Baseball Cards in Art

When William Klein died I tweeted out a quick RIP from the official account where I stated that he was one of the blog’s favorite photographers. If you were browsing Twitter on your phone it would’ve been easy to miss the details in the photo and realize why I tweeted it. For me as both an art museum goer and a card collector though, Klein represents one of the few genuine overlaps in my interests. Yes it’s great to be able to visit the Burdick Collection at The Met but it’s even more fun to see cards pop up in other parts of the museum.

I’ve started a small themed collection of cards that I’ve noticed in other artworks and I’ve found enough now to put a post together on here.

Baseball Cards, William Klein, 1955

I’ll start with Klein both because he’s what prompted this post and because this is the oldest piece. And yes, the title of this photo is indeed “Baseball Cards.” I’m not going to write a ton about him as a photographer on here but his book of street photos in New York is justly famous in part because of how it taps in to imagery that where you not only feel like part of the scene but suggests that the scene may be familiar to you.

Sometimes, like with “Gun 1,” the familiarity is disturbing. Other times, such as with “Baseball Cards” the scene is one that should resonate in a pleasant way with every reader of this blog. Kids showing off their stacks of cards. Kids showing off a favorite player. It’s why we started collecting and in many ways the feeling we’re trying to hold on to while we keep collecting.

If you only saw the tweet on your phone you might not have noticed that the kids were holding stacks of 1955 Bowman. Blowing up the image you can see that the central card is one of the few light wood borders and is pretty obviously Gil McDougald. I had to comb through the set to identify the other card. I’m pretty sure it’s Randy Jackson—the dark background plus the long sleeves plus the placement of name box is pretty distinct—but there are a decent number of righthanded batters which I had to choose from.

Anti-Product Baseball Cards,
Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1979

I’ve written about these before on here so there’s no need for me to write much more. That said, at the time of first writing I hadn’t identified everyone in the cards and it took a committee effort in the comments of that post (as well as on Twitter) to both identify the actual 1979 Topps cards that were the basis for these.

I don’t think anyone’s identified the Rookies card but the other five are Steve Henderson (JOE), Bob Randall (JERK), Steve Kemp (HOT DOG), Ed Glynn (BUS PASS), and John Matlack (WALLY). The Mets Team Card meanwhile shows up on what we’re using as the checklist for these.

Pete Rose, Andy Warhol, 1985

In true Warhol fashion, multiple prints of this exist. While the one in Cincinnati is probably the definitive version I’ve only seen the one in the Smithsonian. Also, Paul Ember has written pretty extensively about these (and even gave a SABR presentation) so there’s not much for me to add here.

Most of us here probably recognized immediately that Warhol used a new photo and didn’t just copy either of Rose’s 1985 Topps cards. But the cards are clearly part of the piece. One of the things I like about Warhol’s Rose prints is how they combine the Campbell’s Soup elevation of industrial design into Art™ with his larger-than-life pop culture celebrity portraits and it says a lot about baseball cards and Topps that they were worthy of this treatment.

And yeah. A small short checklist so far which I hope to be able to add to in the future. But also a very fun one that speaks to baseball cards’ larger importance as part of our culture.

What’s my Mickey Mantle worth?

Freshly back from SABR50 in Baltimore a number of questions from attendees are fresh in my mind. Perhaps the question most frequently asked pertained to assessing the value of a collection. Sometimes I’d ask for a description of the collection in question, and a typical reply might be “several boxes of cards from the 50s and 60s including Mickey Mantle.”

I’ll use this article to acquaint readers, particularly those who aren’t active buyers and sellers, with the main variables at play in putting a price tag on, say, a 1950s Mickey Mantle.

Which Mantle?

Without a doubt, not all Mantles were created equal. Head and shoulders above all others, at least as far as his standard Topps and Bowman issues are concerned, is the 1952 Topps card.

Mantle’s 1951 Bowman card, which doubles as the Mick’s rookie card, also carries a substantial premium, though perhaps counterintuitively a much smaller one than the aforementioned Topps card.

In general, not as a hard and fast rule but as a trend, older cards are worth more, and rookie cards in particular are worth the most. Though we have already seen an exception, it’s true much more often than it’s not. The graph below illustrates this for a hypothetical star player whose first card was in 1960. Note the significant drop-off from 1960 to 1961 and the overall decreasing trend across the decade. You might also recognize a significant drop-off between 1961 and 1962. This too is a thing as second year cards tend to carry a premium, though not nearly as much as first year (or “rookie”) cards.

Now, here is an actual graph for Mickey Mantle’s 1950s baseball cards. As we will soon see, the condition of the card plays an outsized role in valuation, so at the moment we will pretend all cards in the graph are of equal condition. (For those keeping score at home I’ll assume PSA 5, but don’t worry if you don’t know what that is.)

One thing you’ll note right away are the two sets of bars used, one blue and one orange. These correspond to the two major producers of baseball cards in the 1950s, Bowman and Topps. Bowman produced cards of Mickey Mantle annually from his first card in 1951 through the company’s demise following the 1955 season. Topps, meanwhile, issued Mantle cards in 1952 and 1953 but was forced into a two-year hiatus by rival Bowman who had Mick locked into an exclusive deal for the 1954 and 1955 seasons.

If you glance at the graph, one color at a time, you see that each color follows the general trend of the hypothetical graph presented earlier. Whether blue or orange, a downward pattern is unmistakable, and significant premiums are attached to the first of the bars.

So what was the purpose of all this? Mainly, I wanted to reinforce the idea that the value of a Mantle depends a lot on which Mantle. This weekend a 1952 Topps Mantle may make headlines by selling in the neighborhood of $10 million. This will no doubt cause some to wonder if the box of cards in their attic might produce its own seven-digit payday. Of course, as the graph shows, most Mantle cards (all but one, really!) are worth nowhere near that.

Before heading into our promised discussion of condition, I’ll share three more bits of information on the which Mantle front.

  • Particularly for cards produced before 1974, you will sometimes see exceptions to the monotonicity of the Value vs Year graph due to a “high numbers” effect. In many older sets, the cards at the end of the set were sold in smaller quantities, hence have greater scarcity. A famous example is the 1967 Topps Brooks Robinson, which is worth far more than any of his other 1960s Topps standard issues. (And yes, in case you’re wondering, Mickey Mantle had a “high number” card in the 1952 Topps set.)
  • Some players, especially stars, can have more than one card in a set. For example, Mickey Mantle has all three of these cards in the 1958 Topps set (and some might add the Yankees team card as well). Nearly always, the base (regular) card is worth more than the extras, in this case a World Series card with Hank Aaron and an All-Star card.
  • I’ve limited discussion thus far to cards from the major producers. However, the baseball card ecosystem is typically far larger than that. In 1954 alone, Mickey Mantle also had a dog food card, a potato chips card, a wiener card, as well as a couple others. It’s difficult to attach a general rule to the pricing on such cards. On one hand, they are generally less sought after by most collectors. On the other hand, some can be quite scarce. Thus there is some tug on their value in both directions, reduced demand pulling prices downward and reduced supply pulling prices upward.

In What Condition?

Even when I was a young collector in the late 1970s I knew cards with sharp corners and no creases were more valuable than ones you could practically roll along a table. This didn’t stop me from keeping my favorite cards in my pants pockets, but then again was I ever planning to sell them?

At any rate, the same is true today, but the premium on “high grade” vintage cardboard has only increased, in my eyes past the point of absurdity. Nowadays, much of the dealings in the Hobby’s upper stratosphere transpires with cards that have been commercially (the implication being professionally and objectively) graded by companies like PSA, SGC, and Beckett. While these companies certainly have their share of misses, the logic is that a well trained third party grader is more trustworthy than the card’s owner, who naturally stands to profit (at least in the short term) by over-stating a card’s condition.

Most grading is done on a numerical scale from 1-10, but the scale is decidedly non-linear. For example, here is a graph showing the value of the 1959 Topps Mickey Mantle card across its range of conditions. (Source: PSA, August 24, 2022.)

There have been no recent sales of the card with a grade of 10 and in fact only one such card has ever been graded by PSA. As such, there is no bar on the graph at 10, but you might have some fun guessing what such a card might go for based on the graph as shown. Half a million?!

Before proceeding I’ll show the same graph for grades 1-8 only, since the current graph’s very tall bar at 9 tends to dwarf all else.

The reason I’ve shared these graphs is to show just how much grade impacts value. For this particular card, a card graded 9 is worth more than 500 times as much as a card graded 1. Let’s unpack this a bit more.

Perhaps a friend lets you know that he just sold one of his 1950s Mickey Mantles for $1000, and—lo and behold—you have that very same card. Your copy might be worth $100 or it might be worth $10,000, maybe even a lot more than that! The point is, condition doesn’t just attach a premium; right or wrong, it creates a 500x (or more) differential in value, even when we’re talking about the exact same card!

I just illustrated the non-linearity of condition with respect to value. Separate from any discussion of market value, I’ll add my opinion that condition is also non-linear with respect to appearance. This may sound contradictory at first since you may view condition and appearance as synonyms, i.e., how the card presents. Either way, let’s take a look.

Here is the 1959 Topps Mickey Mantle card in grades 9, 8, and 7 respectively. At first glance, you would not be wrong to imagine the three cards identical. If anything, you might even dock the “9” for what looks like a very small stain below the O in OUTFIELD as well as some faint discoloration above the mickey mantle name.

At any rate, if we presume no error or subjectivity in the grading, we can only assume that there are important distinctions not necessarily evident to the naked eye (or, in fairness, on the backs of the cards). Perhaps the “8” has some microscopic corner ding, for example. Still, the larger point is that a 7, 8, and 9 all look almost exactly the same. (Notably, the card on the left sold for more than 30 times the card on the right!)

While I’ve illustrated my point using three cards, to my own eye the top six slots on the grading scale, i.e., grades of 5-10, all look about the same. Don’t get me wrong. If you look hard enough, I bet you can figure out which of these Mantle cards is a “10” and which is a “5” but I’ll still paraphrase Maya Angelou and say they “are more alike, my friends, than they are unalike.”

Back to value for a second, one of the two cards pictured sold recently for $1600. The other, were it to hit the market today, would likely fetch upwards of $500,000. 🤷🏻‍♂️

Sometimes someone sends me a picture of a card they took with their phone and asks what I think it’s worth. I hope the two Mantle cards illustrate the difficulty of providing such an assessment, particularly when cards are in really nice shape, hence differences in grades reflect only tiny distinctions but gigantic pricing differences.

For completeness, I’ll illustrate the lower end of the scale, where distinctions are much more notable, though still not always evident.

Though I’ve used graded cards to illustrate the hypersensitivity of price to condition, there are again some notes to offer.

  • Some cards receive half-grades (e.g., 3.5). Pricing for half grades is about what you’d expect.
  • Many sellers, even when a third-party grade has been assigned, will hope to realize a nicer sale by claiming their card is “under-graded” or “the nicest 3 you’ll ever see.” I can definitely say that grades being equal, some cards look better than others. Ultimately though, the buyer should be the judge of this rather than simply take the seller’s claim at face value.
  • Some cards receive non-numerical grades, the most common being “Authentic,” which usually is not as good as it sounds, and the most dreaded being “Counterfeit!”

Last but not least, most cards bought and sold are not graded. (Sometimes the term “raw” is used.) Here there is a greater risk associated with fakes, but the good news is that most of the folks out there buying vintage collections are able to tell real from bogus. As such, if you’re thinking about selling your childhood collection of 1950s cardboard, you need not panic that the only way to get anything for it is to spend tens of thousands of dollars having it graded first.

That said, if you are selling online to someone who can’t handle the cards directly, you may well experience a lower sales price based on buyer uncertainty over authenticity. A return policy and clear images mitigate this, but many online buyers will still attach risk to your cards and lower their offers accordingly.

