1977 and the Hirsute Hardball Hero

Nothing captured the zeitgeist of the late 1970s better than the mustache—an exceedingly visible symbol of assertive manliness. No collection of cardboard depicted our hirsute hardball heroes better than the 1977 Topps set.

My first flashes of baseball consciousness were as a kindergartener in 1977. My earliest memory of peeling open a pack of baseball cards occurred that season. It was about this time my dad grew an exemplary handlebar mustache. These mustaches were not so fashionable just a handful of years earlier in baseball, however.

92E93188-F4C5-491C-876C-6624F1E45B8B

In 1917, Athletics catcher Wally Schang caused quite a stir when he announced he would wear a mustache—the only one in the major leagues—because it made him “look more dignified and less like a ballplayer when off the field.” When Philadelphia visited the Yankees at the Polo Grounds on April 9, New York teased Schang mercilessly for daring to sport that “bit of shredded wheat” upon his lip. When Schang hit a go-ahead three-run home run in the top of the ninth, his mustache got the star treatment, “Schang’s mustache quivered defiantly as he dashed toward first base. It twitched noticeably as he turned second, and bristled as he rounded third and followed two runners home…never again will the Yankees be so reckless as to kid a guy with a soup strainer under his proboscis. Never again will they tempt the fates that keep watch over three or four misplaced wild hairs.”

F06F9886-C2A5-458E-AF3B-36E3EAE7B908

Schang eventually shaved the mustache in a show of team unity—his clubmates judged the mustache a jinx. The papers eulogized the whisker loss, but the gesture was of no consequence as the Athletics ended the 1917 campaign in the cellar with a dismal 37-81 record. It would be some nineteen years before another player would boldly sport a mustachio.

Outfielder Stanley Bordagaray showed up at Brooklyn Dodgers spring training in 1936 with a mustache he had grown for a cameo role in a film named The Prisoner of Shark Island. As he entered the April 14 season opener as a seventh-inning defensive replacement, his magnificent mustache conjured an “advertisement for bock beer” and sent “feminine hearts fluttering.”

44FDCF66-42A4-40E2-9AAD-2CB05569E823

Bordagaray shaved the mustache shortly thereafter but was apparently beset with regret. He grew it back, sporting a “second-growth” mustache as he pinch ran in the ninth inning at Ebbets Field on May 22. His status as the only mustachioed player did not last, however. It was still newsworthy when Bordagaray shaved his mustache for good sometime in June—at least in Lincoln, Nebraska.

 

By all accounts, Major League Baseball did not see facial hair on a ballplayer again until Dick Allen in 1970. As a member of the Cardinals, Allen’s mustache was documented in the St. Louis Cardinals Picture Pack and Photocard sets. After his postseason trade to the Dodgers, Allen’s facial hair made its first national appearance in Topps’ 1971 high-number series, with card number 650 depicting a smiling, mustachioed Allen—the only card in the set to feature a bewhiskered player. Perhaps this was not surprising considering prevailing attitudes about baseball and facial hair at the time. That summer, an American Legion team from Orlando chose to forfeit after the tournament director ordered eight of the players to get haircuts or shave.

The 1972 set contained roughly five mustaches, including Reggie Jackson, who is often credited, incorrectly, with bringing the mustache back to baseball. Jackson, however, did inspire Athletics owner Charlie Finley to offer a $300 facial hair bonus to the Oakland players who had grown a mustache by his June 18 “Mustache Day” promotion that season.

7236EA8C-0900-4A6B-B461-7A9EA160D741

As the mustache gained more popular acceptance in baseball, the numbers of players sporting mustaches in Topps baseball card sets began to grow wildly. The 1973 set featured 17 bewhiskered players. There were 87 in 1974 and 144 in 1975. The 1976 and 1977 sets saw 195 and 190 mustachioed players, respectively. There were 232 mustaches in 1978 and the decade ended with a downright shaggy 1979 set that included some 259 mustached ballplayers.

Of all these sets, however, 1977 best captured the essence of mustachio and chronicled the finest pogonotrophy of the decade. Here are the best mustaches of 1977 in the Topps set:

Honorable mention: Wayne Garland, #33; Willie Horton, #660; Dave Tomlin #241.

10. John Lowenstein, Topps #393/O-Pee-Chee #175

After the 1976 season, Lowenstein was traded by Cleveland to the Blue Jays. Before the 1977 season, he was traded back to the Indians. [Despite never having appeared in a regular season game for Toronto, his 1977 O-Pee-Chee card shows him in a Blue Jays uniform.] Even if you squint and look at this card, Lowenstein’s mustache is unmistakably prominent. Not sure this is a requisite yardstick—but it is a good start.

9. Rollie Fingers, Topps #523

9E3AF187-EA28-4CCF-9BE1-EA06B603DFFB

Fingers grew his mustache to cash in on Charlie Finley’s “Mustache Day” bonus offer in 1972 and has sported his trademark handlebar ever since. In his first season with the Padres in 1977, Fingers led the league in games, games finished, and saves. And probably mustache wax.

8. Bill Greif, Topps #112/O-Pee-Chee #243

Bill Greif’s exemplary horseshoe and crap-eating grin belied the challenges of his personal life. As a healthy 27-year-old, Greif left baseball before the Expos broke camp in order to focus on his child’s medical condition. He never appeared for the Expos or any other team in 1977 and a brief comeback attempt in 1978 fizzled at Tidewater.

