Hank Aaron, 1934-2021

“We still have Henry.”

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

And now, of course, he isn’t.

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

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

Don’t meet your idols?

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

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

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

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

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

Fair question.

“I want to make sure we’re not late.”

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

“In case of what?”

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

We didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you here for the Hank Aaron event?”

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

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

“Okay, do you know where?”

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

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

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

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

The collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hell, I even ran Hank Aaron 5Ks!

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

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

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

The King is dead. Long live the King.

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

My Mount Rushmore of Vintage Sets

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

1933 DeLong

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

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

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


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

1934-36 Diamond Stars

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

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

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

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

T206

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

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

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

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

1952 Topps

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

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

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

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

My collecting story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eddie Robinson Turns 100

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

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

eddie 1957

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

26-9780355Bk

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

 

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

33-62Bk

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

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

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

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

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

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

 *  *  *  *  *

Postscript

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

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

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

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

UNCOMMON COMMON: Charlie Berry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Same guy? Yep, same guy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farewell to Whitey who was Built Ford Tough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1953 Bowman Whitey Ford card back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rest in peace.

A Brief Analysis of Baseball Card Prose and How It Makes Us Better Writers (1952-1955)

If I had a time machine, I would zip around the fourth dimension to all of the expected places. I’d love to see Hamlet at the Globe. Maybe I’d drop in on the Constitutional Convention or the Cavern Club in 1961. I suspect that many of us might set our personal flux capacitors to 1951 so we could see Sy Berger design the 1952 Topps set on his kitchen table. There were baseball cards before that set, of course, but Berger and his team set the standard that still guides the industry. 

Two of the great constants in my life are baseball and writing. I could never hit a curveball. Or a fastball. Or a softball in a batting cage. I can, however, tell a decent story and put together decent sentences. It’s no surprise, then, that baseball cards were among the first literary works I read. It was Frog and Toad are Friends, Encyclopedia Brown, and the (primarily) Topps cards that my father would let me pick up in the supermarket candy aisle. 

These modes of “non-traditional” literacy formation are well-studied in the fields of education and rhetoric and composition. (How many immigrants learned to speak English by watching popular television shows?) Often overlooked, however, is the way that baseball cards served as a form of reading instruction, particularly during the time when the industry’s target demographic consisted almost solely of little kids. 

In this series of articles, I will engage in an admittedly surface analysis of baseball card prose, looking at the writing on the reverse of random base Detroit Tiger cards from each of Topps’ nearly seventy years of flagship releases. Other writers for this blog have chronicled how the prose on the backs of 1954 Topps cards offers valuable lessons.  Don Zminda had the great idea to compare how Topps and Bowman handled the prose in their 1954 sets.  I am curious to see how the prose changed over the decades, and how Berger and his successors used a few sentences to reinforce the construction of the ballplayer’s identity. Of course, I am also interested in isolating what writers of all kinds can learn from these works. 

A few notes on methodology. Topps has printed many tens of thousands of base cards since 1952. Unfortunately, I don’t have a fleet of researchers at my beck and call, so I can’t accumulate data on each of them. There are variations between base cards in sets, of course; a card released at the end of Alan Trammell’s career, for example, may feature only statistics because there was no room for prose. During some years, Topps included cartoons on the backs of the cards. I have typed up the prose and included a bracketed description of the image. Further, I have tried to preserve the baseball card prose as printed, mistakes and all. 

It just so happens that I have what I call my “Tiger Stadium Collection.” During a visit to Cooperstown, an ex-girlfriend purchased me a small, square tin decorated to look like the exterior of the best ballpark in the history of baseball. (I’m biased.) I keep a base flagship Tiger from (almost) each year of Topps in the tin: a fortuitous coincidence. 

With all of that blather out of the way…let’s look at some cards!

groth

1952 Johnny Groth #25

Design of the reverse: prose and reduced stats

Text (81 words): Johnny was the best fielding outfielder in the American League in 1951 winning the title by 2 ten-thousandths of a point. At the plate, he started the ’51 season slowly, but hit .325 during the last half of the season to bring his average up. He had trials with the Tigers in 1946 and 1947, but didn’t make the grade until 1949 after hitting .340 at Buffalo in 1948. His first year up, John batted .293 and hit .306 in 1950.

