Baseball Cards in Art

When William Klein died I tweeted out a quick RIP from the official account where I stated that he was one of the blog’s favorite photographers. If you were browsing Twitter on your phone it would’ve been easy to miss the details in the photo and realize why I tweeted it. For me as both an art museum goer and a card collector though, Klein represents one of the few genuine overlaps in my interests. Yes it’s great to be able to visit the Burdick Collection at The Met but it’s even more fun to see cards pop up in other parts of the museum.

I’ve started a small themed collection of cards that I’ve noticed in other artworks and I’ve found enough now to put a post together on here.

Baseball Cards, William Klein, 1955

I’ll start with Klein both because he’s what prompted this post and because this is the oldest piece. And yes, the title of this photo is indeed “Baseball Cards.” I’m not going to write a ton about him as a photographer on here but his book of street photos in New York is justly famous in part because of how it taps in to imagery that where you not only feel like part of the scene but suggests that the scene may be familiar to you.

Sometimes, like with “Gun 1,” the familiarity is disturbing. Other times, such as with “Baseball Cards” the scene is one that should resonate in a pleasant way with every reader of this blog. Kids showing off their stacks of cards. Kids showing off a favorite player. It’s why we started collecting and in many ways the feeling we’re trying to hold on to while we keep collecting.

If you only saw the tweet on your phone you might not have noticed that the kids were holding stacks of 1955 Bowman. Blowing up the image you can see that the central card is one of the few light wood borders and is pretty obviously Gil McDougald. I had to comb through the set to identify the other card. I’m pretty sure it’s Randy Jackson—the dark background plus the long sleeves plus the placement of name box is pretty distinct—but there are a decent number of righthanded batters which I had to choose from.

Anti-Product Baseball Cards,
Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1979

I’ve written about these before on here so there’s no need for me to write much more. That said, at the time of first writing I hadn’t identified everyone in the cards and it took a committee effort in the comments of that post (as well as on Twitter) to both identify the actual 1979 Topps cards that were the basis for these.

I don’t think anyone’s identified the Rookies card but the other five are Steve Henderson (JOE), Bob Randall (JERK), Steve Kemp (HOT DOG), Ed Glynn (BUS PASS), and John Matlack (WALLY). The Mets Team Card meanwhile shows up on what we’re using as the checklist for these.

Pete Rose, Andy Warhol, 1985

In true Warhol fashion, multiple prints of this exist. While the one in Cincinnati is probably the definitive version I’ve only seen the one in the Smithsonian. Also, Paul Ember has written pretty extensively about these (and even gave a SABR presentation) so there’s not much for me to add here.

Most of us here probably recognized immediately that Warhol used a new photo and didn’t just copy either of Rose’s 1985 Topps cards. But the cards are clearly part of the piece. One of the things I like about Warhol’s Rose prints is how they combine the Campbell’s Soup elevation of industrial design into Art™ with his larger-than-life pop culture celebrity portraits and it says a lot about baseball cards and Topps that they were worthy of this treatment.

And yeah. A small short checklist so far which I hope to be able to add to in the future. But also a very fun one that speaks to baseball cards’ larger importance as part of our culture.

Team collecting foibles and follies

As if I didn’t already have enough different things to collect, the recent progress my SABR Chicago bud John has made on his Cubs team sets, 1956-present, got me thinking…what about me?

For the last several years I’d been working on roughly one Dodger team set per year. For example, last year’s project was 1951 Bowman.

1951 Bowman Dodgers

This year’s project has been T206, which I’m now only two cards from completing. (Remember we’re talking team set here, not the entire Monster!)

Like so many other collectors, I frequently found myself wondering what was next. As much as I’d love to go “Full Hoyle” and chase every card ever of my favorite team, a focus on the 1970s or perhaps the “Garvey Era” (1971-83) was what felt most tenable.

Sometimes all you need is just the right nudge, and it came when another SABR bud, Dave, emailed me to let me know he was putting much of his collection for sale. As it turned out, he had plenty of 1970s Dodgers and even a decent stack from the 1960s. Dave’s collection was a fantastic start to my new binder and even got me thinking if I might extend my ambitions to include the 1960s as well, if not the entire Los Angeles era.

In the time since, I’ve made some deals on Twitter, grabbed plenty of cards off eBay, and whittled my 1970s want list down to less than two dozen. Though I’m less committed (for good reasons you’ll soon see) to the 1960s, I’ve also added some very cool cards from that decade that look great in the binder, even by themselves. My favorite so far is this 1960 Leaf Duke Snider.

As I’ve worked on this new collecting project here are some of the “rookie mistakes” I’ve made along the way, on purpose of course to make the adventure that much more challenging, right?

BAD ≠ CHEAP

When collectors think Dodgers, 1958-1980, they rightfully imagine having to spend real money on the likes of Sandy Koufax, Duke Snider, and Don Drysdale, but they might need a minute to remember Ken McMullen. Despite the absence of Hall of Famers, this is NOT a cheap card!

Ditto the rookie card of Tom Paciorek!

Though the Penguin is a true Dodger legend, his second year card also ups the tab much more than one would hope.

The list goes on and on, with high priced rookie card cameos and high numbers (pre-1974) selling on par with Hall of Famers. My solution at the moment is to proceed full speed ahead on the 1970s but hold off on any earnest attempts from 1958-1969 even as I’ll happily scoop up the occasional dollar common from those early years.

1975, PART ONE: BEWARE OF MINIS

Beware?? I know many of you love the mini set, and hey, I’m not saying I don’t. I’m just not there yet. Still, in the process of building my standard 1975 Dodgers team set, I’ve opened two different eBay envelopes only to find mini versions inside. One goof was on me for not fully reading the description; the other was a goof of the seller, who forgot to include “mini” in the listing. Either way, the lesson learned is you can’t tell a mini from the picture alone…unless that picture is of your binder!

1975, PART TWO: DARN THOSE WORLD SERIES CARDS!

When I was seeding my 1975 Dodgers set at Dave’s place, I went off the team checklist at Trading Card Database. Not wanting to take up too much of his time, I barely looked at each card as I pulled it from the box. It was not till I got home that I realized the five season cards I grabbed all had a common theme: DODGERS LOSE!

If I had it to do all over again, I might have passed on every single one of these cards. Of course the thinking changes once cards are already in hand, at which point you almost have no choice but to add them to the binder. Soon enough I was able to soften the blow by adding the NLCS and WS Game 2 cards, both reflecting Dodger victories.

1975, PART THREE: THEY PLAYED WHERE?!

As mentioned, the Trading Card Database team checklist was my source for which cards to buy from Dave or subsequently seek out elsewhere. The problem is I only looked at the Los Angeles Dodgers, meaning none of these four cards made the cut.

Naturally, it won’t be a big deal to chase these cards down. I just feel stilly that I whiffed on the chance to do so when they were right in front of me.

HOW MANY GARVEY ROOKIES DO I NEED?

When I was at Dave’s I was pleasantly surprised to find a Garvey rookie in with his 1971 Topps partial set. Knowing this would be one of the most expensive cards I’d be buying that day, I had to think for a minute whether I really needed the card. After all, I already had two of them.

One was at my office as part of my framed Steve Garvey display. The other was hanging on my wall at home as part of my “Top 100” display.

Cards 51-100 of my “Top 100” display

In case you haven’t already guessed, my conclusion was YES, I definitely would need a third Garv for my burgeoning 1970s Topps Dodgers binder. What exactly would an acceptable alternative even be?!

Fortunately, I was able to side-step a similar quandary with what is actually the NL Iron Man’s most expensive card, his 1972 high number. Until fairly recently I only had one of these, and it resided in my office display. Fortunately, my wife gave me a second one for Fathers Day, signed no less, and I was able to add it to my 1970s Dodgers binder where it looks fantastic.

A LITTLE TIMES A LOT IS…A LOT!

The final lesson learned was one of basic mathematics. Even with most cards averaging a dollar or so, a decade of Dodgers is still a good 300 cards. The result is that all these little bargains quickly add up to much more than it would take to add a banger like this one to my collection.

