Dealing from the Bottom

I once read that good collectors sell the bottom of their collection to pay for what they need. That seemed very shrewd and made me realize I was not a good collector, at least by this standard. It’s only in recent years that I’ve sold the bottom, or some of the bottom (doubles, triples, stuff I don’t want) to subsidize my new needs.

In the early ‘90’s, my interest in cards and my income were equally high, and I thought I’d begin to pursue one card of every Hall of Famer from when they were active. Of course I was covered from the 1950’s on (not counting Negro Leaguers, 19th Century guys and other similar cases), but I started in somewhat earnest. Within a few years that goal disappeared. I don’t think in a way that makes a personal collection of random cards, from various years, interesting to me. I don’t like things so open-ended and the failure of this effort underscored my collecting, and psychological, MO.

But I did get some nice pre-war cards, including two from the 1928 George Ruth Candy Company set of six. Thinking on it recently, I concluded that I don’t need two Ruth cards. One is plenty and selling the other would help me with my current needs. I listed it on eBay, ungraded, but I’ll likely get it slabbed by SGC. My gut tells me I’ll get $1250-1500, but who knows. I can’t even remember what I paid for it, though I know I bought both at once and I never spent a ton on anything.

Ruth front

Ruth back

So is a 90-year- old Babe Ruth card in the bottom of my collection? Can’t be, right, but I’m not so sure. It’s an extra, though not a double. I’m never going to finish that set (nor do I want to) and, the more I think about it, the more I WANT to sell it. And that, realizing that a card could be a one of a kind in my collection yet still be disposable, is liberating.

About 15 years ago, I decided I really wanted autographed cards of ARod and Jeter. I’ve always like Rodriguez, still do, but never cared one way or the other about Jeter. I got a good deal on a signed 1993 Jeter Upper Deck rookie, with LOA. I think it cost around $75. Noodling around on eBay I saw that one sold in the neighborhood of $300 (listed there, best offer accepted). Once I saw that I was intrigued. (Thought you’d guys would like to see the page Jeet is on.)

If someone walked into my house and said they’d trade me a 1956 Mantle in EX for the Jeter auto card and a couple hundred bucks, I’d take the deal (after saying “What the hell are you doing in my house?”). I know that to be true. Yet I’m having a harder time listing the card, getting the dough first, and then searching for the Mantle in the $450-500 range.

The jury’s still out on this. If I do list the Jeter, it’s going to open up the floodgates and I’ll look at what I have in a different light. There’s a lot in my collection that would qualify as “this is really nice, but I’d rather have that.”

Is that the bottom? I don’t know. I’ll let you know if I get there.

1888 WG 1 – Baseball Cards and Franklin County, Kansas

The Franklin County Kansas Historical Society was formed in 1937, and along the way we have acquired quite a few interesting donations.  We have a pretty tight acquisitions policy — if an item does not have a strong tie to Franklin County, we pass on acquiring it. That limits your ability to add baseball cards to your collection when you live in a county that has only produced two major leaguers.

Our first big leaguer was Lou McEvoy, who pitched for the Yankees in 1930-31, but was a long time Pacific Coast League player so he appeared on Zeenut cards in 1929 and 1933-36.

McEvoy Zeenut

Willie Ramsdell was a knuckleballer from Williamsburg, Kansas. He appeared on the 1951 and 1952 Bowman sets, the 1952 Topps set and 1953 Mother’s Cookie set. Below is a picture of a recent item we had on exhibit at the museum, I lent the cards pictured to the museum.

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While the FCHS do not have any cards in the collection of the players above, we do own the two cards below.

Otto Schomberg, RF Indianapolis.

1888 Schomberg

Dick Johnston CF Boston.

1888 Johnston (1)

 

The backs look like this.

1888 WG 1 Back

These are WG1 Baseball Playing Cards, manufactured in 1888. These cards were sold as a boxed set, and they depict nine players for each of the eight National League teams that year.  You forgot that Indianapolis was in the NL that season didn’t you?

Otto Schomberg is the right fielder for Indianapolis and in the upper right-hand corner you can see there is a playing card with six pips on it.  All eight of the right fielders are sixes, which is the lowest valued card in the deck of this game. Catchers are aces, pitchers are kings, and shortstops are queens.  I guess the game designer must have assigned the value according to his perception of the defensive spectrum at the time.

Along the bottom left edge of the Dick Johnston card you will see a number scrawled in ink. That is a Franklin County Historical Society catalogue number, and I was horrified when I saw it.  “You wrote on it?!?!”  But that is how museums do things.  Still I shudder a little when I see it.  The Schomberg card is similarly marked, however at least that one was done on the back.