Conclusion

Though it seems ridiculous, the value of a 1950s Mickey Mantle can be anywhere from about $10 to $10 million. Two factors that make a very, very big difference are which card you have an what condition it’s in. These certainly aren’t the only factors, but they more than suffice to make the point, which is that it is exceedingly difficult to assess the value of a vintage card or collection without spending some real time with it.

So what’s the value of that box of 1950s and 60s baseball cards from your childhood, the one you’re positive has a Mantle or two? There’s only one real answer, and it’s an incredibly unsatisfying one: it depends…and almost comically so!

Player collection spotlight – Dave Hoskins

I featured Dave Hoskins on SABR Baseball Cards a few years ago as the first player in my Uncommon Common series. Since then my collection has grown from a handful of readily available cards (1954 Topps, 1955 Topps, 1955 Topps Double Header) to a state player collectors only rarely proclaim: done?!

In this post I’ll highlight the five most unique pieces in the collection, along with some tips and tricks that might help other player collectors track down tough pieces.

1955 ALL AMERICAN SPORTS CLUB

This “card” is part of a set of 500 subjects across multiple sports, hand-cut from 9″ x 12″ sheets of glossy paper stock. As Hoskins cards go, it has a lot going against it: a low quality image, its small size (similar to a postage stamp), a blank back, and the obscurity of the issue. Still, there are so few playing era cards of Hoskins that I still treat the card as an essential.

I was able to add this card to my collection thanks to a rather broad eBay search I’d set up that was essentially “DAVE HOSKINS -TOPPS.” My goal in this search was to turn up any and all Dave Hoskins collectibles not produced by Topps. (Nothing against Topps here; it’s just that I already had all three of their playing era issues and didn’t want to clutter up my search results with more of the same.)

Lessons for player collectors: Trading Card Database is a great resource for identifying cards you might not know about. If searching on eBay for less common items, use the minus operator to de-clutter search results.

2017 MAGALLANES BASEBALL CLUB CENTENNIAL ISSUE

The same search (“DAVE HOSKINS -TOPPS”) added another card to my collection just last week. It was not only a card I never knew existed but even portrayed Hoskins with a team (and country!) I never knew was part of his résumé.

The card (or sticker, to be precise) was one of 200+ issued by the Magallanes Baseball Club (Venezuela) as part of its 100th anniversary. Other notables in the set include Dave Parker, Barry Bonds, Willie Horton, and local legend Nestor Chavez.

While I am not a “completist” when it comes to post-career issues, I make an exception when there are no playing era cards of a player on a certain team. That, and the fact that I might never see this one again, made the card a must have, even with the price tag being a good ten times what I would have expected.

Side note: This card led me to a very cool site for Venezuelan Winter League stats from which I learned Hoskins played for Magallanes in the 1951-52 season and also the Pampero team during the 1959-60 campaign.

Lesson for player collectors: In this case the card came from a US seller. However, it’s worth knowing that eBay assigns a default location to your searches that may cause you to miss items being sold from other countries. Edit the Item Location option to Worldwide to ensure the most comprehensive search.

1950s NOKONA DAVE HOSKINS MODEL GLOVE

Again that same “HOSKINS -TOPPS” search gets the credit for this rather unexpected find, a Dave Hoskins signature model glove.

Until this item arrived, I suspected it might even be game used, simply because I didn’t imagine Hoskins was a popular enough player to support store models. Once I had it in hand (and on hand!) I decided it was too small to have been sported by the player himself and was in fact a store model sized for kids.

A second surprise came my way after having the item refurbished by Jimmy Lonetti, whose nice work I’d seen several times on Twitter. Unreadable beforehand, the glove bore a name and date stamped into the leather. Some searching turned up a person of that name, unfortunately deceased, whose birthday around age 10 corresponded to the date on the glove. What’s more the person seemed to have grown up around Cleveland when Hoskins was a pitcher for the Indians. His family now has the glove, which makes me very happy.

Lesson for player collectors: If you are open to balls, gloves, bats, and other items appearing in your search results, be sure you haven’t “over-filtered” to where only Trading Cards are shown.

1952 DALLAS EAGLES SIGNED BASEBALL

If there is one item in my entire collection–Dave Hoskins or otherwise–that might belong in a museum, it’s this one: an official Texas League baseball signed by nearly the entire 1952 Dallas Eagles team.

I never would have found this ball using my “HOSKINS -TOPPS” search since the seller didn’t feature Hoskins at all in the listing. Fortunately, I had also set up a 1952 Dallas Eagles search, which generally turns up football items (e.g., Philadelphia Eagles vs Dallas Texans ticket stubs) but at least this one time turned up gold.

Lesson for player collectors: Particularly if the player you collect isn’t a big name, recognize that their name may not appear in item listings/descriptions, which of course eliminates those items from your search results.

1952 GLOBE PRINTING DALLAS EAGLES CARD

The term Holy Grail is probably overused in card collecting, but in the small universe of Dave Hoskins collecting I do believe it’s apt for this particular card.

This article from April 13, 1952, coincidentally the day of Hoskins’ first start, provides some information on the set and seems to indicate that the Hoskins card would have been given out only one night of the year.

A complete checklist for the set remains unknown, though there are currently at least 22 known players.

In the three years I’ve been collecting Dave Hoskins, this is a card I’d never once seen available and was only aware of due to its entry on Trading Card Database where it is one of only five cards from the set with an image uploaded. How the heck did I end up with one then?

A nice feature of Trading Card Database is that each card image includes metadata on who uploaded the scan. Another nice feature is that members can message each other. Well, figuring my chances of success were somewhere south of 1%, I contacted the member who had uploaded the image. As it turned out, he was very open to a deal! He even supplied a bit of provenance:

I got it years ago in a box of old items from a relative here in Dallas back in the 80’s.

Lesson for player collectors: Take advantage of Trading Card Database as, among other things, a buy/sell/trade platform. Though I got the card I wanted by contacting the user who uploaded its image, you are also able to bring up a list of ALL users who have cards from a set in their TCDB collection. For instance, here is the complete list of members with 1952 Globe Dallas Eagles cards, including a collector with an impressive 21 of the cards.

WHAT NOW?

I mentioned at the top of this article that my collection is now complete. However, if there’s a lesson from that Magallanes sticker, it’s that I can never rule out the discovery of something new. As such, I definitely won’t be deleting my “saved searches” on eBay just yet.

There are still a handful of items that I consider more bonus than essential. Topping this list is the August 1952 issue of Negro Achievements magazine, which features a familiar photo of Hoskins on the cover.

There have been four eBay sales of this item since 2011, most recently in March 2019. As is often the case for unusual pieces without a lot of comps, prices have varied widely, though condition was certainly also a factor:

  • May 2011: $127.50
  • July 2013: $14.37
  • June 2014: $29.95
  • March 2019: $48.47

Another “nice to have” is the Dave Hoskins photo from the 1954 Cleveland Indians team issued photo pack.

The final two items on the “maybe someday” list are ticket stubs or game programs from the two Dave Hoskins Nights held in 1952, one in Fort Worth and one in Dallas. The first of these also corresponds to Hoskins’ 20th win of the season and (hopefully) and upcoming SABR Games story.

Lesson for player collectors: Though I don’t have the photo pack card or the ticket stubs I’ve definitely noticed numerous listings, if not the majority, that use non-specific titles like “1950s Cleveland Indians photo pack” or “1950’s Dallas Eagles ticket stubs.” This makes particular sense for the photo packs cards since they are undated and repeat many players/photos across multiple years. Therefore, adding a search for “(1950s, 1950’s) INDIANS PHOTO PACK” may be useful. I’ll also note that sellers with partial sets typically list only the top stars like Feller and Doby, hence fly under the radar of a Dave Hoskins-specific search.

While the Dave Hoskins shelf is now full and includes all the essentials, I’ll keep looking for more cool stuff. If you have any leads, definitely let me know, and whatever you do, don’t outbid me!

42 in ’47: The Baseball Cards of Jackie Robinson’s Dodger Debut

Author’s Note: This article is part of a larger SABR Century Committee effort commemorating the 75th Anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s historic 1947 season. Head here for the full series.

When Jackie Robinson trotted out to first base on April 15, 1947, his steps were no less historic than those of Neil Armstrong just over two decades later. Baseball’s senseless and shameful Color Barrier had at last been breached and with it the customs and traditions of Jim Crow America itself were on notice. This is not to say equality had come to Baseball. Far from it as even the Dodgers merely tiptoed into integration while several other teams waited a decade or more to add their first Black player. As for managers, eleven more men after Armstrong would leave footprints on the Moon before a single Black man would take the reins of a Major League team.

Even today, as Jackie’s legacy is rightfully celebrated, it’s fair to wonder whether a modern Jackie Robinson would even choose Baseball, just as it’s fair to wonder whether any teams would notice him and sign him if he did. Were he living in the Dominican Republic, absolutely, but in his birthplace of Cairo, Georgia, or his childhood hometown of Pasadena, California, who’s to say? While a modern Jackie could win games for a general manager of any color, there are none in front offices today who look like him.

The same could be said for domestic baseball card issues prior to 1947, only one of which featured a Black player. While it would be easy to discount the utter lack of Black faces as merely reflective of the times, such an explanation fails to account for the many Black boxers who made their way onto trading cards, going back to at least 1909. Ultimately, the whiteness of baseball cards was due solely to the whiteness of what was then perceived (and enforced) as Organized Baseball. Jack Johnson, Joe Jeannette, and Joe Gans were professional boxers. The Philadelphia Stars, Newark Eagles and Homestead Grays meanwhile? These were semi-pro.

Thus the 1947 season brought with it not only the integration of Baseball but (several rungs down the ladder of importance) the opportunity to integrate baseball cards as well. All that was missing were the baseball cards themselves!

While today we take it for granted that a new baseball card set (if not dozens of different ones) will come out every year, such was not the case in the 1940s. Following the three-year run of Gum, Inc., and its Play Ball sets from 1939-41, the War and other national priorities left American baseball without a major set to chronicle its players until 1948, when Gum, Inc., baseball cards returned to shelves, this time under the Bowman name.

In the meantime, where baseball cards were produced at all, they most often took the form of smaller regional issues, often connected to food or other household products, cards that today many collectors classify under the umbrella of “oddball.” As such, this review of Jackie Robinson baseball cards from 1947 will feature bread, slacks, and even cigarettes but not a single stick of gum.

1947 BOND BREAD

Bond Bread will feature in this article twice. This first instance is to highlight a 48-card release comprised of four boxers and 44 baseball stars. The selection of baseball stars included Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Stan Musial but most notably a baseball card of Brooklyn Dodgers rookie Jackie Robinson.

Cards were packaged in loaves of Bond Bread, and at least one theory for their rounded corners is that the cards were less susceptible to damage that way. Importantly for collectors today, the rounded corners help distinguish these cards from near-identical versions that emerged as a standalone product sold as “Sport Star Subjects” in 1949. The square cornered versions are far less collectible, though widespread misidentification, including by a prominent grading company, has created sufficient confusion to elevate prices among uninformed buyers.

While both the Bond Bread and Sport Star Subjects cards have blank backs, a third version of the Robinson card features a back that’s anything but blank.

“1947” ELGEE PRODUCTS

Precise dating for this issue is unknown and may well be after 1947. A mix of baseball and movie star photos, the baseball images match those of the Bond Bread issue but are easily distinguished in at least two ways. One, they are perforated. Two, their backs include other cards from the set or, in some cases, advertising. The Robinson card, for example, features actor James Cagney on the reverse.

As with the Sport Star Subjects, these cards are also frequently misidentified as Bond Bread cards, even by third party grading companies and auction houses. Post 391 in this Net54 Baseball Forum thread shows the front and back of an uncut sheet, including the ELGEE branding. Post 386 in the same thread provides additional background on the company.

1947-50 BOND BREAD JACKIE ROBINSON

In addition to the 48-card set above, Bond Bread also released a second set of 13 cards dedicated entirely to Jackie Robinson. The set is catalogued as a 1947 issue. However, independent research by collectors Mike Knapp, Shaun Fyffe, and Michael Fried, which I’ll attempt to summarize here, has produced a broader timetable for the cards while also providing information on distribution.

