The Whites of Their Eyes

Topps changed the face of baseball card collecting in the early 1950s and became the standard bearer for the hobby.  By the early 1960s, they had expanded the size of the “base set” to more than 500 cards to include nearly all the players, and not just the stars. 

Before the proliferation of baseball magazines in the later 1970s, cable television in the 1980s, and the internet explosion in the 1990s, these cards became the primary window for a young fan falling in love with the game to tie a player’s name to a recognizable face, and maybe even get a glimpse into their personality.

The reason it worked so well was in large part due the photography style.  The photos looked so personal, so intimate, as though they were taken for your own family album.  Each spring into summer, you got a fresh take (or maybe two or three, for stars and league leaders) on what a player looked like, adding dimension to your perception of that player.  With time you got to see a player mature, from baby-faced rookie all the way to aging veteran.

My interest in cards was resurrected in 1985 as a re-capturing of my baseball fandom youth as it has done with countless others.  For a whole new generation of players, even unrecognizable ones, I was provided with a recognizable face.  I jumped back into the hobby with great enthusiasm. Four years earlier, Fleer and Donruss had broken up the Topps stranglehold, which ultimately led to a flood of manufacturer and set options that would follow for more than two decades. But I remained loyal to the Topps base set as the stable rock of the hobby, with its rich history and continuity.

Within a few years, something changed in the nature of the Topps base set, the cornerstone of the hobby.  For many of the players, the intimate photo where I could see into a player’s eyes (and his soul?) was replaced by a photo of him turning a double play, or straining to throw a fastball.  These “in game action” photos actually appeared on some cards as far back as the early 1970s, but they were the rare exception.  During the 1980s they became commonplace.  By the early 1990s they became the rule.  In 2020, they’re essentially all you get in the Topps base set.

I did a little research to gain some insight into this evolution.  I turned to my Red Sox card collection to get a sample of cards over several decades and classified the photos into a five different categories based on photo style:

Game Action:  As described above, a photo taken during an actual game, usually with the player in motion swinging, pitching, fielding, etc., most often from a distance where the player’s entire body is in the photo

Candid Portrait:  A photo of a player from the shoulders up that is not taken during a formal photo shoot, often taken when the player is in the dugout or on the field outside of actual game action.

Candid Action:  A photo of a player “doing something”, but not in-game action.  Maybe swinging a warmup bat or playing long toss.  The photo is usually taken close enough to see expression in the player’s face.

Posed Portrait:  A photo in the style of what you’d see in a high school yearbook, usually from the shoulders up, or just a “head shot”.  You get the sense the player knows he’s being photographed, even if he’s not looking into the camera.

Posed Action:  A posed photo of player “pretending” to be in action, in a batting stance, mid-swing, winding up to pitch, in a fielding stance, etc.  The player knows his picture is being taken.  It’s usually taken from close enough to see the player’s expression.

My collection starts in 1965, so I used a sample that ran from then until 1999.  Binning it into five-year chunks, the distribution of cards falling into each of the five categories yields the distribution shown below. Even with this relatively small and not-so-random sample, the trend from posed shots to in-game action shots is unmistakable.

I realize many people like action cards.  I understand it’s a matter of taste.  Me?  I get to see action when I watch the games.   When it comes to cards, I’m looking for the personal charm.

Take another look at the three Don Sutton cards above, from 1967, to 1976, to 1985.  You can see an actual person there.  Now let’s take a look back to see how David Ortiz changed over a 10-year span of his illustrious career:

Ugh. David Ortiz is a beloved local hero in Red Sox Nation and loaded with charm. You certainly can’t see it here.

I often hear the retort that Topps provides all this in their Heritage and Archives products.  For that, we’ll need a whole other discussion.  For now, please Topps, put these classic photo styles back in your signature base set, so that the cards won’t get thrown away as mere nuisances in the lottery chase for rare inserts. Bring the base set back to its rightful prominence.  It’s even okay if you include some action cards to keep everybody happy.

If They Can Make it There

I am currently curating an exhibition at Queens College, in Flushing, which will be on display throughout February and March. While I don’t yet have a title for my little experiment (the show marks the first time I have ever done such a thing), the theme of the event centers on the history of baseball in New York City, from its inception to the present day, told through art and artifacts. I am indebted to a number of individuals who are either loaning me pieces from their private collections, or are submitting original work to help me craft the story I am trying to tell.

The gorgeous artwork of Jesse Loving at Ars Longa

Of course, baseball cards are a part of the event. I have long known that I wanted Jesse Loving, creator of the beautiful Ars Longa cards, to be a part of this. Although he had gone on a bit of a hiatus, he kindly agreed to fire up the engines again and is providing me with roughly 80 cards that cover the game in the Big Apple from William Wheaton and Doc Adams, to Rube Marquard and Casey Stengel, a span of roughly eighty years. I am giddy at the idea of creating a wall of his lush, vibrant images, and eagerly await the arrival of the package.

