My rookie collecting year

My introduction to card collecting began in the late summer of 1955, when my Uncle Joe—my godfather and a former catcher in Chicago’s high-level semipro baseball leagues—handed me a special gift: four packs of Topps baseball cards. I was seven years old, and my life has never been the same.

Of course I have no recollection of what specific cards I unwrapped on that warm summery night… Jackie Robinson, maybe, or Gil Hodges, or (in honor of Uncle Joe), the White Sox catcher, Sherm Lollar?

Unlikely; as most collectors will tell you, the odds are much more likely that we will unwrap the images of images of journeymen with names like “Corky” and “Bunky.”

No matter whose images were revealed in the packs, I was totally enchanted with their beauty, and quickly locked into the sheer fun that came from collecting these cards. Clever lad that I was, I even gave Veston Goff Stewart a nickname for his nickname… for me, then and now, he will always be known as “Bunk-Bed” Stewart. As for “Corky” Valentine, who got his nickname from a lovable comic-strip character, Hank Aaron would write about his season (1953) in the Class A Sally League, “There were some ornery pitchers in that league, but nobody was as nasty as Harold Lewis Valentine.” But Hank… Corky looked so nice on his Topps card!

I immediately began collecting as many of these beauties as possible. I even picked up a few packs of cards from Topps’s arch-rival, Bowman… but as I noted in my article about the final year of the Topps-Bowman war, the Bowman color-TV design, innovative as it was, didn’t appeal me like the Topps cards did. Even the Bowman card of my favorite player, Nellie Fox, didn’t grab me the way the Topps cards did.

Bowman would have one more arrow in its quiver, however. Uncle Joe did not present me with his gift of Topps cards until fairly late in the summer, and both the Topps and Bowman baseball cards disappeared from the stores long before I could attempt to put together a set. In their place were the companies’ football-card sets: a 100-card all-time greats college set from Topps and a 160-card NFL set from Bowman; that would turn out to be Bowman’s final card set before being bought out by Topps.

Flushed with collecting mania by then, I bought cards from both sets, but with a strong bias toward Bowman, whose lovely design would be a fine tribute to the company’s glorious run. One of my early collecting memories involves walking proudly into the Nordica Store, our card-collecting headquarters, with 75 cents—three whole weeks’ allowance!—and buying a staggering 15 packs of Bowman football cards. I had to assure the owner of the store, a woman my friends and I knew only as “Mrs. Nordica,” that this purchase was OK with my parents… which it was, I guess, since they never told me it wasn’t. As for the cards, I have to admit that a major part of the appeal was those crazy football names.

Royce Womble? Dorne Dibble? Pudge Heffelfinger? Football must have been invented by Charles Dickens.

When winter set in, the football cards disappeared from the stores as well. By now my collecting urge had reached the point where the cards didn’t even need to be about sports. A short-term diversion for my older brother Phil and me was the 80-card Topps “Flags of the World” set, whose backs included tips on how to pronounce a few terms of the native language.

It was a fun and moderately educational card set, but I was a baseball guy even at the age of seven. And as spring arrived in Chicago, Flags of the World card No. 49, Poland—the Zminda family’s native land—would have been more useful had it taught us how to say, “Gdzie są nowe karty baseballowe?”… which is Polish for, “Where are the new baseball cards?”

Our home base, the Nordica Store at Nordica Avenue and Grace Street, was one of those tiny mom-and-pop operations that would later be driven out of business by the Seven Elevens and their like. In the 1950s, however, the store had plenty of customers—including my best friend Tom, my older brother Phil, and me. The candy counter where we bought our cards and treats was stocked by a man with a red truck named J.J. We would check the store for the arrival of the baseball cards on a daily basis once spring came. If the card racks were bare but J.J. was still on his way, we would sit outside and wait for his arrival. He knew what we were waiting for, and he’d stop before unloading his truck and say, “No boys, not today. But soon.”

Our agony continued for a couple of weeks, until the big day finally arrived: the first series of the 1956 Topps baseball set was here!

I have written about my love for this set—both the attractive fronts and the clever backs, with three cartoons about the player—in a previous article; I was blown away from the moment I opened my first pack, as were most of my friends. The first series included such greats as Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, and Hank Aaron (and Ernie Banks and Roberto Clemente and Al Kaline and Warren Spahn), along with the usual Topps supply of Babe Birrers and Rudy Minarcins. We wanted them all. I was a five-pack man myself, blowing my whole allowance on all the cards (five cards for five cents) that my money would buy pretty much every week.

Completing the series within our limited budgets was a challenge, but that’s where our neighbor Dave (I’ve changed his name) came in handy. Dave, who lived across the street from Phil and me, had contracted the dreaded disease polio in the days before the Salk vaccine became available. While he still bore some scars, he fortunately was able to recover without suffering the crippling paralysis that affected many polio victims. Dave’s grateful parents were happy to comfort him in various ways—including giving him what appeared to be an unlimited budget for buying baseball cards. If you needed cards to complete a series, Dave was more than happy to trade… although there weren’t many cards that he needed. We’d hand Dave a stack of duplicates, and he would begin riffling through them…

“Got him.”

“Got him.”

“Got him.”

“Got him…”

This would continue for several minutes, until—if you were lucky—Dave would finally stop and say, “Need him,” and a trade would be made. Your best bet was to have some New York Yankee cards in the stack, as Dave was the neighborhood’s resident Yankee fan… not the most popular allegiance in Cubs/White Sox country, but Dave was a good guy, and besides, we needed his cards.

With Dave’s help we had at least a fighting chance to complete a series… and soon we would be sitting outside the Nordica Store, waiting for J.J.’s truck, and his announcement that he had the next series in hand. We quickly learned that J.J. wasn’t the most reliable source. One afternoon he got out of his truck and told us, “New pictures, boys, new pictures!” We eagerly bought several packs apiece—only to discover, as my friend Tom put it, “Yeah, new pictures. Old cards.” After that when J.J. announced, “new pictures,” one of us would go to the rack of one-cent cards—those were the days!—and invest a penny to see if he was correct.

When the second Topps baseball series finally arrived, it was Christmas in May (or was it June?) at Nordica Store. Series 2 mysteriously switch the card backs from white to gray (at least in our neighborhood) and included the likes of Roy Campanella and Willie Mays and Duke Snider and my hero, Nellie Fox, along with Mickey Mantle in his Triple Crown year. Even in 1956, we knew that card had some value.

