Keith Hernandez (L) and Frank Thomas (R) – 2022 Mets Old Timers Day
“I’m so thankful that my dad was able to go to Old Timers’ Day. “It meant the world to him to see his old teammates. I was thrilled with how the fans greeted him. I was so happy to see him in uniform again. We will treasure those memories forever.”
Maryanne Pacconi (Frank Thomas’s daughter)
Frank Thomas, who passed away at 93 on Monday, January 16th, was a bright spot on the 1962 Mets team that won only 40 games. Frank had one of his best seasons in 1962 smashing 34 home runs and driving in 94 runs.
Road Trip to Citi Field
In early July my daughter and I had a wonderful time visiting Frank at his home in Pittsburgh. We talked about his playing days and our families. During the visit several Casey Stengel stories came up during our conversation. One of them was about the time he hit two home runs in three consecutive games during the ’62 season. “When I hit my first home run to start the streak, I was wearing glasses with yellow lenses. It was a twilight game, and the yellow lenses made it look like it was daylight. I circled the bases and then sat back down in the dugout. Casey looked over at me and asked – Where did you get the glasses? I said the trainer gave them to me. Casey said – Tell him to order a gross of ‘em for the other players.”
Towards the end of our visit, Frank mentioned that he was going to be at the Mets Old Timers on August 27th. “It’s probably my last one,” he said. And then a big smile came across his face, and he added – “The Mets called me up and wanted my measurements. They are going to make me a uniform!”
I told Frank that I would be there, and after returning home from Pittsburgh, I bought two tickets for the game. This was going to be the first Mets Old Timers Day since 1994. The game was heavily promoted by the Mets organization and was a sellout.
I went to the Old Timers game with a high school buddy of mine – another baseball fanatic – who also lives near Boston.
We left early in the morning and got to the park in plenty of time to see Frank make his red-carpet entrance into the stadium along with the other former players. He was using his walker but moving at a brisk pace. I am certain that getting to the Old Timers game was a major effort for Frank since he had a bad fall prior to the event.
Howie Rose, longtime radio broadcaster for the Mets, was the master of ceremonies and introduced each player before the game. The pre-game festivities also included retiring Willie Mays’ number 24.
It was obvious that the former players who had come back for the event had a great time. On the field I saw lots of laughing, high fives, hugs, and pictures being taken. The program stated that each Old Timer received a ring with their name on one side and the number 60, representing the team’s 60th anniversary on the other side. That was a nice touch.
Mets Cards of Frank Thomas Issued by Topps
Topps issued cards of Frank for each year he played for the Mets.
The Mets being an expansion team in 1962 created a problem for Topps. They could not get pictures of players in their proper uniforms and meet production schedules. As a result, Topps used a picture of Frank without a cap and wearing a Cubs uniform for his 1962 card – #7. Topps used a similar solution for just about all of the other Mets players with cards in the 1962 set. The exception being the Al Jackson card – #464 – which was a late production run 6th Series card.
1962 Topps Card #7
The 1963 card of Frank – #495 – is my personal favorite. I have always liked the design of these cards and the photographer took a nice color head and shoulders shot of Frank for the main image on the card.
1963 Topps Card #495
The batting stance picture used on his 1964 card – #345 – is similar to the batting stance pictures on his 1957 Topps card – #140 and his 1960 Topps card – #95.
If there was a Hall of Fame for major league ball players that signed Through The Mail (TTM), Frank would be in it.
In his autobiography Frank recalled his youth and stated: “I’d wait outside of the clubhouse after games and try to meet the players and get their autographs. Many guys would walk right by us kids with no acknowledgement whatsoever. It was very disappointing to see. That’s one of the reasons that I made a point to ALWAYS sign autographs as I left the clubhouse. I didn’t want some young fan’s recollection of me to be that I walked right past home as he held out his autograph book for me to sign.”