With one or two exceptions, I was intending for Jesse’s work to be the only cards in the show. There are lots of ways to tell the history of the game that have nothing to do with our favorite hobby and I wanted the beautiful creations of Ars Longa to exist in a vacuum. Then, I learned last week that one of the individuals who was contributing some truly exciting pieces from the 19th Century had decided to withdraw from the exhibition. I had to come up with something to fill the holes on the walls of the gallery left by his exit.

I am not a fine artist, nor do I have a particularly extensive collection of artifacts and memorabilia laying about. So, what to do? While the pieces I lost were from the 19th Century, I actually have some of Jesse’s cards, as well as uniforms and equipment loaned to me by Eric Miklich, that are already assisting me in telling that part of the story. I also have quite a few items that represent the Golden Age of baseball in New York, the halcyon days of Willie, Mickey, and the Duke. What the show was really lacking was a nod to the more modern incarnation of the game. The best way for me to benefit my show, and fill the unexpected void, was to focus on that gap.

That’s when it struck me that, while I don’t really have a lot of personal memorabilia at hand, there was a way I could tackle my problem at very little expense. Any exhibit on the history of New York City, (especially one taking place in the most ethnically diverse borough, on a campus that hears over 110 languages spoken every single day) needs to explore the beautiful multiculturalism that makes this City what it is. That was when I came up with my plan, a work I am calling, “If They Can Make it There.”

In the long history of professional baseball, there have been men who were born in over fifty countries besides the United States that have made the incredible and unlikely journey to the Major Leagues. While the Dominican Republic and Venezuela have provided an outsized portion of these ballplayers, countries as far-flung as Belize, the Czech Republic and Australia have also chipped in. Many of those foreign-born athletes got their professional starts in New York City. In fact, twenty-one different countries, not counting the U.S. and its territories, have generated players who made their Major League debut with the Yankees or the Mets. My plan to fill in my unexpected vacancy is to honor these men, and what better way to do it than through the beauty of baseball cards.

I am putting together a collection of these itinerant dreamers which will feature each of them in the uniform of either the Yankees or the Mets. Why just those teams and not also the Giants, Dodgers, and the multiple early squads? Two reasons. The first I already mentioned. The goal was to try and examine the impact of the game in the present day. By focusing on just the Yankees and Mets, it reinforces that point by design. The other reason is economics. Now, I can complete this set, mostly, with inexpensive cards from the last thirty or forty years.

Beyond the player appearing in a New York uniform, I decided to lay down a few other guidelines to make this creation have a little more form, and not just be a random mishmash of cards thrown up on the wall. First of all, no reprints. While the exhibition will feature some reproductions (uniforms, mostly), I have been trying to limit their influence all along. No need to further water down this project by including “fake” versions of the cards. Besides, very few of the cards I needed were particularly valuable, so why resort to knock-offs? I also wanted, if at all possible, for the card to have been issued at the time the player was employed by that team.

Jim Cockman’s .105 average may explain why the 1905 season was his lone chance at the big leagues.

This is not always feasible. A number of players who fit this criteria, including cups of coffee like Jim Cockman (born in Canada) and Harry Kingman (China), both of whom made brief appearances with the Yankees years before Jacob Ruppert signed Babe Ruth, never had any card issued, nonetheless one of them wearing the proper uniform. There are even holes for more durable players from recent years, like Stan Javier (Dominican Republic), who enjoyed a seventeen-year career that ended in 2001. During his first big league season, in 1984, he appeared in seven early-season games for the Yankees before being shipped back to Nashville and Columbus for more seasoning. He would later appear on the roster of seven other major league teams, but he never played another game for the Yankees. The Trading Card Database claims he has 289 cards out there, but none of them were issued in 1984 or ’85 featuring Javier in pinstripes.

There are missing pieces of the puzzle for the Mets, too. Utility man José Moreno (Dominican Republic) and shortstop Brian Ostrosser (Canada) never got a card of themselves in blue and orange, at least not while actively playing for the team. I have decided that in their cases, as well as that of Javier, to bend the rules and use one of the cards that came with the sets issued by the NYC-based appliance retailer, The Wiz, in the early nineties. While most of the hundreds who appear in this ubiquitous set were no longer active members of the roster at the time the cards were issued, at least they are dressed properly. I am also considering getting an Aceo Art card of Frank Estrada (Mexico), whose two lifetime plate appearances were insufficient to ever make Topps take notice.

The sets issued by The Wiz were originally released in 15-card sheets.

Most of the collection, though, will be the real deal. There are cards from almost all of the big name publishers of the modern era, including Topps, Bowman, Fleer and Donruss. There will be plenty of Junk Era wax, as well as the slick chromes that have come to represent the current state of the industry. The bulk of the exhibit will include roughly 130 cards (purchased via COMC or already in my collection) that cost me a combined total of $45.76. Most exciting to me, however, is that there will be a small handful of pre-war cards thrown in there, too. I decided to reward my clever thriftiness by investing in some slightly pricier goodies.

