and even most of the bio!) from another set of 1930s trading cards.

1933 DeLong Lefty Grove with Austen Lake bio

8. what year are the cards?

As the name suggests, the 1934-36 Diamond Stars were indeed released over a three year period. However, that is not to say that each of the cards was available all three years. More detail is provided in an excellent article Kevin Glew wrote for PSA, but a basic summary of the 108-card release is as follows.

  • 1934: Cards 1-24
  • 1935: Cards 1-84
  • 1936: Cards 2, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 12, 16, 22, 26, 30, 31, and 73-108

For example, this Luke Appling card (#95) would have only been available to collectors in 1936 whereas the Lefty Grove card (#1) shown earlier would have been available in 1934 or 1935. (As you’ll see in the next section, this isn’t 100% true, but we’ll call it “true for now.”)

7. what year are the cards…really?

For cards spanning more than one year, such as the Lefty Grove, a different version of the card was issued each year. The most telltale feature for distinguishing the variations is the line of stats at the bottom of each card back. If you scroll up a bit, you’ll see the Grove card that led off this article featured stats for 1933, hence was part of the 1934 series, whereas this Grove card features stats for 1934, hence was part of the 1935 series.

6. color change

Card backs featured green ink in 1934, blue ink in 1936, and a mix of the tw0—at least for cards 73-86—in 1935. As such, a set collector hoping to collect all possible variations would need three of each card from 73-86: a green 1935, a blue 1935, and a blue 1936.

5. other variations

Two well front variations in the set are the Hank Greenberg and Ernie Lombardi cards, originally misspelled as Hank Greenburg and Earnie Lombardi. Less known are five cards in the set where the player uniform changes due to a transaction between one series and another. I have a more comprehensive article on this subject here, but here are images of the five.

In other cases, such as with Johnny Vergez, card fronts stay the same but card backs note team changes.

4. more ambitious set planned?

Similar to the 1933 Goudey set, the bottom of each card back advertised a set of “240 major league players.” Despite that, the set included only 108 cards and only 96 different players.

One explanation for the smaller set is that player contracts with Goudey greatly reduced the number of players available. Another explanation is the 1937 bankruptcy of National Chicle. That said, at the established pace of only 32 new players (or 36 new cards) per year, it would have taken a good 7+ years to make it to 240.

3. DOUBLED dozen

While the first 96 cards in the checklist represent 96 distinct players, the final 12 cards in the set are all repeats. For example, Bill Dickey has card 11 (1934, 1935) and card 103 (1936) in the set. A possible explanation for the repeated twelve cards will come at the end of this article.

2. mystery uncut sheet

An uncut sheet of Diamond Stars was discovered in the 1980s by the family member of a former National Chicle printer. While other uncut Diamond Stars sheets are known to exist, what made this one particularly unique was that none of its 12 cards appear anywhere on the Diamond Stars checklist! (See Ryan Cracknell article for more info.)

In addition to blank-backed cards of Hall of Famers Goose Goslin and Lefty Gomez, the sheet also includes a particularly noteworthy card pairing Browns teammates Jim Bottomley and Rogers Hornsby.

Original artwork for the Bottomley/Hornsby card sold at auction in 2012, and good news…the owner is evidently actively entertaining offers!

In addition, the press photo, taken at 1936 Spring Training, that the artwork and card were based on has also made the rounds.

1. connection between uncut sheet and doubled dozen?

I have seen some speculation that the twelve repeated cards (97-108) on the Diamond Stars checklist might have taken the place of the twelve cards on this uncut and unreleased sheet. I have also seen the Bottomley/Hornsby card at its neighbors proposed as part of an unrealized 1937 extension to the original set.

As with most 80+ year old mysteries, any definitive answer is likely lost to history. At least some clues that suggest the sheet was produced along with the rest of the 1936 series are the cards for Jim Bottomley, Roger Cramer, and Gene Moore, all of which show teams they joined in early 1936, and Benny Frey, Rip Collins, Linus Frey, and Lon Warneke, still shown on teams they were no longer with in 1937.

When I first saw this unreleased sheet, what jumped out at me were the zanier more geometric backgrounds versus the more traditional (but still colorful) stadium and cityscape backgrounds of the original 108 cards. Perhaps this mismatch prompted a National Chicle exec to kill the sheet and a panicking product manager to replace it with the fastest thing he could throw together: repeats of earlier cards.