Since 2019 Frank and I had been communicating on regular basis, primarily by mail. Frank was old school. He did not text and he did not have a computer. I would bang out a letter on my computer, and Frank would respond back with a handwritten letter. He would answer my baseball questions in his letters and give me updates on his health and his children. The nominal fee that he asked for signing baseball cards went to two charities: – Camp Happy Days-Kids Kicking Cancer and Courageous Kidz. I gladly contributed to his charities and sent him cards that spanned his career to sign. I always received the cards back promptly – beautifully signed – along with a thank you note.
Letters from Frank were signed…
The Original One
I always got a kick out of that.
Apparently, anyone that contributed to his charities made the Christmas card mailing list. To my amazement, I received my first custom Christmas card from Frank in 2019.
2022 Christmas Card from Frank Thomas
Through baseball card collecting, I had the opportunity and privilege to become friends with Frank Thomas. I will miss him.
Planning a Return Trip to Citi Field
My two teams have always been the Red Sox and the Pirates; however the whole experience on August 27th really left quite an impression on me and has turned me into a Mets fan too.
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.
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.
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!
If you are not familiar with former major leaguer Elio Chacón welcome to the club. I was not aware that Elio played a total of 228 games in the majors from 1960 to 1962 with the Reds and Mets until very recently.
Topps only issued two mainstream cards of Elio. Card number #543 in 1960 when he was a rookie with the Reds and card number #256 in 1962 when he was with the Mets. The 1962 card is an airbrushed, no cap, Reds photo that features Hall of Famer Frank Robinson in the background. If you do a search on eBay you will also find a 1967 “Venezuelan Topps” card, a Venezuela Sport Gráfico Ovenca card produced in 1970, and a Venezuelan Show card with the same photo Topps used in 1962.
Born in Caracas, Venezuela, Elio is remembered in Cincinnati for hitting a single off Ralph Terry in Game 2 of the 1961 World Series and then scoring the winning run in the Reds only victory in the Series. In New York, fans remember Elio for getting into a base-brawl with Willie Mays and the “Yo la tengo” incident.
Here is recap of the “Yo la tengo” incident from Elio’s Wikipedia bio. You will also find similar descriptions of the incident in these two books – Richie Ashburn Remembered by Fran Zimniuch – and Richie Ashburn…Why the Hall Not? by Bruce E. Mowday and Jim Donahue.
During the 1962 season, New York Mets center fielder Richie Ashburn and Chacón frequently found themselves colliding in the outfield. When Ashburn went for a catch, he would scream, “I got it! I got it!” only to run into the 160-pound Chacón, who spoke only Spanish. Ashburn learned to yell, “¡La tengo! ¡La tengo!” which is “I’ve got it” in Spanish. In a later game, Ashburn happily saw Chacón backing off. He relaxed, positioned himself to catch the ball, and was instead run over by 200-pound left fielder Frank Thomas, who understood no Spanish and had missed a team meeting that proposed using the words “¡La tengo!” as a way to avoid outfield collisions. After getting up, Thomas asked Ashburn, “What the hell is a Yellow Tango?”. The band, Yo La Tengo, gets its name from this baseball anecdote.
Topps 1963 Richie Ashburn #135 and Topps 1964 Frank Thomas #345
The above story fits in seamlessly with the other hilarious stories from the first year Mets who were managed by Casey Stengel and finished the 1962 season with only 40 wins – but did it actually happen?
Pittsburgh Road Trip
In early July, I went on a road trip from my home near Boston to Pittsburgh. I had planned out a baseball heavy vacation with my two travelling partners – my daughter and her boyfriend. We toured the Clemente Museum, took in a game at PNC Park, snapped pictures in front of the remaining sections of the Forbes Field wall, and pretended we were Smokey Burgess at the site that marks where home plate was at Forbes Field.
Meeting with Frank Thomas
The highlight of my baseball vacation was an in-person meeting with Frank Thomas “The Original One” at his home in Pittsburgh on July 4th. Frank and I have been trading letters back and forth since 2019. We also have had a couple of phone conversations. I told Frank shortly after his 93rd birthday that I was coming to Pittsburgh and would like to see him. He was fine with an in-person meeting. I was expecting the visit to be no more than 20 minutes. My daughter and I had a wonderful time speaking with Frank about his playing days and our families for 90 minutes. He let me record the conversation so I could some of the baseball stories.
