Latino Commons in a 1965 Topps Card Lot

The Topps 1965 series was a 598-card set, featuring the team logo within a pennant.  The 2 ½ by 3 ½ inch cards included rookies such as Joe Morgan, Steve Carlton, Jim Hunter and Tony Perez.  I would later become more interested in a group of cards that would lead to a presentation at the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR)’s 46th annual convention in Miami, Fla.

As I tell the story, I attribute the interest in the 1965 cards not only because it was the year of my birth, but also I offer thanks to fellow SABR chapter member, Mark Armour, who wrote a great series on Topps cards for a baseball blog.  At the time, I had only been collecting cards from 1970 to 1990.  As a kid, I starting collecting cards around 1973, throwing them into a box, where I was spent time sorting them first by team, in alphabetical order, then later by card number.  And then, maybe sort them once again by team.  Alas, like many a lad, my precious pieces of cardboard would fall victim to a mother’s cleaning and obtuse unawareness for her child’s treasures.  And like that, they were gone.

Later as an adult with some disposal income, I could reach back into my childhood, and begin my favorite passion, collecting the baseball cards I had lost.  I don’t know how else to explain it, but it was if I had found old friends, and enjoyed the time of catching up.  I think 1970 seemed like a good time to start my re-collecting.  But, along comes Mark and his fancy nostalgia for cards in the 1960s.  I looked again at the 1965 set, and thought they looked fun, and decided to start there.

On eBay, I found a 1965 medium grade 23-card lot for $30.  A week later, I made a pleasant discovery that out of the 23 cards, six of them were Latino players.  I am a Latino baseball enthusiast, so the find was awesome.  From there, I started wondering about these guys.  They weren’t the Latino superstars, just “common”, in the baseball card vernacular.

They were: Phil Ortega (pitcher, Washington Senators); José Santiago (pitcher, Kansas City Athletics); Juan Pizarro (pitcher, Chicago White Sox); Vic Davalillo (outfielder, Cleveland Indians); Camilo Carreón (catcher, Cleveland Indians); and Héctor Valle (catcher, Los Angeles Dodgers).  The cards were in decent shape: no bad creases, no rounded edges, and the photos still relatively sharp.  Overall, I was happy with the purchase, but still…who were these guys, and what impact did they have on their teams?

I think out of the six, I was most familiar with Davalillo and his days with the Dodgers in the 1970s.  I have his 1978 Topps card.  In researching their 1965 contributions, the most remarkable thing you can say is that their year was pretty unremarkable.  Save for Davalillo, that is, who had an All-Star year with a batting average of .301 over 142 games, collecting 152 hits along the way.

He was also one of eight Latinos playing the 1965 All-Star Game held in Minneapolis, where San Francisco Giants pitcher Juan Marichal was the MVP.  Marichal would go on to have a more eventful summer.

In flipping through these cards, you realize that in blindly buying a lot online, the cards are not always going to be Latino superstars, and that’s okay.  I think the common Latino player is just as interesting with his own story to tell.  Those guys deserve our attention as well, and I am going to enjoy collecting their cards just as much.

Doing my part to win the Cold War

In the summer of 1983 I was 22 years old and writing software for a large defense contractor (Raytheon) in Rhode Island. Had a secret security clearance and everything. As it happens, a joint software project with Sperry-Univac required that I spend a bit of time that summer in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Defense Department (essentially our employers) was conducting round-the-clock stress testing on our weapons control system at Sperry, and someone from Raytheon had to be present. The work consisted almost solely of sitting in a chair (probably reading a novel) ready to step in if there was a test failure. My most vivid Twin Cities memories that summer were multiple trips to the Metrodome–mostly to see the Twins, but once to a Vikings preseason game where the crowd vigorously booed Broncos rookie John Elway.

After a couple of week-long sojourns with my boss, I made a trip by myself near the end of the summer. The solo voyage was to be an annoyance not because of the work, but because of logistical issues I had never dealt with before–I didn’t own a credit card, for example. No worries, I was told. Raytheon prepaid all the big items, and then gave me a karl-malden-aestack of travelers checks (look it up, kids) as a “per diem.” This $25 per day was ostensibly for food, but I was told that I was free to use it however I wished.

As luck would have it, my hotel provided free breakfast, and there was a lunch spread at work. I planned to go to a couple of Twins games, and I was pretty sure I could buy a prime ticket, food and beer for that budget. The other three evenings I figured I would just find some nice restaurants and bring a thick book. I brought some cash for incidentals, but I was optimistic that my per diem would be enough to get me through the week in style.