BONUS KAWhi leonard tie-in

As Kawhi Leonard contemplates whether to remain in Toronto or join forces with LeBron and A.D. to form the greatest Big Three in NBA history, I thought I’d call out my favorite Cardboard Big Three ever. I defy you to top it, even if I spot you a Ruth and a Gehrig!

Fahrenheit .407

Listen: Ichiro is the Guy Montag of George Sisler.

Like many students, I read Ray Bradbury’s dystopian classic, Fahrenheit 451, in middle school. Several of its ideas stuck with me for years afterward and I picked up a personal copy not long ago, to keep them fresh.

Near its climax, protagonist Guy Montag joins a clan of exiles who protect the written word from state-organized destruction. They memorize whole manuscripts as hedge against an American society locked in fiery struggle against its own texts. Guy’s recall of a portion of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes becomes his torch to carry.

Whatever your religious background, many SABR readers also know some Ecclesiastes, thanks to Pete Seeger’s adaptation of its third chapter into the 1960s folk-rock hit “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season),” intersecting with antiwar themes from Bradbury’s 1953 novel.

This cultureball matters to me now because of the link between Ichiro, one of our greatest 21st century players, and George Sisler, his parallel from a century ago.

I used to know just table scraps about the onomatopoeically “hot” Sisler. I remember lots of other stuff, like how Dave Philley spent three years as a Phillie (1958-60) and Johnny Podres finished his career with the Padres (1969). Yet…diddly about “the greatest player in St. Louis Browns history.”

Just a handful of significant facts came to mind when I started this article: he hit over .400 twice, they called him “Gorgeous George” (predating the pro wrestler), and Ichiro broke Sisler’s single-season hits record. Oh, and he appeared in the 1972 Kellogg’s All-Time Greats set.

Sisler retired in 1930, explaining why I find him so unfindable. Despite writing about cards for years at the Number 5 Type Collection, almost all of my card research follows Goudey Gum’s 1933 baseball debut, making earlier players a crapshoot. Even my deep dive into a trivial question, “Who’s E.T. Cox and why’d he appear on a card in 1927?” stands out for what didn’t happen, not what did.

I give Ichiro full marks for breaking an 84-year-old record when he notched 262 hits in 2004. Yet hitting isn’t their sole connection. Let’s catch up with George, circa 1920.

Kids could buy this artful W514, trimmed from a strip of five, out of arcade vending machines during Sisler’s mammoth performance for an otherwise fair-t0-middling 1920 Browns squad.

  • .407 average, 1.082 OPS, 182 OPS+
  • MLB record-setting 257 hits, in 154 game era
  • 49 doubles, 18 triples, 19 homers, 42 SB

Zero other seasons in MLB history include that balance of speed and power. None! Ichiro came close as a base runner, stealing 40+ bases five times, turning ground ball singles into scoring threats. As frosting to his power cake, George Sisler led the AL in steals four times.

Even if you drop stolen bases as criteria, just one other season in history, Lou Gehrig’s 1927, includes at least 49 doubles, 18 triples, and 19 homers. The Iron Horse, of course, enjoyed Murderers’ Row as “protection” for his spot in the lineup. St. Louis, however, depended on George’s stealing prowess just to get more guys in scoring position.

This photo from Sisler’s other 1920 card, part of the scarce Holsum bread issue, hearkens back to his younger days as a southpaw pitcher. (Read George’s SABR bio for those details.)

While pitching had moved to his back burner by 1920, George nonetheless closed out St. Louis’s final game on October 3 from the hill (box score), perhaps to help home fans enjoy one last bit of that remarkable year. Although he notched a .420 average two years later, OPS+ rates 1920 “better,” as Sisler hit fewer homers in 1922 (career stats).

Two of Sisler’s sons, Dick and Dave, went on to their own baseball careers. The former intersected with Ichiro’s future home as 1960 manager of the Pacific Coast League’s Seattle Rainiers.

While we’re visiting the past, let’s pretend we’re 12 years old again and snicker at how Dick Sisler appears on a Skinless Wiener trading card. (Players came one to a package.) Cross your legs and fire up the grill!

When Ichiro’s torrid pace projected to break the hits record in 2004, he also connected with still-living Dave Sisler, who enjoyed renewed interest in George’s past achievements and some of the Sisler family traveled to Seattle to see Ichiro break the record in person. (Topps mentioned that moment on Ichiro’s Season Highlights card.)

As noted in that 2013 New York Times article, Ichiro spent a Cooperstown trip examining Sisler’s bats, comparing their construction and “sound” to his own modern models. Five years later, he brought flowers to George’s St. Louis grave during the All-Star Break.