My first question was – “Tell me about the Yo la tengo story?”
Frank’s answer – “It never happened. Richie made it up. I couldn’t catch them. Richie played centerfield. I played left field. Chacon played shortstop. I never even came close to them. When he was an announcer in Philadelphia, he made up stories that’s all. Like all great announcers do. All fictitious.”
During our visit Frank mentioned that the Mets called him up and wanted his measurements for a uniform for the Old Timers game on August 27th. “The Original One” is going to be at Citi Field on the 60th anniversary of the 1962 original Mets. I told him I would be there. I already have my tickets.
As many of you (fellow old people) know, 1967 is the year that changed everything for the Boston Red Sox, when black and white turned to color, the duckling turned into a swan, a team captured the heart of a region and never let go. 54 years and counting.
The fly in the 1967 ointment, and it’s a helluva fly, is the career-altering beaning of Tony Conigliaro on August 18. I came to the Impossible Dream a year or so later, age 7, when Tony C. was out of baseball, and the more I learned about him the more I struggled to wholly buy into the feel-good nature of 1967. How can the most “fun” season in team history be the one when the most popular player on the team got hit in the face and had his career and life derailed? While perhaps not quite at the “Mrs. Lincoln, how’d you like the play?” level, it is in the same area code.
Although I started collecting cards in 1967, I became a baseball fan, a real day-to-day, listen-to-the-radio, check-the-boxscores baseball fan, in 1968. When I pulled Tony C’s Topps card (above) that spring I didn’t know that much about him, though I might have had his 1967 card as well. He never seemed to be in the lineup. Was he just not good enough?
The back of this card offers a clue: “Boston fans are hoping for a complete recovery for Tony in 1968.” I sought out a friend, three years older than me and a Yankee fan, for an explanation. “He was really good, but he didn’t make it back. He’s through,” he informed me.
So that was that. Whatever he was, I apparently had missed it.
I had missed a lot.
Conigliaro had grown up in Revere, East Boston, and Swampscott, Massachusetts all within a few miles of each other just outside Boston. I knew this area well–my parents both grew up in Lynn, right in the middle of these towns, and my grandparents and most of my extended family were still there. Conigliaro went to to St. Mary’s High, a parochial school in Lynn. For the rest of his life, all of these towns claimed him as one of their own.
So, let’s get to his cards.
In retrospect, it is impressive that Topps chose to place Conigliaro on this card in 1964. Topps made a TON of “Rookie Stars” cards every year in the 1960s, stretching the notion of “star” considerably. In fact, they had two others that year for the Red Sox.
Of these six “Stars,” Jones had the second best career, lasting nine seasons mainly as a platoon or reserve infielder. Still, Topps’s one-for-six here is actually pretty good and they deserve credit for Tony C.
Conigliaro had played one minor league season, with Wellsville in the Single-A New York-Penn League, hitting .363 with 24 home runs in 83 games. Obviously a top prospect, but it was the low minors and he was just 18. Most observers were surprised he made the team, but Topps was ready with this card in the 3rd series.
And Tony hit right way. A home run in his first at bat at Fenway, he ended up at .290 with 24 home runs despite missing five weeks with a broken arm. Conigliaro began his career as a center fielder, but after a month manager Johnny Pesky moved him to left field and Carl Yastrzemski to center for the rest of 1964, a piece of trivia that may surprise many modern Red Sox fans.
It was a great year for rookies, and Tony Oliva fully deserved his Rookie of the Year award. But Conigliaro snagged a Topps trophy on his first solo baseball card.
In 1965, the 20-year-old Conigliaro hit a league-leading 32 home runs. Before you scoff, understand that the 1960s were an extremely challenging time for hitters. The Red Sox were lousy in the mid-1960s, but the emergence of Conigliaro meant that they now had at least two good players (he and Yaz). It was a start.