These well-laid plans were upset on my very first day when I discovered a delightful baseball card store near my hotel. (By “near my hotel,” I might mean: “up some obscure side street I found after poring through the yellow pages and consulting a local map.”) After wandering in, I drifted past the usual boxes of modern wax packs to the display case filled with old cardboard from the 1950s. At this point my collecting consisted of very slowly filling in the sets from my childhood (beginning with 1967) and keeping up with the annual releases.

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But one look at this pair of cards at the top of the case and I was like when Tony first laid eyes on Maria in “West Side Story.” The twin objects of my affection were from 1956, and they carried the same price tag: $25. I might have seen both cards before, but never in this condition or at this price.

On the other hand, I had never spent $25 on a baseball card before. Further, I didn’t really have $25–I had no credit card, I just had a bunch of traveler’s checks that I had already accounted for.

At that moment I realized that the traveler’s check budget needed refiguring.

I went back to my hotel and ran through numbers again. I wasn’t going to give up the two Twins games I had planned–don’t be silly–but the rest of the food suddenly seemed extravagant. What’s wrong with a nice sandwich?

Somewhat surprisingly, I made a fairly mature decision. I decided I would eat frugally throughout the week and return to the card store on Saturday morning before my flight. If I had money left, perhaps I could buy one of those beautiful cards? (If they were still there.)

The week passed uneventfully as I tried to keep my mind away from the card store. The weapons simulations did not misfire, I enjoyed my free breakfasts and free lunches, and discovered that I didn’t really need that second hot dog at the ballgame. On non-game nights I found some takeout and ate in the hotel.

Come Saturday morning and, surprise surprise, I still had about $60 in traveler’s checks in my wallet. I packed up my suitcase and headed for the card store.

As luck with have it, both of my dream cards were still in their case, and I trembled a little when I announced that I would take them both. The guy behind the counter chuckled at my traveler’s checks, but I accepted the teasing rather than tell him my sordid story. These two cards instantly became the best two cards in my collection. They still are.

I have made many baseball card purchases over the years, and to this day I usually feel at least a bit of guilt. (Is this really the best use of my money? Is that really a hole in my son’s shoe?) But as I flew home on that plane 34 years ago I felt nothing but satisfaction. I had not taken money from my children’s college fund. I would soon come to realize that defense department work was not my bag, but for these two cards I know who to thank: Ronald Reagan and his military buildup.

On the flight home I took the cards out of my brief case every ten minutes or so, and had the card backs memorized by the time we crossed over Detroit. The woman in the seat next to me gave me that look. You know the one.

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Post Cereal Issues from 1961-1963

I remember pieces of the 1964 season. I remember that we watched the Dodgers sweep the Yankees in the 1963 World Series. But my earliest baseball memory is being really excited about finding a Roger Maris card on the back of a box of Post cereal in 1962. Although I did not have this card in my possession for close to fifty years, its image was burned into my memory. This blog and my plans to write this post caused me purchase the card displayed here.

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Post started their brief foray into sports cards with a nine card set of oversized cards in 1960, which they put on the back of boxes of Grape Nuts Flakes. The cards were 7” by 8 3/4”. The set contained five baseball players (Eddie Mathews, Mickey Mantle, Al Kaline, Harmon Killebrew and Don Drysdale), two football players (Frank Gifford and Johnny Unitas) and two basketball players (Bob Cousy and Bob Pettit).

They went full on in 1961, when they issued a set with 200 baseball players, all standard baseball-card size.  The cards were blank on the back, with a color photo and biographical information on the front (with the photo on the left), along with lifetime and 1960 statistics. The name is in black, in a sans-serif font , and the phrase “BASEBALL STAR CARD No. ##” in black across the top, with a row of eight red stars below. The statistics are on a yellow background, with “MAJOR LEAGUE BATTING RECORD” or “MAJOR LEAGUE PITCHING RECORD” printed in white on a black background above the stats. The cards appeared on ten different varieties of cereals in multiple box sizes, and also on variety packs. There were 73 different box panels, affecting the variability of the various players. For example, for the Post Tens bottom tray, there were seven panels of three cards each. Only one of those 21 players appeared on any other panel. Cards were also available in team sheets, directly from Post. These cards came on thinner stock. There were four cards which were only available in this way, as well as cards that were only available on boxes. Information on some cards was updated as the year progressed. Dan Mabey, the recognized authority on the Post issues says there are 361 different box cards.