While I’m not surprised a guy with 3089 hits proved a student of hitting, it stands out that he’s a student of Sisler. Should this whole Internet thing burn to the ground, echoing the fiery urban chaos of Fahrenheit 451, I bet Ichiro can teach us plenty about George’s tools and talent.

The Babe Ruth trade of 1933

I know the historians among you are already protesting. “But the Bambino was never traded!” Details, details. You’re thinking of the real world, but I’m talking about the cardboard world.

An extremely rare 1/0 Babe Ruth traded card

The year was 1933, and a fourteen-year-old chewing gum company, having tucked its poisoning scandals safely in the past, was making its first foray into the baseball card world. The effort would be an ambitious one, promising young chewers a 240-card series of baseball stars.

Reverse of 1933 Goudey card #1, Benny Bengough

This set, known as R319 or 1933 Goudey, was destined to become one of the most popular and iconic trading card sets of all time, to this day sharing headroom with 1909-11 T206, 1952 Topps, and (depending on your age) 1989 Upper Deck on our hobby’s Mt Rushmore of classic baseball card sets.

Artist’s representation of fictitious Baseball Card Mt Rushmore. Beware of slippery slopes!

Before we can get to the Babe Ruth trade, it’s necessary to understand that the Goudey set was produced as ten sheets of 24 cards each. An uncut example of the fifth sheet is shown below. It includes card 53, the first of four Babe Ruth cards that would appear in the set.

Sheet 5 of 1933 Goudey set, the first release to include a Babe Ruth card

Probably not, but perhaps you’ve just done the math and wondered how card 53 would have ended up on the fifth sheet, which ostensibly should have featured cards 97-120. In fact, the Goudey set used extensive skip numbering, instead filling the fifth sheet with card numbers 53-57, 68-74, and 80-91. (I also believe a second factor was at play and that this particular sheet was originally designed as the fourth sheet.)

Here is the state of the Goudey checklist following the release of the fifth sheet. Note the gaps from 97-99, 106-114, 121-129, and perhaps 142-144.

But now let’s talk about that sixth sheet in greater depth. In particular, we’ll focus on five cards from it for which early proof versions exist.

When you think of card 106 in the 1933 Goudey set, you most likely think of the famous Napoleon Lajoie card. What you may not know is that an early proof card of Leo Durocher first bore this card number before ultimately receiving card 147 in the set.

1933 Goudey #106, Napoleon Lajoie, issued in late 1934 to appease the completists

Likewise, four other cards from the sixth sheet have proof cards that are “misnumbered.”

  • Eddie Farrell #107 (released as 148)
  • Luke Sewell #123 (released as 163)
  • Al Spohrer #124 (released as 161)
  • Rube Walberg #128 (released as 145)

Returning to the set’s checklist, the proof (incorrect) numbers of each are shown in pink and the final (correct) numbers of each are shown in blue.

In all five cases, the numbers of the proof cards land within the checklist’s gaps whereas the final numbers assigned avoid the gaps entirely. Though it would require the discovery of many more proof cards to be certain, the numbering of the known proofs at least suggests that an early draft version of the sixth sheet might have filled all 24 gaps prior to renumbering.

Ir reality, the sixth sheet filled only two of the gaps, 143 and 144, while adding the next 21 consecutive numbers to 165.

If you’ve done the math again, you may be pondering how it is that a sheet of 24 cards might only check off 23 numbers. The answer is that the sixth sheet contains the only double-print of the set, Babe Ruth’s card 144, which can be found twice in the second row of the sheet. The sheet also includes Ruth’s red 149 card and the renumbered Farrell (148), Durocher (147), Walberg (145), Sewell (163), and Spohrer (161) cards.

Sheet 6 from 1933 Goudey set (numbering added) featuring double-printed Ruth 144

To the extent the five proof cards identified thus far hint at a draft version of this sheet with different numbers, a second even more intriguing question is natural: did the draft version include both Ruth 144 cards, or was a second one added in some later stage of production?

Thickening the plot and potentially answering that question is the existence of a sixth proof card.

Proof card of Jack Russell

Like the other five proofs, its number 121 fits perfectly within the theorized numbering of the original sixth sheet.

However, this particular card did not end up on the set’s sixth sheet. It was bumped to the next one and assigned card number 167.

Sheet 7 from 1933 Goudey set featuring Jack Russell’s card 167

What this suggests to me is that there were at least two significant changes made to the 1933 Goudey set’s sixth sheet prior to final production.

  • Cards were renumbered to continue the set’s skip counting scheme.
  • Jack Russell was bumped to make room for a second Ruth 144 card.