Conigliaro was tremendously popular in Boston, especially with young people, more especially with young women. He “dated” a lot of these women, a pursuit which caused him to miss a few curfews and draw a few fines from his managers. He also dug rock ‘n roll records, and made several himself.
His musical tastes ran towards soft rock, which was surely part of zeitgeist in 1965. He didn’t write music or play any instruments (at least not for recording or on stage), but if you were looking for a Tom Jones who could also hit 30 homers, he was your guy.
There were rumblings among some of the older fans, people who told their own kids to turn down their Beatles records, that Conigliaro was a little too brash, a little too focused on his life outside of baseball, a little too-big-too-fast. But he was the most popular player on the team throughout the region. The generation gap was beginning to be an issue in the culture, and surely applied here.
And his popularity was beginning to expand beyond Boston.
Conigliaro’s parents and two younger brothers, who lived right up the road, went to all the games and were around the team daily. On a couple of occasions Tony got in hot water for missing curfews, so his father took Tony in to speak with the manager–just as he would have when Tony was 12.
In 1965 baseball held its first-ever amateur draft, and the Red Sox’ first round pick was Swampscott High outfield star Billy Conigliaro. Younger brother Richie’s Little League team was presumably being scouted.
Heading into the 1966 season, Conigliaro was an established baseball star with a record contract, and still just 21 years old.
The 1966 season was more of the same — 28 home runs, 93 RBI. The team had added Rico Petrocelli, George Scott and Jim Lonborg; still a ninth place team, but if you squinted you might have begun to see the start of something.
Conigliaro was photogenic in the extreme and there are hundreds of great photos of him from this period, but there is a sameness to his Topps baseball cards. His 1965 card is the only flagship card where he is not simply posing with a bat, and only the 1969 card can be said to feature the bare makings of a smile. Considering the degree of his popularity, and his obvious charm, its too bad Topps never got a great photo.
Early last year I finally finished the 1967 Topps Red Sox sticker set, with the “Tony Conigliaro Is My Hero” being my 33rd and final card. It is not the most attractive set in the world, or even particularly desirable unless you are a collector of a certain age who grew up in New England. Topps put out two “test” sticker sets that season, for the Red Sox and Pirates, and they share a simple design. I assume they “failed” their test, since Topps never marketed stickers like this again, but they are popular today because (a) the Pirates set has two Roberto Clemente stickers, and (b) the Red Sox team became Boston’s most beloved of the 20th century and arguably beyond.
When Conigliaro was beaned, the Red Sox were in their first pennant race in 17 years and Conigliaro might have been on his way to his best season. He had missed time because of military duty but still started the All-Star game (he played all 15 innings–it was a different time), and was hitting .287 with power when he got hurt. He missed the rest of the pennant race and the World Series. He might have helped.
Tony C showed up to Winter Haven in February 1968 fully expecting to play. He hit well for a couple of weeks, but struggled late in March and went to back to Boston to see an eye specialist. The news was stunning: he had lost most of the vision in his left eye, and his career was likely over.
A few months later is when I came in, as I began my own crazy baseball fan journey and wondered who this Conigliaro guy was.
Throughout the summer and fall there was occasional news. Maybe his eye would get better, maybe he’d become a pitcher, maybe he’d just manage his swingin’ night club, maybe he’d be a rock ‘n roller full time. His replacement in right field–Ken Harrelson — hit 35 home runs and led the league in RBI. We missed Tony, but had we found his statistical twin?
The next spring, my first experience anticipating a season as a full-time fan, Conigliaro came back. Which was, I assure you, absolutely bonkers. This was the biggest baseball story of my childhood, full stop. Still immensely popular–he lived nearby, his brother was a hot prospect, his family was in the paper every day–his eyesight had apparently recovered, at least enough to hit. He was back in the lineup.
He hit a home run on opening day in Baltimore, on his way to several Comeback Player of the Year awards. A couple of weeks into the season, the Red Sox traded Ken Harrelson to Cleveland–feeling they had more than enough power now.