1961 Post
1961 Post

The 1962 set continued to have 200 players. Updates, card stock and other differences bring the total varieties to 543 cards. Layout is the same, but this time, the picture is on the right side instead of the left, and the player name is in a script font, written in blue ink, and the line of stars above the name is missing. The statistics title is black on the background of the stat box. The American League players (like Maris, above) have blue line around the statistics box and a white background for the player information and a yellow background for the statistics. National League players have a red line around the stats with a yellow background for the player information and a white background for the stats. Also,  100 of the cards were also issued in a Canadian set, without the color differentiation and with reduced text printed in both French and English.

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1962 Post
1962 Post
1962 Post

The 1963 set ceases the differentiation between the leagues and returns to a standard black serif font for the player names, The rest of the card uses a sans serif font, with the team name and position in all caps red. The card number is in red, prefixed by “No.”, and with three blue stars on each side, to center it above the player name. There are three blue stars on each side of the “MAJOR LEAGUE BATTING RECORD” or “MAJOR LEAGUE PITCHING RECORD” in the stat box.

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1963 Post

The “Laughing Bob” Trade

Undoubtedly following the example of my eleven year old brother Tony, I started collecting baseball cards in 1968 at six years of age. Since my brother was more knowledgeable in regards to which players were stars, he would try to hoodwink me into trading away players he coveted. For example, he was able to acquire Curt Flood and an Orlando Cepeda All-Star card for undoubtedly a bunch of scrubs. However, there is one transaction from the distance of nearly 50 years that stands out the most: Alvin Dark for Bob Tillman.

Obviously, this trade does not fall in the category of star player for scrub. In fact I’m not sure why my brother wanted the Indians manager and, since he is deceased, I will never know. The 1968 Bob Tillman features him hatless with the broad smile of someone in mid-laugh. tillman-backIn fact my brother emphasized this fact by convincing me that Tillman’s nickname was “Laughing Bob.” Also he pointed out on the back of the card that Bob had once played for the Seattle Rainiers in the Pacific Coast League. This geographical connection to the small, Central Washington town I grew in, coupled with the unique nickname, made an impression on me. But what sealed the deal was when my brother pointed out that Bob and I share the same birth date.

Perhaps my brother’s smug reaction or my realization that he continually took advantage of my naiveté in any number of situations soon brought on trader’s remorse. After pleading with him to reverse the deal, our confrontation turned physical. The resulting beat-down sent me running to my mom in tears. She didn’t know Al Dark from Harry Bright, but mom knew I had been cheated in some manner. Channeling her inner commissioner, she voided the trade in the best interest of household peace.

When my brother entered high school, he gave me all his baseball cards. I finally completed the 1968 set a few years ago and upgraded the condition of many of the cards including Dark and Tillman. But I specifically set aside the original two cards to serve as a reminder of that long ago transaction.

Incidentally, I had to smile when I purchased a 1961 Union Oil Seattle Rainiers set and discovered that Bob Tillman was amongst the featured players.

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1961 Union Oil Bob Tillman

 

 

1950s/1960s Oddballs: Spic and Span Milwaukee Braves

When the Milwaukee Braves moved to the midwest from Boston for the 1953 season, the local populace was ecstatic. From 1947 through 1952, thanks to the Milwaukee Brewers serving as the Triple-A affiliate for the Braves, the locals had already had the opportunity to learn the names of many of the Braves prior to their promotion to Boston. The move was an immediate financial success for the club — attendance went from 281,278 in Boston in 1952 to 1,826,397 in Milwaukee in 1953. It didn’t hurt that the Braves went from doormat to a second place finish.

As that attendance jump shows, the Braves captured the hearts of Milwaukee immediately that initial season. As detailed in the September 16, 1953 issue of The Sporting News, the players themselves received outpourings of monetary support from the fans. Wisconsin native Andy Pafko, for example, was quoted saying:

We never knew a player could have it so good. You know, the only thing we have to buy in the way of food is meat. The rest we get free–milk, cheese, butter, eggs, frozen vegetables, cookies and even bread.

These people just can’t do enough for you. The other day the fellow at the parking lot where I leave my car overnight came over and said: ‘I understand you’re Andy Pafko of the Braves. Park here any time you want to and it won’t cost you anything. I’m sorry I didn’t know who you were sooner.