NO REGRETS

Despite the minor pitfalls along the way, I am really enjoying this new project. For one thing, I feel like these are sets I should have. (How could I take myself seriously as a Dodger collector if I didn’t even have a 1976 Manny Mota card?) For another thing, it is a treat to flip through the binder and see a team of “oldtimers” like Willie Davis and Maury Wills evolve into the squad of Garvey, Cey, Lopes, and Russell that I worshipped as a kid.

Finally, and this is no small thing, it’s hard to take on a project like this and not end up with some doubles. If you’re lucky, they’ll be as beat up as mine!

Cups No Longer Runnething Over, or How I Finally Got a Grip My Slurpee Cup Collection

When we moved from Brooklyn to the middle of Long Island in December 1971, it was like landing on the moon. I was nine years old, with long curly hair and a David Crosbyesque fringe jacket. The kids in my school were more Leave It to Beaver than Mod Squad.

The stores were different too. There was a drive through place to get your milk and groceries (Dairy Barn). In Canarsie, we had Bill’s Superette, a truck that would drive down East 82nd Street with similar goods. Instead of the local candy store, there were 7-Eleven Stores. And Slurpees. Many many Slurpees, the official drink of the Gods.

There are few things on Earth as delicious as a Coca Cola Slurpee, but, starting in 1972, the icy drink game was dramatically upped. Slurpee cups had baseball players!

I was going to be drinking a lot of Slurpees anyway, but now there was something new to collect. The players were beautifully, and colorfully, drawn. Well worth keeping after the last straw full. I was so hooked on Slurpee cups that my Grandfather would buy me empty ones. Thanks to the benevolent staff at the Lake Grove store, I was allowed to go behind the counter and go through the sleeve of cups, picking out the ones I needed. I don’t know if they charged less, or the same, for empties, but it worked for my Grandfather, and for me. At a quarter either way, it was manageable.

I’ve transported stacks of Slurpee cups to every place I’ve lived in the last 50 years, but only recently did I come across these lovely photo checklists. Now I can work on these 60 cup sets.

1972 Checklist
1973 Checklist

The 1972 cups have back bios set to the left in one solid paragraph. The 1973s have a more centered look. This is important to know since the checklists have a lot of overlap. There are some great distinctions – Willie Mays has Giants (1972) and Mets (1973) versions. Others can only be distinguished by the backs.

The 20 Hall of Famer cups are not as nice. Weird, really. Like the 1963 Bazooka All Time Greats, they portray HOFers when they were old. Nothing more appealing to the kids than a desiccated Lefty Grove. 7-Eleven liked them enough to put out a radio ad.

Decrepit Lefty Grove

I’ve learned a few things as I start investing the cups I need. Thankfully, sold listings on eBay indicate that the common guys are pretty cheap, two for a dollar at times. Even big names don’t go for very much.

What I don’t know is whether there’s a lurking short print out there. I tend to think not, but I’d hate to get stuck paying a ton for a 1973 Ellie Rodriguez cup.

This feels like a good project. I never dreamed I’d have complete runs of Slurpee cups, but it seems attainable. Not as much fun as drinking a Slurpee, but close, very close.

Revisiting the 1973 Set – The Ugliest Topps Baseball Set Ever

In my last blog post about the 1973 set I stated that I was 50 cards shy of a complete set. Over the past two years I have picked up all but one of the cards needed to complete my set.

With the recent release of the 2022 Topps Heritage cards that are patterned after the 1973 set, I felt it would be a good time to share some additional thoughts about the set.

The Good

With the election of Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat earlier this year the total number of Hall of Famers pictured on base cards and manger cards is an impressive 40. Hall of Fame coaches with chopped off ears are not included in my total.

The Terry Crowley card was one of the missing 50 that I purchased. I feel that the photo would have been a much better choice than the one Topps used on the 1973 card of Thurman Munson.

One of the major problems that I have with this set – the lack brightness and pop with regards to the photos of the players – is actually a benefit for Through The Mail (TTM) autograph collectors like myself – since just about every card is a good one to send to players to sign if you are a fan of nice, visible signatures.

The Bad

In this section I am going to just focus on some of the 50 cards that I acquired to complete my set.

For the Jim Fregosi card we have another photo of a player popping up. It is a bad photo – but not as bad as the memories it brings back of how bad the Nolan Ryan for Jim Fregosi trade really was.

Picked up a few more “could be anyone” cards due to the afternoon action shots created by high contrast situations that shaded the faces of the player or action shots with too little player information (no uniform numbers, no names on jerseys).

The Ugly

The Checklists are terrible. These ugly cards looked like they were designed in under 5 minutes. For comparison purposes I have included below what I feel is one of best checklist cards produced by Topps.

Two Great Cards

There are two great cards in this set. The Roberto Clemente card (which I mentioned in my first blog post about this set) and the Pat Corrales Card.

The current Topps management team thought so highly of the Clemente card that they included a reprint of the 1973 card in the base 2022 Heritage set.

There have been numerous blog posts and twitter mentions about the Pat Corrales card since the action shot features Hall of Fame pitcher – Ferguson Jenkins – sliding into home and upending Corrales. Jenkins was called out on the play, but if you watch the replay it looks like Corrales missed the tag.

1973 was not the last time that Corrales and Jenkins were on a Topps card together. Pat Corrales was the manager of the Texas Rangers from 1978 to 1980. Corrales and Jenkins appeared together again on the 1979 and 1980 Texas Rangers Team cards.

A Nice 1973 Tribute Card

One of the nicest cards from the Project 70 set was the Roberto Clemente card by Mimsbandz. The card utilizes the 1973 design and features four embroidered scenes from Roberto’s September 30, 1972, game where he collected hit number 3,000.

The Last Card

So, what is the last card I need to finish the set? It is not the Mike Schmidt rookie card. It is the 5th Series Checklist card – number 588. If you include shipping charges unmarked examples of this card are going for over $50 on eBay currently. Slabbed examples range in price from $90 to $339. I refuse to spend over $50 for a checklist – especially an ugly one.

While we are talking checklists, does anyone else think it is crazy that people are sending in checklists to get slabbed?

Topps in 1972, Part 10

Editor’s note: SABR Baseball Cards welcomes new member F. Scott Wilkinson with the final installment of his 10 articles on the 1972 Topps set, now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Click here to start the series from the beginning.

 

I have explained many times that I am, by Profession, a Gambler—not some jock-sniffing nerd or a hired human squawk-box with the brain of a one-cell animal. No. That would be your average career sportswriter—and, more specifically, a full-time Baseball writer.

—Hunter S. Thompson

On the way to accumulating all 787 cards of the ’72 series I dove in and soaked up as much hobby knowledge as possible. As much as I’d been into collecting as a boy before long it became obvious that I knew nothing about any of the finer points. Good grief, is there ever a lot to learn…

Traditionally, cards with numbers ending in “00” or “50” are reserved for the most iconic players, though naturally not all selections have aged well. For 1972 there’s an interesting time capsule of 15 such cards, including: Willie Mays In Action (#50), Frank Robinson (#100), Norm Cash (#150), Lou Brock (#200), Boog Powell (#250), Hank Aaron In Action (#300), Frank Howard (#350), Tony Oliva (#400), Mickey Lolich (#450), Joe Torre (#500), Brooks Robinson (#550), Al Kaline (#600), Sal Bando (#650), Bobby Murcer In Action (#700), and Willie Horton (#750). Considering the year, it looks like Orioles are appropriately represented, Tigers are overrepresented, and pitchers and Pirates are underrepresented. Roberto Clemente (#309) for Sal Bando or Willie Horton, anyone?

Lower-numbered cards are more common while higher cards tend to be more rare and valuable/expensive, though I did happily find many decent high numbered cards in my spotty boyhood collection. Reportedly many regions of the country just never received higher series cards.

As with numismatics, the grade of “good” is a misnomer – about the worst grade there is – though “fair” and “poor” are valid too. Venders will note that those lesser grades are “just so you can say you have a card” – they’re placeholders, and barely worth the paper they’re printed on. Early on, Willie Stargell (#447) got tossed into the recycling bin – regrettable and maybe foolish, but the card was so warped and bloated from water damage I had to say goodbye. Tough to know where to draw the line though. Sorry, Willie.