Tony was a big national story, likely even bigger than he had been before he was beaned. He wrote a book, and he was back on newsstands.
As a young Red Sox fan, I can’t overstate how amazing and thrilling this all was. His season (20 homers, .255) was a bit down from his pre-injury form, but he was still just 24 years old and the sky once again seemed to be the limit.
The best Sporting News cover in history:
This magazine cover hung on my wall in 1970, and, not gonna lie, it’s still there.
Tony appeared to come all the way back in 1970, hitting a career-high 36 home runs and driving in a career-high 116 runs (second in the league). If that weren’t enough, brother Billy took over left field in mid-summer, moving Carl Yastrzemski to first base. The Conigliaros hit 54 home runs between them, setting a new record for teammate brothers.
All of this turned out to be a mirage. We later learned that the sight in Tony’s left eye had not really come all the way back, and in fact it was occasionally quite poor. He was playing with one good eye.
In October of 1970, the Red Sox made a six-player deal with the California Angels that sent Tony out west. (Did they know something?) I was just about to turn 10, and this was a devastating gut punch, as big as I have ever received not counting, well, … never mind about that.
Topps had plenty of time to ruin their spring training baseball photograph with a blackened hat.
As this is supposed to be a baseball cards blog, and the above is Tony’s final flagship card, I am going to end my narrative here. For Tony C, there was a lot of heartache to come, setbacks atop setbacks, so if you are up for it you can check out SABR’s biography. He was dealt many tough hands.
Needless to say, Conigliaro has remained an extremely important figure in Red Sox history. There is an active movement to retire his #25, a movement I support. For fans who came along later, his story begins with the record book, with Conigliaro’s modest 166 home runs and 12.4 WAR. I don’t really have an answer for that, other than to promise you that he was a big f**king deal, whose career and life never recovered from August 18, 1967.
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.)
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. 😊
The 1967 Topps Stand-Up set is one of the several test issues that never found its way into distribution. (Other examples include the 1973 Pin-ups and the 1971 All-Star Rookies.) The Stand-Ups are similar in concept to the 1964 die-cut cards only in a larger format (3-1/8” x 5-1/4”). Another difference is the 1967 version uses floating heads instead of full body photos. Both were designed to have the die-cut portion popped out and placed in a punch-out base to allow the photo to stand up.
Though the set is described in the Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards as being earmarked for distribution in 1967, a 1968 release seems more likely. The first clue is the Jim Hunter card, which shows him on the Oakland A’s. Of course, the A’s moved to Oakland for the 1968 season. Another indication is the fact that Rusty Staub and Jimmy Wynn have their Astros’ cap logos blacked out and no mention of the Astros on the card. The Astros refusal to grant Topps the right to use their logo was only an issue in 1968-69.
Topps may have scrapped the Stand-Ups in favor of a poster set instead. The same 24 players in the Stand-Up set were used in a 1968 poster set.
As with the other never issued sets, the few rare proofs that survive must have been set aside by Topps employees. In the case of the Stand-Ups, there are both proofs printed on thin paper without the die- cuts and die-cut ones on card stock. Only a handful exists and are rarely seen on the market. When cards do emerge, the prices are exorbitant. Mantle’s card in mint condition is valued at $15,500 by the Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards.
The floating head concept always seemed odd and a bit creepy. Yet, Topps used it on cards for league leaders, coaches and rookies. The creepiest card in the Stand-Up set is Orlando Cepeda. His bug-eyed look is disturbing.
Floating heads may not be the best look, but you can’t go wrong with cards of Aaron, Mays, Mantle and Clemente. There are 12 Hall-of-Famers in all along with Rose and Dick Allen.
By the way, Topps didn’t completely give up on this concept. In 1968, they made football Stand-Ups that were inserted in second series packs.
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!”