The set has some interesting players, such as Connie Mack as a catcher for Washington and the reverend Bill Sunday is the Pittsburgh right fielder.  Along with Mack, Hall of Famers John Clarkson, Sam Thompson, Ned Hanlon, King Kelly, Pud Galvin, Tim Keefe, John Ward, Cap Anson, Dan Brouthers, Roger Connor, and Deacon White are all pictured. That’s a total of 12 in a set of just 72 cards.

You may be wondering, why we have these cards in our collection since they aren’t Franklin County natives? Well, I don’t know why we have the Johnston card, he has no apparent ties to the county. Schomberg however died in Ottawa, Kansas, on May 3, 1927.  Schomberg was returning to his home in Milwaukee from California via train. He had a heart issues and passed away on the train as they were passing through Ottawa.

However, there is one other card in that set, which we do not have, that has a fascinating tie to Franklin County, Charlie Bennett.

1888 Bennett

In 1893 the 38-year old Bennett caught about half the games for pennant winning Boston Beaneaters. That winter he and John Clarkson along with their wives went to Williamsburg, Kansas to train together for the next season. Bennett’s sister, Elvira Porter, lived in Williamsburg and this was the third year he had wintered there according to the Wellsville Globe.

In 2016 when we created an exhibit entitled “SMALL-TOWN BALL: PLAYING AMERICA’S GAME IN OTTAWA AND FRANKLIN COUNTY.” Diana Staresinic-Deane told the story of Bennett’s accident this way.

“Although accounts vary from newspaper to newspaper, it is believed that Charlie Bennet had been preparing to go to New Mexico on a hunting trip and traveled to Kansas City on January 10 to purchase supplies. While on the train returning from Kansas City he was in a (possibly heated) discussion with another passenger who he followed out onto the platform at Wellsville, Kansas.   When the train began to move, Bennett attempted to board the car, but as he grasped the rail, his right foot slipped and threw the leg under the car. According to the Ottawa Daily Republican, “Bennett says that he heard the bone crack, realized the accident and threw himself down in an effort to roll the other leg out of danger, but the fall instead resulted in throwing it, too, under the cruel wheels.”

Fortunately for Bennett, Dr. Lamphear, a surgeon with the Kansas City Medical School, was also on the Santa Fe that day, and he was soon joined by Wellsville’s Dr. Ewing.  Both of Bennett’s legs were crushed and Dr. Lamphear severed one foot which hung by a shred. Bennett was then transported to Ottawa, but according to the Ottawa Daily Herald, the hospital could not receive him. Bennett was then moved to a hotel – possibly the Marsh House – where Drs. Herr, Bryan, and Ewing amputated both legs, one above and the other below the knee. Bennett was eventually moved to the Santa Fe Railroad hospital in North Ottawa, where he began his recovery.”

How would you like to be the maid that had to make up the room after that?

All the cities mentioned above, other than Kansas City, are within Franklin County.  The accounts above are pulled from local newspapers at that time, so the story may vary from what you have read in other places.

 

Of Lefty Grove and Bad Decisions

The ‘90’s were a good time to be Lefty Grove. Sabermetrics were a godsend to his legacy. You’d think a Hall of Fame pitcher with 300 wins wouldn’t need much of a reevaluation, but Robert Moses did. The preeminent pitcher in a high offense era, Grove often had relatively high ERAs; his nine league leading totals included four times from between 2.81 and 3.08. It took ERA+ to really put it in perspective. That 3.08 ERA in 1938 was an ERA+ of 160, the same as Clayton Kershaw’s lifetime number. Good, right?

I wasn’t immune to the new found wonders of Grove. I bought an autographed newspaper clipping, no doubt real (who would fake such a crummy item. Plus, I got this lovely note).

I also got a 1937 O-Pee-Chee card, and herein lies the tale.

We were out in Southern California for vacation and, in nearby Laguna Niguel, or Laguna Beach, or some other similarly named burg, there was a high end auction house that had a store front. I was still trading options back then, my card interests and income at mutual highs. That was bad; it meant I was going to spend. Didn’t matter on what; I was going to spend.

There was a lot to take in at that store. I remember (though not with great surety) that they had old awards, rings, and, of course, cards. In the throes of Grove-mania, I honed in on this beauty, secretly stashed in a velvet envelope.