Arndt Jorgens played for the Yankees his entire career, serving as Bill Dickey’s backup.

I’ve already picked up a 1934 Goudey Arndt Jorgens (Norway), a 1934-36 Diamond Stars George Selkirk (Canada), and a 1911 T205 Jimmy Austin (United Kingdom). I also have my eye on two T206s, a Jack Quinn (Slovakia) and a Russ Ford (Canada). Assuming the Ebay gods favor me and I get the latter two, they will represent the first cards I’ve owned from that hobby-defining set. These bits of old paper not only give the exhibit a little more gravitas as a whole, but when it’s all over I will have some gems to add to my personal collection.

The exhibit also gives me a chance to show off a little bit of my beloved collection of Cubans who made the leap to the majors. There have been eight Cubans who began their major league career as Yankees, most recently Amauri Sanit in 2011. The Mets have birthed the careers of four citizens of the forbidden island, the most notable of which was Rey Ordoñez. While Ordoñez was famously weak at the plate, rarely hitting more than a single home run in a season, he was a defensive mastermind at shortstop in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, when the Amazin’s had one of the most exciting infields in baseball history. His partner in the middle of the diamond, Edgardo Alfonzo (Venezuela), will also be featured.

The players mentioned here really are just the tip of the iceberg. The exhibit will also include some of the brightest stars of today, including Gleyber Torres (Venezuela) and Miguel Andujar (Dominican Republic). Ron Gardenhire (Germany) makes an appearance, as do the Mastuis (Japan), Hideki and the less-successful Kazuo. There is even one Hall of Famer who is featured, buried in the dozens of other more obscure names. The quickest among you will figure out who that is almost instantly. The rest of you, well, I guess you’ll just have to stop by the college and find out. My currently unnamed exhibition opens February 18. I hope to see you there.

My Favorite Common – A Fam-A-Lee Connection

The recent posts about Favorite Commons sparked my interest in contributing to this blog.

My favorite common is just about any card of Steve Nicosia in a Pirates uniform.

1980 Topps – Number 519

However, if I had to pick just one it would be his 1982 Fleer card pictured below.

1982 Fleer – Number 488

In this Spring Training shot, the photographer pressed the shutter button at just the right time to capture Steve blowing a bubble that covers the lower half of his face. Steve is also wearing the – I luv em – you hate em – black and yellow uniforms complete with the Pill Box ball cap.

In the 1973 amateur draft, Pittsburgh selected Steve in the first round and he went straight from North Miami Beach High School to A ball with the Charleston Pirates.

1979 was Steve’s official rookie year and he was a key member of the World Champs batting .288 primarily against left-handed pitchers in 70 regular season games while sharing the starting catcher duties with Ed Ott.

Steve started 4 games in the 1979 World Series. He was only 1 for 16 at the plate but made some key defensive plays and was masterful at calling pitches in Game 5. He was behind the plate for the last out of Game 7 and can be seen at the end of the game throwing some hay makers at a fan who tried to steal his face mask.

During his additional time with the Pirates (1980 -August of 1983) he platooned with Ott and then was a backup to Tony Pena who was brought up in 1981.

He was traded to the Giants late in the season in 1983 and played another year in San Francisco before finishing his career with the Expos and then the Blue Jays in 1985.

Being a diehard Pirates fan, a card of Steve in another uniform just doesn’t look right to me.

1985 Topps Traded – Number 87T

A Fam-A-Lee Connection

During Steve’s time at North Miami Beach High School my uncle was his baseball coach (my uncle was also a biology teacher). It was a nugget of information that stuck in my head from a conversation over a few beers with my uncle back in the late 1970’s.

In 2009 I was spectator at the Pirates Fantasy Camp in Bradenton, Florida and noticed that Steve was one of the alumni Pirates who was coaching and playing against the campers. I waited for the right moment and leaned over the fence and told him that my uncle, Sam Viviano, was his baseball coach in high school. He immediately smiled and asked me how my uncle was doing. He mentioned that he had not spoken to him in a long time. I told him that I would be back to tomorrow and put him in touch with my uncle on a cell phone call.

I arrived early the next day and got my uncle on the phone first and then called out to Steve. He came over and I handed the cell phone to him and told him my uncle was on the line. Steve shouted, “Coach Viv” and then proceeded to walk around the field for the next 20 minutes smiling as he conversed with my uncle.

I called my uncle back after the call and he told me how great it was to catch up with Steve and how surprised he was that I remembered that he coached Steve in high school.

Steve Nicosia owned Hall of Fame pitcher Steve Carlton hitting .339 against him in 60 at bats. My uncle was Steve Carlton’s biology teacher in high school (my uncle was not the baseball coach at the time).

Topps 1973 – Number 300

One and done

While recently looking through my 1975 Topps binder, I was drawn to an “uncommon” common- the one and only Topps card of Bruce Ellingsen. His cherubic face and pompadour do not match the prevailing 1970s style of long, unkept hair, mutton chop sideburns and mustaches-though his sideburns are creeping down. Intrigued by the photo, I was compelled to find out more about Bruce and this ultimate common.