In its inaugural effort, Topps begins providing kids with the information that they couldn’t easily get elsewhere. There was no Baseball Reference in 1952, so it makes sense to include a stat-heavy summary of Groth’s career.

The formation of the ballplayer as a relatable hero also seems present. Imagine a second-string Little Leaguer opening up a one-cent pack and learning about how Groth succeeded after years of work dedicated to “making the grade.” It’s also interesting that the person who composed the prose alternated between “Johnny” and “John.” A mistake, or something else?

While the first sentence is missing a comma between the clauses, the second and fourth reinforce one of the basic uses of the comma: it joins a dependent clause to an independent clause. “His first year up” is not a sentence; it doesn’t have a subject, object, AND a verb. “John batted .293 and hit .306 in 1950” does have all of those elements. Therefore, you glue the not-a-sentence to a sentence with a comma. 

hatfield

1953 Fred Hatfield #163

Design of the reverse: Unrelated trivia question, reduced stats, prose

Text (76 words): “Hattie” was the top-fielding third sacker in the American League in ’52. The Red Sox spotted him playing American Legion Ball and he signed his first pro contract in ’42. After hitting .300 for Birmingham of the Southern Association in ’50, “Hattie” was brought up to the AL. The Sox used him in a utility role in ’51 and traded him to the Tigers early in ’52. Fred was [a] paratrooper during World War II.

Once again, the author begins with the player’s name, but does so in an even more intimate fashion, twice using Hatfield’s nickname. And once again, the reader gets a fairly rote (but necessary) description of Hatfield’s career to that point. Remember: both 1952 and 1953 only included “last year” and “lifetime” stat lines.

There are a couple mistakes in the prose. Was it convention to capitalize the generic “ball” in “American Legion Ball?” The author drops a word in that final sentence, too. With regard to that final sentence, I imagine how relevant the information would seem to the Topps target audience: little kids, mostly boys, whose fathers stood a great chance of having served during World War II themselves. 

As in 1952, the author begins with a fulsome description of the player’s fielding capabilities and then engages in prolepsis, flashing back to where the man began his career and how he got to the point at which he was so useful with a glove. Writers can engage in flashback while leaving the reader blind about the eventual outcome, or he or she can do so after informing the reader about the protagonist’s present conditions. In this case, the author of the card has no choice; the reader knows that Hatfield eventually made the majors…if he hadn’t, there would be no baseball card to trade with friends!

7.10.2020lund

1954 Don Lund #167

Design of the reverse: Two cartoons, reduced stats, prose

Text (94 words total, 68 without cartoon captions): Don began his career with Brooklyn in 1945, pinch hitting in 4 games. A University of Michigan graduate, he was sent down and recalled by the Dodgers in ’47. In 1948, he went to the Browns and was bought by the Tigers in 1949. Don was with Toledo in 1949-50-51 and in 1952 at Buffalo, he hit .302 and returned to Detroit to bat .304 in 8 games.

At Michigan U. Don was a Big Ten football star! [Lund, in Michigan green(?), carries the football.]

But, after graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree, Don decided to make baseball his career! [Lund makes a nice grab at the right field fence.]

Once again, the reader learns about Lund’s path to the big leagues. Once again, the main piece of prose begins with the player’s first name. I don’t believe the latter is an accident. These cards, of course, were made primarily for children, some of whom would be at the beginning of their journey as readers. Sentences that begin with the subject are very simple and clear. (“Matt Nokes hit a home run.” “Al Stump mischaracterized Ty Cobb.” “Alan Trammell wore number 3.”)

The author is clear to make education a part of Lund’s identity. The reader (again, a child), learns that being a sports star can go hand-in-hand with being a scholar. I also wonder if Topps included such information to give parents more reasons to allow their children to use their hard-earned pennies and nickels to purchase cards. The cultural storm that resulted in the 1954 adoption of the Comics Code Authority put a spotlight on comic books: a competitor for the same disposable income. Perhaps Berger and his team were reinforcing the relative wholesomeness of their product.