It should come as no surprise, then, that multiple local companies sought to capitalize on the good feelings engendered by the team. One of those companies was Spic and Span Dry Cleaners. As checklisted in the 2011 Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards, edited by the late Bob Lemke, Spic and Span issued multiple sets of photos and cards featuring the hometown Braves beginning in 1953 and ending in 1960. Included in this cavalcade of items were cards, photos, and postcards of various sizes and shapes. Here is a list of those issues:

1953 to about 1955: 3-1/4″ x 5-1/2″ cards, 29 total issued

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1953 Eddie Mathews, Courtesy of Bob Lemke’s Blog dated May 5, 2011

1953 to 1957: 7″ x 10″ black and white photos, 14 total issued

1954: 5-1/2″ x 8-1/2″ set of 13 cards

1954 to 1956: 4″ x 6″ postcards, 18 issued

1955: 7-1/2″ x 7″ die cut standups (the rarest set) of 18 total players

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1955 Die Cut Lew Burdette, from an auction on the Mears Auction Website, where a complete set sold in 2015 for $7,243

1957: 4 ” x 5″ cards with a total of 20 cards issued

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1957 Hank Aaron, from an auction in 2015 on the Greg Bussineau Sports & Rarities Website

1960: 2-3/4″ x 3-1/8″with a total of 26 cards issued

In addition to these cards, Spic and Span also used Braves players on other ephemera around their business. Specifically, in 2013, a paper dry cleaning bag came up for auction at Mears Auctions, and it sold for $92.

mears-auction

As the Braves started their decline in the 1960s before they bolted for Atlanta, Spic and Span and other local retailers lost their taste for being involved with the team. Though Milwaukee spent just four seasons without a major league team of its own — really two years if you count the games in 1968 and 1969 that the Chicago White Sox (with help from eventual Brewers owner and Commissioner Bud Selig) played in Milwaukee — Spic and Span was pretty much done with the baseball endorsement business.

As a postscript, despite being a national dry cleaning chain into the 1970s, Spic and Span barely exists with that name today. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cracked down on the dry cleaning industry because of its pollution of groundwater. The solvents that dry cleaners used were loaded with trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene — known, potent carcinogens that dry cleaners often just dumped out the back door. Today, Spic and Span is nearly gone, but its legacy lives on both in baseball memorabilia and far less exemplary areas.

Bell Brand Sandy Koufax Cards: All That And A Bag Of Chips

My apologies for the cheesy headline.

I couldn’t resist.

In case you’ve never heard of the Bell Brand Dodgers baseball cards, they were small regional issues that were inserted into bags of Bell Brand potato chips and corn chips in 1958, 1960, 1961 and 1962. They’re yet another great oddball set for collectors of Sandy Koufax baseball cards to hunt down.

Along with the Morrell Meats issues, these are some of my favorites as a Koufax collector.

And speaking of the Morrell Meats cards, if you read my previous article about those issues, you’ll remember how I had been trying to find a copy of the 1959 Morrell Meats card for about five or six years with no luck. Well, within about three weeks of writing that article, one popped up on eBay and I instantly snagged it. Go figure! Maybe that article appeased the collecting gods or something, who knows?

Anyways, back to the Bell Brand cards.

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Why Bell Brand skipped out on making a 1959 set, I don’t know. It’s been noted that the 1958 cards weren’t very popular and were pulled from production. So, it’s likely that they didn’t think it was worth producing a 1959 set. How I wish they would have made a 1959 issue–guess I’ll just have to daydream about what it may have looked like.

Since the Dodgers would go on to win the 1959 World Series, that was apparently enough to ramp up Bell Brand’s interest in producing cards again as they’d make three more sets from 1960 to 1962.

The cards were originally offered as free inserts inside bags of Bell Brand potato chips and corn chips. I’ve scoured the Internet for pictures of the actual bags in which they came but haven’t had any luck. If anyone comes across a picture I’d sure appreciate it if you could point me to it in the comments section below this article.

Given that they were placed inside potato chip and corn chip bags, you can imagine the wear they endured and how hard they can be to find in top condition. And even though they were wrapped in plastic, you’ll still frequently find copies that show evidence of contact with the potato chip oil.

In this picture of a wrapped 1962 Bell Brand Koufax, you can clearly see the oil stain along the lower lefthand border.

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1958 Bell Brand Koufax

This is probably my favorite of the four Bell Brand Koufax cards. It’s not necessarily the best-looking, in my opinion, with its sepia color tone and somewhat foggy image of Koufax inside the picture frame border. But that unique design is what makes it easily standout from the other three. Its historic value is quite high, too, given this was Bell Brand’s way to contribute to the hype of the Dodgers first season in Los Angeles. One of my favorite parts of the card is actually the reverse side as it mentions his blinding speed and inexperience. His K/9 of roughly 10.6 in his 1957 season stat line was a hint of the dominance that was to come.