The photo was only three years old when the card was issued.  In November of 1971, the Angels plucked Bruce from the Dodgers in the Rule 5 draft.  Based on the red and navy jersey piping, he is with the Angels when the photo was taken.  In April of 1972, California returned Bruce to the Dodgers-which is required by Rule 5 if the player doesn’t make the major league roster.  So, the photo had to be taken in the spring of 1972.

Topps had at least one photo of Ellingsen on the Dodgers in case he ever made his LA debut.  

The Dodgers selected Ellingsen in the 1967 amateur draft in the 63rd round.  Though he put up some descent numbers, he was apparently blocked by the Dodgers quality, big league staff.  After the Angels sent him back to the Dodgers, he toiled for two more years in AAA Albuquerque.  For some reason, Bruce did make it to Dodger Stadium and suited up, since there is photographic evidence.  Perhaps, it was the annual exhibition series with the Angels.

Bruce’s big break come prior to the 1974 season when the Dodgers shipped him to Cleveland for a raw, untested minor leaguer named Pedro Guerrero.  Yes, this is the same Pedro Guerrero who will become an All-Star.

Ellingsen didn’t make the Indians roster out of spring training, so it was back to AAA-this time with the Oklahoma City Eighty-Niners.  However, the Tribe made his big-league dream come true with a July call up.  Bruce proceeded to post a 1-1 record in 16 games.  He was with the Cleveland long enough to get a team issued postcard.

Anticipating a possible long term stay at the “mistake by the lake,” Topps issues Ellingsen’s only card in 1975.  Alas, he never saw a big-league mound in 1975 or ever again.  Bruce returned to Oklahoma City for two seasons, retiring after the 1976 season in which he went 4-12 with a 6.43 ERA.

If Bruce had stuck with Cleveland beyond 1975, Topps had a photo ready to go for 1976-as this custom card clearly shows.

I discovered a few other things about Mr. Ellingsen.  First, his nickname was “Little Pod,” though I’m not sure why.  Too bad someone didn’t nickname him Duke, when he played for the Albuquerque Dukes.  “Duke Ellingsen” would have been a real “jazzy” nickname. Also, Bruce played winter ball for Hermosillo in the Mexican Pacific League-where he wore the cool jacket in this photo. 

Bruce Ellingsen’s card is the epitome of a common.  Yet, there is something satisfying about knowing that his dream of playing baseball came true, and he has a card to prove it.

My Favorite Common

On the heels of Nick’s suggestion, I thought I’d take a stab as well. If you’re one of the blog’s more avid readers you may recall I’ve already done two pieces on “Uncommon Commons,” the first on Ohtanian Texas League pioneer Dave Hoskins and the second on football player-artist Ernie Barnes. At present my cards of Hoskins reign supreme over the tens of thousands of commons in my collection, so much so that they get their own shelf in my memorabilia room.

Neither Hoskins nor Barnes will be the subject of this post, however. More in line with the spirit of the “Favorite Common” series, I’ll highlight a favorite common or two from my formative years as a collector, long before I had ever heard the names Dave Hoskins and Ernie Barnes.

Having come of age as a collector and fan in late-1970s Los Angeles, I went to bed each night with the transistor radio glued to my ear, faithfully tuned to the play calling and commentary of Vin Scully, Ross Porter, and Jerry Doggett on KABC 790. You’d be forgiven for not noticing from the outside, but inside Dodgerland there was a great chase afoot as dramatic and legacy defining as Mantle, Maris, or Aaron’s pursuit of Ruth.

The great Manuel Rafael Mota Geronimo (SABR bi0), whose full name was sometimes used by Scully out of reverence, was on the verge of becoming baseball’s all-time Pinch-Hit King! With every plate appearance came the question of whether he’d pull one hit closer to the immortal (or at least centuries old sounding) Smoky Burgess.

Many fans today know Scully’s famous call of Kirk Gibson’s pinch-hit home run in the 1988 World Series. From my memory, perhaps faulty but not wholly unreliable, that radio call was every Manny Mota at-bat in the year of our Lord 1979 as well as half the times Manny could have come up and didn’t.

So yes, your VCPs, Standard Catalogs, and Beckett Monthlies might regard Mr. Mota as a common, but I am here to correct the record. In Greek mythology some gods assumed common form, but this was 1979 Los Angeles, not 2000 B.C. Athens, and Mr. Mota’s assault on immortality made his 1978 and 1979 Topps cards anything but common in my collection.

Mota had entered the 1979 season with 132 pinch hits, a dozen short of the record. With roughly six months of baseball to play, barring whatever type of injuries befell pinch-hitters, Manny would need to average two hits per month to tie Burgess and of course just a hair over that to claim the crown for his own. Sure Ty Cobb once banged out 67 hits in a single month, but old Ty had the advantage of everyday play and competed against inferior talent. Let’s call it a wash, shall we?