The set began 1947 with a single card featuring a signed portrait of Jackie, a brief bio, and a product testimonial. This card was not distributed in packaged loaves but rather was given out by store owners (with free slices of bread!) to promote Bond Bread among African American consumers. (Post 49 in this Net54 Baseball Forum thread includes an article from the New York Amsterdam News detailing the marketing strategy.)

From there, it’s unclear whether any of the set’s remaining twelve cards dates to 1947. The aforementioned collector-researchers speculate subsequent releases of three or six cards at a time taking place sometime between 1947 and 1950, though I lean more toward the cards being issued one at a time. Either way, a clue that helps group the cards is the advertising on the back.

These six cards, assumed to be the earlier of the twelve, exhort consumers to eat the same bread as Jackie. Fielding poses show a first baseman’s mitt, which Jackie would have used primarily in 1947.

Before proceeding to the second group of six, I want to highlight two photos in particular, one of which may be very familiar to non-collectors. Though the background has been removed and Jackie has even changed teams, the card of Jackie waving with his glove draws its image from this iconic photograph.

A second card among the six does some early “photoshopping” of a Montreal photo as well.

Much later in this article we will see yet another occasion where a Montreal photo is doctored for use on a Brooklyn card. For now, we will return to the other six cards in the set. Note here that all fielding poses show a standard infielder’s glove.

The “smoking gun” that places these cards (or at least one of them) after 1947 comes from the image on the last card, believed to source to a photograph taken just after this one. (Note Jackie’s cap has fallen a bit farther on the card and his body has separated more from his trailing arm.) If so, the card could not have been issued any earlier than July 2, 1949, the date the photograph was taken.

With the set no longer confined entirely to 1947, we arrive at several possibilities for its overall release schedule. Barring further information, I’d be inclined to settle on the first group of six cards coming out across the six months of the 1948 baseball season and the second group of six following suit in 1949.

“1948” OLD GOLD CIGARETTES

The situation with Jackie’s Old Gold cards is precisely the opposite as here collectors regard what may be two cards from 1947 as if they came out the following year.

As Anson Whaley notes in his article for Sports Collectors Daily, two clues on the card backs suggest a 1947 release.

  • Robinson is listed as 28 year old, which was only his age through January 30, 1948
  • His 1947 Rookie of the Year Award (announced September 19, 1947) is not listed among his career highlights

Certainly each of these clues could merely point to bios written ahead of time, hence do not point definitively to a 1947 release of the actual cards. Still, absent any information affirming a 1948 release, the clues are at least intriguing.

1947″ PLEETWOOD SLACKS

Continuing the theme of uncertain dates is this rare 5″ x 8″ promotional issue from Pleetwood Slacks. While catalogued as a 1947 issue, I am unable to find any source that provides independent corroboration. Notably, the Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards indicates that “the [1947] date of issue cited is conjectural.”

When I do find “hits” on Pleetwood Slacks, never mind Jackie, they only come in the Black press of late 1948, specifically October through December. Here is a typical example.

Alabama Citizen, December 18, 1948

Perhaps information is out there somewhere establishing the Pleetwood Slacks card as a 1947 issue. In the meantime I’d just as soon date it to late 1948 where timing it’s would better match the print advertising campaign for the brand.

1947 CHAMP HATS

Collector and Hobby historian Bob Lemke (1941-2017) featured this 8 x 10 “card” as a new find on his blog in 2015.

As detailed on Bob’s blog, both Bob and the previously mentioned Sean Fyffe regarded 1947 as the most likely year for this piece.

1947 DODGERS TEAM PHOTO PACK

Many teams sold photo packs of their players and other personnel, going back to at least the 1930s. The 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers photo pack consisted of 25 photos, 6” x 9” in size, including this one of Jackie Robinson.

The image is a sharper and cleaner version of the ones used on his Bond and faux Bond issues and a reminder that many cards of the era used photos provided by the teams or their photographers. Furthermore, the presence and identical placement of Jackie’s signature on the Bond and pseudo-Bond cards leads me to wonder if those cards didn’t originate from the original photograph but from this photo pack card. Either way, I suspect the photo pack Jackie is the earliest of his various 1947 issues.

1947-66 EXHIBIT SUPPLY COMPANY

One of the most common and (formerly!) affordable early baseball cards of Jackie Robinson is his 1947-66 Exhibit Supply Company (Chicago, IL) postcard-sized issue. However, despite “1947” right there in the naming of the set, there is no evidence that Jackie’s exhibit cards date back that far.

Rather, the “1947-66” label simply means that the overall set of 300+ different cards spanned 20 years. The presence of later stars such as Aaron, Banks, and Kaline suffice to show that “1947” hardly applies to all players.

The Keyman Collectibles site provides a guide for the precise dating of Exhibit cards. Having reviewed more than a dozen so far, I have not yet run across a Robinson any earlier than 1948.

Side note: A 1948 release would have left plenty of time to find pictures of Jackie as a Dodger. However, the photograph used on the Exhibit card, as was the case with two of the Bond Bread cards, dates to 1946, as evidenced by Jackie’s Montreal uniform.

SUMMARY: THE JACKIE ROBINSON CARDS OF 1947

All told I’ve reviewed 22 different Jackie Robinson cards correctly or incorrectly associated with his Barrier Breaking debut season in Brooklyn. From this number, there are only three where I believe the 1947 dating is firmly established:

  • 1947 Bond Bread multi-player set
  • 1947 Bond Bread Jackie Robinson set – portrait with facsimile autograph
  • 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers photo pack

For the reader only reasonably acquainted with the world of collectibles, it might seem a tame question to then ask which of these cards is Jackie Robinson’s rookie card. Could it really be that the answer is none of them!

EPILOGUE: JACKIE’S ROOKIE CARD

Modern collectors focus heavily (if not obsessively!) over the notion of a rookie card, particularly when the player concerned is a Hall of Famer. In a simpler world, a player would have one card for each year of his career, and the first such card would be his rookie card. In the real world, however, the situation is far murkier, complicated by any number of wrinkles, depending on the collector.

For example, any of the following may be treated as a disqualifying when it comes to rookie card status.

  • cards that pre-date a player’s major league status (e.g., a minor league card)
  • cards from minor, regional, unlicensed, or non-US releases
  • cards that aren’t really baseball cards (e.g., a postcard, mini-poster, or bobblehead)
  • cards with uncertain release dates

In the case of Jackie Robinson, all four of these come into play. While I did not feature it in this article due to its 1946 issue date, there is a highly sought after Parade Sportive newspaper insert featuring Jackie Robinson, which checks off each of the first three bullets above.

As for Jackie’s Bond Bread cards, many collectors regard the releases as too minor to warrant rookie card status. Add to that for many of them an uncertain release date as well. Ditto for Elgee Products, Old Gold Cigarettes, Pleetwood Slacks, and Champs Hats, with the latter two having only questionable baseball card status as well.

The Brooklyn photo pack card, which may well be first of Jackie as a Dodger, also challenges the most rigid definitions of “baseball card” while adding the potential disqualifier of a regional release. Finally, the Exhibit card is not quite a real baseball card to many collectors while also carrying uncertainty as to dating.

Also lacking card status to most collectors are the various Jackie Robinson buttons and pins that were popular among fans in the late 1940s. I omitted lengthier treatment in this article but will show six of them here.

Source: Robert Edward Auctions

The result of all this is that many collectors would not consider any of the Jackie Robinson cards profiled so far to be Jackie’s rookie card. Instead, the coveted label is most often applied to Jackie’s card from the set known popularly in the Hobby as 1948 Leaf.

“This is the only true rookie card of baseball’s first African-American representative and hero to all,” according to PSA, the Hobby’s largest grader and authenticator of trading cards.

Though my revenue, Hobby or otherwise, is a far cry from that of PSA, I nonetheless challenge this assertion. For one thing, despite the typical designation of the set as “1948 Leaf” (or sometimes 1948-49 Leaf), there are compelling reasons to believe the Robinson card (if not the entire set) dates to 1949.

  • 1949 copyright date on the back of the card
  • Reference to Jackie’s 1948 statistics as “last season” on the back of the card
  • Standard Catalog entry indicating the set was “produced by Chicago’s Leaf Gum Co. for issue in 1949”
  • Hall of Fame and Beckett cataloguing of card as 1949

Erroneous dating aside, I’ll also note that the Leaf cards, at least of some players, were unlicensed, which can often be a rookie card disqualifier. That said, collectors tend to give the set a free pass on this point.

At any rate, if we regard the Leaf card as a rookie card, we should then confer rookie status on Jackie’s other significant release of the same year, issued as part of the 1949 Bowman set of 240 cards.

Alternatively, we might turn our attention to a card that genuinely does date to 1948, Jackie’s Sport Thrills card from Swell Bubble Gum.

From a rookie card perspective, this card beats Leaf and Bowman by a year, has unambiguous baseball card status as opposed to some of the other 1947-48 contenders, and originates from a more major release than its contemporaries and predecessors. At the same time, not all collectors treat the Sport Thrills set as major enough, and its focus on highlights rather than players equally reduces the appeal.

Ultimately, the question of Jackie’s true rookie card is a complicated one, confounded by the uncertain or erroneous dating of his early cardboard and curiously subjective notions like “major release” and “baseball card.” On one hand the lack of a definitive rookie card opens the door for individual collectors to apply their own criteria and judgment. On the other hand, the same fuzziness creates opportunities, intentional or accidental, to misrepresent and misinform. In the end, perhaps the only truism when it comes to Jackie’s rookie cards is this: If you have to ask, you can’t afford it!

Unoriginality as the norm

Meet the new set, same as the old set. Or something like that.

You know what I’m talking about, right? Or maybe not. You were thinking this was about the new Topps cards? 😊 Don’t worry, we cover that too, courtesy of my friends Nick and Jeff.

Me? I’m here to channel my outrage at a card producer no longer even around to defend itself. Yes, I’m talking to you, Gum, Inc., as if your very name itself wasn’t a dead giveaway that originality would never be your hallmark. Shall we review the evidence?

PART ONE: 1939-41

The first Gum, Inc., baseball sets were released from 1939-41 under the Play Ball name. Here is the Joe DiMaggio card from the 1939 set.

1939 Play Ball Joe DiMaggio

While some collectors might refer to the card design as “classic” or “uncluttered,” let’s call it what it is: BORING!!! Just a black and white image on a nearly square piece of cardboard. No name, no team, no logo, no anything. This Play Ball brand will be lucky to last three years, give or take!

Gum, Inc., tried a little harder the following year, so I’ll give credit where due.

1940 Play Ball “Charley” Gehringer

Though many collectors are lukewarm on the 1940 Play Ball set, I rather like the working of baseball equipment into the design around the nameplate, and I absolutely applaud the level of effort taken to toggle the images of nearly every repeated player from 1939. Ah, and who doesn’t love nearly every first name in quotes?

Of course, just when we thought the good folks at Gum, Inc., were poised to innovate, they go full-on MP & Company on us.

1941 Play Ball “Charley” Gehringer

Yes, it’s a gorgeous card, but really?? All you did was color in the pictures from the year before? LAZY!!

True, conventional wisdom has it that U.S. entry into World War II is what brought Gum, Inc., baseball offerings to a standstill, but all geopolitics aside could they really have lasted another year with such a tepid creative team? I mean, gosh, what was next in line? Returning the 1941 images to black and white? (TCMA imagined a different path for 1942 Play Ball but unoriginality remained a key feature.)

PART TWO: 1948-52

When Gum, Inc., resumed baseball card production in 1948, the world was a very different place, and change can of course be a scary thing for most. Fortunately, card collectors could take comfort in the fact that time had not simply stood still at Gum, Inc., but actually gone backward. For its 1948 Bowman card design, the Gum, Inc., team–either intentionally or unintentionally–brought back 1939 Play Ball.