An incorrigible collector/space filler from way back, I got lost in searching for the best deals…trying to be disciplined and unemotional, patient and thorough…which isn’t easy when all you want is to instantly have these things in your hands so you can turn them over and over and stare at them. At first it was fun to buy random large lots of cards to get the ‘best’ value (at that point I was thinking “Okay, about a dollar a card—not too bad…”), but the shine wore off soon as it sank in that many cards vendors sent were (perhaps) thin fakes or otherwise comically off-center, with rounded, fuzzy corners, frayed edges, and faded print on the back due to aging/oxidation or “paper loss”. The broad appeal of sports cards almost invites all kinds of creative ways to damage them.

They can have gum, wax, water, oil or tape stains, pencil/ink writing, staple holes, divots or indentations, blisters, rubber band constriction marks, and innumerable other blemishes caused by careless handling. Bernie Carbo (#463) arrived wearing one of those ’70’s style punch labels on his back and there it remains after inducing a tear. Don’t think I revisited that vendor. Maybe worst of all is a crease (or “wrinkle”), both soft (showing on one side or the other) and hard (showing on both sides). Then you read about card trimming, presumably to enhance centering and pricing. Really? Isn’t that a petty, chintzy scam! One could just measure the dimensions of the card in question…though by then the seller may be long gone.

Here are just a few of the bad things that can happen with your cards…

Miscut (Dock Ellis, #179), staining (Ken Wright, #638), pen marks (Ross Grimsley back, #99).

Sticker added (Bernie Carbo, #463), paper loss and bent corners (Hal McRae, #291), offset printing (Ross Grimsley, #99).

Hard crease (1st Series Checklist, #4), blister/mystery blemish (John Odom, #557), rubber band constriction marks (Steve Huntz, #73).

For me eventually very good, fine, and even “Excellent” cards weren’t satisfying enough…usually due to creases, stains, dog-ear corners and/or off centering…so then you go for “Near Mint” or “Mint.” Who would guess that over the course of a lifetime one could go from putting “In-Action” cards into bike spokes to obsessing about centering and perfect corners? Not me, until now.

After buying loads of cards I started to receive free ones tacked onto orders from familiar online vendors, a nice show of goodwill for being a reliable customer. Most of them were cheesy, value-less, but hey – they’re free, so no complaints. But speaking of “cheesy” – how about two Topps “Chrome” cards from 2001 —Roberto Alomar (#365) and Omar Vizquel (#452), featuring outdated cartoon caricature Indians logo and unavoidable reflection of phone and fingers.

Then along came a 1991 Fleer Dwight Evans (#93) and a 1996 Upper Deck Jim Abbott (#292) – pretty sweet.

One time it was a 1983 Donruss card featuring the “The (San Diego) Chicken”(#645)—okay. Another was a 1985 Fleer card of Al Oliver (#U-84) wearing number “0” and looking serious in a Dodgers uniform— very cool.

There was even a 1990 Upper Deck card of a thin, mustachioed Edgar Martinez (#532) when he still played third base for the Mariners—nice!  The most generous gift was 15 Fleer cards from the charmed 1986 Mets team that won the World Series from the Red Sox, including Series MVP Ray Knight (#86). Much appreciated.

One of the latest freebees was a 4955 MFWD John Deere Tractor card (#D26) from 1994—oh boy. But still, I’ll keep it. I have to thank these kind vendors – it was eye-opening to be exposed to such a variety of brands and realize that Topps is just one facet of the sports card landscape.

All in all good luck has been had with online purchases, aside from a few mistakes like not reading the fine print (“Photo is a stock image”) and getting stuck with a crappy card I didn’t get to evaluate. They might send reprints rather than originals—not easily proven but hopefully not too commonplace either, at least with the hobby faithful. Eventually a black light will need to be had to help see if we’ve ever been swindled.

The only gripe I have is minor, but consistent: damn, do most vendors use way too much tape when packing the things up! That would be fine if it was some gentle non-stick tape, but it always seems to bleed tree sap onto a pristine sleeve to keep a card from teleporting out during its travels…or they create a packing tape fortress, covering the entire outside of the package with the infernal stuff. Some seem booby-trapped to keep you from the precious cargo…it’s just beyond the next plastic sleeve, rubber band, or cardboard sheath. But hey – the packages never show up bent so if that’s the worst thing about the process, so be it. Overall I’ve been treated like family, especially by my more reliable eBay sources like The Baseball Card Exchange, The Battersbox, Dean’s Cards, 4SharpCorners, and Sirius Sports Cards) as well as most all of the smaller operations out there, run by studious folks who just seem to love the hobby.

It’s worth mentioning that sometimes the process of finding well-centered cards can be maddening, if you care about that sort of thing. Evaluating the yin and yang of horizontal versus vertical centering is almost a science unto itself. After scouring enough versions of the same card it became evident that certain cards of the highest grade are either temporarily unavailable, exceedingly rare and unrealistically expensive, or simply do not exist and maybe never did. Cards like Dave Campbell (#384), Gil Hodges (#465), Bobby Murcer (#699), Jim Kaat (#709), Ken Aspromonte (#784), and the In Action series in general (e.g., Reggie Jackson (#436)), among many others (e.g., Bert Campaneris (#75), Rennie Stennett (#219), Ken Singleton (#425), Steve Kline (#467) – argh!). Well, the better players and higher numbered cards are pricey, but you can get a light-hitting lower-numbered Campbell in near mint for a few bucks (Sorry, “Soup”!). Here are a few unfortunate duds:

It’s always a trade-off – do you want perfect centering, or crisp corners? What about the print quality and clarity and brightness of the colors? Ultimately it’s almost impossible to find the best of everything in the same card unless you’re willing to pay top dollar, so eventually you settle on something available that passes the eye test and move on.

Speaking of “top dollar”, it’s flummoxing how these things can have any real worth. Unlike gold or other precious metals, they can’t be intrinsically valuable in any way—they’re only paper and ink. I remember hearing about how the bottom fell out of the sports card market in the early 1990’s and thinking, “who cares?”…but values are cresting again these days and even relatively common cards like these are being sold at amazingly high prices. I care now! They’re worth something to someone, the sole requirement for anything to have value.

Example: Probably the most prized 1972 Topps card is an airbrushed Angels/Mets pinstripes Nolan Ryan (#595), and in PSA 9 (mint) condition I’ve seen it listed for as much as $5,999.00, though the vendor may settle for the “best offer.” And you have to think that at some point someone may have paid more than that for a particularly nice one.

So, one must wonder: how can this be? Works of art may sell for millions of dollars – they’re mere canvas and paint, but created by a renowned artist. The most valuable numismatic coins are thin chunks of metal amalgams, but they have specific (low) mintages, making them desirable. Bullion is only metal too, but has intrinsic value – some elements are uncommon and precious. Diamonds are miraculously rare. With this pursuit though…how can there be any real value in cardboard? How can so much money be exchanged for pressed paper slabs when at one time they sold for pennies alongside a stick of bubblegum? These things have no serial numbers…how easy would it be to make a forgery? And if you didn’t know one was a fake, how and why would that matter?

Tough questions, but let’s at least take a shot at distilling down that elusive concept of “value”. Turns out these cardboard gems are much more than just valuable – they’re priceless.

As I’ve tried to explain to a fellow baseball aficionado (a diehard Red Sox fan, who watched miserably when he was 13 years old as Bob Gibson dominated his team in the 1967 World Series), sports cards may be more valuable than gold or diamonds or any other worldly thing because unlike those objects these fleshy old cards are personal. They hold and stir memories, and memories don’t equate with money. Each snapshot is stamped with a certain time and then endures through time, or at least for as long as one can remember. In turn, those memories jog feelings… and aside from knowledge gained feelings may be the most profound, real, persistent, and valuable things that we ever experience and have to hold on to. They live in our blood as much as our minds.

Plus, these days these cards are antique keepsakes – cool niche relics from half a century ago, finite in number. That must count.

Maybe that’s all there is to it, and maybe not. All I know is that these days I feel more like an energized, optimistic little kid again, one who couldn’t care less about Little Ricky and his pilfering of my cardboard friends so many years ago.