One of my dear, departed Creative Writing MFA professors joked that writers are allowed a single exclamation point in their careers. After all, feelings are better evoked with the other tools that a writer has in his or her toolbox. The author (or perhaps authors) of this card use two. Notably, both exclamation points occur in the cartoon captions. This makes sense; cartoons must be very punchy, and the exclamation point is a compact representation of emotion. 

miller
Yes, it’s autographed. Isn’t it amazing how his handwriting stayed so consistent?

7.10.2020miller

1955 Bob Miller #9

Design of the reverse: Unrelated trivia question, reduced stats, prose

Text (64 words): The huge bonus paid to Bob for signing a Detroit contract in ’53 looked like a good investment to Tiger fans last year. Used mostly as a relief pitcher, Bob’s wide-breaking curve and flashing fastball placed him 4th in E.R.A.’s among American League Hurlers. Before deciding on Baseball as a career, he won a Yale scholarship for his straight “A” average in High School.

The author was presented with a challenge when writing about Bob Miller. At the time, clubs had no choice but to keep “bonus babies” on the major league roster for two years. The author, therefore, couldn’t chronicle Miller’s pro journey to The Show.

The reader learns about the Yale scholarship offer that Miller received, but there is more to the story. Page 10 of the July 1, 1953 issue of The Sporting News features a wonderful article about the Bengals’ two new bonus babies. Seventeen-year-old Miller received $60,000, and Detroit offered $35,000 to an eighteen-year-old named Albert Kaline. Writer Watson Spoelstra helpfully informs us that the latter’s name is “(pronounced Kay-line).” Good to know!

Again, the author of the baseball card capitalizes the generic nouns “Hurlers” and “Baseball.” (Though goodness knows that “Base-Ball” has been called many things in print.)

From a writing craft perspective, I get the sense that the person who wrote this card wasn’t feeling maximum enthusiasm for Bob Miller. Look at the structure of the three sentences and how they all feel similar. I suppose the paragraphs in the 1952 and 1953 cards are similar, but I suppose this could just be an indication that tone is inherently about perception to some extent.


There are an awful lot of cards left before we get to 2020. I hope you’ll join me to consider how the prose changed along with the times and its audience. If nothing else, perhaps this project will help me learn how to make my writing more compact!

Next time: Robert Kennedy (the baseball player, not the former Attorney General) and a left-hander who once struck out all 27 batters he faced in an American Legion game!


Series: A Brief Analysis of Baseball Card Prose and How It Makes Us Better Writers
1952 – 1955,
1956 – 1959
or the posts can be found under the “CardProse” tag.

Legitimacy

1952ToppsJRobinson

I have been reading about or studying the integration of baseball for many years, at first principally because I wanted to write about the effect that integration had on the quality of the game. Obviously if you add Jackie Robinson to a league, that league is not just ethically and morally better, the quality of play is also better. Much better. I mean, this is JACKIE ROBINSON for God’s sake. And then Doby, and Campy, and Irvin, and on and on.

Jackie Robinson and the extraordinary cohort of people who integrated the game in the 1940s and 1950s will always be baseball’s best story, one that can not be over-told. We (myself included) have been guilty of treating this story as a culmination rather than as an important chapter in an ongoing struggle. Today’s decreased number of Black American players, to say nothing of managers and executives, is one constant reminder of progress yet to be made. Another are the tales of just how difficult the lives of black players can be in today’s Major League Baseball. Like the rest of America, baseball has a long, long way to go.

Additionally, my integration-era research has led to collateral damage in my relationship with Jim Crow (pre-1947) baseball, and its cards. I still appreciate the history, and the stories, and I understand how great Wagner, Cobb, Ruth, and DiMaggio were, but the stories are a little less romantic, and maybe the players were all a little less great than I thought. It’s the other side of same coin–you can’t believe that Robinson, Mays and Aaron made the game significantly better without also believing that not having them made the game significantly worse.