7. Bill Buckner, Topps #27

E3C78AAA-1400-476B-A376-84F9979E7FA3

Despite being pictured on a Dodgers card, Buckner has been traded to the Cubs in January. Subjectively, this card would have ranked much higher if Billy Buck was shown in a Cubs uniform – he was my first favorite player ever. Regardless, the hypnotic draw of his mustache is enough to render the card’s uncomfortably askew background imperceptible. (Seriously, did you just have to take another look?)

6. Phil Garner, Topps #261/O-Pee-Chee #34

Composition is everything with this card—a profile shot that allows one to fully appreciate Garner’s prodigious whisker depth. Even half of this walrus mustache is enough to demand more. Having been traded to the Pirates before the 1977 season, Garner’s O-Pee-Chee card features an alternate photograph with probably one of the most perfectly lit mustaches ever.

5. George Hendrick, Topps #330/O-Pee-Chee #218

Hendrick is utterly regal while donning a satin warm-up jacket, crisp visor, and horseshoe mustachio. Hendrick posted his career year by bWAR (5.8) in 1977 as a member of the Padres. His O-Pee-Chee cardboard is unusual in that the airbrush artist used the visor as the basis for Hendrick’s Padres “cap,” resulting in an oddly squat crown.

4. Al Hrabosky, Topps #495

43C3FE26-FAD1-4E0C-9B41-6DBE1ADA43E5

Deemed the “Mad Hungarian,” Hrabosky’s demonstrative mound demeanor was only accentuated by his impressive whiskers. Bonus points in this card for the pillbox hat, too. Hrabosky is the only player in Major League history whose last name started with “Hr” to surrender a home run.

3. Ramon Hernandez, Topps #95/1968 Topps #382 

Hernandez appeared in just six games for the 1977 Cubs before he was shipped off to Boston. His time in Chicago is certainly best remembered for his most gentlemanly walrus. [Hernandez looked decidedly different on his 1968 Topps Cubs card.]

2. Dennis Leonard, Topps #75

BB4B8E54-28E1-40D0-8887-F83BF94FEA29

There’s a new sheriff in town. Looking as though he just stepped of the set of a Western soundstage, Leonard led the league with 20 wins in 1977, the first of three times he would win 20 or more. And how could you not love a guy with two first names or two last names or one of each?

1. Luis Tiant, Topps #258

10FFB6FC-F456-4C6C-8499-3CB7F8AA39D4

This is a stunner that has only gotten better with age. Amid his twisty windup, Tiant faced fully away from the batter. As he turned back, batters were mesmerized by his reemerging horseshoe mustache. Tiant is one of only 22 pitchers to amass 2400 strikeouts and post a career ERA of 3.30 or less. (All but Roger Clemens, Max Scherzer, and Sam McDowell from that list are in the Hall of Fame.) Tiant belongs there. Until then, he is a charter member of the Baseball Mustache Hall of Fame and caretaker of the best mustache in the 1977 Topps baseball card set.

Overall, my favorite mustache in 1977 belonged to my dad. But there were some other great ones out there, too.

Notes:

Counting mustaches was a surprisingly hairy task. Topps cards of the 1970s often used photos of dubious quality and odd perspectives that made identifying mustachioed players challenging. Additionally, shadows sometimes created potentially illusory mustaches. Judgment calls were made, especially when no conclusive determination was possible with the assistance of magnification.

For this exercise, only single-player/manager cards were counted. I did not include action cards, leaders, highlights, multiple-player rookie cards, or cards from any other subsets.

I was not able to find any baseball cards of Wally Schang or Frenchy Bordagaray in which they were depicted with a mustache.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com
http://www.retrosheet.org
http://www.tcdb.com
• King, Norm. “Frenchy Bordagaray,” SABR Baseball Biography Project, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/frenchy-bordagaray/, accessed July 14, 2020.
• Wolf, Gregory H. “Bill Greif,” SABR Baseball Biography Project, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/bill-greif/, accessed July 14, 2020.
• Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), March 31, 1917, 17.
• Photo of Schang, Buffalo Courier, May 24, 1917, 10.
• “Schang Wears Mustache, Only One in the Majors,” The Washington Post, May 28, 1917, 6.
• “Induce Schang to Remove Mustache but Team Loses,” Buffalo Evening News, June 21, 1917, 18.
• Hughes, Ed, “Since Bordagaray Intends Sporting a ‘Soup Strainer’!,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 9, 1936, 18.
• McLemore, Henry, “Some Odds and Ends as Dodgers were Taking their First Beating,” The Brooklyn Citizen, April 15, 1936, 6.
• Brietz, Eddie, “Sports Roundup,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, April 15, 1936, 17.
• Photo of Bordagaray, Detroit Free Press, April 19, 1936, 48.
• Diamond Dust, Daily News (New York, New York), May 23, 1936, 240.
• The Lincoln Star (Lincoln, Nebraska) June 19, 1936, 16.
• “In Hair Dispute: A Team Cuts Itself,” The Morning News (Wilmington, Delaware) August 10, 1971, 22.

Who Am I? (And Where Have I Been?)

65ToppsWhoAmIPack

It’s been three months since my last post, or 25 years in pandemic time. There are multiple reasons for that – general ennui, lack of ideas, absence of baseball itself. The truth of it is that my collecting interest is very much alive, but focused on mid-‘60’s football sets.

Sacrilege! Yes, I know, but those sets have short checklists and no real high dollar cards, so they’re easy to complete. Sort of easy. The absence of card shows is a problem right now. I need to go through tables full of commons to get to the finish line.