Valuable or not, the truth is I love everything about these cards. The way they feel in my hands. The way they look. The obscure statistics, geographical info, and nostalgic trivia on the backs. The fantastic fashion and trademark styles of 1972. All the heroes of my youth. They were there at that impressionable age when the boy fell in love with baseball and started buying his first packs of cards, so they’ll always be the sentimental favorite. More than anything it’s about all those warm, eye-candy colors and that funky, festive vibe they shout out all 787 times. Unless you feel similarly it’s not easy to explain how these things are tethered to the soul.

It took about five months to acquire the whole set, then about five months later I took them off the shelf and began to pore through the albums, unexpectedly finding exactly 50 that were horribly centered. After replacing those, I started over at card #1 and found many more that were troubling, with fuzzy gray corners, creases, stains, and iffy centering. How did I miss them the time before? After that time through I started at the beginning again and found that standards had risen even higher so that about every other one looked replaceable. Sheesh. So here we go again…

But why? Is the goal to have the world’s ‘best’ collection of 1972 Topps baseball cards? Maybe. Let’s just call it the Collector’s Conundrum. We all have different standards and reasons for loving the hobby and ultimately we curate, caretake, and enjoy them our way before leaving the hoard behind as treasure for someone else to discover.

As of this writing at least two-thirds of the worst looking cards have been swapped out and as the eyes adjust it seems like there’ll always be one or two more that aren’t quite up to snuff. In fact, the other day (over two years after beginning the 1972 Topps Project) I went through everything yet again to make sure all the cards had individual plastic sleeves and found over 100 more that are off-center, have bad edges, divots, little creases, nicked corners, or small stains. Astounding. The process has been a little like upgrading from stereo to a googlephonic system with a moon rock needle and realizing it still “sounds like shit“.

When will it ever be finished? When is enough, enough? A fuzzy–edged card is fine, right? Doesn’t that get the point across? Well of course…especially if it’s a T206 Honus Wagner, but boy, there’s nothing like a clean, well-centered card with four sharp corners. Remember, many of them are works of art and deserve perfect framing. And let’s face it, collectors never finish – this and everything else are just fun works in progress until time’s up.

Sometimes I think that none of them really matter and yet all of them matter—the “Good” all the way up to the “Mint.” Every one is a treasure and for now I’m at peace with being stuck in or around 1972, probably the only series I’ll bother to fully assemble…though those colorful 1975s are starting to look better and better. Everything from neighboring, earlier, and even later years is more interesting too.

Somehow I’ve managed to get ahold of all 51 Hall-of-Famers from the 1972 series (plus Pete Rose), encapsulated in plastic PSA cases, most graded ‘8 – NM-Mint”, with some 7’s and a few 9’s. Then the thing was acquiring full teams of my favorites as winners – the 1966 and 1970 Orioles and the 1975, 1976, and 1990 Reds. After that came PSA 8’s of the entire 1972 Reds squad. Next may be collecting cards from every year of a player’s career. Guys like Joe Morgan, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Dock Ellis, Nolan Ryan, Luis Tiant, Bob Gibson and/or Henry Aaron. Oy vey. Better not give up the day job.

Serendipitously, I’ve been reacquainted with a rich, fascinating hobby that will entertain, energize, and educate this boy until the end of days. As a reasonably present husband, father, brother and son, cards can hold only one bit of attention…but what a great library to have when there’s time to go peruse ’em for fun. And joining SABR has been a joyful discovery of long lost brothers and sisters I never knew I had – people who are just as fascinated by this stuff…and know infinitely more. Perfect!

From here we’ll just keep working on what the unexpected detour has taught us up to now: Default to a smile whenever possible. Grudges aren’t worth holding, no matter how many cards of any kind are involved. Be ready for joy to find you when you least expect it. Keep on learning and having fun. Look back in time occasionally, but not too often and not for long. Focus forward and cultivate a kind, curious, and open mind. Pay attention. Try to do better all the time. Always be on the lookout for new friends.

Why focus on pain and losses when there’s so much to be done and gained? As poet Oscar Wilde said, “Life is much too important to be taken seriously.” Sure, “Ricky’ll be Ricky,” and there’ll always be more thieving Ricks out there lying in wait—that’s their problem. Life goes on and on every day of every season. Best to get on with it.


That’s it – the final portion of an ode to baseball and the early 1970s in general, and to the Topps Company and the special 1972 set specifically. Thanks for the memories, Topps—both the old ones and the new ones!

This was written for everyone out there who loves the 1972 Topps baseball card set as much as I do (if that’s possible).

Dedicated to my sports-loving mom, Caroline B. Wilkinson, who never threw my cards away.

Also dedicated to all the players and managers from the 1972 Topps Series, especially those who passed during the writing of this article: Henry Aaron, Dick Allen, Ed Armbrister, Glenn Beckert, Larry Biittner, Hal Breeden, Lou Brock, Oscar Brown, Horace Clark, Gene Clines, Billy Conigliaro, Tommy Davis, Chuck Dobson, Paul Doyle, John Ellis, Ed Farmer, Ray Fosse, Bill Freehan, Bob Gibson, Jim Grant, Joe Horlen, Grant Jackson, Bart Johnson, Jerry Johnson, Jay Johnstone, Al Kaline, Lew Krausse, Angel Mangual, Mike Marshall, Denis Menke, Lindy McDaniel, Roger Moret, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, Bob Oliver, Don Pavletich, Ron Perranoski, Juan Pizzaro, J. R. Richard, Mike Ryan, Tom Seaver, Richie Scheinblum, Rennie Stennett, Bill Sudakis, Don Sutton, Tony Taylor, Dick Tidrow, Bill Virdon, Bob Watson, Stan Williams, and Jim Wynn.

Special thanks to Baseball-Almanac.com, Baseballhall.org, Baseball-Reference.com, the Trading Card Database, and Wikipedia for all that data.

Extra special thanks to Larry Pauley, Jason Schwartz, and Nick Vossbrink  for their kind help, patience, and encouragement.

“Designated” as Designated Hitter

The American League adopted the Designated Hitter (DH) rule in 1973.  Of course, card collectors had to wait for the 1974 set to find cards with the players’ positions “designated” as DH. So, who was the first player to have a card solely labeling him a DH?

The answer is card number 83 in the numerical sequence, the Red Sox Orlando Cepeda.  At this point in Cepeda’s career, the DH rule was a godsend.  The veteran slugger’s knees would no longer allow him to play in the field. Interestingly, Topps would us “Des.” Hitter as the abbreviation for the position.

Several other gimpy, veteran sluggers show up as Des. Hitters: Tommy Davis , Jim Ray Hart, Tony Oliva, Deron Johnson and “Swingin’” Gates Brown.

Topps produced several cards where the position is a hybrid of DH and either 1B or OF. Sometimes the DH appears first, other times last.  I thought this might correlate to the number of games played at each position, but this is not the case.  The placement is entirely random. Topps would also toss a curve ball by labeling Harmon Killebrew as a First Base-DH.

The players who have DH-1B as a position are Ron Blomberg—the first player to come to the plate as a DH—and Tony Muser.

The only 1B-DH combo belongs to Gail Hopkins.

Players whose cards show them as DH-OF are Frank Robinson, Bob Coluccio and Alex Johnson, and the ones as OF-DH are Carlos May and Hal McRae.

Mike Lahoud was one of the Brewers DHs along with Ollie Brown. Both players were traded to the Angels prior to 1974. Lahoud’s card mentions his DH position on the back only.

Oscar Gamble was Cleveland’s main DH in 1973, but his card only lists outfield. However, his 1974 Topps stamp includes DH as a position.

I will let you get back to hitting balls off the tee under the stands to keep warm between at bats. I’m sure this DH thing is just a passing fad.  Soon you will be flashing leather on the field as God and Abner Doubleday intended.

Topps in 1972, Part 9

Editor’s note: SABR Baseball Cards welcomes new member F. Scott Wilkinson with the ninth of his ten articles on the 1972 Topps set, now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Click here to start the series from the beginning.

I have explained many times that I am, by Profession, a Gambler—not some jock-sniffing nerd or a hired human squawk-box with the brain of a one-cell animal. No. That would be your average career sportswriter—and, more specifically, a full-time Baseball writer.”