Author’s Note: This is the first in a multi-part series that will explore the legal backstories that have shaped (and continue to shape) the baseball card industry. Once considered mere ephemera used to induce children to buy penny confections (or cigarettes!), the industry has been inundated by costly legal battles waged in the name of baseball card supremacy. Punctuated by the recent announcement that Fanatics has agreed to acquire Topps’ trading card business, the players in the industry have endured nearly constant cannibalism, infighting, and subterfuge. Thank goodness for us, right? — John Racanelli
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.
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 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.
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).
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.”
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 andchewing 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Roberson v. Rochester Folding Box Co., 171 N. Y. 538, 541, 64 N. E. 442 (N.Y. 1902). This right of privacy is generally attributed to this article in the 1890 Harvard Law Journal by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis.
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, 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.
“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.
My most prized complete set is the 1963 Topps. Even with the ugly Pete Rose rookie and the equally unattractive 1962 American League E.R.A. Leaders with the brim of Whitey Ford’s card missing, I still love it.
Yet my set is a constant reminder of how stupid a 14-year-old can be.
I collected the ’63s from wax packs bought back then mostly at the local Peoples Drug Store in suburban Washington, D.C. That explains why I had the misfortune to be a fan of the Washington Senators. It’s where I grew up. Given how bad the expansion team was (those Nats lost 106 games that season, for instance) and how heart-broken I had been when the original Senators moved to Minnesota, it’s a wonder I remained a fan.
To make matters worse, my best friend John was a Yankees fan, or more precisely a rabid fan of a guy named Mantle. Of course, like just about every serious fan outside metropolitan NYC, I hated the Yankees, or more precisely, since 1961, a guy named Maris. How sad to follow the crowd and not even know it.
My hatred of Roger Maris was because – no surprise – he had broken Babe Ruth’s home run record. I knew enough about baseball to know that Maris wasn’t anywhere near the Babe as a player, nor was he even the equal of Mantle.
Members of this SABR committee who have seen Billy Crystal’s film 61* (I loved Barry Pepper’s portrayal of Maris) surely are aware of the venom directed at poor Roger, how his hair fell out and the pressure he was under. Heck, it wasn’t his fault Yankee Stadium had a short right-field porch or that Mickey got hurt. Or that Ford Frick wanted that darn asterisk on the home run record. Maris was just doing his job.
Still, one day during the season, when I got the #120 Topps card of Maris, I took a needle and punched a bunch of holes in it. For some reason, however, I kept the card. Perhaps in my subconscious, a voice was telling me what a mistake I was making, surely not because the card might someday become valuable – it has, but not ridiculously so – but because I was being really stupid, disliking someone I didn’t even know so much as to treat his card as if it were a voodoo doll.
A couple of years later, John and I got Mantle’s autograph as he got off the Yankees’ team bus outside of D.C. Stadium. We got Ford, Jim Bouton and Elston Howard, too. Maris walked by us unimpeded.
Fast forward to the early 1990s, when my wife and I were cleaning out the attic, I came across a bunch of 1963 Topps that I had forgotten I had saved. The discovery, which got me back into card collecting, include the defaced Maris card, reminding me what I fool I had been.
I grew up in the ’80s, and yet my favorite TV show – and certainly the one I related most to – was one set in the late ’60s and early ’70s: The Wonder Years. The primary reason was that the protagonist, Kevin Arnold, and the actor who played him, Fred Savage, were both my age when the show premiered after Super Bowl XXII in 1988. In many ways, what I watched on ABC each week was a mirror of my own experiences in suburban New Jersey.
One of the parallels – along with puberty, crushes and teenage politics – was baseball. Though Kevin may not have been as obsessed as I was, he was definitely a fan. The first image we see in the opening credits shows Kevin in the street, bat in hand, waving to the camera before calling his shot. He may have been known more for wearing his green New York Jets jacket, but baseball is not forgotten in the series.
In one Season 3 episode, “The Unnatural,” Kevin tries out for his junior high baseball team. The final scene shows him hitting a game-winning home run (despite missing third base; look for it), with Russ Hodges’ call of Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World” playing in the background.