1948 Bowman Stan Musial

About the only discernible change to the cards was the use of about a third less cardboard, best shown by turning the 1948 card sideways.

The 1949 cards shrunk even more while “innovating” on the 1939/1948 design in swapping a solid color background into each photograph and colorizing certain elements of the player image.

1949 Bowman Ralph Kiner

In later series, Gum, Inc., even went a little crazy and added names.

1949 Bowman Boris “Babe” Martin

Teaming up with the George Moll advertising agency, the 1950 Bowman cards truly did something new and beautiful. I particularly enjoy the detailed baseball stadium scenes on some of the cards, complete with fans or sometimes “fan” as the case may be.

1950 Bowman Duke Snider

With no way to top the 1950 offering, Bowman adopted a “crop, don’t top” approach in 1951 for more than half of the players included in both sets.

1951 Bowman Duke Snider

Just for fun, here is a trio of 1951 Bowman cards superimposed on the same trio from 1950.

The 1952 cards continued the use of full color artwork and included my personal pick for the most gorgeous card of the entire decade. Facsimile autographs replaced the more pedestrian nameplate of the year before. If you couldn’t get an autographed photo of your favorite player, his 1952 Bowman card would have proved a worthy stand-in.

1952 Bowman Roy Campanella

Unfortunately for Bowman, much like the Campanella card’s background, the writing was on the wall.

PART THREE: 1953-1955

While Topps had some baseball cards of their own in 1951 and even 1948, Topps really got serious in 1952 and ready to compete in earnest for baseball card supremacy. While the Bowman cards had their merits in 1952, the Topps cards were much larger, featured lifelike player images, and even included stats on the back.

How could Bowman possibly compete?

“Hey, guys. I have an idea. How about we make our 1953 cards were larger, feature lifelike player images, and even include stats on the back? Am I a genius or what?!”

The result was that in 1953 the Bowman cards looked even more like Topps than Topps did!

While Bowman played catchup in 1953, Topps took their cards in other directions, going with a rectangular nameplate in the corner and a trivia question on the back…

So naturally Bowman did the same in 1954.

Still, the Bowman design proved no match for the near perfect, three-bordered beast Topps put out that year.

Rather than try to imitate Topps or evolve an older offering of their own, Bowman produced their most original (though perhaps imitative) set of cards to date, and this baseball card revolution evidently would be televised.

Creativity at last, emphasis on last. Just as Bowman’s baseball card minds were beginning to think outside the box, the company was gobbled up by a manufacturer of…wait for it…boxes!

But wait, what’s this? Accounts of Bowman’s demise may have been greatly exaggerated? A shocking claim but then again the cardboard doesn’t lie.

1956 Topps, a collector favorite to be sure, but that landscape format…the reused player photos…another year of background action scenes…the facsimile signatures…undoubtedly the least original cards produced by Topps thus far, or to put it another way “the most Bowman!”

Gum, Inc., is dead. Long live Gum, Inc.

EPILOGUE

All kidding aside, Bowman really did make some comebacks in the Hobby after 1955. Topps brought the brand back to life in 1989 with a set that was at once reminiscent of the much acclaimed 1953 Bowman series and wholly despised.

Even today, Topps continues to pump out sets under the Bowman name with the 2021 Bowman’s Best offering even spawning the “Wandergate” controversy.

Certainly, hockey collectors of a certain age will recognize the strong influence of the 1955 Bowman baseball design on the 1966-67 Topps Hockey set.

Finally, readers may be aware of the 1956 Bowman baseball prototypes, which among other things clearly influenced the 1958 Hires Root Beer cards and perhaps even 1957 Topps football and 1960 Topps baseball.

As Faulkner wrote, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The Collecting Gene

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a collector as someone who collects objects because they are beautiful, valuable, or interesting.  While all of that is true, I argue that an alternate definition is someone who collects objects because of an inherited trait, specifically the collecting gene.

My introduction to baseball came at a very young age.  I attended my first ballgame at age 2 ½ and suspect I would have gone sooner if not for my father being in the service.  But my first visit to Yankee Stadium was not my introduction to the greatest sport on earth.  The broadcast of a Yankees game would often be heard coming from a radio in our Brooklyn apartment.  And the rare treat of a televised game shone on our wood-encased television set.

Once my father was sure I was hooked on baseball, he introduced me to baseball cards.  I was immediately smitten.  There was no “What’s the point?” or fleeting attraction, only “When can I have more, Dad?”  That question wasn’t asked in a greedy or spoiled-child kind of way.  Neither would have been tolerated.  I was simply a five-year-old fascinated by those beautiful 3.5” x 2.5” pieces of cardboard!  They were a window into the larger world of baseball.  The photos, the statistics, the player facts – all helped tell the story of the game with which I had fallen in love.  Dad was thrilled that my interest in baseball extended beyond the stimulating sights and sounds of a game.  He told me that we’d add to my collection a little at a time.

My first storage box

In those early collecting days, before any baseball chatter tied to newly acquired cards, there was always a lesson about the importance of treating my cards with respect and keeping them safe.  I didn’t even hear of flipping or putting cards in bicycle spokes until my family moved to a new neighborhood and I met friends with older brothers.  And of course, I was horrified by both practices.  By the time I was six, we were examining Hostess boxes to find one with cards I didn’t already have.  Even earlier than that came the blind hunt for Kellogg’s cereal cards.  New packs were always the most fun, though.  Whether they were picked out during a trip to buy the Sunday newspaper on the way home from church, or left by the Easter Bunny or Santa, packs were (and still are) bundles of wonder waiting to be unwrapped.  Dad and I would open them together and discuss.  The conversations ranged from interesting facts about the players or a ballpark or a team’s history to math lessons using the stats on the card backs.

Some of my early acquisitions
(Yes, the Winfield rookie is signed.  There’s a funny story about that encounter here.)

Dad would often springboard from discussing a current player to a story about someone he saw play when he was my age.  So, it was inevitable that an inquisitive child like me would eventually ask “Dad, where are your baseball cards?”  His face changed.  My father explained to me that he kept his cards in excellent condition with each set neatly arranged.  All were organized in shoe boxes – no rubber bands, no miscellaneous junk – and they were always put away safely on the shelf in his closet.  He left them there when he left with his newlywed bride for Puerto Rico to serve in the United States Navy.  When he and my mom returned three years later with a toddler daughter in tow (me), they temporarily moved in with my paternal grandmother.  As Dad was unpacking he noticed the empty shelf in his closet.  He didn’t panic at first.  He thought that my grandmother had relocated his treasured baseball card collection to make room in the closet for some of my mom’s things.  (You know what’s coming, right?)  Sadly, he was wrong.  My grandmother put the entire collection out with the trash because she didn’t think that a grown man with a family would still be interested in his childhood toys.  My heart sank.

I’m certain that Dad would have introduced me to baseball cards even if his collection had survived.  And I don’t think I could love baseball cards any more than I already do.  But I wonder if I might love them differently had I been able to hold Dad’s ’51 Topps Monte Irvin or ’50 Bowman Gil Hodges or ’52 Topps Mickey Mantle.  I’ll never know.

What I do know is that I spent many memorable hours with my father building my baseball card collection.  Whether it was searching for a team set at a minor league ballpark or sorting cards at the dining room table, there was always joy in baseball cards.  Some of my most memorable card-hunting experiences are tied to the plethora of card shows my dad and I attended in the 1980s and early 1990s.  Not only were there players to meet (from Hall of Famers to current stars), but these were my first chances to see the cards from my father’s childhood in person.  I still get goosebumps when I’m in the presence of 1950s cardboard.

Last year I started building a 1950s baseball card collection of my own.  My first three acquisitions were Gil Hodges cards.  Hodges was my father’s first favorite ballplayer and I could think of no more fitting way to start my vintage collection.  (It’s difficult for me to identify cards I obtained new as a child as “vintage!”)  I still love my Topps Allen & Ginter and my annual factory set and Heritage Minors and so many other modern cards, but I’ve learned that no baseball cardboard can give me the same warm fuzzies as the cards that were ultimately responsible for my collecting gene’s orders being followed exactly as they were.  Here’s to my dad and to my new vintage baseball card adventure!

Cardboard Fingerprints

One of my oldest card collecting projects dates back to college and began, if I remember correctly, with a book I no longer have. The book was one of many along the theme of “baseball’s greatest players” but was particularly nice in that it included full-page photographs of every player.

In a move that perhaps foretold my joining SABR 30 years later, my roommate and I made copies of 50 of the pictures and arranged them nearly floor to ceiling to create our apartment’s own “Wall of Fame.” I recall we even put some care into the ordering of the players with the occasional new insight from “Total Baseball” prompting a reordering ceremony from time to time.

Soon after, we also began pinning our best baseball cards onto bulletin boards. (Don’t panic. The pins only went thru the penny sleeves.) Thanks to the Kit Young mail order catalog and a dealer named “Big John” who frequented local shows, we were able to update our Boards quite frequently. Naturally, any change to the Board was a major event in our apartment.

Following our graduation, my roommate eventually moved south and I moved north, which spelled the end of my Board. As remains the case today, most of my joy in collecting involved sharing the Hobby with others. In my new environment I didn’t have any friends who collected, so my grad school décor switched to Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

Fast forward two decades to 2014. I lived alone much of the week, had all kinds of time on my hands, and had just realized you could buy almost any baseball card you wanted on the internet. Unlike my college days where I made $6 an hour grading math homework, I now had a “real job,” hence real money to spend. This of course meant only one thing.

The Board was back!

Or should I say the Boards were back? I went with two display cases to fill side by side, setting the table (or rather the wall) for what I now call my “Top 100” project. Both Boards have seen numerous changes over the past eight years, typically prompted by a desire to add a player or set I didn’t already have.

For example, just last week I was able to swap out my 1935 Diamond Stars Joe Medwick card for his card from the 1938 Goudey set, thereby adding another classic set to my display. (Insert your own bad pun about getting my Duckies in a row.)

This Board and the 1958-81 version that hangs next to it are favorites in my collection for a couple reasons. One is simply that the cards themselves are wonderful. The other is that these Boards connect my present day collecting to my past. What else in my life did I begin at age 20 that I’m still working on past age 50? Among that which is tangible on this Earth, only myself and my card collection, and certainly more the latter if we’re being honest.

Even beyond the two reasons given, there is a third reason these Boards are as central as they are to my collection. Simply put, the Board uniquely defines who I am as a collector. As with fingerprints, I suspect no two collectors would ever possess the same Board. Really, who would even dispute such a claim, particularly if the collections in question amounted to 50 or 100 cards? However, I tend to think the claim holds even limited to five cards.

Following the craze of this past month or so, here is what my cardle might look like. (Two new cards from other displays make an appearance here.)

Actual versions are not nearly this sharp!

What would your cardle be?

  • Same card (player AND set) as mine: Give yourself a green!
  • Same player (different set) as mine: Give yourself a yellow!

Naturally I’ll look forward to seeing your results all over my social feeds. 😊

Cardboard Typos and Gripe-o’s—Part 2

For nearly 30 years, editing has brought home my bacon. It wasn’t my desired profession; I fell into it like an open manhole—and I’m still trying to climb my way out. The grammatical, punctuational, and syntactic boo-boos I fix have been mostly in the medical and pharmaceutical fields, but they’ve been pretty easy to spot in my spare time as well—which means, to a degree, on the backs, and sometimes fronts, of baseball cards.

Years ago, I began jotting down factual errors and spelling typos (punctuation issues and lack of hyphenation are so rampant that chronicling them would be a never-ending and pointless task). I do not keep abreast of baseball card commentary as vigilantly as I once did, so at least one of the following errors has been posted elsewhere, which means that others—maybe many—in this simple and hardly comprehensive multi-part list might also have been documented in that long interim.

Here, Part 2 continues this absolutely uncomprehensive, and extremely random, list of baseball card errors (see Part 1 here).