—Hunter S. Thompson

For kicks, let’s revisit the four precious cards that Little Ricky stole (see Part 2 of this series) and remember a little bit about the special players they represent. At the time we felt lucky just to be newbie baseball fans while these living legends were still playing, even if they were on the downside of their careers, so to us any cards of theirs were like gold. That was one thing. I was also doubly crushed because I was so in love with the home run back then. Most kids are and to a certain extent I probably still am. There’s just something enchanting about the act of hitting a round ball with a round bat so squarely and so far, and when I was a kid these guys were the active kings of the round-tripper.

Surely random, but it’s appropriate that the 1972 wrecking crew were presented in the primary colors – blue (Robinson), yellow (Mays), and red (Aaron). It’s not much of a stretch to say that these guys compose what must be the most prolific right-handed power-hitting outfielder lineup of all time. And while we’re at it, wouldn’t Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr. and Babe Ruth have to be the all-time left-handed power-hitting outfielder lineup? Discuss. (Note: Solely out of ignorance I am not considering Negro League players here).

This is the last Topps card (#100) showing “The Judge” as an Oriole and it’s a pleaser. Frank radiates confidence in those warm-up sleeves and happily looks like he might still be in his prime. Interestingly, “Pencils” still holds the record for most home runs on opening day (8), including one in his first at-bat as player-manager for the Cleveland Indians in 1975. While I’ve sufficiently sung Mr. Robinson’s praises previously, this one slugging feat is worth mentioning:

On May 8, 1966, Robinson became the only player ever to hit a home run completely out of Memorial Stadium. The shot came off of Luis Tiant in the second game of a doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians, and the home run measured 541 feet (165 m). Until the Orioles’ move to Camden Yards in 1992, a flag labeled “HERE” was flown at the spot where the ball left the stadium.

Similarly, this is the final Giants card of Willie Mays (#49) and it’s nearly perfect. Willie looks vital, the uniform is classic, those hands are huge, and the stands are packed. It pains me to say that I never got to see Mr. Mays play live – I gather he not only makes the strongest case for best five-tool player of all time, but also that not many players come close. Just ask these guys:

  • Leo Durocher (#576): “If somebody came up and hit .450, stole 100 bases and performed a miracle in the field every day, I’d still look you in the eye and say Willie was better.”
  • Don Zimmer: “I’ve always said that Willie Mays was the best player I ever saw…he could have been an All-Star at any position.”
  • Willie Stargell (#447): “I couldn’t believe he could throw that far. I figured there had to be a relay. Then I found out there wasn’t. He’s too good for this world.”
  • Felipe Alou (#263): “Mays is number one, without a doubt…anyone who played with him or against him would agree he is the best.”
  • Roberto Clemente (#309): “To me, the greatest who ever played is Willie Mays.”

(Again, Negro League players like Oscar Charleston and Turkey Stearnes have something to say about all this, but they’re beyond the scope of this 1972-centric post).

Fun facts: Willie Mays still holds records for most putouts by an outfielder (7112) and most extra inning home runs (22). At the start of the 1972 season he was actually #2 on the all-time home run list, ahead of Henry Aaron (646 to 639), but Willie was three years older than Hank and only managed 14 more homers in his career. After two truncated summers with the Mets, he retired at the end of the 1973 season with 660 while Aaron played through 1976 and made it to 755.

Just one non-1972 card – the 1973 Roberto Clemente (#50), relatively drab maybe, but capturing him in a sweet pose – coiled, ever alert, the action just about to happen. Nice back, but one of those cards where the statistics on the back are unfortunately final. This was the final Topps card of “Arriba,” issued shortly after his death in a New Year’s Eve plane crash while delivering food and supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. What a horrible way to end the year.

Nearly fifty years later it still feels like he should be here telling stories, so we should take a long moment and then some to appreciate the special player and groundbreaking man. Here applies the adage, “Play for the silence that came before you…and also for that which follows”.

Clemente was in a class by himself too and had the power numbers been there he might approach Mays as the top all around player, but his 240 career homers don’t quite measure up. And somehow Roberto managed only 83 stolen bases compared to 338 (RC had 166 triples though! Second in the modern era to Stan Musial’s 177). But it’s probably wrong to compare these legends with raw numbers – that’d be akin to scoring an award-winning McIntosh apple against a perfectly ripe Clementine orange – the intangibles just don’t compute. And yet some people out there are willing to make the case for The Great One being the best all around player ever. Interesting.

 

Sadly, I don’t recall ever seeing Frank, Willie, or Roberto play a full game, even on television. Living in SW Ohio with a 19” black and white Zenith TV and six working channels just wasn’t prime time. Fortunately, we had way more exposure to Henry Aaron (#299, here in a familiar pose – strong on strong, looking like he’s about to put a hurt on whatever comes his way next), who was busy chasing Babe Ruth’s hallowed home run record when I was nine years old. In fact, at my mom’s house, still stowed away somewhere, is a note I frantically scribbled down just minutes after watching Hank break the record by hitting number 715 off Dodgers pitcher Al Downing (#460). I think that note includes the date, time, pitcher, pitch count, pitch thrown, distance the ball traveled, and location it left the park. Oh wait—here it is now:

Hammerin’ Hank seemed to be everywhere in those days and there could not have been a finer gentleman to take Ruth’s record—by all accounts he was as special a man as he was a player. I still remember the first things I read about him when I was seven or eight…how he left home for the minor leagues with a single suitcase and $2 in his pocket, began his career as a shortstop, and how for a long while he didn’t even hold his bat the right way—he had his left hand on top instead of his right, cross-handed, a no-no for a right-handed hitter. Probably helped perfect those forearms though.

With all the home run hoopla in 1974, a contest was arranged in Tokyo between Hank and the Japanese home run champion, Sadaharu Oh, who ended up hitting a professional league record 868 homers for his career. I remember watching that derby and thinking, “No fair—Hank’s designated pitcher is just lobbin’ ‘em in there, but Oh’s is really pitching!”, then years later realized my concerns were silly since it was fair for each player to have his pitches served up however he wanted. Naturally the Hammer won, 10–9, even though he was past his prime at 40, six years older than Oh; after that they became friends. Here’s a picture of the riveting scene, from a Sports Illustrated scrapbook found in my old boyhood closet. Mr. Aaron surely did not shrink from the moment.

Looking at Aaron’s 1972 card you find that he had 639 home runs at the end of the 1971 season and had turned 38 in February before the ’72 season began. How many other players hit another 116 (or more) homers after they turned 38? Well, just one apparently—Barry Bonds with a ridiculous 166, but that’s another story altogether, for another time…

What’s worth mentioning of all these big hitters is that they weren’t especially imposing in their stature, but they were tremendously strong. All hands, wrists, and forearms. Frank was the tallest of the four, at 6’ 1” and 185 pounds. Hank stood 6’ even and weighed 180 lb. Roberto was 5′ 11″, 182, and Willie was 5’ 11”, 170. No steroids for these guys – they didn’t need ’em. Their natural talents were enough of an advantage.


Part of my ode to baseball and the early 1970s in general, and to the Topps Company and the special 1972 set specifically. Thanks for the memories, Topps—both the old ones and the new ones! Apologies for the pronounced wordiness, but the 50th anniversary of the set warrants some indulgence.

Dedicated to my sports-loving mom, Caroline B. Wilkinson, who never threw my cards away, and to all the players from the 1972 Topps Series, especially those who passed during the writing of this article: Henry Aaron, Dick Allen, Ed Armbrister, Glenn Beckert, Larry Biittner, Hal Breeden, Lou Brock, Oscar Brown, Horace Clark, Gene Clines, Billy Conigliaro, Tommy Davis, Chuck Dobson, Paul Doyle, John Ellis, Ed Farmer, Ray Fosse, Bill Freehan, Bob Gibson, Jim Grant, Joe Horlen, Grant Jackson, Bart Johnson, Jerry Johnson, Jay Johnstone, Al Kaline, Lew Krausse, Angel Mangual, Mike Marshall, Denis Menke, Lindy McDaniel, Roger Moret, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, Bob Oliver, Don Pavletich, Ron Perranoski, Juan Pizzaro, J. R. Richard, Mike Ryan, Tom Seaver, Richie Scheinblum, Rennie Stennett, Bill Sudakis, Don Sutton, Tony Taylor, Dick Tidrow, Bill Virdon, Bob Watson, Stan Williams, and Jim Wynn.