But all of this interest in getting nice Bobby Bell cards doesn’t mean I’ve avoided baseball cards. It only means I’m still working on sets I’ve already written about.

l1600

Here’s my progress report:

  • I finished my 1963 Bazooka All-Time Greats with a graded Nap Lajoie, eventually to finds its way from COMC to Cooperstown. He will be freed from his plastic prison upon arrival.

Nap-Lajoie

  • I also finished my hand cut 1975 Hostess by snagging a solid Billy Champion. I do need the Doug Rader variation (I’ve got all the other variations) and my Glenn Beckert is actually a hand cut Twinkie version (the remnant of the solid black bar on the back gives it away), but I’m calling this one done.

s-l1600

  • I’m six cards from completing the 1961 Post set (one of each number. I’m not even trying for all the variations).
  • I’m seven away from a complete 1960 Leaf Series 2 set, after a big auction win of 20 cards in VG/VGEX condition. I recently got a pretty nice Jim Bunning (there’s a delicate balance between cost and condition on these), but there are still the biggies left – Sparky Anderson, Cepeda, and Flood.

bun

  • Totally stalled on 1933 Tattoo Orbit. I’m slightly more than halfway through, but I keep losing auctions. I think that shows my heart isn’t completely into it.

All this is by way of a reintroduction of sorts. Yeah, you know me, and I know you, but it’s been awhile and I want you to know I’m still here, still collecting, and with an itch to post again.

You’ll be hearing more from me, so stay tuned.

God Bless Manny Sanguillen!

When I first started collecting autographs back in the 1960’s I had ballplayers sign pictures or pieces of paper. In those days it was quite common for ballplayers to add “Best Wishes” to their autograph without any prompting.

More recently I have had ballplayers add a number of interesting things along-side of their signatures, again with no prompting.

Dock Ellis added the date of his LSD no-hitter on the sweet spot of a baseball under his signature.

Steve Lyons added his nickname “Psycho” under his signature on a bat with autographs of other members of the 1986 Red Sox team. I do have to admit that I was going to ask him to add his nickname, but I thought he would be offended.

Several ballplayers have added a Bible reference alongside their signatures on baseball cards. Not being a Bible scholar, these always cause me to look up the reference.

Tim Foli card with Bible reference.

But the biggest surprise was when I got my first Manny Sanguillen autograph and he added “God Bless”.

Manny’s career overlapped with Johnny Bench, so he did not get the recognition that he deserves. Manny compiled a .296 lifetime batting average over 13 seasons in the majors. He has two World Series rings and played in three All Star games. He was also involved in one of the most interesting baseball trades of the 1970’s when the Pirates traded Manny in 1977 to the Oakland Athletics for then A’s manager Chuck Tanner. After one year in Oakland Manny was reacquired by the Bucs.

Even now, 40 years after his last at bat in the majors Manny is a fan favorite. He is a goodwill ambassador for the Pittsburgh Pirates appearing at Fantasy Camps, PirateFest, and team signing events. And if you are lucky you can also find him at some ball games holding court at Manny’s BBQ at PNC Park.

Over the last 15 years I have collected six signatures of Manny on baseball cards. He added “God Bless” to 4 of them.

I would be interested in hearing about unprompted additions to autographs on baseball cards from others. If you have an interesting addition, please share it by way of a comment.

Manny if you are reading this post – God Bless!

My Card Collections

All of my collections

I started collecting baseball cards in the late 1970s. The earliest cards I remember having were Brewers from the 1979 Topps set. Unfortunately, though I have obtained them again, I did not hold on to those cards. The card that has been in my possession the longest is a 1980 Jerry Augustine card. And I still remember the first “old” card I got, a 1974 Bill Parsons that I received in a trade in about 1985.

1980 Jerry Augustine and 1974 Bill Parsons

In the 1980s, I bought wax packs, usually Topps, though I did get ‘82 and ‘83 Donruss and ‘85 Fleer. I remember opening the packs and sorting and resorting the cards. Sometimes I sorted them by team, sometimes by position, sometimes by making teams of my favorite players. By the time I was in high school, I started to focus on a collection. I decided that I wanted to collect all of the Topps Brewer cards.

Hunt For Brewer Cards

1979 Milwaukee Brewers

When I started this collection, Topps had four main sets: Main, Traded, Tiffany, and Traded Tiffany. The two Tiffany sets were almost identical to the other two, except they had a higher quality print. I decided to limit my collection to the Main and Traded sets. I also decided to include the ’69 and ’70 Seattle Pilots.

1969 Seattle Pilots

At the time, the only way to get older cards was to go to a card shop or a card show. I spent many Saturdays at card shows rifling through boxes of older sets looking for Brewers that I did not have. I always brought my notebook that had all of the players that I knew were in each set, helped tremendously by the Topps Baseball Cards of the Milwaukee Brewers picture book that was a giveaway at one of the Brewer games. I still remember the TV commercial for that, with broadcaster Mike Hegan having his 1976 card pointed out.

1976 Mike Hegan

It took me close to 20 years to complete the set. Now I make two or three orders a year to collect the Series 1, Series 2, and Update sets. Currently, I am only missing one of the 2019 Keston Huira Update cards (#150). I will pick that up when I get the Series 2 cards this summer.

Collecting The Faves

Jim Gantner

Right around the time I started to get close to completing my Brewer collection, I started to collect cards of my favorite players. I stuck with Topps Main and Update (or Traded) sets. The first players I collected were Ozzie Smith, Jim Gantner, Pudge Rodriguez, and Brooks Robinson.