Tim Jenkins Tweeted his card show loot a few weeks ago and, in the midst of his horde, there was a 1952 Mother’s Cookie PCL card. It made my heart hurt, because, on that SoCal day twenty years ago, my ultimate choice was between the Grove card and a complete 1952 Mother’s set. I’m a set collector by nature, but, in the thrall of the Grove renaissance, Lefty swayed me. Upon further review, it was a bad call, only made worse by the misgivings that were there from the start.

First of all, though it’s a Grove card, it’s one card. The Mother’s set had 64. Second of all, they were both around the same price and, while Grove is Grove, the Mother’s set had a Mel Ott card and Ott is Ott. Third, I should have sensed that, from a purely financial position, the Grove card was going to top out and the Mother’s set would only appreciate. That’s been the case.

ott-mothers

I’ve managed to live a life, both a collecting life and a real life, with few regrets. This is one of them. The sad part is, though I missed the Mother’s set, the decision I made has always taken away from how happy I should be about the Grove card. That’s unfortunate, but hard to shake.

A Pitching Evolution, Of Sorts

I’ve always loved getting mail. When I was seven-years old (that would’ve been in the summer of 1970, for those keeping score at home), I sent letters to baseball teams asking for a slew of autographs from each. I didn’t get any autographs back, but I did get an assortment of pictures, decals, schedules, etc. Two years later I honed my letter writing skills, pinpointing individual players. Mail started pouring in, and some disasters were averted. My mother almost threw out a letter for me that had this on the envelope:

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She thought it was from a circus. Inside was a Hank Aaron autographed picture. (And why would she want to throw out any letter that was addressed to me anyway? It’s a question I still ponder.)

 

So I still get jazzed when the mail comes, and, lately, there are a lot of good card mail days. Most deliveries are fairly routine – a few cards of the same year – but sometimes there’s a combination of cards that is exquisite in its randomness.

 

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Nothing connects these three other than they are pitchers and they’re all part of sets I’m working on.

 

Ivy Andrews

Finishing the 1933 Tattoo Orbit set is a pipe dream (for now). I’ve never spent as much money on a card as I’ll need to for Jimmy Foxx and Dizzy Dean, but I’ll worry about that towards the end. Right now I have 24 of the 60.

 

Andrews is a short print, books high, but I got this for less than 20% of the VG price (if you’re a frequent reader you know I use the 2009 Standard Catalog). Who was Ivy Andrews and why did he deserve any print run, short or other?

 

When this card came out, Andrews had already been traded from the Yankees to the Red Sox along with Hank Johnson and $50,000 for Danny MacFayden. Andrews performed well for the BoSox from his mid-season arrival in 1932. He was fine in 1933, nothing special, and was traded with Smead Jolley and cash to the Browns in December 1933. Beleaguered by arm problems for much of his eight year career, Andrews is a member of the Hall of Fame – the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.

 

Andrews was hardly needed in a 60 card set, but, as I’ve written about regarding the 1936 Goudey Wide Pens, the selection of players in these sets is odd. The Andrews transaction register is a Who’s Who of long forgotten players that pepper 1930’s sets – MacFayden, Jolley, Lyn Lary, Orel Hildebrand and so on.

 

Of course, Ivy’s nickname was “Poison.”

 

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Jim Brady

 

I don’t spend a lot of time on card backs, to the chagrin of SABR Baseball Cards Committee HQ, but I have been reading the backs of 1956s. The three cartoons grab me.

 

The back of Brady card got me interested because there’s no statistical information. That was for the best. A Notre Dame alum, he caught the eye of Tigers’ farm director John McHale, another ex-Fightin’ Irishman. Brady was a bonus baby, netting $37,500 from Detroit and, as the rules required, had to spend two years on the big league roster, whether he was ready to pitch or not. He wasn’t. He did pitch for the Tigers in 1956 – 6 1/3 IP, 28.42 ERA.

 

Brady’s success came off the field. He garnered three degrees from Notre Dame, was chair of the economics department at Old Dominion, a member of the eco faculty at ND and Jacksonville U. president from 1989-1996. Solid career, just not in baseball.

 

Tug McGraw

 

I don’t have anything to say about Tugger that hasn’t already been said and isn’t already known. There are few players that always bring a smile, and Tug is one of those. As a still-Mets fan in 1973, “Ya Gotta Believe” is permanently stamped in my heart, and McGraw getting dumped in exchange for Mac Friggin’ Scarce is second only to the Seaver trade in abominably anti-fan front office work for a team that specializes in that trade.