But then it was back to sitting outside the store, waiting for the third series to arrive. Wily devil that he was, J.J. had something to tempt us with in the interim: Davy Crockett cards. The Disneyland TV show had begun broadcasting episodes based on the “King of the Wild Frontier” in late 1954, and they were a sensation from coast to coast… by the summer of 1956, there was as many of us wearing Davy Crockett coonskin caps as there were sporting baseball caps. (Not to mention the legion of Davy Crockett lunch boxes.) Trading cards were a logical next step to cash in on Crockett mania, and when my friends weren’t lining up to buy baseball cards, Davy filled the bill pretty nicely. So who was a bigger hero in the kid world of 1956… Mickey Mantle or Davy Crockett? Let’s say it was close.

We were baseball guys at heart, however, and Topps still had two more series coming out. To be honest, the third and fourth Topps baseball card series weren’t nearly as spectacular as Series 1 and 2. Bob Feller, who would retire after the 1956 season, was probably the biggest name in Series 3. The fourth and final series was definitely rather humdrum—even the quality of cartooning on the backs of the cards was pretty second-rate—but my friends and I still wanted every last card—down to the final card in the set, No. 340, Mickey McDermott.

While I came fairly close, I did not quite complete the 1956 set by the end of the baseball season—even with Dave’s help. It was a little frustrating, but there was always a new card set to collect (including football cards, to be honest). Then in 1959, my family moved to the suburbs, and a lot of things got tossed out… including most if not all of those wonderful ‘56s. “You don’t need all those old cards, do ya, Donnie?” “Um, er… well, I guess not.” Such is life. In the new neighborhood there was no Nordica store, there was no one like Dave to trade with, and after a year or so I stopped trying to collect the new baseball card sets… much less trying to recover the sets I had had lost.

But I hadn’t forgotten those ‘56s. One day in the early 1970s—by which time I was out of college and working fulltime—I got a call from a friend whom I had lost track of after we moved to the ‘burbs. It was good old Dave; he had somehow tracked down Phil, and now me. When we got together, I was not surprised that Dave was still collecting, but he had a new passion: collecting 45 RPM records. Was I shocked that Dave had a room with a copy of pretty much every top 40 hit since 1960? I was not. But what about his old baseball cards, I asked, my voice trembling.

“Yeah, still got ‘em,” he said. “You interested in anything?”

A couple of hours later, I was driving home with a big box full of ‘56s, most of them in near-mint condition… I think he charged me some ridiculously low price like fifty bucks. There were a few Yankees missing including Mantle (no surprise), but I could—and did—get those later. I was back into card collecting, for good.

My rookie collecting year was over at last.

On thinking about what makes a card a card

One of the few editorial positions we have on this blog is a very catholic stance toward what counts as a baseball card. We’ve published posts about photos, toys, games, stamps, coins, etcetera, all of which serve to flesh out and describe the way that we collected cards. We’re not interested in being gatekeepers for what cards are. We’re interested in use and how cards relate to our fandom and interest in the game itself.

All that said, the discussion about what constitutes a card is one that comes up periodically on Twitter or on here.* It’s a fun discussion to have since we all have very different ideas** which in turn impact our collections and interests. I enjoy taking part in these discussions but I really love just watching them since the criteria people bring up have turned out to all over the map.

*Probably also in the Facebook group but as I’m no longer part of that website I’m unable to confirm as much.

**Quite similar to the “what constitutes a complete set” discussion we had earlier on this blog.

We all, of course, have significant agreement on what a card is. But there are so many variables where an item can deviate from being a card™  that I found myself creating a taxonomy of card attributes. Looking at cards with these attributes in mind is something I’ve found helps me understand why my gut reacts to different products the way it does.

This post will explain my thinking and hopefully help other people put words to things their guts have already intuited. Again, this is in no way intended to be a gatekeeping thing. We all have different reactions to which attributes we care about and where on the spectrum something stops being a card. But if the Twitter conversations have taught me anything it’s that being our most interesting conversations are when we’re being positive about our definitions rather than negative about someone else’s.

Material

We’ll start with the obvious and discuss the material of the card. Obviously the expectation is that they be made of cardboard. They are called “cards” after all.

But cards have never been limited to just that. From the silks and blankets in the pre-war era to the plastic, metal, and wood releases of the modern era we’ve always had cards that weren’t made of cardboard. We’ve had stamps, stickers (some made of cloth), rub-offs, rub-downs, and decals as well.

Even in the cardboard/paper realm there’s also a discussion with having about the thickness of the paperstock. We’ve had posts on the blog about cards printed on newsprint and cards which are almost a quarter of an inch thick.

Size

In general tobacco-sized to 3.5″×5″ seems to have a consensus as being a card. But what about 5″×7″ or 8.5″×11″? What about minis and micros that are smaller than tobacco cards? What about posters and pin-ups?

A lot of this comes back to storage concerns and the way many of us use binders and binder pages to organize our collections. But it’s more than that too. For most of us, “card” indicates something from the business card to postcard size and anything beyond that becomes something else. Too small and the card starts to feel insignificant. Too large and it becomes something else—a photo, a poster, a flyer.

Form

This is sort of related to size but refers to non-rectangular items like discs and diecuts but also encompasses folders, booklets, and pop-ups as well as  coins, poker chips, and buttons. Many of these are binderable. Just as many lose what makes them distinct and interesting as soon as they get bindered.

The items which aren’t binderable at all are especially interesting here. Things like the 1957 Swift Meats diecut paper dolls or those Topps 3-D Baseball Stars from the 1980s are clearly intended to be like cards but do not fit into any standard card storage or presentation systems.

Content

The question of what makes a card a card is more than just the physical description of what it’s made of and what shape it is. What it actually depicts is also important. Yes, picture on the front, stats/bio on the back is the expectation. But there are a lot of cards out there which don’t do this.

We’re not just talking about blank backs either although those are definitely relevant to this category. Backs that are advertising, common designs, or just a player name are all part of this. The same goes with fronts that depict a generic player instead of someone specific.