But the most notable baseball scene involves a different Giant, and a way of engaging with the game we’re all familiar with here: The Hobby. In an earlier Season 3 episode, “Odd Man Out,” Kevin and Paul discuss a baseball card trade centered around Willie McCovey. The episode aired in November 1989, meaning it was set in 1969 (events depicted in the show were meant to be 20 years earlier than when they aired).
It’s not clear which McCovey card they’re talking about. Kevin and Paul are 13 in 1969, and Kevin’s voiceover saying that they’d “been through this a hundred times before” indicates that it’s an on-going discourse, so it’s probably a mid-to-late ’60s McCovey card. Paul’s stern response – “McCovey is off the table” – carried enough weight to be included as a magnet in the deluxe edition of the complete series DVD released in 2014 and inspired an indie rock song.
The Wonder Years returned to TV this fall in a reboot set around the same time – beginning in 1968 – but with a Black family and a 12-year-old protagonist, Dean, at the center of it. Baseball has an even bigger presence in the first few episodes of this series, starting in the pilot when the climactic scene occurs during Dean’s Little League game. Subsequent episodes show pennants on the wall of the room he shares with his older brother (who’s fighting in Vietnam); the Cardinals, Phillies, Yankees, and Dodgers are all represented.
And, in a nod to the “McCovey is off the table” scene, a trading session among Dean and his friends outside of school pops up in Episode 3.
This time the names offered, in a much more elaborate negotiation involving at least four boys, are Jim Fregosi, Bill Freehan (mispronounced as “Freeman”), Hank Aaron, Bert Campaneris, Carl Yastrzemski, and Willie Mays.
DEAN: OK, Cory, if you trade Brad your Jim Fregosi, Brad can trade Sam his Bill Freeman [sic], and I’ll just take this Hank Aaron, I guess. I think we have a deal here, fellas.
BRAD: Wait, who are you giving up?
DEAN: Well, I really don’t want to do this, but I guess I could get rid of my Bert Campaneris.
BRAD: Who’s Bert Campaneris?
DEAN (chuckling in disbelief): Who’s Bert Campaneris? Only the utility infielder for the Oakland A’s that hit .232 with four doubles and six hit-by-pitches last season.
CORY: I don’t know, man. My mom told me not to trade with you anymore after you took that Willie Mays card off my hands because he “ruined it” by signing it.
DEAN: I’m sorry – am I trading with Cory, or Cory’s mom? Do you ask your mom to cut your steak, too?
CORY: Well, yeah, actually – she does it the best.
BRETT: I’ll take the Bert Campaneris!
DEAN: Finally! Someone who’s his own man. Now, let’s see who do I want in return. [Picks up a card, reading.] “Carl Yas-term-ski?” That’s a weird name. Guess I could take this one off your hands.
Back in 1989, before “high definition” was a thing, Fred Savage – who directed that 2021 episode with the trading session – was given 1989 Topps cards when talking about Juan Marichal, Luis Tiant, and Willie McCovey. In 2021, the props master (they really should rethink that title) at least managed to get reprints of 1968 (and earlier) cards, though the script writer made up a Bert Campaneris season that never happened. In ’68, Campaneris was an All-Star shortstop who finished 11th in AL MVP voting after hitting .276/.330/.361 in 159 games, leading the league in plate appearances and at-bats.
A 1965 Topps Bill Freehan is on top of the cards being held on the left; those shown in the grass include three from 1963: Earl Averill (near center), Jimmie Schaffer (far right), and Casey Stengel and Gene Woodling of the Mets on a card titled “Veteran Masters” (top right of the pile). The bulk of the rest are from ’68, among them (roughly from left to right): Hank Aaron, Dick Kelley, Ken Suarez, Dave Morehead, Adolfo Phillips, Gary Peters, Cal Ermer, Bill Monbouquette, Tom Phoebus, Dan Schneider, Bubba Morton, and – yep, alone at the top – Carl Yastrzemski.
I wonder how things would have gone if Kevin had offered a Yastrzemski for the McCovey. Seems pretty fair to me.