For Christmas in 1981, I was given a beautiful 1982 calendar which I believe had been advertised in the New Yorker. With brief exceptions, it has hung on a wall in my dorm/apartment/house/office for the past 38 years–it is six feet away from me as I type. (In 2021, for the first time since 2010, the days will align.)

Its 12 pages tell the story of baseball cards chronologically–January is for 19th century tobacco cards, while the last row of December shows 1981 Topps. If you lay the calendar on a table and flip through months (the only way to really do it–the pages are 22″ x 14″), you get a high level view of 100 years of the hobby. And of Major League baseball.

IMG_1935

What the calendar also shows, visually and starkly, is Jim Crow: page after page, row after row, of White dudes.

The first Black face belatedly shows up in August, in the penultimate row, appropriately the 1949 Bowman Satchel Paige. The final August row features 1951 Topps, and includes both Monte Irvin and Luke Easter. These three men were the 7th, 10th, and 11th Black players in the Major Leagues in the 20th century. There are four more Black faces on the page for September, which highlights the 1951 and 1952 Bowman sets.

My calendar almost always (as now) is hung so as to display October. I don’t know if it was deliberate on the part of the designer, probably not, but October’s top row is like a punch in America’s face, and the next three rows don’t really let up.

IMG_1934

Here is a thought experiment. Imagine seeing a binder of 1956 Topps cards, except that all of the Black players have been removed. No Mays, no Aaron, no Jackie, no Banks, no Clemente, no lots of other stars. There are still great players in the binder–Mantle, Williams, Koufax, Feller, and more–but its obviously a worse group than the real set. Not just a little worse, immeasurably worse.

In other words, it would be … just like 1934 Goudey. Or 1940 Play Ball. Or T-205. Looking through that denuded 1956 binder would be at the very least uncomfortable, and more likely offensive, to a modern collector. And that is why I struggle with all the pre-war cards sets.

As Nick wrote a couple of years ago, “while cards have always existed, their role in defining who ‘real’ ballplayers are cannot be ignored.” If I collect cards to celebrate the baseball of the time, I have to ask myself: do I really want to hang a frame on the wall that glorifies segregated baseball? The 1934 Goudey card set, the T-206 set, and all pre-war card sets, perpetuate the lie that “organized” baseball sold America for decades, that these were the best players, the “real” players.

While major league baseball was barring great Black players from playing in its leagues, and most white newspapers were complicit in not reporting on the Negro Leagues, companies like American Tobacco and Goudey  were not putting Black players on baseball cards. There were a lot of minor league cards or sets in these years, there were sets for pilots, and actors, and dogs, and trees, but nothing for the many fans of Oscar Charleston or Bullet Joe Rogan or Biz Mackey. Didn’t they smoke, or chew gum?

Had any of these companies chosen to make a Negro League set, or, better yet, incorporated Negro League players into their flagship sets, it might have led to increased and earlier calls for integration, and would have made these players “real” to kids all over America. But they did not.

When it comes to baseball cards, the lie began to dramatically unravel in the 1950s.  By the end of the decade, nearly 10% of the players on the field had dark skin, and many of these were among the best players in the sport. If you collected, some of the best and most sought after cards depicted players who you might not have heard of had they played a decade earlier.  In 1956, ten years after White America wondered if Jackie Robinson would be good enough, there were 52 Black players on big league diamonds.  Nine of them are in the Hall of Fame. Nine.

I have been dabbling in the cards of the early 1950s in recent years. I don’t have any of the sets and doubt I ever will, but enjoy picking up an occasional example, including Ted Williams or Yogi Berra or Duke Snider.

Sing the praises of pre-war cards and players as you wish.  But the 1950s are the first time when the best players were allowed in the major leagues and in baseball card sets. Both enterprises, belatedly, had become legitimate.

 

The greatest year in baseball card history

I’ll get quick to the point. It’s 1954. Hands down…

Topps had a set.

1954 Topps #32 Duke Snider Front

Bowman had a set.

1954 Bowman #170 Duke Snider Front

Red Man had a set.

1954 Red Man #NL16 Duke Snider Front

Red Heart had a set.