Sure enough, Manny Mota began the season on perfect pace to match Burgess. Two hits in April followed by two hits in May. One one occasion each month, Mota drew a dreaded base on balls, the record chasing equivalent of a prom date with your cousin. Forgive us for we did not yet know walks would someday be hallowed above even RBIs among baseball savants, meaning at the time that the only response our amygdalas could produce was, “Pitch to the man, you bum!”

I don’t normally use this blog to shame anyone, but here are the bums in question. A pox on both your houses, Frank Riccelli and Mike Tomlin!

With two months of the season in the books, Mota’s average was a “Peachy” .364, but then came his dreaded June swoon and a slowing of Manny’s assault on Burgess. Only one hit in five at-bats prompted the question: Like Aaron in ’73, would Mota fall just short of the mark and be forced to carry its full burden into the off-season?

As it turns out, not a chance! Channeling Kobe’s final game, it seemed every time a Dodger hitter stepped to the plate in July it was Mota. I remember his plate appearances that month as 100 though the record books now tell me they numbered a mere dozen. Perhaps I’m counting all the times Scully wondered aloud whether Mota might be making his way to the bat rack.

“And look who’s coming up…”

Still, 12 at bats for a pinch-hitter is like a million for anyone else. Mota made the most of his trips to the plate, connecting for four hits and closing out the month with 141 pinch-hits. With two full months remaining, there was little doubt Mota would soon claim the crown.

Hinting at the role Fate had played in his career, Number 11 came to the plate 11 times in August. His first four times up resulted in three singles against only one out. He was now batting .375 on the season. More importantly, his career total for pinch-hits was now 144. The man was Ty Cobb meets Tie Burgess.

As was the way in ancient Sparta, there were now two kings. This we expected. What we didn’t expect was that the diarchy would drag on as long as it did.

As hot as August began, a rash of cool summer nights followed:

  • August 9: ground out
  • August 12: ground out
  • August 16: sacrifice bunt
  • August 20: ground ball double play
  • August 24: line out
  • August 25: fly out
  • August 28: strikeout

The wear of the season had caught up with Mota. While everyday hitters could match Manny’s hitless streak and barely blink an eye, they also cycle through seven plate appearances every two games. For Mota, the drought represented a full one eighth of the baseball season, which is quite an o-fer for a .375 hitter!

The Dodgers gave Mota the rest of the month off and didn’t call his number again until the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, at home against the Cubs. Leading off the bottom of the eighth inning on September 2, 1979, Manny Mota replaced Ken Brett in the Dodger lineup. On the mound for the visiting Cubs was card-in-every-pack northpaw Lynn McGlothen, who held a 1-2 count on Mota.

On the next pitch…history was made, or in the immortal words of Topps, “Basehit to Rightfield Does It!”

The king is dead. Long live the king! Let the history books (or at least the SABR Baseball Cards blog) show that this common was no common common but a common who one day ruled them all.

Epilogue

A couple years back I was staying with a friend in the Bay Area, and he brought out his old baseball cards. Seeing my reaction to his 1970 Manny Mota card, he was kind enough to give it to me. The front featured a beautiful image of Mota waiting his turn at bat, ready to deliver his trademark single to right. His gaze seemed affixed beyond the mound or batter’s box, almost heavenward, as if to let the baseball gods know, “Yeah, I got this.”

Flip the card over, however, and I’m actually thankful that I didn’t have it back in 1979.

“Considered by many to be the best #4 outfielder in the NL, Manny proved his value to the Dodgers in 1969 with timely hitting.”

As a kid who listened to Vin Scully more than his own parents and teachers, I saw Mota as a superstar. It had never once crossed my mind that Mota might have simply been the fourth best outfielder for a lot longer than most players, many of whom eventually became the third, second, or even first best. I was cheering a prize for bench warmers all those games, all the while thinking I was witnessing the toppling of the Bambino.

Who was Manny Mota then? Was he an immortal carving out his own slice of baseball’s record book or was he a glorified bench warmer? I prefer to remember him as the former, not just because it’s how I experienced him at the time but because such a portrait inspires me in my own life.

In so many parts of life, we are not the stars, the best, or even in the top three. We are the helpers, the ones who wait their turns, and the ones who much rejoice in small victories. We fail more than we succeed, and we don’t always know when our next opportunity will come, if at all.

We aren’t Hank Aaron or Mike Trout (unless one of them is reading this column…HOLY SMOKES!!!), and nobody will ever collect our baseball cards. Still from our benches there are glories and gratitude as we aspire humbly not to be heroes to millions but on a good day, to those around us, a Favorite Common.

Author’s note: Manny Mota fans and baseball fans in general might enjoy W.P. Kinsella’s short story, “The Night Manny Mota Tied the Record.” It’s in “The Essential W.P. Kinsella,” among other places.