 

And now Tug has a place in my card history – the final one for my 1969 set. It’s a high number (evidenced by the same season info on the card back) and was a bit pricier than I hoped, but for McGraw, it’s worth it. I wouldn’t have felt the same about Bill Voss.

 

 

I think of myself as a well-above average baseball scholar. I’m not top of the heap by any means but I’m pretty high up. At the core of the hobby is finding out about players who I’ve never heard of and lives I knew nothing about. At least that’s a big part of the appeal for me (and probably you too.)

Name Game

Whether intentional or not, my blog posts tend to bring down the intellectual level of discourse to disturbing depths. Continuing in this vein, I present a “cardcentric” look at players whose first and last names rhyme.

67 Schaal green bat  70 Schaal back

The seed for this idea was planted after receiving a Royals team-issued, 1969 photo of Paul Schaal, part of a recent card swap. Schaal has some interesting cards, starting with his ’67 “green” variation. Apparently, a printing error coupled with poor quality control led to Topps issue some cards with a “greenish” cast. In Paul’s case, the tip of the bat is green. The back of his ’70 card features a cartoon showing a player being beaned. Topps seemed to find humor in Schaal having sustained a skull fracture in ‘68. You will find him “in action” in ’71, ’72 and ’74.

70 Tovar   73 Tovar

Cesar Tovar is another rhyming name with a few unique cards. His ’70 photo appears to show his glove with a hole in the webbing. Perhaps his anguished expression resulted from this discovery. After starting–primarily in outfield–for the Twins from ’66-’72, Cesar was dealt to the Phillies in ’73. This resulted in one of the ineptest airbrush jobs of the era. Of course, I must mention that he played all nine positions in a game in ’68.

Lu Blue 1

This spectacular 1922 American Caramel E120 card of first “sacker” Lu Blue was distributed with candy. Lu was a serviceable starter for the Tigers, Browns and White Sox from ’21-’32.

Batts

Although not quite a perfect rhyme, Matt Batts must be included even if it is just to show this gorgeous ’55 Bowmen.

Parnell 53

One of the premier hurlers of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, Mel Parnell is featured on several classic ‘50s cards. On this ’53 Bowman Color, Mel strikes a unique pose with the glove hanging from his wrist.

Green

Some lucky kid probably cut this ’62 Post Cereal card of Gene Green off a box of Grape Nuts.

Sherry

1959 World Series Hero Larry Sherry probably needed the windbreaker in this ’62, considering the photo was taken at Candlestick Park.

braun

Being paired on the ’65 Braves Rookie Stars card with the Alomar family patriarch, Sandy, didn’t bring any luck to John Braun. He pitched in one MLB game for the Braves posting two innings, allowing two hits and recording a strike out.

Hahn

Quick. Who was the original Expos centerfielder in their first ever game (played at New York’s Shea Stadium) in 1969? The answer: Don Hahn, of course. After starting the first three games in New York and getting but one hit, Don was benched and eventually sent to the minors for the rest of the year.

Charboneau

Who can forget one of the most celebrated flops in baseball history? “Super” Joe Charboneau was AL Rookie of the Year for the Indians in ’80 and out of baseball by ’84.

Clark

A “rhymer” of more resent vintage is ’90s journeyman pitcher Mark Clark. No relation to the WWII general of the same name, I assume.

macdonald

I will conclude this “drive through” look at poetically named players by presenting Mets farmhand, Ronald MacDonald. This ’80 card shows him on the AAA Tidewater Tides, which was his highwater mark in baseball. Alas, “Big Mac” “clowned around” in the minors for six years, never to see his dream of crossing under the “golden arches” and into the big leagues come to fruition.

I will create a list on SABR Encyclopedia so additional rhyming names can be added.   I’m certain this will prove to be an invaluable resource for scholarly research.

 

Tattoo Me

On one of my frequent trips to Baseball Nostalgia, my favorite go-to card shop in Cooperstown, I was telling long-time collector, owner and friend Pete Henrici that I was going to try and complete the 1933 Tattoo Orbit set.

“Oh, you like ugly cards,” he said.

I kinda get it. Unlike, say, the 1933 DeLongs or, going further back, T205s, the Tattoo Orbits look a bit amateurish, a tad half-assed. They’re not particularly artful. Still, there’s something I like about the slightly colorized photos superimposed on the bright, generic backgrounds.

1933-Tattoo-Orbit-Baseball-Roger-Hornsby

But let’s be real, aesthetics aside, it’s a set I can complete because there are only 60 of them, I already have 23 and commons can be had relatively cheaply. I’m looking for VG cards, though most of the cards I have are more EX. Actually, I’m looking for VG prices. For commons, I can usually nab a nice example for 1/3 to ½ of book. I’ve been pretty nimble at picking off stray bargains.