  • 1911 T201 Mecca Double Folder Lefty Leifield (backed with Mike Simon): Unlike other pitchers in the set, the stats for this talented Pirates southpaw feature batting and fielding records—Lefty’s pitching ledger for the previous season has been mysteriously replaced by his work with the glove. Yet it’s not even Lefty’s statistics. Card-mate and battery mate Mike Simon—whose statistics are completely absent under his own name—appears at first glance to have his statistics erroneously replacing Leifield’s field work (note the inclusion of passed balls). However, the lack of quality control on Mecca’s part is even more out of control than this: Beyond problematic typesetting, the statistics listed are wildly incongruent with Simon’s (as well as all other NL catchers’) performance in 1910—none more so than his alleged .536 fielding percentage—a number that couldn’t keep a catcher on a sandlot field. Just as egregious is his 64 passed balls. In actuality, Simon was not charged with either a single error or passed ball during the previous season. Who knows how these numbers were conjured—the lowest fielding percentage registered by any catcher in the majors in 1910 was .875, and after the rule changes of the 1890s, no catcher had let more than 27 balls past him since the turn of the century. If some supercentenarian is still manning the phones at Mecca Cigarettes, somebody should call to get the lowdown—pronto.
  • 1912 T207 Germany Schaefer: It’s common knowledge that Jim Delahanty’s T207 contains multiple misspellings of his surname (“Delehanty”) on the back (though the front is correct), but that spelling miscue also appears on the back of Germany Schaefer’s T207 (the two were swapped for each other, along with Red Killefer, in 1909, accounting for the mutual mentions). Schaefer’s bio also contains a more personal blunder, stating that, “Since arriving at the Capital he has played first, second, short and third….” However, the utilitarian Schaefer never took the field as a shortstop after his days in Detroit. As a macabre aside, Schaefer, a renowned baseball prankster, died of tuberculosis in the same New York village where Christy Mathewson succumbed to the disease six years later. (It may have even been the same sanatorium; I’m not certain.)
  • 1954 Topps Vern Law (#235): Vern’s “Year” line denotes that he spent the previous season “IN MILITARY SERVICE,” yet “IN” is missing the “I.” I’m not familiar with an Idaho accent, but perhaps Topps was writing in Vern’s native vernacular. (I’ve largely avoided minor points in these lists, but to spotlight Topps’ sloppiness, in the right-hand cartoon mentioning Bing Crosby, “Pirate’s” is incorrectly singular possessive; it doesn’t need an apostrophe at all, but if one is used, it should follow the “s” to be plural possessive. Misuse of the apostrophe is one of the most pervasive marks of ignorance found in print.)
  • 1933 Goudey Tony Lazzeri (#31): Goudey took “Poosh ‘Em Up”’s games played in 1932 and pooshed ‘em down, stating that he played 141 games—Lazzeri actually suited up for 142 games in 1932. Perhaps unfairly, his bio begins that “coming to the bat in his first world series with bases filled, struck out.” This is a necessarily incomplete, almost Twitter-like, reference to Lazzeri’s inning-ending whiff at the hands of Grover Cleveland Alexander in Game 7 of the 1926 World Series, of course. To be fair, it was actually the fourth time in the Series that Lazzeri came to the plate with the bases full. Twice, he delivered important sacrifice flies, including the eventual game-winning run in the top of the 10th in Game 5—without which the Series might never have gone to a seventh game and given baseball that gilded moment.  
  • 1933 Goudey Burleigh Grimes (#64): Burleigh’s bio declares that he “[b]roke into baseball in 1913 with Ottumwa in the Central Association.” With apologies to Radar O’Reilly, who was born right about the time that this card hit the shelves in his native Ottumwa, Burleigh was no rookie in 1913, having pitched in 9 games for the Class D Eau Claire Commissioners of the Minnesota-Wisconsin League in 1912. Had Radar been old enough to watch Ol’ Stubblebeard on the mound, he might have remarked, “Uh-oh, spitters!”
  • 1933 Goudey Earl Averill (#194): More inaccuracy than error—and much like Lefty Gomez’s cards mentioned in Part 1—virtually all of Earl Averill’s cards denote his birth year as 1903, whereas all official sources, including his headstone, report it as 1902.
  • 1949 Bowman Bob Lemon (#238): Bob was anything but a lemon as a pitcher, seven times reaching the 20-win circle and earning a place in the Hall of Fame; however, his cards are a strange and recurring saga of geographical ineptitude on the part of multiple manufacturers. Beginning with his rookie card, Bowman misspelled his birthplace of San Bernardino, California, as “San Bernadino.” (Incorporated in 1869, the city’s spelling had been officially established for 80 years by the time Bowman inked Lemon to a contract.) For most of Bowman’s existence, it repeated this error. One might attribute this to the same biographical information being used rotely over the next 6 years—except that Bowman got the spelling correct in 1951 and 1952, then inexplicably reverted to the original error for the remainder of its run. So, defying any semblance of logic, Bowman printed “Bernadino” in 1949 and 1950, changed correctly to “Bernardino” in 1951 and 1952, and then went back to its mistake in 1953, 1954, and 1955. If that weren’t bizarre enough, all three of Lemon’s Red Man Tobacco cards (1953-’55) also misspelled his birthplace as “Bernadino.” (I don’t know if Red Man, which had long been only a tobacco company, made some kind of deal with Bowman for its baseball information when deciding to issue its own cards—some of their bios read similarly in places—but blame would still fall on Red Man Tobacco for not at least proofreading its product.) In contrast, none of Topps’ cards that list a birthplace erred on this spelling, and Lemon’s 1954 Red Heart and Dan-Dee cards also are correct.
  • 1960 Leaf Jim Coates (#35): A double-dip for Jim. “Binghampton” is a misspelling. Hold the “p,” Leaf. A bigger blooper is that Leaf was under the impression that Coates had never pitched in the majors before 1959—his “Past Year” totals are identical to his “Lifetime” totals. However, Jim appeared in 2 games for the Pinstripes way back in 1956, making the majority of those lifetime statistics incorrect.
  • 1960 Leaf Al Spangler (#38): Al’s home is listed as “Maple Glenn, Pa.” Leaf apparently turned over a new leaf and gave Spangler’s home an extra “n”—the town is spelled Maple Glen. To my knowledge, it never went by “Glenn.”

Rife with typos, Topps’ 1964 Giants subset contains more than its share. Among them:

  • 1964 Topps Giants Orlando Cepeda (#55): Cepeda is denoted as having laced 38 triples as a rookie in 1958. This is diamond hogwash. Did Topps think third-base coach Herman Franks waved a red cape every time Cepeda rounded first so that the Baby Bull came raging uncontrollably into third? Owen Wilson’s 36 triples in 1912 has never been bested, and, in fact, no player has legged out more than 26 ever since. Cepeda, of course, ripped 38 doubles, not 38 triples.
  • 1964 Topps Giants Billy Williams (#52): Topps really shortchanged Billy by stating that he clubbed “20 two-baggers” for the Ponca City Cubs in 1957. The sweet-swinging Williams swatted twice that many in pacing the Sooner State League in doubles.
  • 1964 Topps Giants Carl Yastrzemski (#48): In the right-hand column, Carl was cited to have “wrecked havoc” on opposing pitchers. This is a malaprop—the term is, of course, “wreaked havoc.” At least Topps spelled his surname correctly.
  • 1964 Topps Giants Harmon Killebrew (#38): Deceptive text, even if inadvertent, is a no-no to an editor, so I’m calling out Topps for Killer’s headline, KILLEBREW WINS 2ND HOMER CROWN. As evidenced early in his bio, “For the second consecutive season, the Minnesota Twins’ slugger was the American League home run champion.” This is certainly accurate, Harmon having claimed the crown in 1962 and ’63. However, the headline implies very strongly that these were his only two homer titles to that point—yet Killebrew had also topped the AL in 1959, meaning, of course, that he’d nabbed his third homer crown in 1963, not his second. If I didn’t call this out, I’d be negligent in my long-time occupation as an editor.

If the 1964 Topps Giants subset is something of an editor’s treasure trove, the 1960 and 1961 Fleer sets are a gold rush. Some of the most problematic assemblages of cards out there, they have often caused me to wonder if the company headquartered in my hometown ever employed a fact checker or proofreader. Many’s the time I fantasized about going back in time to be hired as Fleer’s text editor. With a primo job like that, how could a young Ann-Margret not date me?

  • 1960 Fleer Christy Mathewson (#2): Fleer failed to list that Christy also pitched for Cincinnati. Some may say “Big deal—he pitched only 1 game for the Reds.” Well, it was a big deal. That final game—a victory—ultimately allowed Mathewson to tie Grover Cleveland Alexander for most victories by a National League pitcher (even though his true victory total wasn’t discovered until many years after his death). Fleer rectified this oversight—sort of—in its 1961 set, stating that he pitched all of his games “except one” for New York, without specifying that other team. However, Fleer did picture Matty in a Cincinnati uniform—although neither is this definitely, because Christy was better known in red as Cincinnati’s manager for several seasons, which Fleer references.
  • 1960 Fleer Joe Medwick (#22): Fleer anointed Medwick with an RBI total of 1949—which, at that time, would have put Ducky fourth on the all-time list, a handful ahead of Ty Cobb. Now, Medwick was an excellent run producer and, in fact, stands as one of the few National Leaguers to top the Senior Circuit in RBI for 3 consecutive seasons, but the actual total of runs he drove across the plate was a far less robust 1383. Remarkably, Fleer repeated this huge blunder on Joe’s 1961 card (#61).
  • 1961 Fleer Rogers Hornsby (#43): The Rajah’s home run total is incorrectly listed as 302 (he hit 301); his triples total is also inaccurate: 168, though he actually hit 169. His hit total is correct, so I wonder, if among all of the other revisions to old-timers’ statistics, one of Hornsby’s round-trippers was downgraded to a three-base hit. (301 was, as long as I can recall, his established home run total, as can be seen on his 1976 Topps All-Time All-Star card—which is almost certainly from where I first learned the total.)
  • 1961 Fleer Ty Cobb (#14): One of the biggest statistical oversights I’ve seen occurs in Cobb’s bio, as Fleer denotes Ty as having led the AL six times in hitting. As any moderately informed baseball fan knows, Cobb snared an incredible 11 batting crowns (or 12, depending on which source you consult—the Hall of Fame still claims the latter). Regardless of which you consider the true count, Cobb’s run of double-digit batting crowns was, even then, long regarded as one of the most amazing feats in sports annals—and an inexcusable gaffe by Fleer, especially considering that his 1960 Fleer card denotes Cobb as capturing 12 batting titles.

  • 1961 Fleer Grover Cleveland Alexander (#2): Fleer goofs again, misspelling “immortal” in the opening line of Alex’s bio (and fails to include a period as well).
  • 1961 Fleer George Sisler (#78): George’s bio is almost cruelly ironic in its boast that he “played in six World Series.” Sisler, of course, is renowned among the game’s greats who never played in the Fall Classic. (George worked for Brooklyn and Pittsburgh as a scout and batting instructor in later years, but this certainly does not equate with playing in a World Series, and his attachment to pennant-winning teams in either of these capacities fell far short of six anyway.) How could such a false statement be written—and, worse, approved? Perhaps more than any other card in Fleer’s 1960 and ’61 sets, this colossal blunder indicates a shameful lack of commitment to its product and the consumer.