The Twelve Cards of Christmas

With the festive frivolity of the holiday season upon us, I bring you a post even more frivolous than my usual lightweight offerings.  Before reading, I suggest adding a pint of rum to the eggnog-which will ensure that you forget that this blog is connected to an august body like SABR.  So, toss on another yule (Blackwell) log on the fire, grab a plate of cookies (Rojas and Lavagetto) and contemplate this ancient carol (Clay) within your decked-out halls (Jimmy and Tom).

A Partridge in a Pear Tree:  Jay Partridge was the starting second baseman for Brooklyn in 1927.  I could not locate a card from the time, but an auction site did have a small newsprint photo described as a panel.  Fortunately, Mr. Partridge has a card in the 1990 Target Dodgers set.  If you insist on a card issued while the player was active, this 1977 TCMA of Glenn Partridge falls into that “family.”

Apparently, no players with the surname Pear or Tree ever appeared in a professional game.  But Matt Pare shows up on the 2017 San Jose Giants.  I had to go the minor league route as well to find a “tree.”  Mitch Trees was a catcher for the Billings Mustangs in 2017.

Two Turtle Doves:  Spokane Indians assistant coach “Turtle” Thomas has a 2017 card, but I’m going with 1909-11 T206 “Scoops” Carry of the Memphis Turtles.  As for Doves, Dennis Dove has several prospect cards, including this 2003 Upper Deck Prospect Premiere. However, this 1909-11 American Caramel card of “Buster” Brown on the Boston Doves wins out.  After all, Buster lived in a shoe, and his dog Tike lived in there too.

Three French Hens: For this one, I must go with Jeff Katz’s acquaintance Jim French. The diminutive backstop toiled for the Senators and Rangers. Dave “Hendu” Henderson was the best hen option, outside of any Toledo Mud Hen.

Four Calling Birds:  This 1982 Larry Fritsch card of Keith Call on the Madison Muskies certainly “answers the call” for this word.  Although, Callix Crabbe is in contention based solely on the awesomeness of his name.  For the bird, I heard the call of the “royal parrotfinch” and went with longtime Royals pitcher Doug Bird.

Five Golden Rings:  It would be a cardinal sin if I didn’t go with the Cardinals’ Roy Golden on this 1912 T-207 “brown background” card. Phillies pitcher, Jimmy Ring, gets the nod with this 1921 National Carmel issue. 

Six Geese a Laying:  Since Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat, Rich Gossage would have been a logical choice.  But I can’t pass up making Seattle Pilot Greg Goossen my fowl choice.  His 1970 card is so amazing that all I can do is “gander” at it. This 2019 card of Jose Layer on the Augusta Greenjackets is the best fit that I could lay my hands on.

Seven Swans a Swimming: After answering a personal ad in a weekly newspaper, I met my future wife for a drink at the Mirabeau Room atop the SeaFirst Building in Seattle on June 9, 1990.  That evening, Russ Swan of the Mariners carried a no-hitter into the 8th inning against Detroit.  Viewing this mound mastery sealed our lifelong bond, for which the “swan song” is yet to be sung.

I must “take a dive” into the Classic Best 1991 minor league set to find someone who fits “swimmingly.” I ended up somewhere near Salinas and found the Spurs’ Greg Swim.

Eight Maids a Milking: Since no Maids are found on “Baseball Reference” and the players named Maiden don’t have cards, I was “made” to go with Hector Made and his 2004 Bowman Heritage. 

This may qualify as “milking” it, but the best fit I could find was the all-time winningest general manager in Seattle Pilots history, Marvin Milkes.  This DYI card uses a Pilots team issued photo, which shows off the high-quality wood paneling in Marvin’s Sicks’ Stadium office.

Nine Ladies Dancing:  The 1887-90, N172 “Old Judge” card of “Lady” Baldwin and the 1996 Fritsch AAGPBL card of Faye Dancer are a perfect fit.

Ten Lords a Leaping:  This wonderful 1911 T205 Bris Lord card coupled with a 1986 Dave Leeper doesn’t require much of a leap to work.

Eleven Pipers Piping:  Former Negro Leaguer Piper Davis has a beautiful 1953 Mother’s Cookies card on the PCL Oakland Oaks.  In fact, the card is “piping” hot.

Twelve Drummers Drumming:  You can’t get much better than this 1911 Obak T212 card of Drummond Brown on the PCL Vernon Tigers.  Or, you could “bang the drum slowly” with this specialty card of Brian Pearson (Robert De Niro) from the movie “Bang the Drum Slowly.”

I realize that Santa will fill my stocking with coal and “Krampus” will punish me for having written this, but the spirit of the season will endure.  I wish you and all those you hold dear a wonderful holiday season and a prosperous new year.

My Favorite Common, Mor-a-les

My mother used to throw out my cards.

Trite, right? Here’s the twist: I let her. Every year, or maybe more sporadically than that, my mother would ask if I wanted my cards. I told her no. It’s crazy looking back at it.

That all ended for me at the close of 1971. What remained was a small stack, part of that year’s baseball set, and all of my football, basketball and hockey cards. I kept everything from that moment on.