I’ve got a bunch of stars, though I still need Jimmie Foxx, Dizzy Dean, a few short printed cards and a handful of middle of the road Hall of Famers of the Chick Hafey variety. This one will take a while to finish, due to both availability and price. There’s no way I can get eBay type deals at card shows, so it’s going to take some time.

Making it even harder is my desire for raw cards. That cuts two ways, both badly. Cards of this vintage are almost always graded, regardless of condition, which sucks and limits the supply. However, I am a “price first” person, so if the graded card is attainable at the level I’m willing to pay, so be it. I have a few sets that are all in albums, save one or two graded cards. I don’t like it, but having is better than not having.

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Raw cards carry their own risks. Trimming, miscuts, and other problems, come with the territory and scans alone don’t reveal all the flaws. I recently got a beautiful Smead Jolley card, but, though it had all the characteristics of a regular Tattoo Orbit – shiny feel, thin paper stock – something felt off. I compared it to all of the other cards I had and it’s either trimmed or miscut. The seller was very understanding and we arranged a suitable solution, but the uncertainty I fell around that card tapped into some fears I have about old raw cards.

 

Over the last two years I’ve been pretty quick on finishing sets. Either I was working on Topps or other hugely available cards or I was lucky enough to have such a head start on harder sets that what I needed I could grab. This Tattoo Orbit set is definitely going to be an exercise in patience (and, to my memory, I’ve never spent as much on a single card as I’ll need to spend on Foxx and Dean). It took me 18 years to finish the 2000-01 Topps Heritage Basketball set with all its short prints. The 1933 Tattoo Orbit set may take as long, but it’s bound to be much more rewarding to have.

My First Baseball “Cards”

ED-U-CARDS

The first baseball “trading cards” that I ever bought (or rather, my mom bought for me) were 1967 Topps, sometime in late spring.  But these were not my first baseball cards. No, my first “cards” were these guys right here.

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Packaged like a standard deck of playing cards, they made a game where two players would take turns playing through an inning, and then handing the deck to the other guy.

They were made by ED-U-CARDS and the copyright on the box says 1957.  I got them a decade later — I assume they were purchased at the checkout line of a grocery store.

These cards were part of my education about the game and how the various events played on top of one another.  Although I am sure I enticed my brother or someone else to play on occasion, I also spent hours just playing the game by myself.  Like solitaire, except that I was learning how the game was played.  A few months later I got some Topps cards, and I began to learn about the actual players.  Both purchases were significant childhood events in by path toward full-on baseball nerd-dom.

The very next year, Topps inserted “game cards” into their 1968 packs.  I was predisposed to love these cards and I did — I still believe it is unmatched in Topps insert history, the absolute GOAT — but as an actual “game” the Topps version was far inferior.  There were fewer cards, fewer game events, and the ED-U-CARDS illustrations were classic.  The HIT-BY-PITCH alone was worth playing the game for.

In subsequent years I ran across similar games that came out around the same time.  If you grew up in the pre-video-game era, everyone had “card games” like this.  A house that did not have an “Old Maid” card game laying around was a house you could not trust.

What follows are other examples of card games that I did not own as a child but encountered later on.

 

Built Rite

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The above game was put out by Built Rite (according to the box) and cost 29 cents.  There is no date.  I like the scooped edging — much easier to hold for a youngster.  In fact the box brags “Shaped Cards To Fit Small Hands.”  The game events are pretty much the same, but the game includes a “Diamond Card” where you are supposed to place coins to keep track of which bases were occupied.  That’s a nice touch.

 

Batter Up

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This “Batter Up” game is copyright 1949, and is very similar to the other games.  I came to love the bright yellow cards, but I have to admit these have a classy look and the illustrations are really well drawn.  Also, it came with a set of rules which folded out to make a diamond for game play.

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Earl Gillespie

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Earl Gillespie was the voice of the Milwaukee Braves when this game was put out in his name in 1961.  It is a very classy box and set up, and the game plays out like all the rest of them, but the illustrations are pretty basic.  Gillespie emphasizes the game itself, rather than the fun drawings.  Its well done.

He also includes a handful of score sheets which is — probably taking things a bit far?  I mean, who are the players in this scenario? As a bonus, he includes a sample — a scoresheet (the Braves batters) from opening day in 1961.