1954 Red Heart Dog Food #NNO Duke Snider Front

Dan-Dee had a set.

1954 Dan-Dee Potato Chips (Reprint) #NNO Duke Snider Front

Stahl-Meyer had a set.

1954 Stahl-Meyer Franks #12 Duke Snider Front

The New York Journal-American had a set.

1954 New York Journal-American #NNO Duke Snider Front

And those were just the ones with Duke Snider!

Dixie had a set.

Wilson Franks had a set.

1954 Wilson Franks #5 Bob Feller   Front

And let’s not forget the single-team issues out there, of which there were many.

1954 Johnston Cookies #NNO Hank Aaron Front

And minor league issues too!

1954 Seattle Rainiers Popcorn #NNO Leo Thomas Front

Popcorn, cookies, hot dogs, ice cream, newspapers, potato chips, dog food (DOG FOOD!), chewing tobacco, chewing gum…you name it! Wait, did I forget the syrup?

Willie Mays and Alaga | Willie mays, Vintage baseball, Baseball

Of course, it’s not just about quantity, else just about any year from the Junk Wax era would beat 1954 hands down. But unlike the macaroni, hardware, and toilet paper cards of the late eighties, these 1954 releases also happen to be fantastic sets! They also marked a turning point.

Just one year later, apart from Topps and Bowman, there were only two baseball card sets other than single-team releases: Red Man and the Robert Gould All-Stars, though we’re be remiss not to mention Armour Coins and Wilson Franks Baseball Books. Just two years later, in 1956, there were none. And there wasn’t even Bowman!

In that sense, 1954 was not only the greatest year to be a collector but also the end of a certain Golden Age of cards. For collectors interested in taking a closer look at this magical year, I’ve compiled a checklist of the Hall of Famers (and Minnie, who belongs!) featured in each of the multi-team sets, with a notes column capturing all single-team releases. (A more readable version is here, which you can also sort in ways other than most cards to least.)

As a window shopper who loves flipping through sets in Trading Card Database or just admiring the collections of others, there is no better year for me than 1954. On the other hand, as a player collectors whose focus includes Hank Aaron, Roy Campanella, and Jackie Robinson, I will confess to often cursing the fact that certain sets exist. Then again, I suppose I’m still more likely to get the two 1954 Campy cards on my want list before the Shohei Ohtani completists get anywhere near the 2722 cards Trading Card Database lists for him in 2018 alone!

How about you? What’s your pick for greatest year in baseball card history? And if you’re a player collector, is it a good thing or a bad thing when the want list is a mile long?

And for more SABR Baseball Cards posts on 1954–

The most boring cards in the set?

I’d been sitting on the idea of this article for a while, and I finally decided to “check it off” when I saw an exchange between fellow SABR Baseball Cards blogger Matt Prigge and prewar savant Anson Whaley (with a guest appearance by Jeff Smith) on the first numbered baseball cards.

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Today the idea of numbered cards goes hand in hand with that of a (contemporaneously published) checklist. However, that was not always the case. While numerous examples abound, one famous numbered set with no checklist was 1933 Goudey. Likewise, we will encounter sets that had checklists but no numbered cards. This article will not be exhaustive, so don’t use it as a checklist. Rather, it will just highlight some of the variety attached to what in my collecting heyday was considered the most boring card in the pack.

These days

Had I written this article a year ago, I might have assumed erroneously that on-card checklists were a hobby dinosaur. After all, why waste a card in the set when it’s easy enough to post a checklist online? However, the lone pack of 2019 Topps update I bought last fall included a surprise on the back of my Albert Pujols highlights card.

Though I have to imagine the past three decades of baseball cards have more of a story to tell, I’m going to quickly jump all the way back to what otherwise was the last time I remember pulling a checklist from a pack.

Early nineties

The very last packs of cards I bought before entering my long “real life took over” hiatus were in 1992. I don’t recall buying any mainstream sets that year, but I liked the Conlons and their close cousins, the Megacards Babe Ruth set, of which I somehow still have the box and three unopened packs.

The Ruth set had no checklist, but the Conlon issue had several, much in the style of the Topps cards of my youth, right down to the checkboxes.