As the ‘70’s wore on, and my local reputation was built on, or ruined by, my penchant for cards, friends would give me their collections as they grew out of them and I remained stuck. My 1971 baseball cards piled up, but, as they were not my originals and cared for as such, condition was a hodgepodge.

Rich Morales, #276 in the set, #1 in my heart, always stuck out as a reminder of the grief I suffered by not keeping my own cards and the joy I incurred by getting everyone else’s.

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What a wreck. If a card has anti-gloss, this is it. You can almost feel the texture by looking at it – rough, grainy, dirty, as if a card had driven over it multiple times. Creases, paper loss, a real PSA -7. The back is less gross, but not very nice.

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When I discovered a few years back that I was pretty close to finishing a 1971 set, I decided to complete it in somewhat consistent condition, somewhere between VG and EX. I got it done and am pretty pleased with it. All of a sudden, this Morales card was less comfortable in its surroundings. With some mixed feeling, I upgraded.

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In the past year I’ve completed my 1968-70 football sets. As I’ve done so, I’ve sold my crappy cards in bulk from those years. Weirdly, there’s a market for poor condition cards.

Those can go. In fact, so can my extra baseball cards of that era, and I’ve moved over 1,000 to a Facebook collector. Rich Morales is safe though. I’ll never get rid of him.

A tale of a fateful set

Recently, a near complete set of 1973 Topps Pin-ups sold at auction for $11,400. Why is this set so rare? Well.. (cue theme music)

Just sit right back and you will read a tale, a tale of a test issue set/ That started from a Brooklyn press, but never would be shipped/ The idea was a mighty bold one. The sales would be great for sure/ Five airbrush artists set to work, for the logos couldn’t show through.  For the logos couldn’t show through/ The sales projections started looking rough and the set was nearly tossed/If not for the employees that kept a few, the set would be lost!  The set would be lost!

One of several “test issue” sets Topps produced over the years, the 1973 Pin-ups are like the 1968 3-D cards in that they were never issued or had a very limited release. The product was designed to be a wrapper for a large, rectangular piece of bubble gum. The collectibles are made of thin wax paper with a label on the outer side (with a small photo of Johnny Bench) and a large photo on the interior.  There are 24 wrappers in the set, each measuring 3-7/16” x 4-5/8.”

The most unique aspect of the set is the lack of cap insignia, jersey lettering and team names.  Vintage collectors know that Topps stopped producing pack inserts in 1972. The change coincided with a new contract with Major League Baseball.  Apparently, MLB wanted more money from Topps if they produced additional products beyond the base cards.  So, Topps devised a “work around” by airbrushing away all visuals that fell under the purview of MLB Properties. 

This technique used in the Pin-ups and Candy Lids foreshadowed the explosion of “logo-less” cards that would crop up in the late 1970s and run through the end of the “junk wax” era.  Of course, Panini still cranks out numerous sets with only Major League Players Association authorization.

Each team has a Pin-up and the set includes 15 Hall-of-Fame players-if Joe Torre is included. The non-HOF players are all stars of the era.

1973 is right in the middle of the “mutton chop” sideburns and mustache era.  There are some definite “badassery” photos.  George “Boomer” Scott, Nate Colbert and Mike “Super Jew” Epstein are prime examples.

The reigning American League MVP, Dick Allen, is his usual cool self.  I have yet to see a bad photo of Mr. Allen.  His “coolness” factor may never be replicated.

The worst image is that of former Seattle Pilot Mike Marshall.  Topps uses the same airbrushed photo as appears on his 1973 base card. The image is from 1967-68 during his Detroit years.  The “awesome” paint job qualifies as a “double-airbrush,” since the airbrushed cap emblem is airbrushed over.

Our esteemed co-chair, Jason Schwartz, will undoubtedly want to empty his bank account to add the Aaron to the collection. (Editor’s note: Barring lottery win, this card is firmly planted on the list of Aaron cards I’ll never own.)

Equally esteemed co-chair, Nick Vossbrink, will gladly cash out his children’s college fund to acquire Willie McCovey.

Likewise, the citizens of Red Sox Nation will spare no expense to land a “Caawl” Yastrzemski.

This is the tale of a set nearly cast away/ No one remembered it for a long, long time/ To find an even rarer set, would be an uphill climb/ No creases, no folds, no gum stains not a single deficiency/ Like the T-206 Honus Wagner, it’s rare as can be.

Succumbing to the Siren’s Song of the Topps Heritage Collection: a 1970 journey

Let’s just say that I was Topps Heritage collection-curious.  Oh, I’ve seen the sets depicting contemporary players in designs from 1969, 1968, and others, looking all sleek and alluring, like a siren’s song calling to me and my debit card.  Shaking my head quickly, I tell myself, no, no — that’s is all a marketing trick, don’t fall for it. Don’t give in.  I knew that once I bought a pack, I wouldn’t be able to stop!