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The question “what is a baseball card?” is inevitably so tied up in personal memories of childhood that logic is no longer driving the bus.  You can classify these as you wish, but good luck prying them from my hands.

 

1936 Goudey – Wide Pens and a Why? Checklist

My set collecting these days has been a mix of the ridiculously attainable (1960’s Topps), the slightly difficult (1971 Kellogg’s) and the preposterously obscure (1952 Parkhurst Canadian minor leaguers). Then there are the 1936 Goudey Wide Pens.

For reasons I can’t recall, I once bought a bunch of Wide Pens (Type 1 – there are five types between 1936 and 1937). I must have fallen into two cheap lots in the early ‘90’s. It came as a big surprise to me last year, when I was looking for sets to finish, that I had 80 of the 120. Not a bad start for an 80+ year old set.

Thankfully the cards, 3 ¼” X 5 ½” black and white photos (portraits, posed action, real action) are reasonably priced. Even the rookies of Joe DiMaggio (along with Manager Joe McCarthy) and Hank Greenberg aren’t that expensive. (Frequent readers know I snagged a DiMag/McCarthy in a one for one swap for a 1976 Walter Payton rookie card).

It’s an odd grouping of players. Around 20% are Hall of Famers, two players get two cards each (Dick Bartell and Clydell Castleman), three cards have player/manger pairings and the rest is a hodgepodge of guys who, even in 1936, seem to be odd choices to make the cut.

“Rabbit” Pytlak was a good-field, no- hit catcher for the Indians. Tony Piet was a classic weak infielder. In 1936 he was 29 years old and the third baseman for the White Sox. Think Maicer Izturis. “Rip” Radcliff would  put in a solid year for the Browns in 1940, but in 1936 was a 30 year old outfielder in his second full season for the White Sox. For some reason I can’t fathom,  he was an All Star and finished in 16th place in the AL MVP voting.

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I’ve got no quarrel with having Wally Berger in this set. Berger was a four time All-Star, garnering MVP votes five years in a row.  1936 was the last year of both runs, though decent years still ahead. George Blaeholder was a middle of the road starter who was in his last year in 1936, putting the finishing touches on an 11 year career that ended up with a 4.54 ERA (to be fair, that number equated to an ERA+ of 103, average, not awful).  Cy Blanton was, for one year, worth of his first name. Forgotten now, Blanton had a phenomenal rookie year with the Pirates in 1935, going 18-13 with a league leading ERA of 2.58 (ERA+ of 159). He’d get progressively less effective and be gone after the 1942 season; his last decent year coming in 1938. Still I get why he’s here.  Cliff Bolton, in his fourth season in 1935 finally became a regular in the Senators outfield. Why he gets a card is lost on me, especially considering who’s not in this set (thankfully, since they’d cost a ton) – Lefty Grove, Carl Hubbell , Mel Ott, Dizzy Dean, Luke Appling, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx.

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It’s not that there aren’t Hall of Famers; one of every five cards has one.  Alphabetically and numerically, this is a superior run of cards with Charlie Gehringer,” Goose” Goslin and “Lefty”Gomez.  And Charlie Gelbert. Gelbert put in a nine year career as an infielder with a 9.3 WAR. Four of those years he had a negative WAR, in three others he was below 1. Sure, Gelbert over Appling in player selection, why not.

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The quirky roster of players in Wide Pen Type 1 is part of why I like it. It’s rare for me to encounter so many major leaguers I know nothing about. (The backs are blank, so no help there). I’ve been steadily marching to completion; I need 11 more. Some are Hall of Famers, but I should be able to get Bill Dickey, Earl Combs and Gabby Hartnett for $15-25 each. The others are commons, some with name recognition today (Phil Cavaretta, Frank Crosetti, Bucky Walters) but they’ll likely set me back around $10 each. The demand is so low that I’ve been able to get cards regularly between $5 – 12.

It’s a great set. Look at this Gee Walker card and tell me it’s not.

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1914-1915 Cracker Jack Baseball Cards

(Ed note: John McMurray is the chairman of SABR’s Deadball Era Committee. This article recently appeared in the wonderful committee newsletter.)

The accessibility of the Deadball Era derives, in part, from the many existing images of players from the period. It is worthwhile to recall that some of the most vivid and enduring player portrayals are on contemporary baseball cards. The most famous Deadball Era cards are from the T205 and T206 sets, which are large, comprehensive, and relatively available tobacco issues (with some notable exceptions). Still, many collectors prefer the 1914-1915 Cracker Jack cards even if these cards are more expensive and difficult to locate, as they likely are the most impressive baseball cards issued during the Deadball Era. The Cracker Jack cards (sometimes known by the E145-1 designation for the 1914 set and E145-2 for 1915, with caramel cards having an ‘E’ set designation rather than ‘T’ for tobacco) are a wonderful window into the Deadball Era in the middle of its second decade.