And for my money, all the more-recent relic, autograph, or online cards with backs that are functionally blank fit in here as well. I’ve seen way too many people refer to them as “half a card” to not mention them.

Release

No images for this section because it’s not something that can really be depicted visually. Traditionally, cards are part of a set and are released in either packs or complete sets. Cards that exist by themselves without the context of a set or the lottery of a pack stray into a grey area. This is something that’s really been pushed into new territory with online releases and the way Topps has in many ways optimized its distribution around selling and creating individual items on demand, but the idea of one-off card releases has been around a long time.

There’s also the discussion here about what connotes a set—both in terms of size and how things are numbered. At what point does a release of cards become a “set”? If something is unnumbered or only has a weird alphanumeric code on the back does that mean that it was intended to be collected by itself?

Case Studies

Why do I bother thinking and categorizing different attributes? Because as I watch the discussions it seems that most of us tolerate a certain amount of variance in one or two categories as long as the others remain “standard.” So let’s dig in.

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Let’s start with 1969 Topps Deckle Edge. These are pretty clearly cards but they serve as an example of something that sort of fails one of the categories because the backs are non-existent. But as you move from card size to 5″x7″ to 8″x10″, more and more people switch from treating them as cards to treating them as photos.

Or look at Broders. They’re generally “backless” but they also start to deviate from the expected release method.* They consist of small checklists and were generally not released the same way most cards are. Art cards and customs fit in this area as well. Move up a size in this area and we have things like team photo postcards. Change the paper stock and we end up in Jay Publishing land. At some point things stop being a card for a lot of people**

*There’s also something to be said about the licensing stuff but I’ve not heard anyone claim that Panini or other unlicensed logoless cards aren’t even cards.

**Although we still collect them and cover them on this blog.

The one that’s sort of stumped me in my own collection are the Upper Deck Heroes of Baseball stadium giveaways from the early 1990s. Despite being letter-sized and blank-backed, because they’re cardboard and manufactured by Upper Deck they physically feel more like cards than a lot of the posters that Topps has folded up and inserted in packs over the years.

At the same time, since they were distributed via stadium giveaway and do not function as part of a set. They’re also functionally distinct from those late-60s, early-70s posters that were issued in packs and formed part of a distinct set.

But I could go on and on. As stated initially, the point of this post isn’t to provide a definitive answer or even an official opinion. Instead I hope that organizing my thoughts about the different ways we evaluate cardness is helpful to other people as I’ve found it to be for my own thinking.

Jason’s Mount Rushmore of Vintage Sets

I expect fellow author-collector Dylan has really started something with his post on the subject a couple weeks back. The topic is one just begging for the pen of each of our members, even as the idea of choosing “just four?!” often feels impossible.

1934-36 Diamond stars

I’ll lead off with a set that Dylan included on his Mt. Rushmore, the “Diamond Stars” issued by National Chicle from 1934-36. Like Dylan, it’s the look of the cards that hooks me in.

The color palette jumps off the cardboard like ink off a comic book page, but I am also a big fan of the baseball scenes depicted in so many of the card backgrounds. I’ve already written about these scenes coming more from the imaginations of the artists than real life, but for me that’s a feature, not a bug.

From a purely visual standpoint, Diamond Stars is my favorite set of the 1930s and perhaps my favorite set of all-time. Where it falls short with many collectors is in its player selection. Conspicuously absent from the set are Yankee greats Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. For the budget set collector, this is yet another bug-turned-feature.

If you’ve read a few of my pieces already, you also know I enjoy sets with some novelty and mystery. Diamond Stars definitely fits the bill, not only for its various quirks but also offers early instances (though by no means the earliest) of “Traded” cards.

If I had to choose one thing I dislike about this set, it’s the repetition of 12 players at the end of the set’s 108-card checklist. Particularly as these final cards are more scarce than the first 96, the duplication introduces disproportionate pain for set collectors forced to pay a premium for cards they already have.

1933 Goudey

Here is another set I’ve written about quite a bit and the set under whose shadow all other sets of the era reside.

While the set’s iconic status goes hand in hand with its trademark “Big League Chewing Gum” banner along so many of the card bottoms, my favorite cards come from the set’s final three releases (e.g., Morrissey, Root, and Herman above).

Where Diamond Stars lacked Ruth and Gehrig, Goudey brought these players on steroids, combining for six cards across the set’s 240-card checklist. Counting the Napoleon Lajoie card issued the following year, the set includes 66 cards of Hall of Famers and all but two players who competed in the season’s inaugural All-Star Game.

Were I to find fault with this set, it would be in a flaw common to all other baseball sets issued in the United States around this time. The set included players from the National League, American League, Pacific Coast League, International League, Southern Association, and American Association but no players from the Negro National League or other Black baseball leagues.

Kudos to my bud Scott Hodges who is filling some big holes in the 1933 Goudey set and others with his own digital card creations.

I’ve attempted similar in analog fashion though I’ve been less faithful to the history. Here is Buck Leonard on the Grays a year before he joined the team.

I will definitely treat the absence of Black stars as a bug, not a feature, but if there’s a silver lining it’s that there is no chance I could afford a 1933 Goudey Josh Gibson, and its absence from my collection would absolutely torment me daily.

1911 T205 Gold Borders

Like Dylan I had to include a tobacco set on my list. The T206 set, which initially did little for me, has grown on me immensely over the past couple years. Still, it would have to gain a lot more ground to surpass its gilded sequel.

The set features three different designs: one for National Leaguers, one for American Leaguers, and one for Minor Leaguers.

I absolutely love the NL and Minor League designs and am somewhat ho hum about the AL one, so I’m fortunate to be a Brooklyn collector.

As brilliant as the card fronts are, the T205 card backs are not to be ignored. While some feature brief biographies and one of several tobacco brands, others include…stats!

As with the two sets covered thus far, you will not find a single Black player in this set. You might suppose no card set from 1911 included Black athletes, but this was not the case. For example, here is Jack Johnson from the 1911 Turkey Red Cabinets (mostly baseball) set.

Once again then there is the knowledge in collecting T205 that you’re not collecting the very best players of the era. But again, did I mention I was a Brooklyn collector?!