So while I may never own the 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth card I’ve coveted since I was nine, I may well own the player he was traded for, and isn’t that almost as good?! 😀 (Spoiler alert: No.)

The author with his 1933 Goudey consolation prize

So that’s the story I intended to tell when I began work on this article. Unfortunately, facts have a way of ruining a good story, and that’s exactly what happened as I chased down some last-minute research on the topic.

While I am unable to find a photo of the reverse, I trust the Robert Edwards Action catalog enough to add this Al Thomas card to the list of numbering variations. While the true Thomas card (pictured at right) carries number 169 in the Goudey set, the proof card (pictured at left) is numbered 127.

Proof card and standard card for Al Thomas. Note various minor differences in typesetting of name.

On one hand, a proof card numbered 127 fits squarely within the numbering range of the other proof cards.

On the other hand, like the Russell, it bounced to the seventh sheet of the set.

Had Thomas remained on the sixth sheet along with Durocher, Walberg, et. al., his proof card would have fit my original thesis to a tee. However, with that not being the case, we are left with two possible conclusions.

  • The whole theory was rubbish to begin with
  • The theory was mostly right except that TWO Ruth cards were added at the end!

I find this second alternative the more attractive one, largely for self-serving reasons, but also because it begs the question: Which two?

I’ll close with a few quick notes on the proof cards discussed in this article.

  • While the most evident differences between the proofs and their standard issues are the card numbers on the back, there are also differences on the fronts of the cards. The typesetting of the player name is a frequent difference. For example, the proof version of Al Thomas almost looks like ALTHOMAS (one word) while the standard version separates his first and last name with a period (AL. THOMAS) and crashes into his hat.
  • While there is some mystery surrounding the precise timing of these proofs, a strong clue comes from the Durocher card. Because his proof has him with the Cardinals, a trade that occurred May 7, 1933, it is clear his proof card was produced after that date.
  • Thus far each of the proof cards identified with the possible exception of the Durocher is a 1/1, at least as far as known copies are concerned.
  • According to hobby lore, most or all of the proofs came from a single partial sheet obtained by hobby pioneer Woody Gelman directly from a source at Goudey. (An alternative explanation has been put forth with respect to the Durocher, claiming it was instead created by hobbyists post-1933 as a means of helping collectors complete their sets.)

Author’s note: If you are aware of other 1933 Goudey proofs with numbers that differed from their final printing, please let me know. Following the line of thought in this article, I imagine there might have been 20+ originally.

Héroes de Cartón: When is a Card not a Card?

A few months ago I attended the Frederick Ivor-Campbell 19th Century Conference at the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Fred is my favorite of all of the SABR conferences because of the intimacy, the subject, the location and the camaraderie. One of the presentations that weekend was entitled “The Birth of Baseball Cards.” The panel was moderated by MLB historian John Thorn and featured the SABR Baseball Card blog’s very own Jeff Katz, Hall of Fame curator Tom Shieber and author Peter Devereuax. Devereaux’s book, Game Faces, is an inside look at many of the early baseball cards that constitute the Benjamin K. Edwards Collection at the Library of Congress and served as a jumping off point for the panel. Game Faces should be on the reading list of everyone in this group.

Over the course of the panel the question was brought up of just what it is that defines a “card.” It is a question that is often addressed in the hobby; has, in fact, been addressed in this blog by Mr. Katz. It is also a question with no definitive answers, although Shieber, who was one of the driving forces behind the Hall’s new permanent baseball card exhibit entitled “Shoebox Treasures,” listed a few personal criteria. To be clear, Tom does not espouse to be the final voice on this subject, but much of what he said rang true to me. To him, the item in question should be: intended as a collectible, part of a set, directly related to baseball, and there should be a “cardyness” about it. That last one is admittedly vague, though for most of the folks reading this, the idea is likely akin to the old adage coined by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart about pornography. We know it when we see it.

My paper-thin 1946/47 Propagandas Montiel Los Reyes del Deporte card for Nap Reyes, purchased on a visit to Cuba. Reyes has an earlier card, a 1945/46 Caramelo Deportivo, but it was only issued to collectors who had completed the rest of the set, thus making it rare and one of the most expensive cards of a Cuban ever issued.

This panel was the highlight of the weekend for me, not just because it was dedicated to one of my favorite subjects, but more so because I have wrestled recently with this very question. As I mentioned in my last post, in my quest to complete a collection of the rookie cards of every Cuban who has appeared in a major league game, I have had to stretch certain standardly-accepted definitions, beginning with the idea of a what constitutes a “rookie card.” In the interest of finding at least one card for every player, I have had to not only step outside of some of the accepted definitions within the hobby, but I have been confronted numerous times with the issue of whether or not an item I am looking at even counts as a “card.”