The Koufax card is the key to the 10-card set that featured fellow Hall of Famers Roy Campanella, Don Drysdale, Pee Wee Reese and Duke Snider. I usually see these in PSA 8 condition sell for $3,000 to $4,000. There are a couple of PSA 9 copies floating around somewhere and I’d love to watch the bidding on those if they ever come up for auction.

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1960 Bell Brand Koufax

This is the second most difficult of the four to collect. Card #9 in the 20-card set features a young Koufax hunched over on the mound at the Dodgers spring training facility in Vero Beach, FL. The color photo is a big improvement over the 1958 sepia image but I wish the weather would have been nicer the day of the photo shoot. The cloud cover leaves the image with a gloomier feel compared to the sharp, bright images on the 1961 and 1962 cards. The back side mentions Koufax tying Bob Feller’s then record of 18 strikeouts in a game and offers clues as to which products featured these cards: bags of 39-cent, 49-cent, and 59-cent potato chips as well as 29-cent and 49-cent corn chips.

As a side note, Snider and Walter Alston are the only other two Hall of Famers in this much larger set. For some reason, Don Drysdale was dropped and wouldn’t appear again until the 1962 set.

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1961 Bell Brand Koufax

The 1961 Bell Brand Koufax card looks very similar to the 1960 issue except for the bluer sky and different camera angle. There were again 20 players in the set but you’ll notice that Koufax’s issue is actually #32 in the set. That’s because Bell Brand deviated from sequential numbering and went instead with a system that utilized each player’s jersey number. Confusing, maybe, but it earns a couple of points for creativity in my book. It’s a special card as it marked the first of his six-season run of absolutely torching the competition during the back half of his career.

1961-bell-brand-dodgers-sandy-koufax-baseball-card

1962 Bell Brand Koufax

This would be the last year that Bell Brand would produce Dodgers baseball cards. And these were their highest quality print runs. The photos were higher resolution and were much glossier. The Dodgers would move from the Los Angeles Coliseum to pitcher-friendly Chavez Ravine in 1962 but unfortunately Koufax would not be able to enjoy a full season there due to injury. He would, however, throw the first of his four no-hitters in June that year and would earn “Player of the Month” distinction. Surprisingly, that was the only time in his career he had earned that title.

1962-bell-brand-dodgers-sandy-koufax-baseball-card

Oddball cards, yes. But the Bell Brand Koufax cards are some of the most fun and challenging to collect. Great imagery, huge historic value, and a small piece of regional Southern California history are enough to place these high on the list of any Koufax collector.

In Praise of Corsairs and Belters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are a few of my favorite examples.

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1959 Topps

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

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1969 Topps

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

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

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1968 Topps

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

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

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1964 Topps

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

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

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1962 Topps

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

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1967 Topps

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

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

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1957 Topps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The 1967-68 Player Boycott of Topps

I have written about this subject before, but have not done so here. This remains an area of study for me, and hopefully this post will catch some of you up.

From 1956 to 1980 Topps had a virtual monopoly in the baseball card world. There were exceptions along the way, mainly small specialty or regional sets, but for a quarter century the Topps base set dominated the field.

Topps maintained its monopoly by signing players when they were still in the low minors. They gave prospects five dollars as a binder to lock in exclusive baseball card rights for five years. Topps renewed these binders regularly and then paid players $125 per year if they were used on a card or if they appeared in the big leagues for 31 days. Topps even provided the players with a catalog of items they could choose from in lieu of the cash, like a set of luggage or a television. Topps continually renewed players prior to the expiration of their deals, keeping almost everyone in the fold.

In early 1966 the MLBPA hired Marvin Miller, an economist from United Steelworkers, as their first executive director. Over the next several years, Miller and the players engaged in true collective bargaining, earning increased benefits, larger salaries, an impartial grievance procedure, and, ultimately, limited free agency. What has been mostly lost to history is the role that baseball cards played to solidify the union.

In September 1966, the MLBPA created a group-licensing program—allowing companies to make deals to use any or all players’ names and pictures to sell their products. The union soon had very important and beneficial deals with Coca-Cola and others, but the contract that Miller most wanted remained elusive. Topps had binding agreements with virtually every player in professional baseball, making a group license seemingly impossible.