  • 1975 TCMA Red Russell: Typos among “quasi-professional” sets such as TCMA are plentiful. One example is from TCMA’s 1975 issue spotlighting the 1919 White Sox squad. Breaking in with the Southsiders in 1913, Russell crafted one of the best—and most overlooked—rookie seasons by a pitcher, winning 22 games for the 5th-place Sox. By 1919, his arm was gone, facing just 2 batters all season, in a June loss to Boston, which ended his pitching career at a fine 80-59 mark. Soon after this final appearance, Russell went to the Double-A Minneapolis Millers and reinvented himself as an outfielder. He returned to the majors in 1922 and put in a pair of partial seasons for the Pirates, thwacking 21 home runs in 511 at-bats. TCMA’s goof lay in labeling him “Red” Russell. Born in postbellum Mississippi and raised in Texas, he was well known as “Reb” Russell for his obvious Southern heritage. Even so, mild kudos to TCMA for including in the set the member who played least on the roster during the season (there are a few White Sox who played more than Russell yet were not included).
  • 1954 Red Heart Stan Musial: Stan’s bio claims that he has played in “9 All Star games as a Cardinal outfielder.” Through the end of the 1953 campaign, Musial had played in 10 All-Star Games. Yet even if this statement is taken literally—that is, counting his participation only as an outfielder, regardless of how silly it would be for Red Heart to ignore his other appearances in the Midsummer Classic—Musial had, to that time, participated once as a first baseman and once as a pinch-hitter, so the count strictly as an outfielder was 8—which still did not jibe with Red Heart’s claim. It’s also interesting to note that Red Heart, as late as 1954, referred to the Fall Classic as the “World’s Series”—an antiquated spelling that had essentially died out by the 1930s.

And just for good measure, I’m throwing in several hockey card errors:

  • 1957-58 Topps Jean Guy Gendron (#52): Between this entry and the following one, you will see that Gendron appears to have been the target of a systematic process of sloppiness and inconsistency, the likes of which the sports card industry has never seen. In the English bio of this, Gendron’s rookie card, Topps heretically refers to the Montreal club as the “Canadians.” Frankly, Topps should consider itself lucky that Montreal fans didn’t fly into a bleu, blanc, et rage, bus down to Brooklyn, and burn the plant to the ground. Despite being Gendron’s official rookie card, this also establishes a long and winding road of instability concerning his first name. Gendron’s first name appears to officially have been spelled with a hyphen, “Jean-Guy,” as evidenced by several official sources as well as the back of his true rookie card, the 1952 Juniors Blue Tint. Yet from 1957 to 1963, Topps always denoted him simply as Guy Gendron (although, as you can see, the reverse of his rookie card is “Jean G.” Gendron). He then became “Jean Guy” on his 1968 card (shown for a different reason in the following entry), was amended to “Jean-Guy” in 1969, then was stripped of the hyphen in 1970 and 1971, and enjoyed a restored hyphen for his final card, in 1972. (Gendron’s 1970 Dad’s Cookies card and 1970 Esso stamp also feature the hyphen.)

  • 1968 OPC Jean Guy Gendron (#185): The statistical record claims that Gendron was “Not in N.H.L.” during the 1967-68 season. Although the long-time NHL veteran had been dispatched to the AHL’s Quebec Aces in 1964 and remained there for 4 seasons, Gendron did suit up for 1 game with the phledgling Philadelphia Flyers—even picking up an assist—during his final year with Quebec. (Gendron would go on to play 4 seasons with the Orange and Black, becoming one of the team’s best forwards in its early years.) Furthermore, though not an outright error, Gendron’s bio begins that he, Andre Lacroix, and Simon Nolet “are counted heavily on this year by Coach Courtney.” This is a strange reference to Philadelphia’s inaugural head coach, Keith Allen, whose given name was Courtney. I’m inclined to believe that OPC mistook “Courtney” as his surname, because it’s difficult to believe that OPC was on an overly casual first-name basis with the little-known skipper of a barely established expansion club.

  • 1979 OPC J. Bob Kelly (#306): This is likely well known to all except the young’uns. Rather obviously—at least it should be—the player depicted is not J. Bob Kelly—better known in rinks as “Battleship” Kelly—but long-time Broad Street Bully, Bob “the Hound” Kelly. (The pictured Bob Kelly has his own OPC and Topps cards that year; J. Bob Kelly has no Topps counterpart.) As an aside (though not an error itself), OPC denotes that Kelly was “Now with Oilers”; however, Kelly’s last skate in the NHL occurred during the previous season’s quarterfinals as the New York Islanders swept Kelly’s Chicago Black Hawks. Battleship did split 4 games between the Cincinnati Stingers and the Houston Apollos of the Central Hockey League during the 1979-80 season, but he never played for Edmonton, despite the Oilers drafting Kelly from Chicago in the 1979 NHL Expansion Draft.
  • 1969-70 Topps (#59) and OPC (#59) Carl Brewer: Perhaps it’s something of an honor to be incorrect in two countries, as both Topps and OPC were in listing Carl’s home of Muskegon, Michigan, which is misspelled as “Muskegan” on both cards.  
  • 1971-72 OPC (#156) and 1972-73 OPC (#100) Rogatien Vachon: Errors north of the border get a little more complex with this pair of Rogie Vachon cards. Each errantly refers to Vachon as “Roggie”—the first card twice in the bio and the latter card in the cartoon. OPC then wised up and never again made this misspelling (the reverse of Topps/OPC 1978-79 cards, which feature the player’s autograph, confirm the spelling in Vachon’s own hand, as if confirmation were needed). OPC dropped the puck a second time on his 1972-73 card, botching Vachon’s first name as “Ragatien.” (Topps got the spelling right but featured the same erroneous cartoon.) A former coworker who is a cousin of Vachon responded to my request for Rogie’s comments on this with, “Jesus, Randy, I’m busy. Leave me alone!”

Death and Taxes and Baseball Card Litigation [Part I]

A Very Brief History of the Right of Privacy

Although perhaps difficult to believe, individuals were once without legal recourse if their names or likenesses were used commercially without permission. The “right of privacy” was essentially without basis at common law in the United States before 1902. Emerging privacy rights, however, would eventually become a central battleground as trading card makers fought to secure the pocket change of (mostly) American boys after World War II. The resulting litigation would shape the baseball card industry and provide Topps with nearly unassailable baseball card dominance by the 1960s. The story starts, however, at the turn of the twentieth century with a teenaged girl’s surprising discovery in a Vermont tavern.

As an 18-year-old from Rochester, New York, Abigail Roberson visited an “out-of-the-way tavern” in Vermont while on vacation. There she discovered an advertisement for Franklin Mills flour prominently featuring her photograph. The shocking discovery made Roberson physically ill—Franklin Mills had used the photograph without her knowledge or consent and refused to disclose how they obtained the image.

Franklin Mills advertisement featuring photograph of Abigail Roberson

Roberson was humiliated by use of the photo (although admittedly flattering) and learned that some 25,000 copies of the advertisement had been distributed to stores, warehouses, saloons, and other public places. She sued to prevent the further distribution of the poster and asked for $15,000 in damages (approximately $475,0000 today). The trial court found in Roberson’s favor and the appellate division affirmed.

The case went up to New York’s highest court, however, where Chief Judge Alton Parker wrote for the 4-3 majority that Roberson had failed to state a cause of action because her complaint did not allege defendants acted maliciously or published a defamatory photo. They held that Franklin Mills was lawfully able to use Roberson’s photograph for its advertising without having to ask or compensate her.

Not surprisingly, a wave of public outrage followed Roberson’s loss. In the wake, the New York legislature enacted laws to codify the right of privacy, which allowed an aggrieved party to seek court intervention to enjoin use and sue for monetary damages if a photograph was used intentionally without consent. 

A Bat Fight: Hanna Manufacturing Company v. Hillerich & Bradsby Co.

The baseball world would first see a battle over privacy rights in 1935, when Louisville Slugger sued the Hanna Manufacturing Company alleging Hanna was infringing on its trademarks by selling bats bearing the names of players under exclusive contract to Louisville Slugger, such as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

The bats at issue retailed “for as much as $2.50 each” (approximately $28.00 today) and were bought by customers who were “careful and well-informed.” Louisville Slugger took pride in crafting bats of the size, shape, and balance that each major league player preferred and for a small (undisclosed) consideration, these players gave Louisville Slugger the exclusive right to use the player’s name, autograph, and photograph in connection with the sales of baseball bats for a lengthy term, typically 20 to 25 years. The contract signed by the players did not require them to use Louisville Slugger bats, however. In fact, Lou Gehrig had used Hanna bats for two years despite having signed with Louisville Slugger.

Hanna promotional material

Hanna countered that the bats it sold bearing the names of “Babe Ruth” and “Lou Gehrig” were not sold based on the player’s name having been stamped on the bat, but because the purchasers (often college teams) wanted bats of that player’s particular shape and style. The district court found for Louisville Slugger, “baseball players, like any other individuals, have a property right to their names that has been assigned by certain players to Louisville Slugger, and Louisville Slugger used and advertised such right and has such right exclusively, irrespective of any trademark or unfair competition law.”  

The appellate court reversed, however, remarking that there were some “interesting discussions as to a ‘right of privacy’” ongoing but that a “public man waives his right so that the public becomes entitled to his likeness.” The court continued, “fame is not merchandise. It would help neither sportsmanship nor business to uphold the sale of a famous name to the highest bidder as property.” [Wow is this shortsighted when viewed in the modern athlete endorsement landscape!]

The court was further convinced that the “name on the bat” was commonly understood to refer only to the model or style of the bat and implied no endorsement by the player. The court specifically ruled that Hanna could market bats bearing players’ names as long as the descriptive mark included the words “style” or “shape” conspicuously, such that a Hanna bat marked “Babe Ruth style” would be acceptable. Ultimately, those Louisville Slugger contracts operated only to prevent the ballplayers from objecting to Louisville Sluggers’ use of their names and likenesses.

“No matter what may be said about the habits and nature of ball players, they are not naïve.” It would not be long before “right of privacy” claims would invade the baseball card industry.

The Big Cat Takes a Swipe

On August 26, 1941, Johnny Mize went 4-for-8 with a double and home run as his Cardinals split a Tuesday doubleheader against the Dodgers at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. That same day, Mize’s attorneys filed a right of privacy lawsuit against Gum Products, Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts alleging that it had used photos of Mize in its Double Play Gum baseball card set without his permission.

Double Play cards featuring Johnny Mize

In what appears to be the first baseball card-related lawsuit, Mize asked the court for a restraining order and damages commensurate with his appearance on some 140,000 cards issued by Gum Products. On September 5, the court issued a temporary injunction that prevented Gum Products from using Mize’s name or picture further in connection with the sale of gum. Mize’s “right of privacy” victory was short lived, however.

At a subsequent hearing on June 25, 1942, Gum Products admitted it had not directly obtained Mize’s permission, but had done so through the purchase of the picture from an agency. The defense also argued that as “a leading ballplayer of the country,” Mize had no right of privacy in connection to the publication of his name or photograph. On June 28, Judge Francis Good dismissed the case “without comment.” Despite their ultimate victory, Gum Products never produced another set of baseball trading cards.

Leaf: Blown Away

In 1949, Bowman Gum Company and a number of individual players, including Warren Spahn, sued Chicago-based Leaf Brands, Inc. and several east coast gum wholesalers for distributing cards featuring pictures of ballplayers under contract with Bowman. The lawsuit was filed in Philadelphia, where Bowman was based, and a friendly hometown judge issued a temporary restraining order that prohibited Leaf from selling cards with its gum anywhere in the United States (straining the bounds of enforceability). 

1949 Leaf cards of individual ballplayers who, along with Bowman sued Leaf

Leaf took the defeat seriously and reached a settlement with Bowman in which Leaf agreed to withdraw from the baseball card business until at least 1951. Leaf tried in vain to work out arrangements with Topps to share printing rights, but Topps was not interested.

Bowman v. Topps: Birth of the Right of Privacy

Topps first dipped its toe in the baseball card market with its Magic Cards release in 1948. The 19-card baseball series was part of a much larger modern Allen & Ginter-like set that also included cards of football players, boxers, movie stars, famous explorers, and dogs. The tiny cards (roughly 1” x 1½”) featured sepia-toned photos that would appear on the card when exposed to sunlight. The baseball checklist consisted of highlight cards from the 1948 Cleveland-Boston World Series and individual cards of Indians player/manager Lou Boudreau and Braves 3B Bob Elliott. The balance of the baseball checklist was comprised of retired greats such as Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Rogers Hornsby, and Joe Tinker/Johnny Evers.  