Such is the case with the 1943 set issued by the Havana-based, cracker, candy and chocolate manufacturer, La Ambrosia. As with major league baseball, the arrival of World War II created a vacuum of talent in the Cuban professional league. The league had already been struggling financially since the political upheaval of the overthrow of President Gerardo Machado, in the early 1930s. When the war began, it stemmed the flow of top-tier American talent, the quality of play suffered, and the league found itself at a low point. The silver lining of this nadir was the maturation of the Cuban amateur leagues.

The La Ambrosia card for Rogelio “Roy” Valdés. He had a single plate appearance with the Senators in 1944, although Valdés stuck around in the Washington minor league system for another four years after that.

With no minor league system in place, Cuban clubs would find their promising young talent on the sugarmill teams that dotted the countryside. Similar to the American company teams that would produce exciting local baseball that filled the void before the advent of radio and television broadcasts, the sugarmill teams were a loose collection of business-based semi-pro clubs. One of those clubs was sponsored by La Ambrosia, and would feature the likes of such luminaries as future Cuban batting champ Claro Duany and Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso.

The candy giant capitalized on their sponsorship of the club by publishing a set of 240 images that were released as “stamps.” Collectors were encouraged to get all of the stamps and then stick them inside an album, similar to the more ubiquitous Cuban release issued by Caramelo Deportivo during the 1945/46 and 1946/47 seasons. Printed on thin paper that most closely resembles magazine stock, the La Ambrosia stamps featured the largest single published collection of Cuban amateurs that I have found.

The album that La Ambrosia issued, with the intention of the stamps being pasted inside. The cross promotion with the Wilson sporting goods company is an interesting insight into how intrinsically American business was intertwined with Cuban interests at the time.

Unlike the Deportivos, in which the images are black and white and often grainy, the La Ambrosias are in color. They have the distinctive look of the tones being both vibrant and muted, as though the photos had been tinted with watercolors. The images look especially bright when mounted on the yellowed pages of their original album. It is those albums which resulted in the Deportivos and the La Ambrosias sharing another unfortunate trait. There are few remaining of either issue that do not have serious flaws, including backs that were damaged by adhesives.

For many, including the auction houses that sell these sets, the descriptions of these issues have evolved from “stamps” to “cards.” They certainly fit with Shieber’s first three criteria. But what about “cardyness?” They are not published on what we think of as a card stock. But does that matter? What is that quintessential piece that makes a card a card? Does an item need ALL of Shieber’s (self-proclaimed arbitrary) criteria? Are three sufficient? What about two? Or one?

The La Ambrosia cards feature a large number of pencil-thin mustaches, a popular fashion choice in Cuba at the time. Rogelio Martinez, who would not make his lone appearance with the Senators until 1950, sports a rather thick example of the style.

The “cards” I have included in the collection for the Aragóns, Ángel and his son Jack, are a perfect example of this latter question. Their short major league careers, as well as the fact that they played during war years (Ángel appeared in 32 games with the Yankees during World War I and Jack’s lone major league appearance was in 1941), led to neither of them having what would be thought of, traditionally, as a card. I have not even had any luck by expanding my search to include cards that portray them in foreign leagues, although Jack’s extensive minor league career gives me hope that I may discover him in an obscure set someday. At the moment, though, they just don’t seem to exist.

However, while trolling through ebay, I came across a seller who was offering images of both Ángel and Jack. He had come into possession of a number of old periodicals, including a 1914 Spalding Guide and a 1949 publication called, “Historia del Base Ball Profesional de Cuba,” written by Raul Diez Muro. The seller, scissors in hand, cut up both periodicals into a series of head shots for the players that appeared in the two collections. The Spalding Guide offered a number of publicity photos of minor league players, including Ángel. Jack appeared in the book by Muro.

Ángel played for the minor league Long Branch Cubans in 1913 and 1914 before being called up to the Yankees. Unlike some other teams named “Cuban,” the Long Branch squad was made up almost entirely of actual island-born ballplayers.

I have decided to include these hand cut bits of newsprint in lieu of “cards” because there aren’t any other options for these players and they do have the advantage of originally being printed concurrent with the player’s career. They pass virtually none of Shieber’s criteria. While the publications themselves could be considered collectible, they certainly became less desirable after the scissors were taken to them. The subjects are definitely baseball related, but they are not part of an intended set, nor do they feel very “cardy” to me. I have blurred the line considerably in the interest of completing my checklist.