While there’s something to be said for the familiar, I was an even bigger fan of the checklists I pulled from packs of 1990 Leaf.

Checklists adorned with superstar players was new to my own pack opening experience. However, as with most “innovations” in the Hobby, it wasn’t truly new, as we’ll soon see.

1978-1989 Topps

This was my absolute pack-buying heyday, and it was a great time to be a checklist collector, assuming there is such a thing. Yes, we had the standard checklist cards each of those years…

…but we also got team checklists, either on the backs of manager cards…

…or on the back of team cards.

As a quick aside, I’ll note that EVERY collector I knew in 1978 sorted his cards by team and used the team card to mark progress, making the set checklists (e.g., 1-121) completely superfluous.

1974*

Though I’m skipping most years, I’ll make a quick stop at 1974 to highlight two features in particular. In addition to the standard checklists AND team photo cards without checklists, the 1974 Topps set used unnumbered team signature cards as team checklists. (Aside: Though unnumbered cards had a mile-long history in the Hobby and are hardly extinct today, I rarely ran across them as a kid apart from the 1981 Donruss checklists or the 1981 Fleer “Triple Threat” error card.)

A final note on these team checklists: they did not include late additions from the Traded set (e.g., Santo on White Sox), so a separate “Trades Checklist” was provided also.

1967-69 Topps

If I had to declare a G.O.A.T. checklist it would come from 1967-69 Topps, all possible inspirations for the 1990 Leaf card I showed earlier. (In fairness, 1984 Fleer might have played a role.)

At first glance I mistakenly thought these checklists brought more than just a bonus superstar to the mix. Take a look at entry 582 on the back of card below.

Could it be? Were we looking at the pinnacle of 1960s artificial intelligence technology: checklists with the self-awareness to check themselves off? Sadly, no. We were just looking at an abbreviation for “Checklist – 7th Series.” After all, this “smart checklist” was card 504 in the set and the ostensibly checked off card was a completely different card.

1963

While our friends at Topps were having a ho-hum year, checklist-wise, as if there’s any other kind of year to have, checklist-wise, I do want to provide recognition to the efforts at Fleer. Haters of the Keith Shore #Project 2020 designs will probably not be fans, but I’m a sucker for this cartoony, colorful approach to checklists.

Even the title, “Player Roster,” is a nice twist, don’t you think?

1961

The first appearance of numbered checklist-only cards from Topps came in 1961. Each checklist featured a baseball action scene on both the front and back of the card, and collectors can have fun trying to identify the players. (Side note: I believe these are the first ever game-action photos ever used by Topps.)

While the image on the back persisted across the set, the images on the front differed with each card. For example, here is Mr. Cub on the front of the second checklist. (Banks also appears prominently on the fifth checklist!)

Meanwhile in Philadelphia, Fleer introduced its first ever checklist cards.

The series one checklist featured Home Run Baker, Ty Cobb, and Zach Wheat well past their playing days, while series two did the same for George Sisler and Pie Traynor.

Incidentally, a similar approach was used 15 years later by Mike Aronstein in the 1976 SSPC set.

While Fleer had baseball sets in 1959 and 1960 as well, neither used checklist cards. However, this was not because the concept had not yet dawned on them. On the contrary, here’s a card from one of their more notable non-sport issues way back in 1959!

Note that the card pictured is #63. Cards 16 and 64 in the set are also known to have “checklist back” variations. However, the much more common versions of these same cards simply feature humorous descriptions or jokes.

Pre-1961 Topps

I referred to the 1961 Topps cards as checklist-only because there were in fact numbered checklist cards issued in the 1960 set. The 1960 cards were the perfect (or anti-perfect) hybrid of set checklists and team cards, perhaps offering a glimpse of the “why not both!” direction Topps would ultimately adopt.

Shown below is the Braves team card, but the back is not a Braves checklist. Rather, it’s the checklist for the set’s entire fifth series!

But wait, how does that even work? The set only had seven series but there were 16 teams, right? Yes, somewhat inelegantly Topps repeated checklists on the back of multiple team cards. For example, the A’s and Pirates each had sixth series backs.