The player deals seemed inadequate to Miller, who set up a meeting with Topps, whose president, Joel Shorin, told him: “There will be no changes because, honestly, I don’t see the muscle in your position.” This response did not surprise Miller – he knew that he was not going to get a better deal from Topps by appealing to Shorin’s sense of fairness. That is not how labor battles were won. He needed muscle.

In early 1967 Miller suggested to the players that they stop renewing their individual Topps contracts and boycott Topps photographers. This was the only way, Miller advised, that they could get Topps to deal with them. Although the action was voluntary, Topps was able to take no more than a handful of photos during the 1967 season, and, with the dispute unresolved, none at all in 1968. This had an effect on the 1968 Topps set, which was not able to show as many properly attired photos as usual, and a much more dramatic effect on the 1969 set.

Let’s start with 1968.

Most Topps photographs in this era were taken either at spring training, or at one of the New York ballparks during the season, and almost always during the previous calendar year. For their 1968 set, Topps would want photos of the player taken sometime in 1967, in the uniform of their current (1968) team. Topps faced a challenge when a player was traded during the season, as a look at the 1968 Red Sox cards can illustrate.

The Red Sox acquired Elston Howard from the Yankees on August 3, 1967. In order to get a photo of Howard in his new uniform for his 1968 card, Topps sent a photographer to Fenway Park in late August (note the home uniform). Norm Siebern, acquired on July 15, was likely shot the same day.

On the other hand, Gary Bell and Jerry Adair joined the club in June 1967 but Topps used older photos of them in 1968 — both wearing uniforms from previous teams and photographed without a hat (the usual Topps trick in these situations). Why didn’t Topps take these photos in August when they got Howard and Siebern? A plausible explanation is that Bell and Adair were observing the boycott while Siebern and Howard were not. We can’t know for certain — maybe the players were in the bathroom at the time — but we know that by August Topps was having trouble getting players to pose.

More problematically than using an old photo was having no photo at all. Sparky Lyle made his big league debut for the Red Sox on July 4, 1967, and pitched in 27 games for the club in the pennant race. But Topps did not photograph Lyle either, so he did not get his first card with Topps until 1969.

Another interesting artifact of the 1968 Topps set is that the company made “team cards” for only 13 of the 20 teams. If you were a set collector, at some point you would have noticed that the team card you were waiting all summer for, the Red Sox for example, did not exist.

By the spring of 1968 the boycott was universally observed, and there is no evidence that any photos were taken that year. Topps and the MLBPA reached an agreement in November 1968, but Topps still had to put out a 1969 set without having any photos from the previous 18 months.

Making things even worse, Topps had to deal with four new expansion teams (whose players would appear hatless), the Oakland A’s (whose move from Kansas City caused them to be hatless), and the Houston Astros (who were hatless because of a logo dispute). That covers 6 teams, or 1/4 of the players.

Topps skipped the team cards, a staple since 1956, altogether.

If that weren’t enough, Topps used old photos, many of them recycled from previous years. Tom Seaver, Joe Morgan, Hank Aaron, well over 100 in all, used identical images from 1968.

In some cases Topps recropped the image, as they did with Carl Yastrzemski and Ernie Banks. Willie Mays used a recropping of his 1966 card.

On one occasion Topps (presumably accidentally) flipped a negative, confusing school kids everywhere.

(More details from David Sosidka here.)

The Reggie Jackson card, his very first Topps card, stands out because it presumably was taken during the boycott — the A’s moved to Oakland in 1968 and Reggie is shown in an Oakland uniform. I recently learned from Keith Olbermann that Topps purchased this photo, and a few others, from another photographer.

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The Johnny Bench card, his first all to himself, used a photo from a few years earlier. Many Topps photos — Reggie Smith is another example — show much younger versions of their subjects.

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In November 1968 Topps caved, agreeing to double its annual player stipend (to $250 per year) and to pay a royalty to the MLBPA of 8 percent on revenue up to $4 million, and 10 percent thereafter. In the first year of this deal the Association collected $320,000 from their Topps license, which came out to $500 per player on top of their individual deals. By the early 1980s, the union collected more than 10 times that from the licensing of baseball cards.

One could say that this was the first time the fledgling union used their collective power to effect change. “It was important on two levels,” said Jim Bouton. “One, it showed how powerful Marvin Miller was and how smart he was. It gave him instant credibility. But also, the player’s association became immediately self-funding.” Today’s licensing program, rebranded as Player’s Choice, nets tens of thousands of dollars per player annually, and funds charitable acts all around the globe.