I am now at the point where I need to decide if, since I have expanded my definitions for the Aragóns, do I do the same with the remaining Cubans who were never issued a card? Are pictures cut from newspapers enough to check that box, especially if I hold true to the criteria of the images being published during their careers? I know it’s my set, and I can do with it as I damn well please, but I’m not a fan of cheating. I suppose the best answer would be for me to wait to make a similar discovery of a player who is cardless, and decide when I see the actual item. Because, like Stewart’s porn, I believe I’ll know it when I see it.

Author’s note: I thought some of you might be interested in seeing the collection as it develops. I have created a flickr album that you can access here. The cards appear in the album not by the year in which they were issued, but rather in the order in which the player made their major league debut. Thus, even though the card for Esteban Bellán wasn’t produced until 2014, he is the first one in the set.

Héroes de Cartón: A Cuban Collection

When I first traveled to Cuba in 2015, I had hoped to bring home some cards of the stars I would be seeing while I was on my baseball tour. Still naive about the differences between Cuban baseball and the major leagues, I believed that there would be such a thing. I knew the stadium amenities weren’t going to be luxurious (they weren’t) and the food at the park was bound to be lousy (it often was, though the pulled pork sliders I bought outside of Estadio 26 de Julio in Aretmisa remain vividly delicious in my memory). Still, surely an enterprising soul, or the government, had managed to publish a few sets of baseball cards. I was quickly corrected by none other than fellow traveler and Cuban baseball expert Peter Bjarkman. He informed me there were no modern cards in Cuba. There was one set published in 1994 which included pre-MLB cards for the Hernández brothers, Liván and Orlando. The one before that was sold in the 1950s.

I had never given much thought of what it would be like to be a youthful fan who could not regularly experience baseball cards. I loved the cards long before I truly loved the game. In the days before the internet and daily airings on team-owned networks, they were my most direct connection. I thrilled with each new pack and the treasures I found inside.

That same passion, this time on the faces of a gaggle of Cuban children, was on display whenever a member of our group pulled out a pack of Topps at one of the five Serie Nacional contests I attended. They would swarm, a collective that would consume any gleaming picture of a hero-in-action they could get their hands on. Bonus points if it was Yasiel Puig or Aroldis Chapman. At one point I pulled out a business card to give to a local sportswriter and a child’s eager hands immediately reached out to me. Just the image of a baseball on my card was enough to ignite their imaginations.

Jorge Soler’s rookie card appears in the Topps 2015 set, the year I began the collection.

All of this got me thinking about the Cuban stars of the past, and whether they had baseball cards. I had learned that generations of Serie Nacional heroes have never had one. But, what about the hundreds of Cubans who played in the major leagues? Surely many of them must have cards. I first considered starting a collection of all of the cards featuring Cuban-born players. I quickly realized that a complete collection of Cubans was going to necessitate far too much energy and money pursuing just José Canseco. There are roughly 3000 distinct cards of the tainted slugger. I decided that maybe the best way to approach this new whim would be to just get the rookie cards. The set would become relatively finite and definitely more achievable.

Many of them have rookie cards, but certainly not all. Some never had a card issued at all, at least none that my current research has revealed. Others have cards, but not ones that modern collectors consider “rookies.” Cards from a player’s minor league days do not qualify. Neither do cards from foreign leagues, such as the pre-revolution Cuban Winter League.

Tony Taylor’s 1958 Topps rookie card. Taylor is tied with Bert Campaneris for career triples by a Cuban-born player.

Such is the case of the Acosta brothers, José and Merito. The two appeared on Clark Griffith’s Cuban-laden Washington Senators of the 1910s and 20s. However, neither made enough of a mark to appear on a card during World War I and the lean years of the hobby that followed. Cards were produced in smaller sets, thus players like Merito, who appeared in 180 games in the outfield over five seasons, and José, who pitched in 55 games over three years, often fell through the cracks.

However, while playing for the 1923/24 Marianao squad of the Cuban League, they both appeared in a set that was issued in their homeland by Billiken. Like their American counterpart, these cards could be found in packs of cigarettes. In addition to Cubans, they also featured American Negro League legends like Oscar Charleston and Andy Cooper. Per the definitions set by modern collectors, these do not qualify as “rookie cards.” I decided that because so many of the pre-revolution members of the fraternity fell into this category, I was expanding my criteria to include first-known cards, as well.