With a clean presentation and bright red backgrounds, the Cracker Jack cards had the most eye-appeal of any card issued to date. Today, some collectors still consider them to be the most attractive baseball card design ever produced. These 2-1/4” by 3” cards were also nearly twice as large as most of their tobacco card counterparts and included the most biographical detail of any baseball card yet manufactured. But it is the detailed artwork and many action poses which make this set a perennial collector favorite. In some sense, these are baseball cards doubling as art.

Here, among the Cracker Jack cards, are the best baseball card images of Shoeless Joe Jackson’s swing, of Walter Johnson’s pitching motion, and of Ty Cobb’s glare. The action shots, too, are magnificent: Chick Gandil reaching for a ball at first base is a beautifully done horizontal image, as is that of Ray Keating pitching. Then there are the catcher poses, with Hick Cady, Ted Easterly, Les Nunamaker, Frank Owen, and Wally Schang shown in action in full catcher’s gear. The portraits of Charles Comiskey and Connie Mack seem to capture their respective professional reputations. If you would like to see a commanding picture of John McGraw, a side view of Gavy Cravath at bat, or a pensive pose of Honus Wagner, these sets are the place to look. Surely, no better card of Smoky Joe Wood has ever been produced than in the Cracker Jack sets, and there is a sometimes-overlooked card of Branch Rickey as manager of the St. Louis Browns. As many have noted, what is missing is a card of Babe Ruth in either set, a real incongruity since so many lesser names are included. But, except for Ruth, there is really nothing missing from these relatively small sets.

Magee1915The 1914 Cracker Jack cards are significantly more scarce than the ones issued in 1915. “While collecting complete sets from either year is tough, there is no question that the 1914 set is infinitely more difficult to acquire, and it all comes down to the way the cards were distributed,” wrote Joe Orlando, president of Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) and PSA/DNA, in a chapter about the origins of the cards in The Cracker Jack Collection: Baseball’s Prized Players (Peter E. Randall Publisher, 2013) by Tom Zappala and Ellen Zappala. Orlando said that the 1914 cards were distributed only in packages of Cracker Jack, making the cards more susceptible to damage, while the 1915 cards were available both in packages with the candy and also through a mail-in redemption where the entire set could be acquired for “either 100 coupons or one coupon plus a whopping 25 cents!” Add to it that the 1914 cards were printed on thinner card stock than their 1915 counterparts, and it is clear why so few of the former exist in top condition.

As Orlando outlines (see Zappala and Zappala, pp. 163-173), the 1914 set has 144 cards, while the 1915 version has 176. For most part, the first 144 cards are identical between the sets, as they have the same players and poses. Two players have different poses from the first year to the second: Christy Mathewson and Del Pratt each have an action pose in 1914 and a portrait in 1915. The 1914 Mathewson card, is, by far, the most popular and expensive Cracker Jack card, but it is very difficult to locate. The PSA website notes that one in excellent condition sold for $95,000 in 2012. Four players (Harry Lord, Jay Cashion, Nixey Callahan, and Frank Chance) have cards in the 1914 set but not in the 1915 edition. The final thirty-two cards of the 1915 set (Nos. 145-176) are not included in the 1914 version. A few cards from 1914, as Orlando notes, were replaced from 1914 to 1915: Rollie Zeider’s standing pose (he had two cards in 1914) was removed for Oscar Dugey, and Hal Chase would take the place of Frank Chance. The easiest way to tell the 1914 and 1915 cards apart is that the backs of the latter were printed upside down “so the card information could be read while mounted in the specially-designed albums (available by mail order for the 1915 set only),” wrote Orlando. He notes, though, that some 1915 cards show some staining from glue, likely used to keep the cards in these albums.

The backs of the cards are succinct, usually outlining each player’s basic biography and how he got to the major leagues, occasionally capped with understated praise. Cobb “is noted as a marvel for speed and batting.” Wagner, his card says matter-of-factly, “has batted over 300 (sic) for ten years.” Rabbit Maranville with Boston “has been a great success.” At the bottom, the card backs in 1914 note that the company’s first issue is “15,000,000 pictures,” while the 1915 backs detail the offer for the complete set and to acquire what the company called the “Handsome Album to hold (the) full set of pictures.”