Of those players, the only cards that I’m missing are of Robinson. I still need his ‘57 rookie card, his ‘67 main card, and a ‘67 checklist that has his picture on it. I have two of each of the Gantner cards, one for my Brewer collection and one for my player collection.

Brooks Robinson

I have since added three other players. I have a complete set of Jonathon Lucroy and Gary Carter, adding to the former when a new card comes out. The other player that I collect is Jose Altuve. I am only missing his 2011 Update rookie card. I’m not sure if I will continue collecting Altuve in light of the cheating scandal.

Gotta Love The Team Portraits

My most recent collection is Topps team portrait cards. They were some of my favorites when I first started collecting. Topps had them almost every year from 1956 through 1981, and then from 2001 through 2007. For some reason, they did not have them in 1969, and some teams were not represented in 1968. Houston had a card in 1963, but did not have another until 1970, when they were renamed from the Colt .45s to the Astros.

1956 Team Cards

The team cards are my favorite to collect right now. All of my other collections are either complete, I’m missing some expensive cards, or are just getting the current cards. The team cards still involve the hunt, trying to find as many as possible in one shop to save on shipping. In all, there are 729 team portrait cards, and I have almost half of them.

Paging Through The Boys Of Summer

There are currently 2,097 cards in my collections, which are currently housed in four binders. I only order cards two or three times a year, but each time I pull out all of the binders and go through them.

1980 Team Cards

Usually, that brings me back to summers spent riding my bike to the store to buy packs of cards. Sometimes it reminds me of a particular Brewer memory. And sometimes I remember being seven years old in the back yard, pretending to play a game with a lineup made up of the names on the back of the team cards.

Rethinking the Hobby’s most iconic cards

If you came here to read about the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle or 1989 Fleer Billy Ripken, you came to the wrong place. I’m here to talk about true baseball card icons…these!

These are of course the position icons Topps used on their 1976 flagship set. Now that you see where the post is headed, I’m only going to get the ball rolling and look to you, the readers, to finish it for me.

Use the comments area either to fill a vacant slot or upgrade one of the existing slots. Together I believe we can assemble a team of the most iconic baseball cards ever, and I wouldn’t even be surprised if the entire collection could be had for only a few bucks.

Catcher

I was reasonably happy with the 1988 Score Bob Boone card, but I suspect there’s something better out there. Terry Steinbach had a couple that were very close but facing the wrong way.

Right-handed pitcher

As in the 1973 set, Topps used different icons depending on whether a pitcher threw righty or lefty. Until a better match comes along, here is the iconic 1991 Topps Donn Pall card in the righty slot.

Left-Handed Pitcher

Hunting for the LHP icon proved harder than I thought and introduced me to just how much variation in follow-through there can be from pitcher to pitcher. As with all of these, feel free to upgrade.

First Base

No entry yet.

Second Base

Though not a second baseman, Walt Weiss comes close to the Topps icon with his 1991 Topps card. My guess is one of you will find something better though, and bonus points if your sliding baserunner is a match too.

An honorable mention from the vintage division is found on another shortshop card, the 1956 Topps Pee Wee Reese. (And you thought only his 1953 Bowman was iconic!)

Third Base

For some reason when I look at the third baseman icon I see George Brett in my head. He has a few near matches like this 1982 Topps In Action. Still, I suspect another player will make for an even closer match.

Shortstop

No entry yet, but I’ll use this third baseman’s card as a placeholder.

Outfield

No entry yet.

Designated hitter

Pinch-hitting for the DH until something better comes along is the 1992 Topps Jay Buhner. For some reason, even though the batter is a righty, this position icon always reminds me of Yaz.

Not satisfied?

If near matches weren’t what you had in mind, have I got the set for you. Let’s call it the Topps equivalent of participation trophies, a set where EVERY player is iconic: 2004 Topps!

P.S. I kind of like these!

Ladies and Gentlemen! Your PCL Champion…Yankees?

Historically, the New York Yankees’ AAA teams were in the East or Midwest.  The Newark Bears of the International League were owned by Yankees and played in Ruppert Stadium, named for Yankees owner Colonel Jacob Ruppert. The Kansas City Blues were a Yankees affiliate in the American Association at the time of the Athletics move to Kansas City in 1955. Additionally, Syracuse, Columbus and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre have had long stints as Yankee outposts. But in 1978, the Yankees found themselves affiliated with Tacoma of the Pacific Coast League.

The Bronx Bombers’ stay in the Pacific Northwest was planned from the outset to be for only one season.  The Yanks were set to play in Columbus, Ohio, but the ballpark would not be ready until 1979.  The Twins pulled out of Tacoma after the 1977 season leaving “The City of Destiny” as the only destination for New York.

This one and done season is commemorated by a 25-card, team-issued set sponsored by Puget Sound National Bank and produced by Cramer Sports Promotions.  This is the same Cramer who would go on to form Pacific Trading Cards. I have owned the set for years and always found it intriguing. My favorite aspect of this set is the “TY” logo on the cap, jacket and jersey.  It is a great take on the traditional Yankees script.

The 1978 PCL Co-Champion Yankees (Final series against Albuquerque was rained out) were managed by ex-Seattle Pilot, Mike Ferraro.  Mike was originally signed by the Yankees as a player and returned to the fold as a minor league skipper.  His success in Tacoma may have helped earn him the Indians’ managerial job in 1980.

Like Mike Ferraro, Jerry Narron would go on the be a big-league manager.  The career backup catcher would pilot Texas and Cincinnati.

