In Praise of Corsairs and Belters

My first baseball cards were 1967 Topps, which I discovered when I was a wee lad of six. Within a very short time, as I have explained, I used my cards in order to follow real baseball teams. I organized my cards by teams and made lineups based on the day’s box scores. I never knew what to do with the checklists, league leaders, World Series cards, and the like. Should I use the NL Batting Leaders card as a place-holder until I got Matty Alou? I might have done that.

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One group of cards I liked very much were those that pictured two or three players above a cute, often alliterative, title. Pitt Power — what a pair of words that was. Just as great was the back of the card, which was nothing but text. Understand, when I first saw this card I had little idea who these people were, and I wanted to learn. The fact that Topps put these happy-looking men on this card was proof that they were players to be reckoned with, and the news that Clendenon had once “paced the circuit” in home runs, albeit seven years earlier in the Sally League (whatever that was), sealed the deal. Phrases like “paced the circuit” became part of my language, along with “first sacker,” “blasted,” and “round-tripper,” all used here as well.

I knew right then what I wanted to do when I grew up: write the text on the front and backs of these cards. In 1967, Topps gave us 13 of them, with such wonderful titles as Cards’ Clubbers, Mets Maulers, Bengal Belters, and Hurlers Beware. And you can bet the backs had a fair bit of fence-busting, circuit-blasts and two-baggers. Warning: if we ever meet, I pretty much still talk like this today.

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Martin and Rizzuto
Berra, Bauer, Mantle
Berra, Bauer, Mantle

Credit for multiplayer cards, at least in the modern era, belongs to Bowman Gum, which produced two multi-player cards in their 1953 set, five famous players from the perennial World Champions. The cards had no text on the front, like all the Bowman cards that year, and card backs filled with prose. In their remaining two years of operation, Bowman never tried this again.

Four years later, Topps brought these cards back and this time they stuck. Topps made 107 multiplayer cards over a 13 year period (1957-1969). I am not going to go through every one of them, we don’t have all day here. Suffice to say that I like all 107 of them.

These cards depicted either two (72 times), three (29 times), or four (6 times) people, usually players but occasionally a manager or coach. Often they were just standing around being awesome, but sometimes they were talking, exchanging baseball nuggets.

Here are a few of my favorite examples.

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1959 Topps

Three times Topps referred to a pair of players as Fence Busters. Besides Aaron and Mathews above, they had used the phrase with Mantle and Snider in 1958, and brought it back for Mays and McCovey in 1967. Topps used similar terms through the years (clouters and sockers and belters), often for players who were quite a bit less worthy than Henry and Eddie. But Fence Busters seems to have been set aside for the cream of the crop.

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1969 Topps

Ted Williams signed a contract to manage the Senators in February 1969, quite late in the off-season for baseball card purposes, but Topps took photos of Williams in spring training and put him on his own late-series card plus this one of him teaching a mortal how to hit. Oddly, the Senators had already put the previous manager (Jim Lemon) on a card in an earlier series.

I recall as an 8-year-old seeing “Ted Shows How” on the checklist and wondering what it could possibly be. Much like kids must have puzzled over “Words of Wisdom” or “Lindy Shows Larry” a few years earlier.

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1968 Topps

Of these 107 multiplayer cards Topps depicted at least one (future) Hall of Famer 58 times. Often there were a pair of immortals on the card, and one time — this card right here — Topps struck gold with three players destined for Cooperstown. What’s not to like?

The photo was taken at the 1964 All-Star game at Shea Stadium. Topps used a few other All-Star game photos over the years (what better time to find pair of star players), and the 1967-68 player boycott required that they find some older photos.

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1964 Topps

The vast majority of these multiplayer cards employed titles meant to praise the players — clubbers, maulers, aces, heroes, etc. With the above card Topps stayed on firmer ground, telling us only that the depicted men were Angels, and were catchers. On the back, we learn that they are both “fine handlers of pitchers [who] know when to call for the right pitch in the right situation.” As for their hitting, Topps wisely ignored their unimpressive major league resumes so they could brag about long ago successes in the minors (13 years earlier in Ed’s case.)

I know that Keith Olbermann has spent time researching the Topps photo archive, and I recently asked him whether he’d ever run across multiplayer groupings that were not used — indicating that Topps took a bunch of these every year and selected a subset of them to produce. Keith said he’d only seen a couple of new groupings, which suggests that Topps mostly printed what they got. The photographer was likely snapping some photos and said, “hey, come over here and let me get you both.” On this day, the two Angel backstops might have been warming up pitchers at the same time, and here we are.

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1962 Topps

This photo of the two biggest stars in baseball was taken at the 1961 All-Star game at Boston’s Fenway Park. You can also make out Elston Howard, John Roseboro and Henry Aaron engaged in witty banter behind them. Oh, to have been wandering around the field on that day.

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1967 Topps

This is one of my all-time favorite cards, because of its breathtaking beauty. The sunny day, the uniforms, the matching “on-deck” stances. Cardboard perfection.

The title is wonderfully alliterative, if perhaps an odd way to refer to men known for their speed on the bases and in the outfield. But I shall not quibble nor debate this card.

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1957 Topps

“I see the boys of summer in their ruin.”

When this card reached store shelves in late summer of 1957, these four wonderfully talented men could not have realized what lay ahead for their careers, or their team, or their city. Their expressions showed nothing but the justifiable pride and happiness for all they had accomplished thus far. Why shouldn’t it last forever?

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In their 1969 set Topps used four multiplayer cards, this being the final of the four in the checklist. And then, for whatever reason, it was all over. The multiplayer card was retired.