An oft-forgotten component of these sets is their Federal League players including Rube Marquard who is erroneously identified as being with the Brooklyn Tip-Tops, and Artie (Circus Solly) Hofman, whose surname is misspelled as ‘Hoffman’. George Suggs’ uniform as a member of the Baltimore Terrapins stands out, while Bill Rariden is shown in his Boston Braves uniform in spite of having joined the Federal League’s Indianapolis Hoosiers, as his card notes. Rollie Zeider’s standing pose clearly shows the word ‘Feds’ on his Chicago uniform, and the bold word ‘Buffalo’ across Walter Blair’s chest is a clear indication that things were different in baseball during 1914 and 1915.

These sets distinctively capture the individuality of many players. Though the artwork can vary in its quality (Max Carey’s card, for one, is not the sharpest), it is fair to say that the portrayals often capture the essence of well-known players, and particularly of the top stars. Fred Clarke’s sitting pose gives an air of focused effectiveness, and Sam Crawford’s throwing motion offers a contented, carefree style. The grit and crustiness of the era also come through in Doc Gessler’s swing or in Sherry Magee’s throwing pose. Eddie Cicotte’s easy smile on his Cracker Jack cards, alas, is reminiscent of a time before scandal hit the sport. In the Cracker Jack cards, no two poses or portraits look the same, making the set stand out from those which often repeat similar images.

A card of a common Cracker Jack player in very good condition, which is to say, showing considerable wear, will likely cost between $150 and $200. Because of the demand for these cards and their relative scarcity, a star player will likely cost more than $500, with steep increases in price as condition improves even marginally. Cards issued in 1914, of course, almost always command a higher price. It speaks to the endurance of the Deadball Era and its players that desire for these cards remains so solid and strong more than a century after they were produced.

Many vintage baseball card collectors begin with the T205 and T206 sets because those sets include more players, and most cards are available for about half of the price of the Cracker Jack cards. That is a fair approach. At the same time, while very different in appearance from traditional tobacco cards, the Cracker Jack sets include artwork that is at least as good, if not better, as well as an array of player poses and biographical detail not found in other contemporary card sets. These cards justifiably play a part in the telling of the story of the Deadball Era.

Purity of Essence (Or, How I Learned to Start Analyzing What Is and Isn’t a Baseball Card)

I’ve been working on completing a 1936 Goudey Wide Pen set, Type 1 of course, and, I’m pleased to say, I’m in the homestretch.  I’ve got 106 of the 120 AND the two keys – Joes DiMaggio/McCarthy rookie (which I basically traded, even up, for a 1976 Walter Payton rookie card) and Hank Greenberg.  I had a pretty good jumpstart on this set; I bought 80 or so back in the early ‘90’s for, what I can only assume, was a steal.

I was showing my friend Jimmy the album with my Wide Pens and he said, “They’re not really cards, are they?”  “Sure they are,” I said, not even understanding the question, but since that day I’ve been mulling over the existential point he was trying to make – “What is a baseball card?”

The Type 1 Wide Pens were in-store premiums (not sure what the method was to acquire them – were they free? Did you have to buy a certain amount of Goudey gum products?), 3 ¼” X 5 ½” black and white portraits or posed action shots with thick facsimile autographs. Overall they’re pretty fascinating, a mix of Conlon-type close ups and various pitchers in windups, swinging hitters and, on rare occasion, a real game photo. The backs are blank. (The player selection is odd and worth a post of its own).

 

So how could this not be immediately perceived as a card? Is it only a photograph? In the corner each Type 1 says “LITHO IN U.S.A.,” so maybe they see themselves as photos.  The 1964 Topps Giants measure 3 1/8” X 5 ¼”, slightly smaller than the Goudeys, but no one would claim they aren’t cards. Is it because they’re Topps? Because they were sold in stores? Have backs?

The 1981 Topps Giant Photo Cards are huge, 4 7/8” X 6 7/8” and were sold in stores. They have something on the back, but not very much. Is this a card? Topps’ own schizophrenia on the issue – “Photo” “Cards” – makes it unclear.

This is a card?

I don’t know the answer to the question but, since Jimmy raised the point, it’s been on my mind. What is and isn’t a card? It can’t be the maker that gives it identity, because the card world has had innumerable manufacturers. Is it distribution? Can’t be. Cards have been delivered in a lot of different ways. In store premiums are not much different than box toppers or mail away offers. Is the back having content or not a dividing line? Plenty of issues have minimal to zero text on the reverse.

Give it some thought, for me.