As for the kids of America, in 1969 they were mainly annoyed, or at least confused. I loved the designs for both of these sets, but would have preferred fresh images of my heroes in those very formative (for me) seasons.

In 1969 Topps hustled to spring training sites and took lots of photos of cooperative players, and got many of these into their late series cards that very summer. By July of 1969, we got to feast our eyes on gorgeous cards of players wearing the uniforms of the four expansion teams, as well as the A’s and Astros.

In 1970, Topps showed off some of its best-ever photography. And kids everywhere turned away from their paths toward delinquency.

Death & Baseball Cards

The year was 1964. I was six years old.

The black baseball card in my hands contained the haunting image of a somber fellow wearing a Cubs batting helmet.

hubbsfront“In Memoriam — Ken Hubbs”.

He looked so sad. All the other baseball cards I’d seen were bright and colorful, with the players gaily swinging bats, smiling at their good fortune. I turned the Hubbs card over and learned “the private plane he was piloting went down in a snowstorm near Provo, Utah”. I would later learn that Ken Hubbs was deemed a special player: 1962 Rookie of the Year, and the first ROY to win a gold glove. Set a fielding record the same year: 78 consecutive games and 418 chances without making an error. He played in the Little League World Series as a kid, was recruited to play quarterback for Notre Dame and UCLA to shoot hoops for John Wooden. If there ever was an All-American boy, Hubbs fits the profile. He even died trying to conquer his greatest fear.

hubbsbackFor many of us card junkies, we recall the day we held that black shroud in our hands and felt a small hunk of our innocence ripped away. The real world had intruded into the special place where I’d always felt safe, and, for the first time in my young life, felt vulnerable (I was too young to grasp the enormity of the events of November 22, 1963).

And there was more death on the way.

The Houston Colt .45s had a seductive name and logo, even if they weren’t very good. There was something different about the back of the card of one of their pitchers, Jim Umbricht. It said he was 6’4”, 215 pounds and 389-jim-umbrichtwas “one of the NL’s top relievers in ’63…”. The card also contained an epilogue I’d not seen on any other cards, settling under his stats, where lively cartoons usually appeared if you scratched the surface with a coin:

“Jim Umbricht passed away on Wednesday, April 8, 1964.”

What?! Another player died in the same year? Is this some kind of epidemic?

389-jim-umbricht-backThen came the questions that had no answers: why did he die? How did he die? The card didn’t say (Hubbs died 2/13/64, giving time to make the special card). That was more unsettling, not knowing what took the life of one of the NL’s top relievers. In adulthood, I would learn Umbricht was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in his right leg in March of 1963. His comeback from surgery made national headlines and he had arguably his best season pitching in agonizing pain. Dead at age 33, his ashes were spread over the construction site of the Astrodome.(1)

If my technicolor baseball gods were not impervious to the rigors of life on earth, what chance did the rest of us have? Some spend a lifetime looking for such answers.

One of the problems with mythologizing athletes who die young is getting at the truth about that person: who were they, what did they mean to their friends, family and community, and, most importantly to me, what kind of a person were they?

59-174frI decided to spend some time getting to know Ken Hubbs further. I contacted the Ken Hubbs Foundation in Hemet, CA, and spoke with it’s leader, Ron Doty. The Foundation’s mission is to honor athletes selected from high schools in the area, selecting boys and girls “who display not only outstanding athletic abilities on the field of plays, but also achievements in the classroom, community, in leadership and in community service.” I ordered a DVD of the mini-documentary made about Ken during his playing days, “A Glimpse of Greatness”. It lionized Hubbs further, but it shared perspectives of him growing up in the town of Colton as someone who was a leader and roundly admired. Ron told me of the annual ceremony and invited me to attend, which I plan to do as one of the stories for my new baseball documentary series.

I did more reading on updates of the Hubbs story. The guy was like a cross between a saint and Knute Rockne. Didn’t drink or smoke, had to be dragged off not just playing fields, but PRACTICE fields in his never-ending quest for perfection (Alan Iverson, take note). He was a legend unnamedbefore he became pro, with stories of him hitting a half-court shot to end the first half over a rival high school team AND nailing a buzzer-beating jumper to send the game into OT, eventually leading his Colton squad to victory. Another high school story has him breaking his foot before a big football game, stuffing the casted foot into a size 14-shoe and playing the entire game. (2) If I didn’t know better, Ken Hubbs crawled out of a John R. Tunis story.