Special thanks to Baseball-Almanac.com, Baseballhall.org, Baseball-Reference.com, and Wikipedia.com for kindly compiling and sharing their vast treasure troves of data.

Extra special thanks to Jason Schwartz and Nick Vossbrink  for their timely encouragement and warm welcome into the SABR community.

Much gratitude to Mr. Larry Pauley, who gave this project direction when there was none.

Topps in 1972, Part 8

Editor’s note: SABR Baseball Cards welcomes new member F. Scott Wilkinson with the eighth of his ten articles on the 1972 Topps set, now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Click here to start the series from the beginning. The current post shares some of the stories and numbers behind the players on the cards.

I have explained many times that I am, by Profession, a Gambler—not some jock-sniffing nerd or a hired human squawk-box with the brain of a one-cell animal. No. That would be your average career sportswriter—and, more specifically, a full-time Baseball writer.”

—Hunter S. Thompson

While curating the 1972 set to completion I was led through a wonderful treasure trail of baseball lore as familiar, long-forgotten, esoteric, and heretofore unknown and infinitely interesting historical tidbits and statistics bubbled up via innumerable online rabbit hole searches…

“Stormin’ Norman” Cash (#150) never wore a batting helmet during his career and admitted years later to using a corked bat when he won the American League batting title in 1961 with an average of .361 (1961 was also the year when Roger Maris hit his 61 home runs. Hmm.). In 1960 he became the first American League player to not hit into a double play all season. In 1961 he became the first Detroit Tiger to hit a home run out of Tiger Stadium. In 1973 he took a table leg to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning of Nolan Ryan’s second no-hitter, but was not permitted to use it. He popped out using a bat instead.

Ron Fairly “Obvious” (as he was known to some Seattle Mariners fans when he provided color commentary for them from 1993-2006), (#405), holds the record for most career home runs (215) of any major league player who never reached 20 home runs in a season. (He hit 19 once—at 38 years old—and 17 twice.) I loved listening to Ron – he really knew the game because he’d seen so much during his 48 years in baseball (including 21 years as a player and three World Series titles with the Dodgers in 1959, 1963, and 1965) but was still prone to saying things like “You’ve gotta score runs if you wanna win ball games”.

Similarly, Milt “Gimpy” Pappas (#208) was the first pitcher to reach 200 wins (209 total) without ever winning 20 games in a season (later joined by Jerry Reuss (#775), Frank Tanana, Charlie Hough (#198), Dennis Martinez, Chuck Finley, Kenny Rogers and Tim Wakefield). On September 2, 1972, Pappas famously lost his bid for a perfect game when he walked pinch-hitter and 27th batter Larry Stahl (#782) on a full count. Legend has it that the pitch Milt threw on the 1-2 count should have been called strike three. Then he threw two sliders just off the plate and didn’t get a break from umpire Bruce Froemming, even with Stahl’s iffy check swing on ball four. Pappas was happy to have the no-hitter but never forgave Froemming for the call(s).

Dock “Peanut” Ellis (#179), ever the free spirit, did Pappas one better by allegedly tossing a no-hitter on June 12, 1970 while under the influence of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and Benzedrine. Another time (May 1, 1974), Ellis became so frustrated with static and intimidation from the Big Red Machine that he set out to bean every Cincinnati batter he faced. He hit Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Dan Driessen in succession then (unintentionally) walked a ball-dodging Tony Perez to force in a run. After throwing two pitches at Johnny Bench’s head he was pulled by manager Danny Murtaugh with a line of 0 IP, 0 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 0 K. On the plus side, Dock got the start on September 1, 1971 when the Pirates fielded MLB’s first ever all-Black and Latino starting lineup and beat the Phillies 10-7. The Pittsburgh batting order for that long overdue contest: Rennie Stennett (2B), Gene Clines (CF), Roberto Clemente (RF), Willie Stargell (LF), Manny Sanguillen (C), Dave Cash (3B), Al Oliver (1B), Jackie Hernandez (SS), Dock Ellis (P). 

Editor’s Note: All nine players can be found on the Pirates in the 1972 Topps set.

“Beltin’ Bill” Melton (#183) was the first White Sox player to ever lead the American League in home runs (with 33 in 1971) but he missed most of the 1972 season after herniating two discs in his back while trying to break his son’s fall from their garage roof. Familial love triumphed, but Melton’s power was permanently sapped and he never again hit more than 21 homers in a season. Always a liability at third base his play there declined even further and before long he was Harry Caray’s whipping boy. Poor Bill retired at 32 after his 1977 season playing for Cleveland when he had 154 plate appearances and 0 home runs.

Relief pitcher Joe Hoerner (#482) sported a 2.99 ERA over 14 years and held all-stars Bobby Bonds (#711), Johnny Callison (#364), Tommy Harper (#455), Ed Kranepool (#181), Joe Pepitone (#303) and Bill White to a collective batting average of .070 (5 for 71). Even better, he held Hall of Famers Hank Aaron (#299), Ernie Banks (#192), Reggie Jackson (#435), Willie Mays (#49), Bill Mazeroski (#760), Tony Perez (#80), Willie Stargell (#447) and Carl Yastrzemski (#37) to a collective batting average of .101 (9-89).

Jim Grant (#111) was dubbed “Mudcat” by a coach in the minor leagues and never really liked the nickname, but he eventually came to embrace it. He then went on to become the first Black pitcher in the American League to win 20 games in a season (going 21–7 for the Twins in 1965) and later in life wrote a book, “The Black Aces: Baseball’s Only African-American Twenty-Game Winners”, about all 12 (now 15) of the Black 20-game winners in the MLB history. Mr. Grant won the 1972 Mutton Chop Award too.

Jim “Cakes” Palmer (#270) won 20 or more games eight times, never gave up a grand slam or back-to-back home runs, is the only pitcher in major league history to win a World Series game in three decades (1960s, 1970s, and 1980s), was the winningest pitcher of the 1970s (186), is the only man to have played in all six of the Baltimore Orioles’ World Series appearances (1966, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1979, 1983), and has the fourth lowest ERA (2.856) of all starting pitchers who began their career after the advent of the live ball era in 1920 (I’m counting on Clayton Kershaw continuing to stay near his current career ERA of 2.49, otherwise Palmer would be third). Not too shabby!

Bob “Gibby” Gibson (#130) had ring fingers longer than middle fingers, which must have given his grip and pitches something extra. He was so dominant in 1968, with an unheard-of-for-the-live ball-era ERA of 1.12 that MLB lowered the pitching mound five inches (from 15” to 10”) after the “Season of the Pitcher” was over. “Hoot” was so respected (feared?) that Hank Aaron (#299) had this classic bit of advice for Dusty Baker (#764) when Baker was a rookie in ’68:

Don’t dig in against Bob Gibson, he’ll knock you down. He’d knock down his own grandmother if she dared to challenge him. Don’t stare at him, don’t smile at him, don’t talk to him. He doesn’t like it. If you happen to hit a home run, don’t run too slow, don’t run too fast. If you happen to want to celebrate, get in the tunnel first. And if he hits you, don’t charge the mound, because he’s a Gold Glove boxer. I’m like, “Damn, what about my 17-game hitting streak?” That was the night it ended.

If you look deeply enough into every one of these historical snapshots you come to appreciate the oddball one-off players with fleeting one or two year big league careers – guys like Al Severinsen (#274), Stan Swanson (#331), and Ron Cook (#339). They even look like they were in over their heads.

You begin to realize how many players had short, undistinguished pro careers or spent most of their time in the minor leagues, even though they had to have been damn good baseball players. Here are some other examples:

  • Screwball pitcher Aurelio Monteagudo (#458) began his career in 1961 and by 1972 had pitched 101 innings in MLB, with a record of 1-5 and ERA of 5.35. He actually never played for the Brewers or anywhere in MLB after the Angels in 1973, but soldiered on in AAA (Mexico and Edmonton (PCL) until 1983.