I have never heard an explanation for why. Its not as if Topps stopped other non-base cards — they still put out team photos, and tried “Boyhood Photos” or “Record Breakers.” These cards seemed to be very popular, and comparatively easy to put together. You just need someone to write 200 words on the back. Hell, I would have done it for free.

I consider these 107 cards, spread over 13 years, to be their own special subset, and if you have not yet experienced them I suggest you find some.  If filling in all of these old Topps sets is too much for your budget, how about just getting these 107 cards? There is no better way to celebrate the game and the era.

As for me, I need to figure out a way to make a poster, something more attractive than my feeble attempt below.

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A New Grading Scale?

Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking of creating a new card grading scale.  When I see cards that are graded EX-MT, what does that really mean?

Under my new scale this 1953 Bowman Color Joe Garagiola would be Loved.  Just below Handled and a step up from Well Loved.

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For the rest of the story, view the post on my card blog, Mark’s Ephemera.

Unfinished (set) business

I’m a man of my word. I keep my promises and I achieve my goals. I don’t get distracted, I stay on task and I always finish what I start. Except…

My income and my passion for cards were at similar peaks throughout the ‘90’s. I finished some old sets I was close to finishing, started some older sets from scratch. There were four sets that I jumpstarted my way into with a series of well-priced, shrewdly purchased lots, and I had every intention of making my way to the end, the final check made in each one’s checklist. I don’t know what derailed me from my goals. Maybe it was the new century and big life changes (job switches, moving to Cooperstown, and so on), maybe it was the changes in the hobby (shifts to grading, disappearance of commons into slabs, moving to Cooperstown, far from big Chicago area card shows), maybe I simply lost interest in those sets. Let’s find out.

 

1933 Tattoo Orbit

tattoo-orbitThere’s something about this size, 2” X 2 ¼,” that grabs me. Tattoo Orbit (or R305, if you want to get technical) is a beautiful little set, 60 cards in all, hyper-stylized. The player photo is slightly colorized and is ensconced in a background that looks like it could have been drawn by a child. Check out Marty McManus here, swinging away, gigantic, in a setting of magnificent red and yellow. It’s a thing of beauty.

I have 16 of the 60, including two of the short prints. Did I ever think I’d really go the distance on this one? In retrospect, I’m not so sure. The set, even in VG, is around $4,000, probably more if I hunt and peck for individual cards. I don’t like spending a ton, so my guess is this one was a bit of a whim, a “yeah, sure, I’ll put this together over time.” Looking at what I’ve got, and how prices have gone up since I began, it’s even less likely I’ll get back to this one. But they are wonderful cards, magnificently simple in design.

 

1947 Bond Bread

bond-breadI’m halfway to the 44 card set of baseball players (though there are also 4 boxer cards). Not sure how these came into my field of vision, but it seems that in the 1980’s a large number of these black and white gems were found in a warehouse and released into the hobby. Maybe that’s why I got so many, definitely why the big time Hall of Famers (Musial, Williams, Jackie Robinson) are relatively inexpensive).

There’s a chance I’ll go back to this set. There are many wonders to be found in the photographs. Stan the Man here looks like he accidentally fielded a grounder during a photo shoot for the new 1947 Packard. Still, hunting down ungraded Joe DiMaggio and Jackie Robinson cards may be a tough task and, it seems like after 2000, a rash of illegally reprinted square cornered cards (some come rounded) made their way not only into the hobby but into grading.  That worries me, though I wonder where the money is in counterfeiting 70-year-old Del Ennis cards.

 

1949 Remar Bread Oakland Oaks

remar-breadWhat’s with the bread cards? Sure, it makes sense to package cards with gum, kids chewing away as they read about their favorite players, but the image of a kid wadding a piece of white bread in his cheek is one I can’t shake. The poor little Oaklander would choke!

There are 42 cards in this set, a strangely sized 2” X 3.” They’re thin stuff, very flexible, but sort of cool. There’s a Billy Martin card, which I don’t have, but is pretty inexpensive in EX, the general grade of the 11 cards I have.

I’ve been scouting out the balance of the set on EBay and it looks like there are ungraded examples at reasonable prices. Completing this set may be a reasonable endeavor, but it’s awfully hard to muster up a real enthusiasm for chasing down an EX example of Maurice Van Robays, whoever the hell he was. Still, I look at my Mel Duezabou card and know that, to someone, he was important. I’m not sure that that someone is me.

 

1952 Parkhurst

parkhurstThis may be the one that got away and that calls me back the most. Almost exactly the size of the 1949 Bowman cards that I love, this 100 card set of Canadian International Leaguers (Montreal Royals, Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Athletics) is filled with unknowns and a healthy subset of drawings like “Gripping the Bat.” Look at this page – awesome, right?

Though I have half the set, I have none of the key cards, minor league appearances by Tommy Lasorda, Walter Alston and Johnny Podres. They won’t break the bank. I think if I fish around for these, I’m likely to find one or two sellers/dealers who would sell me a bunch at a reasonable price. What could the real demand for the no-names and sketches be? Then I’ll back myself into a corner and spring for the higher priced cards. That’s my methodology – go cheap for as long as I can and then force myself to pony up for the few costlier cards that stand between me and a complete set.

 

I’ve never been a type collector of random cards, never sought out having one from as many sets as possible, so having four partial sets drives me batty. Is it worth keeping what I have if I’m not going to get them all? I don’t know, I debate that a lot. What’s the point of having 51 of 100 1952 Parkhursts if I’m not going to end up with 100? It’s a small scale struggle, but a struggle nonetheless.