Ditto 1959 Topps…

…and 1958.

We have to go all the way back to 1957 to see checklist-only cards. Aside from being unnumbered and landscape oriented, these cards check off all the boxes of the staid checklist cards I grew up with.

The 1956 set did the same but with an unusual turn, and not just the 90-degree reorientation. While the 1957 card shown includes the first and second series, the 1956 cards included non-adjacent series. The card below is for the first and third series, while a second card has series two and four.

The 1956 checklists also featured the first (that I could find) appearance of checkboxes. As such, it wouldn’t be wrong to regard (or disregard!) all predecessors as mere lists, unworthy of the checklist title.

The crumbiest card in the set?

It may have looked like Topps was blazing new trails with their checklist cards in 1956 and 1957, but take a close look at the second card in this uncut strip from the Johnston’s Cookies set, series one.

You may need to be the judge as to whether this qualifies as an actual card in the set vs a non-card that just happens to be the same size as the other cards.

On one hand, why not? On the other, how many collectors would consider the “How to Order Trading Cards” end panel a card?

When is a checklist not a checklist?

In 1950, Chicago-based publisher B.E. Callahan released a box set featuring all 60 Hall of Famers. The set was updated annually and included 80 Hall of Famers by 1956, the last year it was issued. At the very end of the set was what appeared to be a checklist for the set, but was it?

As it turns out, the card back wasn’t so much a checklist as it was a listing of all Hall of Famers. Were it intended as a checklist, it presumably would have also listed this Hall of Fame Exterior card and perhaps even itself!

Simple logic might also suggest that a checklist would have been particularly superfluous for cards already sold as an intact set; then again, stranger things have happened.

No checklist but the next best thing?

Prior to 1956 Topps a common way to assist set collectors, though a far cry from an actual checklist, was by indicating the total number cards in the set right on the cards, as with this 1949 Bowman card. Note the top line on the card’s reverse indicates “No. 24 of a Series of 240.”

Though this was the only Bowman set to cue size, Gum, Inc., took the same approach with its Play Ball set a decade earlier. The advertised number of cards in the set proved incorrect, however, as the set was limited to 161 cards rather than 250.

Goudey too overestimated the size of its own set the year before. The first series of 24 cards seemed to suggest 288 cards total…

…while the second series indicated 312!

Add them up and you have a set of 48 cards evidently advertised as having more than six times that number. In fact, some collectors have speculated, based among other things on the similarity of card backs, that the 1938 issue was a continuation of the 1933 (!) issue. Add the new 48 to the 240 from 1933 and you get 288. Perhaps, though the number 312 remains mysterious either way.

Tobacco card collectors are no stranger to the advertised set size being way off. Consider the 1911 T205 Gold Borders set for starters. “Base Ball Series 400 Designs” implies a set nearly twice the size of the 208 cards known to collectors and perhaps hints at original plans to include Joe Jackson, Honus Wagner, and many other stars excluded from the set.

As for its even more famous cousin, the 1909-11 T206 set. How many cards are there? 150 subjects? 350 subjects? 350-460?

The return of set checklists

While I’ve just highlighted several non-examples of checklists, there are several, probably dozens, of sets pre-1956 Topps that include checklists. The most common variety involved printing the entire set’s checklist on the back of every card in the set, as with the 1933 George C. Miller card of Mel Ott shown here.

As evidenced not only by Ott’s name but also brief biographical information unique to Master Melvin, the Miller set provided a unique card back per player in the set. As we travel further back in time to examine earlier checklisting, you’ll see that a far more common approach involved applying the same card back to multiple players in the set, often by team, by series, or across the set’s entirety.

The return of team checklists

It’s been a while since we’ve seen team checklists, but some great early examples come our way from the 240-card 1922 American Caramel set.

As the small print indicates, the set included 15 players apiece from each of the 16 teams, leading to an even 240 cards. As the Ruth back suggests, all Yankees in the set had identical backs, as was the case for all team subsets within the set. Rival caramel maker Oxford Confectionary produced a much smaller set (E253) the year before and was able to fit the set’s entire 20-card roster on the back of each card.