  • Billy Wilson (#587) began his career in the minors in 1962 at age 19 and spent seven years there before breaking in with the Phillies in 1969. By 1972 he had pitched 179 innings in the big leagues and had a 7-11 record.

  • Mike Ferraro (#613) began his minor league career in 1962 at age 17 and by 1972 had a MLB resume of 119 at bats, a .160 batting average and 0 homers. He was done at age 28 after spending 1973 season in Syracuse (IL) and Tacoma (PCL).

  • Paul Doyle (#629) debuted for the Braves as a 29-year-old rookie in 1969 after beginning his career in the Detroit Tigers’ farm system in 1959. It took him ten years and five different organizations to realize his big-league dreams, but 1972 was his last year in the league. This card has Paul looking like he knows he’s going to get the hook.

  • Eventual Hall-of Fame manager Tony LaRussa (#451) began playing minor league ball in 1962 and by the start of the 1972 season had accumulated 176 major league at bats, a .199 average and 0 home runs. After one pinch-running appearance in 1973  (where he scored on a bases loaded walk-off walk!), his career as a major league player was over.

There were also scads of players who had longer and more productive careers…somewhat pedestrian, but all with enough of a skillset to give them lasting value – guys like Vic Davalillo (#785), Ted Kubiak (#23), Darrel Chaney (#136), Merv Rettenmund (#235), Manny Mota (#596) and Rudy May (#656).

Some of these guys were darn good players. Davalillo made an all-star team (1965), earned two World Series rings (’71 Pirates and ’74 Athletics) and won a gold glove (1964). Manny Mota, an all-star in 1973, was a pinch-hitting legend, with a career batting average of .304, though he ‘only’ managed 1149 hits over a 20-year career. Rudy May earned an ERA title in 1980 (2.46) and won 152 games during his 16-year career…while also losing 156. Rettenmund batted .318 in 1971—third highest in the AL that year. Kubiak spun his Mendoza Line utility infielder role into three World Series titles with the Oakland A’s (1972-74). Chaney only had a .217 career average over 2113 at bats, but hung in there for 11 years and got his World Series ring with the Reds in 1975.

These guys played full time for only for a few years, if that—otherwise they stuck around, riding the pine, waiting for another chance as the years trickled by. And there were so many other players in the same position, hanging in there for their next at-bat, start, relief call, mop-up job, pinch-running shot – anything – for a chance to make an impression.

Other players like George Culver (#732), Moe Drabowsky (#627), and Jay Johnstone (#233) were there almost more for their humor and hijinks than their baseball ability. Apparently there’s always been a place for funny in the big leagues.

To wit, Culver had a a mediocre nine year career (48-49 and a 3.62 ERA) and Drabowsky wasn’t much better over 17 years, finishing with a record of 88–105, 54 saves, and a 3.71 ERA. Johnstone stuck around the majors for a full 20 years, platooning in the outfield and pinch-hitting, managing 1254 hits and a .267 career average. Though known more for their antics than their play, Johnstone did have some shining postseason moments with the Dodgers, as did Drabowsky with the Orioles, and they each earned two World Series rings.

So what did these jokers actually do for kicks? Well…apparently Drabowsky had a penchant for making prank calls from bullpen phones and pulling startling stunts with props like snakes and fireworks – you can imagine. Maybe his finest achievement was a “hot foot” he gave Commissioner Bowie Kuhn during the Orioles’ 1970 World Series celebration. Now that takes chutzpah. Tellingly, in his legendary book “Ball Four,” Jim Bouton wrote “There is no bigger flake in organized baseball than Drabowsky”.

Johnstone was a fellow hot foot enthusiast who pulled gags like placing a soggy brownie in Steve Garvey’s first base mitt, cutting the crotch out of Rick Sutcliffe’s underwear, locking manager Tommy Lasorda in his office during spring training, and nailing teammates’ spikes to the floor. Sounds like fun!

Meanwhile, Tommy John (#264) had this to say about Culver: “George didn’t get into a lot of games, but he held a vital role as team comic. His antics kept guys loose and kept us in a good frame of mind. When they [the 1973 Dodgers] released him…it upset the chemistry of the team. We couldn’t believe it. It was like cutting out our heart”.

Behold Johnstone and Culver doing their best to seem serious…but doesn’t it look like Moe D. is just itching to give someone a hot foot?

As interesting as the also-rans are, we mostly end up studying and thinking about the heroics of players who made the biggest impressions during their careers—the all-time greats. One, Gaylord Perry (#285) was ‘only’ 134–109 when he entered the 1972 season at 33 years of age. How did he win another 180 games and make the MLB Hall of Fame? Well, he started by posting his career high wins total in 1972, going 24–16 and winning the first of two Cy Young awards, then he kept on tossing Vaseline balls until he was 44 years old.

Another was Willie “Stretch” McCovey (#280), who in his prime was called “the scariest hitter in baseball” by none other than Bob Gibson. McCovey retired as the second most prolific left-handed home run hitter of all time (tied with Ted Williams with 521, second to Babe Ruth) and held the record for intentional walks in a season (45) for 33 years after breaking the record by a full 12 walks. “Willie Mac” is one of 31 major leaguers who played in four decades (1959–80), but he never quite got over the fact that second baseman Bobby Richardson snared his frozen rope line drive to end the 1962 World Series. On the occasion of his being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988, when asked how he would like to be remembered, McCovey replied: “As the guy who hit the ball over Bobby Richardson’s head in the seventh game.”

The very best players just never stop burning to win, eh?


Part of an ode to baseball and the early 1970s in general, and to the Topps Company and the special 1972 set specifically. Thanks for the memories, Topps—both the old ones and the new ones. Apologies for the pronounced wordiness, but the 50th anniversary of the set warrants indulgence.

Dedicated to my sports-loving mom, Caroline B. Wilkinson, who never threw my cards away, and to all the players from the 1972 Topps Series, especially those who passed during the writing of this article: Henry Aaron, Dick Allen, Ed Armbrister, Glenn Beckert, Larry Biittner, Hal Breeden, Lou Brock, Oscar Brown, Horace Clark, Gene Clines, Billy Conigliaro, Chuck Dobson, Paul Doyle, Ed Farmer, Ray Fosse, Bill Freehan, Bob Gibson, Jim Grant, Grant Jackson, Bart Johnson, Jerry Johnson, Jay Johnstone, Al Kaline, Lew Krausse, Angel Mangual, Mike Marshall, Denis Menke, Lindy McDaniel, Roger Moret, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, Bob Oliver, Don Pavletich, Ron Perranoski, Juan Pizzaro, J. R. Richard, Mike Ryan, Tom Seaver, Richie Scheinblum, Rennie Stennett, Bill Sudakis, Don Sutton, Tony Taylor, Dick Tidrow, Bill Virdon, Bob Watson, Stan Williams, and Jim Wynn.

Special thanks to Baseball-Almanac.com, Baseballhall.org, Baseball-Reference.com, and Wikipedia.com for kindly compiling and sharing their vast treasure troves of data.

Extra special thanks to Jason Schwartz and Nick Vossbrink  for their timely encouragement and warm welcome into the SABR community.

Much gratitude to prince of a man Mr. Larry Pauley, who gave this project direction when there was none.

Error cards

Sometime last year I picked up the last card I needed for my 1980 Topps set, placed it into its nine-pocket, and then took my well earned victory flip through the binder of majestic completed pages…only to find a page with a missing card. Dewey defeats Truman. Defeat from the jaws of victory. Bird steals the inbound pass.

Completing a set without actually completing a set is just one of the many cardboard errors I’ve made lately. Here are three more.

My largest player collection (by about 600) is the 700+ playing era cards I have of Dwight Gooden. For whatever reason, I decided a couple years back that the card at the very top of my Dr. K want list was Doc’s 1986 Meadow Gold milk carton “sketch” card.

I’d seen the card on eBay in the $10 range for a while, but you don’t amass 700+ cards of a guy by paying $10 each. At last one turned up for more like $3 and I couldn’t hit “Buy It Now” fast enough. When the card arrived I was genuinely excited to add it to my binder, only to find…

…I already had the card!