The most respected Cuban-born player in his homeland is Martín Dihigo, whose 1945/6 Caramelo Deportivo is not a part of the collection because the color line kept him out of the majors.

As of this writing, there have been 208 Cuban-born men who have played or managed in the majors. So far, and research is ongoing, there appear to be 194 cards in the set I have designed. I had four at the outset, just by culling from my own collection: a 1990 issue of Tony Fossas, a 1989 Orestes Destrade, a 1987 Rafael Palmeiro and, from a pack bought in the interest of the project, a 2015 Jorge Soler. All of them happened to be Topps. There are numerous other publishers in this set, including Bowman, Upper Deck and Fleer. Going back before World War II, there are Zeenuts, T207s, an E135, and multiple cards from the candy manufacturer Caramelo Deportivo.

Palmeiro holds most of the offensive records for Cuban-born players, even outshining Hall of Famer Tony Perez. If not for his involvement with PEDs, he’d likely be a Hall of Famer, himself.

The day after I finished the first draft of the checklist for the set, I paid a visit to a comic book store in New Paltz, New York. My ex-wife and I meet there sometimes when we exchange our daughter. B is a fan of comics and I like to encourage my kid to become a nerd, just like her old man. While not a large shop, the collection is extensive and a fan of the genre is certain to leave satisfied.

What it does not have, however, is very many baseball cards for sale. The two collectibles will often appear together at small retail shops like this, though such stores usually lean more heavily in one direction. No one would ever think of this place as a local card shop. But, it does sell packs of the current sets and that day had about 50 individual cards up for grabs. Of those singles, the inventory was split between medium value cards of current players, a sprinkling of stars from 1970s, 80s and 90s, and a few lesser known players from the 60s.

One of those latter cards was from the Topps 1965 set, number 201. Minnesota Twins rookie stars César Tovar and Sandy Valdespino share the honors. Tovar, a native of Venezuela, had a fine twelve-year career with the Twins, Phillies, Rangers, A’s and Yankees. He finished in the top twenty-five in MVP voting every year from 1967-1971 and led the league in doubles and triples in 1970. The Trading Card Database has identified 56 unique cards manufactured for Tovar.

Hilario “Sandy” Valdespino lasted for seven seasons with the Twins, Braves, Astros, Pilots, Brewers and Royals. He did not share the same success as his card-mate, though he did get eleven at bats in the 1965 World Series, contributing a double and a run. Valdespino was born in San Jose de las Lajas in Mayabeque and became the 106th Cuban to appear in the majors when he made his debut on April 12, 1965. Number 201 is his official rookie card, one of only nineteen different identified cards of the outfielder ever produced.

A cardboard miracle.

The odds of finding that card, in that place, just days after I decided to pursue this quest, cannot be calculated. It was a divine intervention, a gift sent by the baseball gods in the form of a fifty-year-old piece of cardboard.

Today I have 115 of the cards from the set. The latest pickup, a W514 of Dolf Luque, is a real beauty. The corners are a little rounded and there are some minor markings on the surface, but it is crease free and remarkably sturdy for something that was printed a century ago. Luque, the first Cuban superstar, is an underappreciated name from yesteryear and a personal favorite. Finally acquiring his card inspired me to tell this story.

Among Cubans, only Luis Tiant put up better career pitching numbers than Dolf Luque. The W514s began production in 1919, the year Luque’s Cincinnati Reds defeated the Black Stockings in the World Series.

As always, the final cards of this set are the most challenging and, of course, the most expensive. It is also a set that is always expanding. Despite the recent short-sighted pronouncements of the current presidential administration, Cubans will continue to find a way to travel those ninety miles to American shores to play the game. Last year, six more made their major league debut. Three of them have rookie cards, so far, and the recent call up by the Yankees of Nestor Cortes, Jr., who had a less-than-impressive debut with Baltimore last March, increases the chances of him getting one at some point this season. When he does, I’ll be there.

So Cool, So What

Cool card, right? Hall of Famer, glove on hip variation, rare back, sharp corners, a real beauty.

Why do I have it? Well, around 20 years ago, I decided that it would be awesome to try to get a card of every HOFer from their playing days. I started accumulating some, but knew, in my heart, I’d never get there. Expense, rarity, fluctuations in income and time would prove me right. This was a pipe dream.

Pipe dreams can be fine; having a Holy Grail has its merits. It’s not for me. I like to collect sets, manufacturer ordained sets. I’m not a Personal Collector, looking for every Max Alvis card (though I’ve thought about doing that), or a Team Collector, or a Type Collector. Great pursuits all, not my thing.