AND…

Here’s where it always gets tough. I probably have ten or more sets I’m considering, but the rules are that I can only choose one. Though I love the cardboard of the 1930s (and earlier!) so much, my favorite era of baseball is the early 1950s. Though integration was slow, it was at least happening, and the mix of new talent and old talent was simply off the charts.

That said, the number of baseball card sets that managed to include all the top stars of the period was practically zero. Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Jackie Robinson in the same (playing era) set? Your choices are already fairly limited:

  • 1947 Bond Bread
  • 1948 Blue Tint
  • 1949 Leaf
  • 1950 All-Star Pinups
  • 1950 R423 Strip Cards
  • 1952 Berk Ross

Add Stan Musial and Bob Feller and the list shrinks further:

  • 1947 Bond Bread
  • 1949 Leaf
  • 1950 R423 Strip Cards
  • 1952 Berk Ross

Add Mantle and Mays and the list boils down to one: 1952 Berk Ross.

With a selection of players that also includes Roy Campanella, Yogi Berra, Larry Doby, Duke Snider, Monte Irvin, and an awesome Johnny Mize “in action” card, could this set be the winner?

As much as I love the checklist, the answer has to be no. Most of the images are too dark, too light, or too weird for my taste, and the simple design borders on the boring. Still, what could have been!

The key then is to find a set with beautiful cards and almost all these same players, and–if we add a few more years–Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, and Ernie Banks.

As much as it pains me to give up Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial, it’s hard for me not to land on 1956 Topps. The beautiful portraits, the Kreindleresque action shots, and the awesome cartoon backs offer my favorite overall design of the Golden Age of Baseball, and the absence of Bowman meant nearly every active star was included in the set.

Unlike 1952 Berk Ross, with only 72 cards, 1956 Topps included 342 cards (counting un-numbered checklists), hence was large enough to assign a card to nearly everyone, not just a couple stars per team.

If I have any bitterness toward this set, it’s only the sour grapes of waiting way too long to collect it. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that sometimes to collect your Rushmore you need to…rush more! Luckily, I do have all 24 Brooklyn cards from the set, and hey, did I mention I’m a Brooklyn collector?

How about you? Which vintage (or modern!) sets make your Mt Rushmore? We look forward to your article!

From the Negro League to MLB

1st inning – 

My name is Joe Genovese, curator and founder of the popular @GoatJerseys Twitter handle. I fell in love with jerseys as a kid in the late 70s and early 80s. The uniforms back then were full of wonderful colors, stirrups, and neatly fitted pants and jerseys.

My mother was a huge Yankees fan, and started buying me baseball cards in 1978 when I was a little over four years old. I’m thankful she introduced me to a hobby I would enjoy for many years. As High School set in, hanging out with girls and friends became more important than buying packs and trading cards. I stopped collecting.

Fast forward to March 2020, the pandemic hit and I was home like most Americans in our country. I was trying to keep myself busy so I went into the attic and stumbled onto my childhood card collection. As I looked through all the sneaker boxes full of sets and cards from 1978 to 1990, it brought back great memories. Like every kid in the 80s I thought my 1985 Topps set, Don Mattingly, Tony Gwynn, and Mark McGwire rookies would make me rich one day. I was always super OCD with my my cards and kept them in great condition, so I was happy to see they how they looked after so many years. Especially my 1988-1989 Jordan cards which were in protected sleeves, definitely gradable!

My then five year-old daughter started helping me sort through the boxes, and just like that she was hooked! We started buying some packs from Target and Walmart, and soon after I found an LCS that was close by. I had a card partner just like the old days, we traded, we sorted, and we drove the wife nuts! It really made me love the hobby again after all these years.

In saying all that, I decided to come up with a project that would keep me busy, but also one that was very informative. I’ve always been an aficionado of the Negro Leagues. The history, the players, stats, fields, and their remarkable stories. I had the pleasure of interviewing the great Bob Kendrick, President of the Negro League Baseball Museum. I knew if I had any questions or inquiries on players I could reach out. So I decided to start a project called, “From the Negro League to MLB.”

Notwithstanding the December 2020 MLB announcement, there were 87 players who played in the Negro Leagues and in Major League Baseball. Harry Chappas was a white ballplayer and he was signed to play in the Negro Leagues for the Indianapolis Clowns who were barnstorming in those days, sort of like the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball. I know some other players did the same, but Harry didn’t have to go through what they had, so I’m not counting him. So here’s the deal, my goal is to collect a graded card, or an authenticated photo, and/or a piece of memorabilia from the other 86 players.

This past September I started my research, about two hours a day on eBay, Google, PSA, Beckett, and any website or forum where I could find information. Out of the 86 players, 16 did not have a MLB card. Lino Donoso was only featured on a 1956 Topps Pittsburgh Pirates team card, and John Kennedy only appeared on the 1958 Topps Philadelphia Phillies team card. 6 players only appeared on one MLB card. As I searched more in-depth, I started to see that many of these players were connected from the Negro Leagues, to Minor League ball, and even to the Mexican League. So many of these talented ballplayers, not only African-Americans, but Panamanians, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans didn’t get their shot in MLB until way after their prime.

This project has become an addicting hobby, and I really wanted to share my journey with the masses. I hope you all enjoy it as much as I have.

Billy Parker 1972 Topps Rookie Stars. I started off buying some of the cheaper graded cards that were available and easy to purchase. Parker was my first, he was the last Negro Leaguer to play in MLB. Billy played for the Indianapolis Clowns in 1961, and like I said above by this time they were more of a barnstorming team, so technically Ike Brown (below) is the last to play. Parker played sparingly for the Angels from 1971-1973 as a backup IF and OF.

🐐fact: Like many back then, Parker passed himself off as five years younger than he actually was.

Ike Brown 1974 Topps. Check out the frames, mustache, and sweet Tigers road uni’s. (The background is from my old Pursue the Pennant board game from the 80s.) He played 6 years in MLB, all with the Detroit Tigers. Brown spent 9 years in the Minor Leagues, as well as time in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs.

🐐fact: Ike was a jack of all trades, played every position except CF and catcher. He was also nicknamed, “Showboat” for his slow HR trot, and aggresive approach at the plate.

Paul Casanova 1975 Topps MINI. Huge fan of the ’75 Topps set, and the mini’s are pretty cool. Love those Braves hats from that era. It was also Brown’s last MLB card. Casanova was born in Cuba, an excellent defensive catcher, played for the Washington Senators from 1965-1971, and with the Braves from 1972-1974. Paul also played with the Indianapolis Clowns during their later years as Billy Parker did.