In 1951, Topps issued a set of baseball cards featuring current players in direct competition with Bowman, who had produced “Play Ball” sets from 1939-1941 and their own branded sets starting in 1948. To create their set (commonly referred to as “red backs”), Topps licensed rights to the players’ names, photos, and biographical information from a third-party company, Players Enterprises, Inc. This initial set of 52 cards was designed like a deck of cards and was intended to be played as a game. The cards were distributed in a rather nondescript box of “’Doubles’ Baseball Playing Cards” that identified Topps cryptically (and perhaps by design) only by “T.C.G. Brooklyn 32, N.Y.” on the bottom of the box and wrappers. When Players Enterprises merged with Russell Publishing Company in April 1951, Topps was given an additional stable of players under contract that allowed them to distribute a second series of 52 cards (“blue backs”) sold in a redesigned box as “Baseball Trading Card Candy.”

1951 Topps box and cards

Unhappy with the competition, Bowman sued Topps following their release of the red/blue back cards claiming trademark infringement, unfair competition, and impairment of contract rights. They sought to prevent Topps from selling any product having the appearance of gum with the word “baseball” connected to it.

Topps argued that they had lawfully obtained rights from Players Enterprises to use the names, pictures, and biographical data shown on the cards; denied there was any confusion with Bowman’s products; and  claimed that the contracts Topps had with the players constituted a waiver of the player’s right to privacy—but conveyed no rights on Bowman to sue Topps. Topps also argued that it had not infringed on Bowman’s contracts with players because it had inserted a caramel candy—not gum—with its cards.

The evidence established that Bowman had contracted with 340 baseball players through Art Flynn Associates for the right to use the name, signature, photograph, and descriptive biological sketch of each. In exchange, Bowman paid $100 and provided a wristwatch to each player for 1951. (The 1951 contract included the word “confections” for the first time, which seemingly presaged knowledge Topps was intending to issue a baseball card set with candy.) The players were also eligible to complete for the Jack Singer Annual Good Sportsmanship awards sponsored by Bowman.

Topps proved it had contracts with 248 active major league players through the rights acquired by Players Enterprises and Russell. These contracts gave Topps the right to use players’ names, pictures, and biographical data in connection with the sale of candy in 1951 and candy and chewing gum for 1952.

Following a bench trial, Judge Clarence Galston ruled in Topps’ favor and dismissed the case. He found it significant that there was no player biographical data on the reverse side of the 1951 Topps cards; the packaging between Bowman and Topps was different; and there was no record of any confusion between purchasers of the two products.

More importantly, the court (in reliance on § 51 of New York’s Civil Rights Law enacted in the wake of Roberson) held that the contracts Bowman made with the players conveyed no rights on Bowman to sue a third-party, such as Topps. Accordingly, only the individual ballplayer would have a cause of action for an injury to his person. No “right of privacy” was applicable to a business.  

Bowman v. Topps: The Appeal and Establishment of the “Right of Publicity”

Bowman took the matter up on appeal to the Second Circuit claiming their contracts were exclusive for use in connection with the sale of gum and that Topps deliberately induced the ballplayers to sign contracts giving Topps the same rights. Topps continued to argue that even if Bowman proved its case, there was no actionable wrong because any contract between Bowman and a ballplayer did not convey any right on Bowman to enforce those rights as to third parties.

Just prior to the start of the 1953 season, the appellate court formally established the “right of publicity” by way of recognizing an enforceable property right in each player’s name and likeness. This was huge. Accordingly, the ballplayers could grant exclusive rights to their pictures that could be enforced by third parties, such as Bowman. “For it is common knowledge that many prominent persons (especially actors and ballplayers), far from having their feelings bruised through public exposure of their likenesses, would feel sorely deprived if they no longer received money for authorizing advertisements, popularizing their countenances, displayed in newspapers, magazines, busses, trains and subways. This right of publicity would usually yield them no money unless it could be made the subject of an exclusive grant which barred any other advertiser from using their pictures.” That the appellate court recognized the right of publicity was an unprecedented hallmark for ballplayers’ ability to control (and cash in) on their names and likenesses.

The case was sent back to Judge Galston to determine  if Topps had knowingly used photographs of players under contract with Bowman. This was a complicated case-by-case task in that up to six separate contracts were now at issue for players who appeared in any of the 1951, 1952 and 1953 sets issued by Bowman and Topps.

Billy Pierce was 1 of just 24 players to appear in each set issued by Bowman and Topps 1951-1953

By May 1953, both Topps and Bowman had continued to issue sets of fluctuating sizes as their competition to ink players to contracts intensified. In fact, Topps pulled six cards from its 1953 set due to the ongoing litigation. The court also required Topps to remove the cards of players it was enjoined from using from stacks of cards printed but not yet wrapped, which allowed Topps to distribute any offending cards that had already been packaged. (Unfortunately, identification of these particular cards is not immediately discernable from the published decision.)

Bowman v. Topps: The Aftermath

The litigation continued, however, and on May 10, 1955 Judge Galston remanded the case to the New York state courts. This litigation was expensive for Bowman, which spent in excess of $110,000 in legal fees ($1.12 million today); it cost Topps only slightly less. Bowman had been losing money each year since 1952, culminating with a net loss in 1954 of $224,000 (approximately $2.3 million today).

In April 1955, Bowman was merged into cardboard box manufacturer Connelly Container Corporation. Connelly’s stewardship of the Bowman gum and trading card brand was fleeting, however, as it looked to shed the gum/baseball card line, which had averaged between 15% to 30% of total sales. On January 20, 1956, Topps settled the litigation with Connelly by acquiring Bowman’s gum-producing facilities, baseball player picture rights, and an agreement on the part of Connelly not to manufacture gum or picture card products for five years in exchange for $200,000 (approximately $2 million today). [Connelly was apparently much more interested in Bowman’s other business pursuits at the time of the merger, including an all-nylon squeeze bottle in development.]

All the while, Leaf wanted to get back into the baseball card business. After the Bowman litigation settled, Leaf again approached Topps with a proposal to share player rights. With main competitor Bowman eliminated, Topps had no interest in making any arrangement with Leaf. In fact, Topps sent a letter to the player representative of each ballclub on August 14, 1956, indicating it was not going to be sharing its baseball card picture rights with any other companies.

By 1959, Topps was the largest manufacturer of bubblegum in the United States with total sales of $14 million annually (approximately $133 million today). Leaf would eventually get back into the baseball card business in 1960 when it produced a black and white 144-card set that was sold with marbles.

Fleer Stirs the Pot

At the end of 1958, the Frank H. Fleer Corporation launched an offensive against Topps for control of the baseball card market by offering ballplayers contracts that would become effective upon the expiration any existing contracts with Topps. This started with a mail solicitation in December and followed up with visits at training camps in 1959 by ten of its sales and marketing personnel. Fleer was even able to enlist representatives who were active players on teams such as Charlie Lau and Chuck Cottier.

The Fleer contracts paid players $5 as initial consideration and $125 upon reaching the major leagues. Further, Fleer offered a monetary gift or reward for players who provided Fleer with copies of their Topps contracts. After learning of this practice, Topps stopped sending copies of its contracts to the players (but would provide information regarding the terms of the contract upon request). Topps was flooded with requests once they started offering $75 for the players to sign extensions.

Fleer successfully lured Ted Williams and produced an 80-card set of the mercurial slugger in 1959. The Williams set accounted for $250,000 in sales (approximately $2.4 million today), which was just a fraction of the $3.8 million (approximately $36 million today) worth of Topps baseball cards sold in 1959.

During the 1960 and 1961 seasons, Fleer issued sets featuring “Baseball Greats,” each of which featured Ted Williams and a cast of retired Hall of Famers and stars. Sales of these sets again paled in comparison to Topps’ baseball offerings. Leaf also issued a small set of current player cards in 1960, sold along with marbles. The 1960 Leaf contract paid the players $50 and provided for rights when distributed in combination with “marbles or other non-edible novelties such as charms made of plastic or metal.”

Fleer cards from 1959 Ted Williams set and 1961 Baseball Greats set

The Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint against Topps on January 30, 1962—with Fleer’s enthusiastic support—alleging that Topps violated § 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, which made illegal “unfair methods of competition in commerce and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in commerce.” This section also outlawed business practices that were “unscrupulous, oppressive, exploitative, or otherwise indefensible.” The FTC alleged further that Topps created a monopoly in the manufacture and distribution of baseball picture cards “contrary to public policy” and “to the detriment of free and open competition.” The Hearing Examiner made sure to emphasize that “[m]onopoly is condemned without qualification,” somewhat ironic considering that Major League Baseball enjoys the protections of a legally sanctioned monopoly.  

At the heart of the complaint was the allegation Topps had completely foreclosed Fleer from the baseball card market by entering exclusive contracts with almost all major league baseball players and practically all minor league players with major league potential. It was further alleged that Topps had the power to impose tie-in requirements and imposed retail price control on vendors because it “wanted to know about anybody who was not selling the cards at six for a nickel.” On the heels of the FTC filing, Fleer bombarded college coaches with correspondence attacking Topps’ contracts and accusing Topps of monopolistic practices that were under investigation by the FTC.

Page 1 of the 98-page FTC decision

Taking a page from their prior battle with Bowman, Topps began drafting their contracts to give themselves broader rights and further restrict the players from contracting with others. In 1957, the Topps contract gave exclusive rights to cards associated with gum and candy; in 1958, Topps added “confections” to the list; in 1959, the Topps’ contract extended to cards sold without gum in bulk vending boxes (despite the fact that vending boxes were an exceedingly small part of its total sales); and in 1960, the Topps contract included an agreement by the player not to enter into any other contracts while under contract with Topps. By May 1961, Fleer had contracted with only five major league ballplayers who had not contracted with Topps.

At the time the FTC got involved, Topps had exclusive rights with 95% of major league baseball players and contracts with more than 6500 ballplayers in both the major leagues in minor leagues. Topps first approached players in the minor leagues with a payment of $5 to sign a contract that would pay the player $125 per year for five years if he were promoted to Major League Baseball. Those players who reached the big leagues were paid regardless of whether Topps issued a card of the individual. (Topps would not have to pay if it decided not to market a complete series of cards, except they had to pay the Yankees either way.) Topps’ network included “agents” such as scouts, managers and players who were compensated as much as $100 a year, plus five dollars for each ballplayer signed, or other “gifts, tips or small payments” upon delivery of signed contracts.

Fleer claimed their representatives were physically excluded or intimidated from soliciting players at the Los Angeles Dodgers’ and Detroit Tigers’ training camps “by goon or similar methods.” In the face of Topps’ established network, Fleer had signed only 20 major league players by 1962 and 27 by 1963. Undeterred, Fleer issued a 66-card set (plus an unnumbered checklist) of active major league players in 1963, dwarfed by the 576-card set issued by Topps that year.

The FTC hearing examiner also considered evidence that Topps actively sought to impose market restrictions on other food and beverage manufacturers who used baseball picture cards as promotional devices. General Foods included baseball cards on packages of Post Cereal from 1961 to 1963 and Jell-O from 1962 to 1963. Topps took issue with the Post Cereal promotion that offered a sheet of ten cards (not attached to a cereal box) for two box tops and ten cents, alleging this was an infringement on their rights to sell cards individually. Topps subsequently entered into agreement that Post would pay a license and royalty fees in connection with its distribution of cards alone under the offer. Topps also objected to the set issued in 1958 by Hires Root Beer. Ultimately, Hires made a deal that allowed them to use photos of the players without having to pay Topps, but never issued another set.

The Topps “Monopoly”

Generally speaking, a monopoly is the control of “an economically meaningful market.” In the FTC matter, all that needed to be established was that baseball cards were economically meaningful, and that Topps controlled the market. There was no need to establish that Topps intended to monopolize; nor was it necessary to show Topps exercised its monopoly power.