Well, there I was, at the Greenwood Fred Meyers waiting in line to make my purchases, and there they were, off to the right in the racks calling out their familiar song.  Sigh.  Okay, maybe just one.  I can do it.  Just one, and that’s it.  It’ll be fun.  I know other guys are doing it, right?  And hey – look – there are 20 cards.  More value, the package read!  Okay … just one.  Here I go…

The high number plastic pack I opened included 19 cards and a candy lid. Curiously I flipped through the pack, looking at the design, both front and back, checking out the team names, and making notes of the words and drawings on reverse side in blue, white and yellow.  Going through the names and faces now, I was pleased to discover Vladimir Guerrero, Jr (#504); Yasiel Puig (#541); Michael Pineda (#662); and David Freese (#691), among others.  The candy lid (available only at Target, but purchased at Fred Meyer) was Rhys Hoskins (#29 of 30).

Being reasonably satisfied with the purchase and the design of the cards, I turned to my binder of 1970 cards, my handy-dandy copy of “Topps Baseball Cards: The Complete Picture Collection, a 35 Year History: 1951-1985,” and the “Official Baseball Card Price Guide: 1990, Collector’s Edition” to compare designs.

From this point, I stepped a toe onto memory lane and wandered through the 1970 collection.  The Topps book’s 1970 introduction made much to do about the saga of the Seattle Pilots and their heart-breaking move to Milwaukee before the season began.  The complete set itself totaled 720 cards, the first time that the card set exceeded 700, measuring 2 ½ x 3 ½ inches.

The cards themselves are unremarkable.  They feature a blue and yellow printing on white card board with yearly stats, brief bio, and a cartoon on the backside with the front side showing crisp color photos with team name in upper corner, and the player name in script in the lower gray border.

1970 Sparky AndersonI mean unremarkable in that the photos include players in pitching or batting poses, close-ups with caps, without caps, and some with very, very bad airbrushed caps.  I’m looking at you Sparky Anderson (#181); Curt Blefory (#297); Tom Shopay (#363); and Bob Heise (#478), among others.  Poor Fred Norman (#427).  He looks like his LA Dodgers insignia was ironed on his ballcap, with a somewhat noticeable Spokane Indians pictured.1970 Fred Norman

Some of the more interesting cards included the NL and AL Championships (#195 – 202), another first for Topps.  One fun-filled card, was Lowell Palmer (#252) of the Philadelphia Phillies, who was the only one to sporting sunglasses.  In keeping with the true essence of the Topps Heritage collection, Philadelphia Phillies Pat Neshek paid homage to Palmer’s card by wearing sunglasses and sporting the card number 252, as well.

1970 sunglassesTopps has done an outstanding job with these Heritage sets.  I don’t know if I will make another purchase.  Maybe next year, I guess.  Perhaps those 2020 cards will incorporate the 1971 card design.  Those would be interesting to see!  But, then again, I’m hoping to keep my impulse control in check.  These things can be addictive!

Editors’ Note: Jeff Katz has previously written about reaching the exact opposite opinion of 2019 Heritage and Nick Vossbrink has more a more detailed description of how Topps changed the printing between 1970 and 2019.

These Ain’t The First Rodeo Cards

When my first book, The Kansas City A’s and the Wrong Half of the Yankees, came out in 2007, I wasn’t as focused on getting book-related cards as I would be for Split Season 1981. In all fairness, it was easy pickings to find sets from 1981 that I didn’t have – Topps Foldouts, Scratch-offs, Coca-Cola, Stickers, Giant Photo Cards, Drake’s, Squirt, Kellogg’s. (Here’s the post).  Not as easy for the A’s book.

As I often do, I found myself at Baseball Nostalgia in Cooperstown and came across a 1955 Rodeo Meats reprint set, a 1976 issue. Affordable ($4) and filled with guys I had been researching and writing about. The back of the header card explains the originals better than I can:

It’s not that exciting a set, but fun to have:

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The backs are plain and informative:

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But, hold on:

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The originals are in glorious ’50’s color!

The 1955 set, coinciding with the A’s arrival from Philadelphia, has 38 different players with one error – Bobby Shantz’, one spelled “Schantz,” the other “Shantz.” There are players with two backgrounds – Cloyd Boyer (blue and pink), Joe DeMaestri (pea and light greens), Arnie Portocarrero (pink and yellow), Bill Renna (dark and light pinks), Wilmer Shantz (orange and purple. Why couldn’t they get those Shantz brothers done correctly?), Elmer Valo (yellow and purple) and Bill Wilson (yellow and purple). All in all there are 47 cards.

The 1956 set was reduced to 13 cards. The backs are different too. Here’s a 1955 back, featuring a scrapbook offer):

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And 1956:

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If you’re thinking that these are real beauties and that you’d like to pick a few up, beware! They are super pricey. As a result, I’ll settle for my black and whites.

Disappointing, sure, but not as disappointing as being a KC A’s fan and watching them trade all your favorite players to the Yankees, or, worse, parking them until New York called them back.

Intrigued? Read the book.