🐐fact: Casanova caught Phil Neikro’s lone no-hitter. “After the game, I raised him up on my shoulder. We drank a 12-pack of beer and Phil gave me $1,000.”

John “Blue Moon” Odom 1972 Topps IA. Great shot of John in those beautiful Oakland uni’s from the 70s. The “In Action” shot made this card an easy choice. John had a 13 year career in MLB, 12 of them with the A’s. In 1968-1969 he earned back to back All-Star nods, going 16-10 2.45 and 15-6 2.92 respectively.

🐐fact: Odom played for the Raleigh Tigers in the late stages of the Negro American League. He was paid mainly “meal money” per day by cheapskate owner Arthur Dove.

Bobby Prescott 1960 National Bank Tacoma Giants. This is pretty rare (POP4 PSA), Prescott was one of the players who did not have a MLB card. He played in only 10 games, all in 1961 for the Kansas City Athletics. He was a legendary Minor League Home Run hitter, smashing 398 over his 20 plus years in baseball.

🐐fact: Prescott was born in Panama, played for the little known Jacksonville Eagles of the Southern Negro League. He also won a HR title in the Panamanian League in 1951.

Clarence “Choo-Choo” Coleman 1961 Topps Rookie Card. Really cool shot of Clarence in his catching stance. I’m always a sucker for the old rookie cards with the star in the corner, plus that catchers mitt and the clean Phils threads. Another player who joined up with the Indianapolis Clowns in the late 50s. Coleman played in only 4 MLB seasons, 1 with the Phillies, and 3 with the New York Mets.

🐐fact: Coleman was a catcher for the expansion Mets in their inaugural season. The legend Casey Stengel said about Choo-Choo, “I’ve never seen a catcher so fast at retrieving passed balls.”

Hal Jones 1962 Topps Rookie Card. Loved that “C” the Indians used back then. Hal played two years in the majors, 17 total games, all with Cleveland. He spent 9 years in the Minor Leagues playing mainly 1B.

🐐fact: Hal played for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1956, appearing in the East-West All-Star classic.

Ernie Banks 1980 Laughlin PSA 10. Another very rare card (POP7 PSA10). Not an expensive card, but I really love the look of this one. Robert Laughlin used cartoons to illustrate some really cool cards. Banks was a 14x All-Star, 2x MVP, and smashed 512 HR. I wish Ernie had a chance to show his stuff in the postseason.

🐐fact: Cool Papa Bell saw Banks playing in a semi-pro game and signed him to the Kansas City Monarchs. Played for KC in ’50, hit .250, left to the army for the next two years, came back in ’53 and raked .347!

John Kennedy 1958 Topps Philadelphia Phillies team. John never had his own MLB card, so this was an easy choice. I could not find anything on John for a long time until I came across his name in a forum while I was doing research. There I found out he was featured in ‘58 team card since he was in Spring Training with the Phillies in ’57. He played a few games in April and May of ’58 before being sent down. The more you dig, the more you find! Kennedy was an IF, and the first black player in Phillies history.

🐐fact: Kennedy played in the Negro Leagues for the Birmingham Black Barons and the Kansas City Monarchs where he hit .385 with 17 HR before signing with the Phillies.

Monte Irvin 1954 Red Man Tobacco. I love this card, one of my favorite in the collection. The Red Man cards are tough to find in good condition. It has great color, and it captures an awesome expression on Monte’s face. A lot of the Red Man cards do not have the bottom attached to it since that was the part you would tear off to get a free “Big League Style Hat” after you collected 50 stubs. Monte was a super talented OF who played with and mentored Willie Mays in the spacious Polo Grounds. During his time with the New York Giants Irvin hit over .300 3 times (.299 in ’50). Irvin didn’t make it to MLB until he was a 30 year-old. He played 8 years, 7 with the Giants, and his last year in Wrigley.

🐐fact: “Monte was the choice of all Negro National and American League club owners to serve as the No. 1 player to join a white major league team.” – Hall of Famer Effa Manley, owner of the Newark Eagles.

I hope you all enjoyed the 1st inning of “From the Negro Leagues to MLB.” 2nd inning will be up soon!

Hank Aaron, 1934-2021

“We still have Henry.”

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

And now, of course, he isn’t.

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

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

Don’t meet your idols?

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

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

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

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

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

Fair question.

“I want to make sure we’re not late.”

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

“In case of what?”

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

We didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you here for the Hank Aaron event?”

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

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

“Okay, do you know where?”

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

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

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

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

The collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hell, I even ran Hank Aaron 5Ks!

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

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

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

The King is dead. Long live the King.

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

My Mount Rushmore of Vintage Sets

As collectors we all have our favorite sets—the sets that stood out and caught our attention the second we laid our eyes on them. In this article I’m going to be discussing the four sets that are at the top of my list and form my personal Mount Rushmore of vintage baseball sets.

1933 DeLong

First up we have my all-time favorite set, 1933 DeLong gum cards. These cards never fail to amaze me. From the first time I laid my eyes on the set, I fell in love. This 24-card set featuring 15 Hall of Famers is brought to life by a bright and colorful background. The players appear to be larger than life as they stand or slide (i.e., Pepper Martin) on the diamond.

One very unique part about these cards is that the players are printed in black and white but certain parts of their uniforms like their hats, socks and jersey-lettering show some color. One more small detail that I’ve always loved is the much smaller ball players that appear behind the main player pictured on the card.

Going beyond the front of the card, the backs are also perfectly done, each card eloquently offering tips on fielding, throwing, hitting, running, etc., written by Austen Lake, a columnist for the Boston Transcript. Lake was no stranger to the game of baseball, having tried out for the Yankees before going overseas to serve in World War I.


The uniqueness of these cards, front and back, are what gives this set a slight edge over the next set that I will discuss.

1934-36 Diamond Stars

Second on my Mount Rushmore—my Thomas Jefferson—is the Diamond Stars set produced between 1934 through 1936. This entire set is nothing short of a work of art, the Salvador Dali of baseball cards, if you will. This set is truly one of a kind, it will catch your eye instantly, and will keep your attention the more you look through each and every card.