So now I’m left with a bunch of nice pre-war cards that, because of my nature and the reasons I acquired them, have no emotional hold on me. Mark Armour and I spent a long time on the phone last week talking about emotion and collecting, and how, for us, they’re inextricable. I think we all know this. The cards in our collection that we’ve known since we were kids feel different to us than the cards we’ve purchased along the way. I can assure you that the 1977 Burger King Yankees set that I got last week brings me more joy than ol’ Muggsy’s T206.

You’ve read about my travails in grading and I can report that I sold the Ruth and Cobb for about as much as I think I can, based on lots of offers and auction results. I only had a little post-partum blues, but they faded fast. The main reason I sold those was to buy a nice 1956 Mantle, which I did.

What’s interesting to me is that a 1956 Mantle is about equal in my mind (and heart) to the McGraw. Mantle retired around when baseball started to blossom for me and, even when I started collecting cards in the early 1970’s, he was never a guy I dug. So why, in effect, trade a Cobb Domino Disc for a ’56 Mick?

I think I do have a reason. When I was first buying old cards, I fell in love with the 1956 set. For years, it was the vintage set I had the most of (about 40 cards). I started pursuing the set in earnest a couple of years ago and needed Mantle.

Rather than bringing me back to my youth as a pack buyer, which, I have to say, finishing low value insert Football sets – 1970 Super Glossy, 1971 Game and Posters – did in spades,

1970 Football Glosy 1 front128

the 1956 Mantle brings me back to my youth as a collector. I can see 12-year old me with his first ‘56s, remember buying beautiful Pee Wee Reese and Whitey Ford cards, and there’s a certain pang that comes with those cards.

We’ll see where this all goes. In reality, there’s a limited amount of cards from my growing up that I don’t have, or still want. In retrospect, I should’ve bought the 1979 Topps Hockey set instead of this McGraw card. Maybe that’s my next deal, selling Little Napoleon to buy The Great Gretzky’s rookie card.

 

My Grading Experience – PSA 1 (Poor)

When grading hit the hobby in the late 1990’s, it was, for me, a death knell. As a set collector, seeing nice commons get sucked out of the market in raw form put me on a baseball card hiatus that lasted about 15 years (except for my annual sets and some occasional new things that caught my eye). I still don’t like buying graded cards (I crack them out of cases if I happen upon one for a set I’m working on) and I’ve never graded a card. Never, that is, until this past month.

As my friend Greg will tell you, my thoughts on grading my pre-war cards stretches back at least a year or more. I’ve been thinking of selling those off to support my current hobby interests. (Here’s a post from last July, which puts some kind of date on this exercise.)

In a very real sense, my back was against the wall when it came to my George Ruth Candy Company cards. A rash of fakes hit the market at the turn of the century, and, though I listed one of the two I have, it was clear that I’d need to get it graded to alleviate any fears of counterfeiting. PSA won’t grade these cards anymore because of the frauds, but SGC will. I sent off #3, the one I want to sell. It’s a pretty nice looking card, nicer than some I’d seen grade EX. I had high hopes.

Ruth front

Ruth back

To SGC’s credit, they promise a quick turnaround. To their discredit, they didn’t deliver on that promise, and I had to call to find out why it was taking so long to get back. I got good help, and, it was during that conversation, that I found out the grade, a 3, VG.

I couldn’t believe it. Not only is the card now valued much less, but I had to pay about $80.80 (including my priority postage to send it) for the privilege.  The whole ordeal made my stomach hurt.

Still, I had an extremely nice Ty Cobb Sweet Caporal Domino Disc to look forward to grading, this time by PSA. I searched around and found some EX ones that sold for well over $1,000, and I was at least in that condition ballpark. While PSA cost less SGC, $49.80, they take longer.

I checked the PSA site often, almost daily, and the card was in processing for a long time. Finally, the grade appeared – PSA 4 (VGEX). I was appalled.

I was once told “Buy the card, not the grade.” That’s good advice, but getting lower (though still good) grades feels terrible. Not only will I end up with less money via sales, but the grades have affected how I feel about these cards. Though I made the intellectual decision to sell them, I enjoy (enjoyed) having these, especially the Cobb, which I loved. Not anymore. Now it feels lousy and I don’t know what to do moving forward. I really would prefer not to have my other pre-war cards graded, but I wonder if I can sell them at a fair price without that. It’s a trap and, for a Katz, I feel pretty mousy.

Overall, it was a Pretty Shitty Adventure. I can’t give it a worse grade than that.