The golden age of checklists

Though neither the T205 nor T206 sets included checklist cards, many other sets of the era did. A fun one, checklist or no checklist, is the 1912 Boston Garters set. Note the back side (of the card, not the player!) lists the 16 cards in the set. (These are VERY expensive cards by the way. For example, the card shown is easily the priciest Mathewson among his various cards without pants.)

Another such set was the 1911 Turkey Red set where, as with the 1922 American Caramel cards, every card was a checklist card (subject to back variations). Low numbered cards had a checklist for cards 1-75 or 1-76, and high numbered cards had a checklist for cards 51-126.

The 1910 Tip Top Bread set provided collectors a much kneaded set checklist and team checklist for their hard-earned dough. Of course, this was by default since all the subjects in the set were all on the same team. While the checklist suggests numbered cards, individual cards have do not include a card number as part of the design.

The 1908-1910 American Caramel E91 cards similarly provided a checklist for each year’s set and the three teams that comprised it. For example the 1910 set (E91-C) listed Pittsburg, Washington, and Boston players.

And just to show these sets weren’t flukes, there are the 1909 Philadelphia Caramel (E95), 1909 E102, 1909-1910 C.A. Briggs (E97), 1910 Standard Caramel (E93), 1910 E98, 1911 George Close Candy (E94), and 1913 Voskamp’s Coffee Pittsburgh Pirates, and various minor league issues of the era.

Size isn’t everything

Another early approach to checklists is illustrated by the 1909-1913 Sporting News supplements.

The picture backs were blank, but sales ads provided collectors with the full list of players available.

By the way, the highlighting of “SENT IN A TUBE” provides a hint that collectors even more than a century ago cared at least a little bit about condition.

Obak took this approach a step further in 1913 by including a complete checklist in every cigarette box.

Though not technically a card, one could make some argument that this Obak insert represents the very first standalone checklist packaged with cards.

I don’t know enough about this 1889 (!) checklist of Old Judge cabinet photo premiums to say whether it was inserted with the cigarettes and cards as was the Obak or lived somewhere else entirely as did the Sporting News ad.

Either way, it won’t be our oldest example of a checklist.

Where it all began…almost

There aren’t many baseball card sets older than the 1888 Goodwin Champions and 1887 Allen & Ginter World Champions issues. Ditto 1887 W.S. Kimball Champions (not pictured). Take a look at the card backs, and it becomes evident that checklists are almost as old as baseball cards themselves.

And while most of the card backs I’ve seen from these issues are rather dull, here is one specimen that makes me smile.

It’s not the easiest thing to see, but I do believe the collector crossed Kelly off the checklist…

…before running out of money, running out of ink, or just moving on like any good player collector.

Summary

As my examples demonstrate, baseball card checklists have taken on many forms, and the question of which baseball card checklist was first is one that depends on your definition of a checklist and perhaps even your definition of a baseball card.

Though it’s risky to infer motives from men long since dead, it seems reasonable that the creation and publication of baseball card checklists indicates a recognition that the cards themselves were not simply throwaway novelties but items to be collected and saved. What’s more, this was evidently the case as far back as 1887!

Note also that these checklists weren’t simply offered as courtesies. They reflected the at least an implicit assumption that set checklists were more valuable (to the seller!) than other forms of advertising that would otherwise occupy the same real estate whether the product was bread, tobacco, or candy. A standard Hobby 101 education teaches us that cards were long used to help sell the products they were packaged with. What we see here is that the allure wasn’t simply a baseball player or his likeness on cardboard but also the set of such likenesses that kept the pennies and nickels coming.

I started this article with a question. Are checklist cards the most boring cards in the set? By and large, yes, I think they are. However, that’s only true most of the time.

For with every checklist, at least those put to purpose, there is that one moment of glory, of sweetness, and of triumph when the checklist—formerly mocked and yawned at—informs collectors young and old that their springs and summers were not spent in vain but rather in pursuit of the heroic, the noble, and the—holy smokes, it’s about damn time!—DONE!