This set produced 108 beautiful cards, with the final twelve repeated players from earlier in the set. The first 96 cards are all unique in their own way. You can look through all 96 and you won’t find any card quite like another, which is what makes this set so fun.

This may be the only set where the background of the card, using its Art Deco style, can often be every bit as captivating as the player the card features. From the wide use of colors from purple, to red, to blue, to yellow, to green, this set was truly the first of its kind and maybe the last of its kind.

One of a few things this set has in common with the previously discussed 1933 DeLong set is that the backs of the cards are also written by Austen Lake, who again does an incredible job. Not only does Lake add tips on fielding, batting and pitching in this set but certain cards also feature a player bio.

T206

Next up we have what can arguably be considered the most popular baseball set of all time. This set is massive, especially for its time, consisting of 524 cards including over 100 minor league ball players. Numerous players have multiple cards in the set, often a combination of portraits and “action shots”.

This set from start to finish is absolutely stunning. Every single card in this set could be blown up and hung in an art museum and would not look out of place in the slightest. Though the player images are incredibly well done, the backgrounds of the cards are what captivates me the most.

Not only do the bright blue skies suck you in, but the spectacular blend of orange and yellow skies truly capture the essence of a time period when the most honest form of work was working in mines, in a factory, or some sort of construction or road work, when smoke filled the sky in almost every city in America at the turn of the century.

Going beyond the front of the cards, another special feature of the set is the 16 different variations of the backs of the cards, from the simplicity of the Piedmont and Sweet Corporal backs to the more elegant and rare backs like Carolina Brights, Cycle Cigarettes, and my personal favorite, Polar Bear.

1952 Topps

To wrap up my Mount Rushmore I’m going with an iconic set that features some truly iconic cards, most notably the legendary Mickey Mantle card, Eddie Mathews’ rookie card, and Willie Mays’ second year card.

It was a close call between this set and the 1953 Topps set that from the following year. I’m not sure there’s exactly a wrong answer between the two but I personally have always loved the 1952 set since I was first introduced to it.

This set does an incredible job of mixing simplicity with outstanding photography. The legendary stadiums that appear in the background of the cards and the various colors used as the backdrops for some of my personal favorites (Clem Labine, Roy Campanella, Bob Feller, Jackie Robinson, Johnny Sain) are nothing short of mesmerizing.

Going beyond the players on the card and the backgrounds, the star studded borders that go around the nameplate with the player’s facsimile autograph and the old time team logos add the perfect touch on the perfect set to summarize 1950’s baseball.

My collecting story

Editor’s note: SABR welcomes new member Dylan Brennan of the Philadelphia area Connie Mack chapter. You can follow Dylan’s wonderful journey through the Hobby at his Twitter page @cardsstory.

For as long as I can remember baseball and card collecting has been a passion of mine since I ripped my first pack as a kid somewhere around the age or 8 of 9, idolizing legends like Derek Jeter, Ken Griffey Jr., Albert Pujols, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and so-on. It’s always been more than a hobby to me, it’s been a way of life.

My first two best friends and I would run to the closest store that sold cards, which was a K-Mart about 500 feet from our front doors. Whenever we had some money in our pockets it was like Christmas. We’d all run over there. If we had $7, it all went toward baseball cards. We’d go straight to one of our basements and start ripping through pack after pack hoping for the games biggest stars and some hometown heroes.

It’s funny to think back to these times, when one of my biggest worries was when I could go out and play sports with my buddies and what players I was going to pull in a pack of Topps baseball cards, long before the real world inevitably hit me out of nowhere like a freight train. But what I didn’t know during those 30 seconds of ripping through a pack of cardboard, was that I was starting to form my deepest passions in life: baseball and card collecting.

Ever since those first packs I was hooked on collecting, having added thousands of cards in my childhood. As I got older and started high school, I collected frequently until about junior-senior year when I soon discovered that hanging out in the woods with my buddies and having a few beers was slightly more interesting to me at the time.

A few years later, I went away to college which to tell the truth, wasn’t really for me. I did about 3 semesters away at school then came home when I was 18 and went straight to work. (Ah, the American dream!) This is about the time I started getting back into collecting. I collected mostly autographs of any and all Hall of Famers, star players, and childhood favorites that I could get my hands on.

I’ve always had a keen interest in vintage cards. It’s a hard thing to explain, as a lot of things that we love can be. But seeing pictures of cards of legends like Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Walter Johnson, and Christy Mathewson was like a short tour through the Baseball equivalent of the Louvre. I had to have them. And once I started to add some vintage to my collection, I quickly learned what I truly loved to collect.

There’s just something unique about vintage baseball cards. The feel, the smell of old cardboard that strangely enough has been one of my favorite smells in the world. Small pieces of art that have been passed around for 70, 80 or even 100+ years. I think that’s what makes some cards similar to a painting or any work of art.

Art almost always has a story to tell and often, the artist leaves it up to its viewers to interpret their own version of the story in their mind. Baseball cards are like that in a unique way. The feeling of holding a beautiful T206 card in your hand and wondering where that card has been for the last 110 years is what makes it so special. The hands they’ve passed through. The stories they could tell, I could only imagine.

I’ve been lucky enough add a lot of cards this past year that I never thought I would own. I’ve also been able to meet some truly great people along the way. I’m excited for what 2021 brings for my collection and I look forward to meeting more awesome people in the process.

Editor’s note: You came to the right place!

Eddie Robinson Turns 100

I only purchased a few original 1952 baseball cards as the cards are very expensive.  At the time I purchased these cards, the set and even a top condition Mickey Mantle card was worth more than my house.  I have only relatively inexpensive cards of players with 100 RBIs or 100 runs, including Eddie Robinson, Luke Easter and Tommy Holmes.

1952 trioEddie Robinson played from 1942 to 1957 with seven of the eight American League teams and drove in over 100 RBIs three years in a row from 1951 to 1953.  As I also collect last cards of players with career stats, I also have the 1957 Topps Eddie Robinson card.

eddie 1957

Eddie played for the Cleveland Indians from 1942 to 1948.  He then played for the old Washington Senators from 1949 to part way in 1950.  He then played from the Chicago White Sox from 1950 to 1952 where he had his best seasons.  In 1951, Eddie had 29 HR and 117 RBI, good for third in the American League in both categories.      