The most interesting card in the set belongs to pitching coach Hoyt Wilhelm. Apparently, The Hall-of-Fame knuckleballer could teach pitching mechanics beyond mastering a knuckleball grip.

In addition to Hoyt’s card, there are several other shots snapped in the Cheney Stadium clubhouse.  Since the photos were taken early in the season, inclement weather may have forced the photographer inside.  I can attest to the fact that few stadiums are as cold and damp as Cheney in April and May. One such example is this flattering image of Dave Rajsich.

Generally, the photos are of poor quality, with faces obscured by shadows.  The low-angle photos coupled with the shadows make it hard to discern faces, rendering some players almost indistinguishable. Domingo Ramos and Damaso Garcia are prime examples.

The card for Tommy Cruz is another example not being able to see facial features.  He is the sibling of the great Astro and Cardinal, Jose Cruz, and the uncle of Jose Cruz, Jr.

Another brother of a long-time major league player is Brian Doyle, whose brother Denny toiled with the Phillies, Angels and Red Sox. Brian’s photo is the only one not taken at Cheney Stadium. He is pictured in the road uniform, which features a basic (Tacoma) Yankees away jersey plus a logo patch on the sleeve.

Several other players saw some action with New York and other clubs.  Dell Alston had a stint with Oakland, while Kammeyer, Werth and Zeber played in the Bronx.

Also, Mets fans may remember Roy Staiger.  The utility man always reminds me of the actor Roy Steiger.

Now that you know more than you ever hoped to know about the 1978 Tacoma Yankees, I am sure you will race over to eBay or COMC to grab your own set.  If you are willing to settle for a card or two, I have some duplicates.

On cropping and layers

For most of baseball card history there have been two basic types of card designs. Either the photo is placed in a box* or the player is silhouetted onto a background.** Both of these designs are pretty straightforward with their image requirements in that designers only have to think about what is and isn’t shown in the photos.

*Straightforward but none more pure of an example than 1953 Bowman.

**1914 Cracker Jacks, 1949 Bowman, 1958 Topps, and many of the inserts from the 1980s to today.

There’s a third design though which took over cards in the 1990s and has made photo cropping difficult ever since. Rather than putting photos in boxes the trend toward full-bleed cards has created design after design that layers text and other graphic elements on top of the photo itself.

While it’s true that this design took over in the 1990s and was made extremely easy to do by foil stamping, it’s important to realize that its ancestry has been in cards for decades and in fact tended to surface every decade. So let’s go back to one of the first such designs.

Yup. 1957. I sometimes jokingly refer to this as proto-Stadium Club except that the photos themselves are pretty standard Topps photos that you’d expect to see until about 1991 or so. Posed shots showing a player’s upper body, headshots, and a few full-body “action” (at this point still posed) images.

The first thing to point out here is that Topps likes to put the players’ heads as high in the frame that it can. The next thing to look at—specifically in the Kluszewski and Thompson cards—is how Topps deals with the text overlapping the image. Topps likes to crop at players’ waists and at their necklines. In 1957 this is frequently where the top of the text starts but there’s another half inch of image visible under the text.

On the upper-body portraits this extra half inch can give us a little more information about the location of the photo and allow us to see the field and stadiums.

Photographically, these photos were also composed somewhat loose since the image area of the film is huge* and the photographer knew things would be cropped later. This is why in the Gomez card there’s so much grass in the foreground.

*at least 2 and a quarter inches square and quite likely more like 4 inches by 5 inches.

Now we flash forward a decade. On a lot of other sets* before this the image frame is knocking off a corner of the photo. This isn’t the same kind of design/photography issue since most of the photos are somewhat centered so there’s rarely something of import in the corners.

*eg. 1962, 1963, and 1965. Plus in 1966 there’s a layering effect in the corner.

1967 though is exactly like 1957 only there’s text at both the top and the bottom of the card now. Topps is doing the same thing as it did in 1957 too except that the players’ heads are now a little lower in the frame so that the names and positions can fit. The waist and neckline croppings though are pretty close to the 1957 croppings.

The net result here is that we get to see a lot more stadium details in many of the cards—giving the set a photographic character which differs from the other 1960s Topps offerings.

The Fuentes card though shows the dangers of this kind of design. Unlike the 1957 Gomez, Fuentes’s feet—and even his glove—are covered by the team name. This isn’t a big problem with a posed “action” photo but becomes much more of an issue when we move into the age of action photography.

I’ll jump to Japan for the 1970s since the Calbee sets of that decade deserve a mention. It’s obviously doing something very similar with extending the photo under the text. At the same time the simplicity of the text almost makes it an absence of design. In a good way.

It might be because I can’t read the text but the way it’s handled encourages me to not see it. Not because it’s not readable. Quite the opposite in fact. The way the text changes from black to white on the Sadaharu Oh card is handled masterfully in how my brain barely notices it. It’s there as information but manages to not take anything away from the photos.

It is worth noting though that the cropping on Oh and Davey Johnson is pretty similar to Topps’s standard cropping. And that third card of Hisao Niura tying his shoes has enough foreground space to give the text plenty of room to be legible.

Toppswise I skipped 1969 since it’s such a photographic nightmare that I don’t feel like it’s a fair to look at the photos. (Offhand though it’s interesting to note that it tends to crop the photos tighter at the bottom than 1967’s or 1957’s designs do.) 1980 is close, super close, to being included but it still feels like more of a corner-based design. Which brings us to 1988.

Not much to note with 1988 except for the layering of the player on top of the team name which is on top of the background. This is a wonderfully subtle bit of design that allows the photos to feel like they’re cropped similarly to the rest of Topps’s cards. Instead of getting more image area the layering doesn’t affect the image too much.