But there is something about his death that gnaws. Was it the irony of his search for conquering his fear that led to his demise? After taking flying lessons, Hubbs fell in love with it and bought a Cessna 172. Brother Keith recalls watching his Ken make touch-and-go landings in 1963, with his father asking him to talk Hubbs out of flying. He was supposed to fly with Ken and a friend to Provo to play in a charity basketball game, but his schedule changed. The morning of his death, a storm moved in that Hubbs thought he could outrace. It was less than ten degrees and the visibility was terrible when he took off. Hubbs tried to turn back to the airport shortly after taking off, but the die had been cast. He had only 71 hours of flying experience and wasn’t qualified to fly by instruments and lost his bearing. The plane went into a death spiral, crashing into a Utah lake, leaving a ten-foot crater. It took divers two days to recover the bodies. (2)

Right about now is when one starts to hear refrains of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”…”does anyone know where the love of God goes when…”

Hall of Famer Ron Santo was so unsettled by Hubbs’ passing, he had to see a priest. Ken’s brother, Keith, had recurring nightmares so bad he didn’t want to shut his eyes. He had one final dream that snapped him out of it. In that dream, Ken told him, “I want you to stop worrying about me. It was quick and there was no pain. And I’m happy where I’m at.”(2)

Cessnas in the air mingling with snowflakes. A cancer victim blazing a final path of glory. Both spirits refusing to go gently into that dark night. Maybe that is the lessons of the Ken Hubbs’s and Jim Umbrichts’s: play hard, fight through the challenges and maybe then, and only then, we’ll be happy where we’re at.

 

Footnotes:

1 – “Jim Umbricht” – SABR bio project, by Thomas Ayers.

2 – “Fifty Years later, memories of Ken Hubbs still glowing”, 2/13/14 foxsports.com

 

Collecting Goals for 2016

One year ago, as 2015 was approaching 2016, I was having a conversation on Twitter with some fellow collectors about our collecting goals for 2016. I had not made goals in previous years nor had I made any for the upcoming year. As a disciple of the Yoda-like collecting legend Eric, also known as @ThoseBackPages on Twitter, I have been trained in the ways of #FOCUS and buy the card not the holder so a list of goals was an idea I liked very much.

Following that conversation I scribbled six goals on a sticky note and stuck it on my above my computer screen where I could see it each day. The goals I set for 2016 are as follows.

  1. Acquire a 1967 Topps Brooks Robinson #600 graded in a PSA 7 NM.
  2. Acquire a 1966 Topps Jim Palmer #126, his rookie card.
  3. Reach 65% completion of my signed 1959 Topps set.
  4. Reach 70% completion of my signed 1981 Fleer set.
  5. Reach 55% completion of my signed 1984 Topps and Topps Traded sets.
  6. Reach 50% completion of my low grade 1934 Goudey set.

fullsizerender-5The first goal I was able to complete was the Palmer RC, I picked up a nice example of this card graded PSA 5.5 EX+ in early February. It is an excellent example of buying the card not the grade as the eye appeal is that of a much higher graded card at a much lower price.

The second, third and fifth goals completed were done rather easily as I underestimated the value of the Twitter collecting community in tracking down the people who have some of the tougher signed cards to find available. I reached 65% on the 1959 Topps set in early April with the purchase of signed Billy Consolo and Alex Kellner cards. Nearly two months later I crossed the 55% pole of the 1984 Topps sets with the addition of Gerald Perry and Ron Reed. The 1981 Fleer goal was reached sometime in August, and for the life of me I can’t find the details of which card pushed me over. Looking back as a whole these three goals were undershot by a significant amount as currently stand at roughly 72%, 81%, and 68% in ascending chronological order.

img_4796The fourth and from my view most difficult goal to reach was the 1967 Brooks Robinson in the PSA 7 grade. The card itself is both a high number and short print, and it is also prone to being off-center. Being a tougher card to find in excellent condition, I found it difficult to find one at a price I could live with. Finally after being snipped in several auctions I got a hold of the 67 Robinson in late July.

The often neglected and last completed goal was to reach the 50% mark of my low grade 1934 Goudey set. I completed this goal in late September with a flurry of eBay purchases from a seller I found who did not overvalue these well-loved cards solely because of their age.

Looking back on this journey I feel that it helped me focus and to keep from splurging on cards that didn’t necessarily fit my collections. I have a few goals already in mind for 2017 number one being a 1957 Brooks Robinson rookie card graded PSA 7.

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