Hearing Examiner Herman Tocker issued his initial decision on August 7, 1964, after a full evidentiary hearing. He found that Topps had “monopolized the sale of current baseball card picture cards both as separate articles of commerce and as a promotional device for the sale of confectionery products,” in violation of § 5 of the Federal Trade Commission act—even though Topps’ exclusive contracts and other practices were not unfair when viewed separately. Although it had not actually done so, Topps could have controlled the baseball trading card market and “had the power to increase or decrease at will the price when sold alone or when in packages of gum and cards.” Tocker found further that Topps was in violation of § 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act—a misdemeanor punishable by a fine up to $50,000 or imprisonment.

Topps was ordered to cease and desist from entering or extending exclusive contacts with ballplayers, coaches, and managers for terms in excess of two years and enforcing any contracts in effect after October 31, 1966, along with an order to provide copies of the contracts to the ballplayers. Tocker also opined “[o]bviously, a single picture card, in and of itself, has little value” and “last year’s cards without current statistical content are about as valuable as yesterday’s newspaper,” observations that have not aged well.

The FTC Appeal

Both sides appealed the Hearing Examiner’s decision and order. FTC Commissioner Philip Elman thoroughly reviewed the evidence on record and reversed, holding Topps did not have a monopoly in the production of baseball cards because they lacked economic significance and alone were not “meaningful in terms of trade realities.”

Elman specifically decided that Topps’ control over baseball picture cards used to promote confectioneries was not detrimental to fair competition and that baseball cards were not so unique and indispensable a promotional technique that other bubblegum manufacturers could not compete on fair and equal terms with Topps. Elman cited several examples of successful promotional trading card series such as football players, retired baseball players, and non-sport sets featuring the Beatles and “Spook Theatre.” Moreover, but for the fact that Topps was the largest seller of bubblegum, there was no proof of any correlation between its superior market share and the sale of baseball picture cards.

Ultimately, Topps’ business model—tirelessly signing as many minor-league players as possible with hopes they would become big leaguers—was not an unfair or monopolistic practice. Because no monopoly was proven, the complaint was dismissed on appeal.

Fleer in the late 1960s

Despite its failure to break Topps’ hold over “current baseball picture cards,” Fleer remained the second largest manufacturer of bubblegum in the United States. Before the 1966 season started, Fleer announced it would be issuing a 66-card set dedicated to Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale and had a representative, Bob Quinn, continuing to visit Florida training camps looking to sign players to contracts.

The “Drysdale set” Fleer issued in 1966, however, was actually the “All Star Match Baseball” game, with each of the game cards including a black and white puzzle piece of Drysdale on the reverse, such that all 66 cards were necessary to complete the puzzle.

1966 Fleer All Star Match card F35 (front/back) and wrapper

Fleer had also tried to get the jump on Topps by sending contracts and $25 checks to all players chosen in the newly implemented draft, which upset some college coaches who feared their players could jeopardize their amateur status by cashing those checks.

Despite Fleer’s continued efforts to erode Topps’ market stranglehold, Fleer ultimately acquiesced and subsequently sold all of its baseball contracts to Topps in 1966 for $385,000 (approximately $3.4 million today). This would not be the last we would hear from Fleer at the courthouse, however.

To be continued…

SOURCES/NOTES:

Websites

www.baseball-reference.com

www.retrosheet.org

www.tcdb.com

Cases

  • Roberson v. Rochester Folding Box Co., 171 N. Y. 538, 541, 64 N. E. 442 (N.Y. 1902).
  • Federal Base Ball Club of Baltimore v. National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs, 259 U.S. 200, 42 S.Ct. 465, 66 L.Ed. 898, 26 A.L.R. 357 (1922). Major League Baseball has a legal monopoly, “[t]he business is giving exhibitions of baseball, which are purely state affairs. It is true that in order to attain for these exhibitions the great popularity that they have achieved, competitions must be arranged between clubs from different cities and States. But the fact that in order to give the exhibitions the Leagues must induce free persons to cross state lines and must arrange and pay for their doing so is not enough to change the character of the business.”
  • Hanna Mfg. Co. v. Hillerich & Bradsby Co., 101 A.L.R. 484, 78 F.2d 763 (5th Cir. 1935). Defendant Hillerich & Bradsby Co. will be referred to as “Louisville Slugger,” its more widely used tradename today.
  • Bowman Gum, Inc. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. 103 F. Supp. 944 (E.D.N.Y. 1952). Topps also issued 9-card set of team photos in 1951 (Boston Red Sox, Brooklyn Dodgers, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, New York Giants, Philadelphia Athletics, Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals, Washington Senators) and Major League All-Stars/Connie Mack All-Stars. These sets do not appear to have been subject of the litigation between Topps and Bowman.
  • Haelan Laboratories v. Topps Chewing Gum, 202 F.2d 866 (2nd Cir. 1953). In April 1952, Bowman Gum shareholders approved the change of the company name to Haelan Laboratories. Philadelphia Inquirer, April 9, 1952: 4. Accordingly, the ensuing litigation lists Haelan—and not Bowman—as a party.
  • Haelan Laboratories v. Topps Chewing Gum Co., 112 F.Supp. 904 (E.D.N.Y. 1953)
  • Haelan Laboratories v. Topps Chewing Gum, 131 F. Supp. 262 (E.D.N.Y. 1955).
  • In re Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. 67 F.T.C. 744 (1965). Baseball card sales in 1960: Topps $3,638,000 (approx. $34 million today), Fleer $300,000 (approx. $2.8 million today), and Leaf $100,000 (approx. $934,000 today); in 1961: Topps $3,475,000 (approx. $32 million today) and Fleer $355,506 (approx. $3.3 million today).  The second series of Fleer’s 1961 Baseball Greats accounted for an additional $85,000 in sales (approx. $778,000 today) for 1962.  Though distributed under the company name “Sports Novelties Inc.,” the 1960 Leaf issue is referred to in the hobby as “Leaf” and is referred to similarly herein. The FTC hearing examiner described the Beatles as “a group of singing troubadours imported from England”. Additionally, for football cards, the contract was made with the league and not the individual players. The players received no direct compensation—all money was channeled to league pension funds.

Articles

  • “The Week in a Busy World,” Atlanta Constitution, May 5, 1901: 42.
  • “Chewing Gum Stuck with Suit by Mize,” Daily News (New York), August 27, 1941: 284.
  • “Johnny Mize Asks Damages from Cambridge Gum Firm,” Boston Globe, June 25, 1942: 11. Mize appeared on two cards in the set: Nos. 39/40 with Enos Slaughter and Nos. 99/100 with Dan Litwhiler. It is unclear how many of each comprised the total.
  • “Mize of Cardinals Wins Court Test on Use of Name,” Boston Globe, September 5, 1941: 23.
  • “Mize Suit Against Gum Firm Dismissed,” Des Moines Register, June 28, 1942: 16.
  • “Spahn, Five Others Take Action in Gum Distribution Controversy, Boston Globe, May 4, 1949: 23. Although this case attracted little press, that Warren Spahn was involved is not surprising based on the battle he would have in the future regarding the publication of the “Warren Spahn Story,” which he contended painted him in a false (but positive) light and was published without his consent.
  • “A’s Stars Get Writ to Bar Use of Pictures on Gum,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 7, 1949: 16.
  • “Haelan Merged into Connelly,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 28, 1955: 30.
  • Bob Rathgeber, “Young Bob Quinn: Bubble Gum Exec,” Bradenton (Florida) Herald, March 17, 1966: 14.
  • Wayne Shufelt, “’Gummed’ Up,” Tampa Times, April 2, 1966: 10.
  • Paul Bedard, “Bubble May Burst in Baseball Card Suit,” Washington Post, June 20, 1979.
  • Rich Mueller, “1953 Topps Missing Numbers Revealed,” Sports Collectors Daily, July 29, 2014, https://www.sportscollectorsdaily.com/1953-topps-missing-numbers-revealed/, last accessed December 3, 2021. Numbers 253, 261, 267, 268, 271 and 275 were reportedly supposed to be cards for Joe Tipton, Ken Wood, Hoot Evers, Harry Brecheen, Billy Cox, and Pete Castiglione.

Special Thanks

Special thanks to Jason Schwartz for reviewing this article and offering many helpful suggestions.


Cardboard Famous

A reply to a recent SABR Baseball Cards social media post led me to think about the baseball players more famous for their baseball cards than for any of their on or off the field exploits. Here are ten who I believe fit the bill.

BILLY RIPKEN

Ripken lasted twelve years in the big leagues as an infielder, including an all-star caliber season in 1990. Today he is a frequent co-host on MLB Network. His brother is baseball’s ultimate Iron Man and one of the greatest shortstops in history. And still, say the name Billy Ripken and card collectors think only of one thing: his 1989 Fleer F*ck Face card.

BUMP WILLS

His career on the diamond lasted only half as long as Billy Ripken’s but he spent six years as the regular second baseman for the Rangers and Cubs, topping 30 steals four times while batting a respectable .266. Like Ripken, baseball also ran in his family. Of course any kid who collected baseball cards in 1979 will know him best for this seemingly impossible cardboard trickery.

BRANDON PUFFER AND JUNG BONG

Puffer played four years in the big leagues, appearing in 85 games for the Astros, Padres, and Giants. Jung Bong played one fewer season, appearing in 48 games for the Braves and Reds. The two pitchers combined for a WAR of -1.2. Though never teammates, the duo shared Future Stars cardboard in the 2003 Topps set on card #331, known to collectors (and chronicled by David Roth) as the “Bong Puffer card.”

OSCAR GAMBLE

Legitimately one of the best hitters of his time, scouted by the legendary Buck O’Neil, and the man behind the classic line, “They don’t think it be like it is, but it do,” Oscar Gamble would be remembered fondly even if he had no baseball cards at all. Fortunately that’s a hypothetical we need not ponder long when this pure cardboard gold is right in front of us.

SHERRY MAGEE AND JOE DOYLE

Magee built a borderline Hall of Fame career from 1904-1919 that included more than 2000 hits, four RBI titles, and 59.4 WAR. Even with those credentials I suspect many readers can only hazard a guess whether his name is pronounced Maggie, McGee, or Madgee.

Doyle, on the other hand, had a completely undistinguished career, seeing limited action on the mound over five seasons at roughly replacement level.

Whatever their on-field exploits, each of these players will forever be cardboard legends, with their error cards comprising half of the T206 set’s “Big Four.”

BENNY BENGOUGH AND ANDY PAKFO

Bengough was a career backup catcher who compiled 0.3 WAR over his ten seasons in the big leagues. When the 1933 Goudey set came out, he was already out of baseball.

Pafko, on the other hand, was a four-time all-star who batted .285 over 13 seasons with a career OPS+ of 117. His 1952 season (.287/19/85) was uncannily similar to his lifetime per 162 slash line of .285/19/85, and his midseason move from the Cubs to the Dodgers the prior year was one of the season’s biggest trades.

While neither player would top any list of all-time greats, each player topped many stacks of baseball cards, thanks to being numbered one in the 1933 Goudey and 1952 Topps sets respectively. Until the Upper Deck Ken Griffey, Jr., rookie card came along in 1989, I suspect these two players were the Hobby’s most famous set starters. Certainly both cards, in reasonable shape, carried a premium comparable to lesser Hall of Famers due to rubber banding, spills, and the myriad other ways stack toppers suffered disproportionate damage in collections prior to the advent of plastic sheets.

HONUS WAGNER

I’ll end the article with what may be my most contentious selection. Without a doubt, Wagner is a top shelf baseball immortal, considered by many to be the greatest shortstop of all-time if not the single greatest player of the Deadball Era. (In both cases, Pop Lloyd deserves consideration as well.) To an audience well versed in baseball history, therefore, Wagner is most famous for his tremendous playing career, even if most fans still pronounce his name wrong.

Yet whatever his accomplishments on the diamond, I suspect the Flying Dutchman is best known today, whether in the collecting world or the general public, for a single, transcendently pricey cardboard rectangle, our Hobby’s Mona Lisa.

Who else would you nominate for this elite club where ERR trumps WAR and even backup catchers can be number one? Sound off in the Comments!