1991 brought us Stadium Club and the beginning of the full-bleed era of cards. Looking at this first set shows both that Topps was being pretty considerate with its cropping and how things would start to break.

Where earlier sets had the benefit of posed photos which could be cropped, as action photography began to be the priority for card companies the room for cropping started to decrease. For every card like Kent Anderson where there’s enough room for the graphics there’s a card like Damon Berryhill where the graphic is starting to intrude into the image.

1992 Stadium Club shows an alternative to just slapping a graphic on the bottom of the card. That Topps moves the graphic depending on where it best fits the photo is fantastic.

It’s also a lot of work since it requires each card to be designed individually. Instead of positioning an image into a template, this design requires the image and graphic to be adjusted until they work together. Find the best cropping, then adjust the graphic. This extra amount of work is probably why this approach hasn’t really been revisited since 1992.

By 1993 the standard operating procedure had been set. This design captures the way most sets ever since have been designed. A basic template, drop the picture in. Don’t worry if the graphic obscures an important part of the photo.

One of my pet peeves in the full-bleed era is when there’s a photo of a play at a base and the graphic obscures the actual play. The Bip Roberts is a textbook example of this. Great play at the plate except the focus of the play is obscured by the Stadium Club logo.

This is a shame since in 1993 Upper Deck showed how to do it right. The layering effect like 1988 Topps at the top allows the image to be cropped nice and tight at the top of the frame. Upper Deck though selected photos and cropped them to have empty space at the bottom.

You wouldn’t crop photos in general this way but as a background for the graphics it works perfectly. It forces the photos to be zoomed out enough that you can see the entire player and get a sense of what he’s doing within the game.

Most of the 1990s and 2000s however look like these. I could’ve pulled a bunch more sets—especially from Pacific and Upper Deck—here but they’re all kind of the same. Big foil graphics that cover up important parts of the photo. Some sort of foil stamping or transparency effect that cuts off the players’ feet.

Instead of cropping loosely like 1993 Upper Deck most of the cards in these decades feel like the photos were cropped before being placed in the graphics.

It’s easy to blame the card companies here but this is also a photography thing. Portrait photographers often find the crop after they take the photo. They use larger-format film and understand that the publication might need to crop to fit a yet-to-be-determined layout. Action photographers though get in tight and capture the best moment. This is great for the photos but not so great with baseball cards.

Baseball is a horizontal sport and there’s no reason to include dead foreground space. The only reason to include that space if you know that you’re shooting for a baseball card design that’s going to need it.

We’ll make a brief stop at 2008 though. This isn’t a transparency or overlay design but it’s doing something similar. Rather than the usual cropping at a corner of the image box, Topps placed its logo in a uvula at the top of the image box. Right where it would normally place the players’ heads.

The result? Very similar to 1967’s effect where the photos get zoomed out  a little and you see more background. The problem? These photos are already somewhat small and the change to mostly-action means that in most of them you’re just seeing more blurry crowds.

Fred Lewis is emblematic of the standard cropping. Small player image with lots of wasted space in the upper corners. That the posed photos like the Matt Cain are often bare skies at spring training locations instead of in Major League stadiums makes the added “information” there generally uninteresting.

All of this is a shame since the Tim Lincecum shows that when a selected photo is not impacted by the uvula, not only is the photo area not that small but the design can actually look pretty nice.

Okay. To contemporary cards and Topps’s recent dalliance with full bleed designs in flagship. I’m looking at 2017 here since it’s kind of the worst but 2016 to 2018 all do this. The transparency at the bottom of the cards is huge now. Yes it gets blurred out a bit but the photo information still needs to be there and as a result the cropping has to be even tighter.

As much as Topps was drifting toward in-your-face all-action shots, the actual designs of these cards sot of prevents any other kind of action. They also prioritize action that focuses in the top half of the frame. Any plays at a base gate stomped on by the design and even photos like the Chase Headley which don’t focus low in the frame are pretty much ruined too.

It’s easy to blame the TV graphics in Flagship but even Stadium Club—a set I love—has this same problem. On action photos the name/type often gets in the way of the image (compare Tim Anderson to the 1993 Upper Deck Lou Whitaker) but it’s the otherwise-wonderful wide-angle photos which fare the worst.

As the angle gets wider and the players get smaller, the odds that the text becomes intrusive increase tremendously. On Dexter Fowler’s card he’s the same size as the text and, as great as the photo is, the design of the card ruins it. Same goes with the Jose Berrios where the text is covering the entire mound and the ground fog Topps adds for contrast covers the whole playing field.

Which brings us to 2020 and a design that gets a lot of flak because it features sideways names.* What isn’t mentioned very frequently is how moving the transparency effect to the side of the card results in tremendously better photos and photo cropping.

*I don’t mind the sideways names except that I think they should’ve been rotated 180° so that when paged the horizontal cards don’t end up upside down.

All of a sudden we can see players’ feet again. Images aren’t all as in-your-face. We can have action images at second base where you can actually figure out what’s going on. Instead of cropping out the bottom of an image which a photographer has already framed, this design uses the space the photographers already provide for players to “move into.”*

*In action photography you’re generally trying to give the subject some room to move into the frame.

More importantly, it opens up the possibility for great photos that would never have worked in the previous full-bleed designs. For example, Omar Narvaez’s image is impossible to use in any design that puts transparency at the bottom of the card. Even Stadium Club. But 2020 Topps is flexible enough that it can use a wider variety of images.