26-9780355Bk

In 1952, Eddie topped the 100 RBI mark once again, finishing one behind former teammate Al Rosen for the league lead.

 

Eddie played for the Philadelphia A’s in 1953 where he was a teammate of another significant old-time living player, Bobby Shantz.  That year Robinson topped 100 RBI for the third straight year but his batting average dropped significantly to .247.

33-62Bk

Robinson played part-time for the New York Yankees from 1954 until June 1956 when he was traded to Kansas City.

He then played the remainder of the 1956 season with the Athletics, who had just arrived in KC from Philadelphia the year before.  Though Robinson has cards with the A’s from earlier in his career, he has no cards from his time in Kansas City.

After half a season with the A’s, Robinson finished his career in 1957 with brief stints for three teams: the Detroit Tigers, Cleveland Indians, and Baltimore Orioles. His final Topps card as a player portrays him as a Detroit Tiger, and he appears with the Orioles as a coach in 1960, along with Harry Brecheen and Lum Harris.

The most significant achievements in Eddie’s playing career were winning the 1948 World Series with the Cleveland Indians and driving in runs in the 1942 and 1952 All-Star Games, where he batted in Joe DiMaggio and Minnie Minoso respectively.   

Eddie Robinson is the oldest living major league baseball player.  He was born December 15, 1920, in Paris, Texas and turns 100 on December 15, 2020.

Editor’s Note: Readers looking to celebrate may enjoy Eddie’s podcast on “The Golden Age of Baseball” or his autobiography, “Lucky Me.” His SABR Biography by C. Paul Rogers III is also a great read.

 *  *  *  *  *

Postscript

One of the next oldest living players is Bobby Shantz. He is 95 years old, as he was born on September 26, 1925 in Pottstown, PA. He is popular player within the Philadelphia Connie Mack SABR chapter.

I met him in the late 80s and early 90s as he was signing autographs at many baseball cards shows around Philadelphia. He was always available and ready to sign his autograph for free. He was easygoing and didn’t say much unless asked.

In 1952, Bobby Shantz won 24 games and lost 7 games for the Philadelphia A’s, and won the AL MVP award. I have Bobby’s 1953 Topps card, which is one of the very few original 1953 cards in my collection.

Bobby was a teammate of Eddie Robinson in 1953, which may be the earliest season for which two teammates are still alive. As Robinson and Shantz are our two oldest living all-stars, it is definitely the earliest year that two living former all-stars played on the same team.

UNCOMMON COMMON: Charlie Berry

Author’s note: This is the third post in a series highlighting “common players” with stories far richer than the value of their trading cards. The first post in the series profiled Dave Hoskins and can be found here. The second post in the series profiled Ernie Barnes and can be found here.

The 1933 Goudey set is well known for its wealth of superstars, including four cards of the Bambino, two cards of the Iron Horse, and a litany of top-shelf Hall of Famers such as Ott, Speaker, Foxx, Hornsby, Grove, and (if you count him) Lajoie.

Collectors can therefore be forgiven if they aren’t impressed when stumbling upon card 184 in the set, that of Chicago White Sox catcher Charlie Berry.

The card was issued as part of Goudey’s seventh series (of ten in all), which I estimate as having come out in late August or early September 1933. The green Ruth #181 card would have likely been the prize for most kids, the other main highlight of the series being (generously) Hornsby’s crosstown update from Cards infielder to Browns skipper.

The card front was about as generic 1933 Goudey as could be (not that this is a bad thing!), featuring a solid yellow background reminiscent of Ruth’s card 53 and a waist up batter’s follow-through common to the set.

It would require some serious pre-internet knowledge of sports history, close proximity to Pottsville, Pennsylvania, or reading the back to know there was more to Berry than batting and backstopping.

Yes, Berry was one of the “mythical eleven” in 1924, a football All American at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, and (if I’m understanding how all this works) a Walter Camp first-teamer, an honor shared with gridiron legend Red Grange and among others.

Berry starred the next two seasons for the Pottsville Maroons of the fledgling National Football League, leading the league in scoring in 1925 and captaining an upset of the presumed top team in the country, an all-star team from Notre Dame that included its famed “Four Horsemen.”

Remarkably, the Pottsville squad included a second member of the 1933 Goudey set, Walter French.

Now mind you I’m by no means a football historian, but my sources (okay, source singular: Wikipedia!) tell me this was the game that put the NFL on the map. While the game catapulted the league to greater heights, Pottsville received anything but a thank you from the commissioner’s office.

On the contrary, the exhibition game was deemed a serious enough violation of league rules that Pottsville was stripped of its 1925 NFL championship and the Chicago Cardinals squad led by another 1933 Goudey alum took top honors.

Down the pecking order of consolation prizes a bit, the team did however earn a trading card set, maroon tint and all! The back of the set’s second card, “The Symbolic Shoe,” provides as strong evidence as you’ll find anywhere that Pottsvillians want that TITLE RESTORED!

This same set includes a card of Berry himself, and again the Zacko family is just not having that whole stripped title thing!

Berry collectors can also delight in knowing there was surprisingly (to me anyway!) a set produced in 1924 of the Lafayette Leopards college football team.

Sadly the set did not include Berry’s Lafayette (and future White Sox!) teammate Frank Grube, who would have to wait until 1935 to appear in the same set with Berry.

But enough about Charlie Berry the player. Let’s move on to what he did even better! For that, we’ll fast forward two decades to the 1955 Bowman set and the subset collectors love to hate.

Same guy? Yep, same guy!

In fact, if you were lucky enough to be at the Polo Grounds for “The Catch,” that first base umpire you might have booed was none other than the Pottsville Maroon legend.

Coincidentally, Berry was not the only umpire that day with cards in both the 1955 Bowman and 1933 Goudey sets. The Arkansas Hummingbird had an even better view of the catch as left field umpire that day.

Berry’s presence at the 1954 World Series was no fluke. He also worked the World Series in 1946, 1950, 1958, and 1962 for a total of 29 World Series games in all. Though I’m not exactly picketing Cooperstown or holding any bronze shoes hostage pending his enshrinement, I do think a strong Hall of Fame case could be made for Berry as an umpire.