I hope Topps learns some lessons from 2020 and that if we’re to see further full-bleed designs that they’ll be done in such a way so as to not get in the way of the images or to take advantage of the Transparency to give us more interesting photos.

213

1967.jpg
1967 #213

I started collecting cards in 1967, at the age of 6. I had no idea who any of the players were–I was a geography nut, so I started off just knowing the cities and states, then gradually added the team names, the positions, and a basic understanding of the statistics on the back, and eventually started to figure out who the players actually were. Soon, I was an expert in separating the scrubs from the regulars, the stars from the superstars.

Eventually, not right away, I could pull a card like this Jay Johnstone, and realize that he was a superstar. He had 3 home runs in 1966, and home runs were obviously good things. Soon I realized that Topps used certain card numbers to designate the best players in the game, which made things easier.

For example, I learned, by deduction, that Topps set aside card #213 for a really special player. I did not see this for years, hence my delay in understanding how great Johnstone was–had I known that they had given Fred Newman #213 in 1966, obviously I would have connected the dots. In these days before hobby magazines, I had to figure out this pattern for myself.

1968
1968 #213

My second year collecting, Topps came back hard with this legend, fresh off an -0.3 WAR season with the Reds. When you put Chico’s card together with teammates Pete Rose, Lee May, and Tony Perez, and with rookie Johnny Bench showing promise, my friends and I began to call them the Big Red Machine. Honestly, I felt like this nickname should have caught on, as almost all of these players remained stars for many years.

1969.jpg
1969 #213

I am embarrassed to admit that even after pulling this PSA-10 Arrigo out of a pack, I still had not put together the #213 pattern! Of course I understood that this was an inner circle star, but I just didn’t pay attention to card numbers back then. This was a 3rd series card, likely coming out in May, and the only excuse I can offer is that I was too distracted with the Apollo 10 launch to follow the tense Arrigo-Seaver duel for the Cy Young Award.

1970.jpg
1970 #213

I have written about the genius of the 1970 bat rack photos before, and it is only right that Topps put one of them on #213. And not just anyone, they didn’t waste the slot on Harmon Killebrew, they gave it to the starting catcher (against left-handed pitchers) for the best team in baseball. In addition, it must be said, he was the best looking player in baseball. This was the year — finally! — that the light came on about the glories of 213.

1971
1971 #213

Most famous for hitting two home runs in 1911 World Series, earning the nickname “Home Run,” the ageless Frank Baker was still hanging on 60 years later. While not quite the superstar he had been, you can’t blame Topps for giving the old legend the prime card spot one last time.

1972
1972 #213

Kinda ballsy of Topps to anoint not just one, but THREE, players with the superstar position in the set. Obviously they knew something, as these three hot prospects ended up racking up -0.1, -1.5, and -0.5 *career* WAR, for a mind-boggling total of -2.1. All on one card! Good luck finding this beauty at an affordable price. Clearly, the 213 Gambit paid off for Topps Bubble Gum, Inc.

1973.jpeg
1973 #213

What can I say, Topps just blew it. Not only did they put a no-name on the card, someone destined for mediocrity, but we can’t even see his face! The only thing I can think of is that they meant to give #213 to Joe “Say Hey” Lahoud, but some intern swapped the images and Joe ended up on #212. Sad, but Topps had built up so much good will in my house by this point in my life that I decided to let it go.

1974.jpg
1974 #213

I also heard a rumor that Topps *wanted* to put Rader on #213 in 1973, but didn’t want to jinx the kid with only one fine season under his belt. But once he put up his .229 batting average with nine home runs in 1973, he kind of forced their hand. After the Garvey Debacle, it must have been a relief for Topps to have this slam dunk candidate to carry the torch.

1975.jpg
1975 #213

Oscar could play, or at least hit, and one can imagine a different timeline where he holds a full-time job for 10 years and makes a bunch of All-Star teams. And, of course, everyone dug Oscar’s ‘fro (the second best in his family), which made him a household name in all the cool households that dropped the names of platoon outfielders in casual conversation. But, let’s not kid ourselves. Oscar got the coveted #213 slot for his trendy top-hand-only batting glove game, which we all knew would catch on.

1976
1976 #213

Everyone knows that Heaverlo was the Mariano Rivera of the late 1970s, but, truth be told, Topps gave him star billing in 1976 because of his head. Fashioning himself the “Anti-Oscar,” Heaverlo was the first baseball player to shave his entire dome. Unlike Seattle Supersonics star Slick Watts, our hero did not get the credit he deserved because tradition dictated that he always don a cap. Perhaps in admiration for this sacrifice, Topps gave him a sort of Mr. Congeniality nod with the #213.

1977.jpg
1977 #213

Until 1976 Leon seemed destined to live in the considerable shadow of his father Sergio, the acclaimed director of such Spaghetti Western classics as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. Heroically, young Max finally broke through with his monster 2-win, 44-strikeout performance in 1976. By the time I first saw the 1978 cards hit the store shelves in Ledyard, CT, suffice it to say that there was little remaining suspense about who #213 was going to be.

1978.jpg
1978 #213

It has been said of Willie Mays that an admirer could enumerate myriad reasons for his greatness without even mentioning his power, his 660 home runs. There was just so much to brag about.

It’s kind of like that with Alan Bannister too. On his 1978 card, one of a long line of Rembrandt-level cardboard in his great career, Topps spent so much time waxing rhapsodically about his speed (including his mind-blowing 27 steals at Triple-A Eugene in 1973) and versatility (playing both infield and outfield), that they ran out of space before they could even mention that he hit a league-leading 11 sacrifice flies in 1976. Think about that for a second. They ran out of space.

1979
1979 #213

What more needs to be said, at this juncture, about Bill Travers?

1980
1980 #213

In retrospect it seems like a bold move on Topps’s part to delay the anointing of Jorgensen until several years into his career. But it paid off in spades after he put up 9 and 16 RBI in back-to-back seasons with the Rangers. In 1979 he took a run at Hack Wilson’s all-time single-season record, before cooling off in September and falling 175 RBI shy. By the time this card got in our hands, Jorgensen had been traded to the New York Mets, and he proved the missing piece in their extraordinary leap forward from 65 to 69 wins.

I could go on, but you likely knew all this already. By 1981 Topps had competition and things became a bit of a mess. But for most of my glorious childhood, I could point to Topps baseball cards numbering as the primary way I learned how to figure out who the great players were. There were other premium numbers, to be sure–#329 had a run of Phil Roof, Rick Joseph, and Chris Cannizzaro that is hard to beat–but I will always have a soft spot for #213.

The most boring cards in the set?

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

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

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

These days

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

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

Early nineties

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

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

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

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

1978-1989 Topps

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

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

…or on the back of team cards.

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

1974*

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

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

1967-69 Topps

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

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

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

1963

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

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

1961

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pre-1961 Topps

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

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

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

Ditto 1959 Topps…

…and 1958.

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

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

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

The crumbiest card in the set?

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

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

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

When is a checklist not a checklist?

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

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

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

No checklist but the next best thing?

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

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

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

…while the second series indicated 312!

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

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

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

The return of set checklists

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

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

The return of team checklists

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

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

The golden age of checklists

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

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

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

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

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

Size isn’t everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where it all began…almost

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

 

1973 – Ugliest Topps Baseball Set Ever

“This is the best series I think we’ve ever done. I’m very excited about the whole thing already.” Sy Berger, Topps president, prior to 1973 cards hitting the shelves.

(Quote from the book – Baseball Card Flipping, Trading And Bubble Gum)

Rather than binge watch the Tiger King I decided to spend the last 3 nights cataloging my 1973 Topps Baseball cards to see how close I am to having a complete set. I obtained these cards after the great basement flood of 1987. The cards originally belonged to my younger brother. He had stored his baseball card collection in the basement of my parent’s then new home in Maine. Due to some faulty landscaping some water came into the basement during a downpour and damaged some his collection.

My brother no longer wanted the damaged collection and instead of throwing out the cards my mother miraculously called me to see I wanted them. I told her I would gladly take all the cards. A week or so later my parents arrived at my house with a large cardboard box stuffed with cards. My mother had dried out the cards that got wet by laying them on a dry floor and running a fan across them.

The box contained a mishmash of Topps cards that ranged from 1966 to 1980. Most of the cards were in good shape – either no water damage or only a very small water spot. There were also some cards that had seen better days.

There were a lot of cards of hall of famers from various years including this nice 1967 Mickey Mantle.

The bulk of the collection was comprised of 1973 cards. Almost all of the 1973 cards came through the ordeal in nice shape. Even before cataloging the cards I knew I almost had a complete set. I have nearly all the cards of the hall of famers, including the Mike Schmidt rookie card.

Mike Schmidt Rookie -Card Number 615

The Bad and The Ugly

It was also clear before cataloging these cards, that this was the ugliest set ever produced by Topps.

From a pure printing perspective all of the cards lack brightness and pop. The design of the ’73 cards lacks imagination and the white borders contribute to the dullness of the cards.

My biggest beef with these cards is the photography. The quality of the action images used in a significant percentage of the cards is in many cases very low. Most of the action shots were taken during afternoon games creating high contrast situations with the caps shading the faces of the players and the white uniforms reflecting too much light. In a post from 2016, Topps, according to baseball photographer extraordinaire Doug McWilliams, insisted on the use of slow ASA 100 film. This did not help matters when it came to freezing the action, resulting in fuzzy images or images that required a lot of massaging in order to make them acceptable.

I have included in the slide show below a sampling of problematic cards of future hall of famers and stars from this era. There are photos that are zoomed so far out you don’t know who the subject is (image on Bobby Bonds card would have been a better choice for the Willie Stargell card). There are photos where faces are in shadows and photos which have been airbrushed beyond all recognition. There are a few photos that have been cropped bizarrely (I still can’t find Steve Garvey). And there are photos were the composition is mind boggling (Willie McCovey and Johnny Bench checking out a foul ball. The Hit King popping up. Is that really Thurman Munson?).

Slide Show Featuring Some of Ugliest Topps Cards of Hall of Famers and Stars Ever Produced

If you are a Joe Rudi fan you are out of luck. You get another card of Gene Tenace.

The Good

There are some really nice cards in this set. Call me old school, but most of the cards in this set that work for me are the ones with the posed shots. Cards that also work for me are the action shots of Aaron and Clemente which are two of the best in this set. And it was nice that Topps brought back the cards of the playoffs and the World Series.

Slide Show of Good Cards

After cataloging the cards, I have found out that I am only 50 cards shy of having a complete set of 660 cards (not counting the variations in many of the managers / coaches cards). Only two of the missing cards are Hall of Famers.

I even have 22 of the 24 Blue Team Checklist cards that were supposedly only inserted in the last series.

I would be interested on your take on the 1973 set. Let me know by way of a comment if you agree or disagree with me on the 1973 set being the ugliest set that Topps has ever produced.