However, Berry’s story doesn’t end there. Charlie Berry was also the Bo Jackson of officiating, racking up a borderline Hall of Fame resume working NFL games as well. His NFL head linesman resume included twelve (!) championships, highlighted by a critical call in the “Greatest Game Ever Played.”

Is it possible then that this “common player” from the 1933 Goudey set, whose card is readily found in decent shape for about $25, was perhaps the greatest sports official of all time as well as the player that put the NFL on the map? Might he even have two cases for induction, one for Cooperstown and one for Canton? And, as importantly, will the Zacko family finally donate that bronze shoe?

In the words of another Charles Berry, you never can tell!

And hey, don’t forget to check out Berry’s SABR Bio for plenty more on this Uncommon Common.

Farewell to Whitey who was Built Ford Tough

Edward Charles Ford, who passed away October 8 at the age of 91, was a Hall of Famer; World Series hero; Chairman of the Board; social companion of Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin; “Slick” to manager Casey Stengel. But to generations of Yankee fans he was simply, “Whitey.”

From the moment Ford joined the World Champion New York Yankees in midseason 1950, he was a trailblazer. He won his first 9 decisions and steadied a rotation that featured Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, Ed Lopat and Tommy Byrne en route to a World Series victory over the Philadelphia Phillies and their “Whiz Kids.”

A legendary competitor, the crafty lefty was the ace of the great Yankees dynasties of the 1950s and 1960s. According to the Baseball Hall of Fame website, Ford was the team’s Game 1 starter in every World Series from 1955-1958, becoming the first pitcher in history to start four consecutive Game 1s. Ford repeated the feat again from 1961-1964.

A 10x All-Star, Ford led the league in wins three times, twice in earned run average and won a Cy Young Award in 1961. With a record of 236 -106, he owns the highest winning percentage (.690) in history.  

As he lived in October, it stands to reason that Ford set numerous World Series pitching records, including consecutive scoreless innings (​33 2⁄3), wins (10), losses (8) games started (22), innings pitched (146) and strikeouts (94). He was a six-time World Series champion and a World Series MVP recipient in 1961.

When it came to baseball cards, Ford was equally iconic. After his exploits of 1950, the Bowman Gum Company honored the rookie by designating him card No. 1 in its 1951 Bowman baseball card set – the same set that features the rookie card of Mickey Mantle.

Ford, however, would miss the next two full seasons by fulfilling his military obligations as noted by the back of Ford’s 1953 Bowman Color baseball card.

“The return of Whitey from Uncle Sam’s service to the Yankee mound staff is looked upon by delight from everybody to the President down to the bat boy. He’s a great young pitcher, and if can pitch as he did before he left for his service hitch, he’ll be a tremendous help to the Yanks in their quest for a fifth straight pennant.”

1953 Bowman Whitey Ford card back

However, Ford didn’t miss a beat on his return to the majors. Winning 18, 16, 18 and 19 games in his next four seasons.

It was the mid-1950s and Ford was enjoying himself and the New York City nightlife with Yankee teammates Mantle and Billy Martin – a trio that earned the nickname, “The Three Musketeers.”

Bill Pennington, author of “Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius” wrote that one of the Musketeers (Martin) was painted as a ringleader; taking most of the blame when things went wrong. The claim was refuted by Ford himself in the book.

“I don’t know why Billy always got labeled the instigator, which wasn’t at all true,” Ford said. “Mickey just had that innocent, country-boy look and I was quiet about a lot of things in public. But Billy didn’t care about appearances and he had that mischievous grin, so people just thought he was stirring us up all the time. It wasn’t really the case. We got into plenty of trouble on our own.”

Trouble like the infamous Copacabana incident in 1957 when several Yankees, including Mantle, Ford, and Martin as well as Hank Bauer and Johnny Kucks, were involved in an early morning altercation at the famed New York City nightclub.

The next morning’s headlines in the New York papers were scandalous at the time: “It Wasn’t A No-Hitter” screamed a headline in the New York Journal-American. Soon after, Yankee brass banished “ringleader” Martin, who was traded to Kansas City.

Nonetheless, the Yankees would continue their pennant-winning ways with Ford leading the way into the World Series– except the one time he didn’t.

In 1960, as the Yankees were preparing to play the Pittsburgh Pirates, Stengel surprised many by opting to start journeyman Art Ditmar in Game 1 in favor of Ford, who was already a dominant post-season performer. Skipping Ford in Game 1 meant the lefty would be unable to pitch three times if the series went the distance. The move backfired horribly. Not only did Ford pitch brilliantly – hurling two shutouts in Games 3 and 6 – but the Pirates jumped on Ditmar each time he pitched in the series. In fact, Ditmar never made it out of the second inning in either start. The Pirates won the series in seven games. The decision was heavily criticized and cost Stengel his job as Yankee manager.

Meanwhile, Ford would win the Cy Young Award the following year in that magical 1961 season and go on to pitch well into the 1960s, even as those Yankees teams began to falter as their stars like Mantle began to age.

Interestingly, Ford lost his last four World Series starts – Game 5 against the 1962 Giants, Games 1 and 4 (opposing Sandy Koufax each time) against the 1963 Dodgers, and Game 1 versus the 1964 Cardinals.

Ford was enshrined in Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1974, five years before I started following baseball. Very quickly, however, I came to understand Ford’s place in Yankee history – mostly through my baseball card collection as well as his appearances at Yankees’ Old Timer’s Day. As is customary with the event, the greatest players are honored with getting introduced last. And when you’re talking New York Yankees, that’s quite a pecking order: Berra, Mantle and DiMaggio.

Years later with legends like Mantle and DiMaggio no longer around, it was time for Ford to receive the honors and accolades.

In 2010 – the last time I attended an Old Timer’s Day at Yankee Stadium – I paid strict attention to the moment when Ford and Berra were introduced.  Understanding that this might be the last I would ever see them, I fixated only on them. I stood silently and took in their every movement, smile and wave as they rode in from the centerfield gate in a tricked-out golf cart (complete with Yankee pinstripes). “Remember this moment. That’s Yogi and Whitey.”

When I visit Yankee Stadium with my sons, we dutifully pay a visit to Monument Park and read the plaques of the legends. Like Whitey Ford. 

Rest in peace.