Just two weeks later, I “doubled” down by adding a card I thought I needed for my 1972 Fleer Laughlin Famous Feats set.

And again…

On the bright side, it’s not like these cards cost me real money. I’d never make the same mistake adding this Kaiser Wilhelm to my T206 Brooklyn team set, right?

Oops. Think again.

Of course what Hobbyist hasn’t accidentally added the occasional double or two…or three? Probably most, but how many could pull off the feat three times in one month?

In the corporate world, bosses would be calling for a root cause analysis and demanding corrective action. Am I simply getting old? Do I have too many different collections going? Have I gotten lazy at updating my want lists? In truth, probably yes to all three.

As a kid, and I think this was true of most die-hard collectors, I could open a pack and instantly know which cards I needed and which were doubles. I could do the same at card shows, looking through a dealer binder or display case. When it came to cards I had total recall. Evidently such cardboard lucidity is long gone, and it’s probably not a stretch to assume the same degradations have spread to various areas of adulting.

On the other hand, it’s also true that my purchases had much more riding on them back then. For one thing, every nickel, dime, and quarter were precious. Spending $0.50 on a 1963 Topps Ernie Banks (ah, the good old days!) when your entire card show budget (i.e., life savings) was $3.80 “borrowed” from various sources around the house was high finance. Add to that baseball cards being the only thing I thought or cared about, and it makes sense that I always batted a thousand.

An eternal optimist, it’s just not my nature to brand my “triple double” as what some collectors might bill a #HobbyFail. Rather, I’ll take solace in the adage errare humanum est and remember that it’s not the mistakes we make but how we respond to them that defines our true character. As a kid I would have sulked for weeks having committed even one of these blunders. Today I can laugh (and write) about them. Call these senior moments if you will, but isn’t”growing up” just a bit more pleasing to the ear?

Now does anyone wanna trade me a T205 Wilhelm for a T206?

UPDATE: The Wilhelm is no longer available for trade! About an hour after publishing this post the seller contacted me to let me know he’d accidentally sold it to someone else already. I guess I’m not the only one losing track of his cards these days! 😊

Death and Taxes and Baseball Card Litigation [Part II, 1965-1988]

Author’s Note: This is the second in a multi-part series [Part I] that will explore the legal backstories that have shaped (and continue to shape) the baseball card industry. Once considered mere ephemera used to induce children to buy penny confections (or cigarettes!), the industry has been inundated by costly legal battles waged in the name of baseball card supremacy.

Although Fleer had hoped to wield the Federal Trade Commission as its cudgel, the commission ultimately found that Topps’ business practices did not constitute an unlawful monopoly and the matter was dismissed in Topps’ favor on April 30, 1965. Undaunted, Fleer renewed its efforts in 1966 to sign players at spring training camps and issued its “All Star Match Baseball” set, which featured a 66-piece puzzle of Dodgers ace Don Drysdale on the reverse side of the game cards. After this set was issued (and perhaps a result of disappointing sales) Fleer’s resolve faded, culminating in the sale of its entire player contract portfolio—some 3000 players—to Topps later that year for $395,000 (approximately $3.4 million in today’s dollars).

1967 Topps Bill Skowron (#357), Bill Denehy/Tom Seaver (#581), Bob Gibson (#210)

Having dispatched its closest competitor, Topps was poised for sustained dominance in the baseball card market. Indeed, the 1967 set was its largest to date with a checklist comprising 609 bright, colorful cards. Unfortunately for Topps, its newly bought peace would be fleeting. The next assault, however, would be waged not by rival card manufacturers, but by new adversaries—the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) and Major League Baseball (MLB).

Frank Scott and the Proto-MLBPA

A “short, feisty, impeccably dressed man,” Frank Scott was road secretary for the New York Yankees from 1947 through 1950 and developed close relationships with Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and Mickey Mantle. In exchange for a 10% commission, Scott began to represent those players for off-field income opportunities—namely personal appearances and product endorsements—and eventually developed a client list of over 90 baseball stars including Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, and Robin Roberts. At his peak, Scott was earning $250,000 per year (approximately $2.4 million today) pursuing endorsement deals. One of those deals included landing Mickey Mantle a $1500 payment from Bowman for rights to a photo of Mantle blowing a bubble (although no such card was ever issued).

The Sporting News, September 23, 1953

In May 1959, Scott was named director of the nascent MLBPA—an organization originally created to help ensure the players’ player pension fund was being adequately funded. He continued his player representation business and staffed a provisional MLBPA office at a New York City hotel. Although he had been paid $1000 ($9600 today) a year by Topps for his assistance getting players to sign baseball card contracts, Scott ceased all relationships with Topps after becoming head of the MLBPA.

Considered “too smart to meddle in the players’ salary debates,” Scott avoided contract negotiations between his clients and their respective ballclubs. Similarly, the MLBPA was not yet recognized as a union under Scott’s leadership and did not engage in collective bargaining with MLB on behalf of the players. The direction of the MLBPA, however, changed drastically in late 1965 as a search was undertaken to find a full-time director and establish a permanent office.

The Marvin Miller Experience

Though not their first choice, the stars aligned when the players’ landed Marvin Miller, then chief economist for the United Steelworkers. Under Miller’s leadership, the MLBPA saw unprecedented progress for players’ rights and eventually led to his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in December 2019.

2015 Topps Heritage (#NF-9)

Miller’s nomination for Executive Director was ratified by a player vote on April 11, 1966. He was given a two-and-a-half-year contract starting July 1, at $50,000 per year (approximately $430,000 today), plus a $20,000 expense budget. In need of quick revenue to fund association operations, Miller prioritized a group licensing program. With Frank Scott’s help, the MLBPA first inked a deal with Coca-Cola to print player photos on the underside of bottlecaps. The team owners demanded that Coca-Cola pay separately to use of their club logos. Coca-Cola refused, however, so the bottlecaps were printed with blank hats.

At the time Miller took the helm, the players were still being paid $125 per year by Topps to use their photographs, the amount unchanged for over a decade. Miller met with Topps’ president Joel Shorin in the fall of 1966 looking to renegotiate. Shorin was dismissive of the ballplayers’ leverage as he quipped, “I don’t see your muscle.” Miller, however, was ready to play hardball with Topps:

“In early 1967 Miller suggested to the players that they stop renewing their individual Topps contracts and boycott Topps photographers. This was the only way, Miller advised, that they could get Topps to deal with them. Although the action was voluntary, Topps was able to take no more than a handful of photos during the 1967 season, and, with the dispute unresolved, none at all in 1968.”   

(Mark Armour, SABR Baseball Cards)

Around this same time, the baseball club owners established Major League Properties, Inc. looking to monetize the use of their logos depicted in the photos taken of the ballplayers. After initially refusing to engage with the owners for these rights, Topps was warned that future player photos should be taken in “street clothes, or in pajamas or bathing trunks.” Accordingly, uncertainty created by the demands made by the club owners and the MLBPA were the main reason hatless, underbrim, and duplicative photos proliferated Topps’ offerings the second half of the 1960s.

The players’ boycott convinced Topps to pursue further talks with the MLBPA in early 1968. Topps’ opening volley was no olive branch, however. At a meeting on April 23, Shorin presented Miller with a legal opinion stating that the MLBPA’s group licensing program violated antitrust laws. The MLBPA responded with an opinion that Topps’ contracts with the players violated antitrust laws. (Ironically, both Topps and the MLBPA would soon have to defend a lawsuit that alleged that they conspired together to violate antitrust laws.)

Fleer (Briefly) Back in the Mix

In a move designed to enhance the MLBPA’s bargaining position with Topps, Miller proposed giving Fleer exclusive rights, beginning in 1973, to sell baseball cards with gum for up to 80% of the MLB player pool—in exchange for $600,000. Alternatively, the MLBPA offered Fleer immediate rights for all players sold with a product other than gum. Fleer rejected both offers, claiming it was only interested in cards sold with gum, and that 1973 was simply too long to wait.

Detente

Despite the hostile start to their renegotiations, Topps and the MLBPA were able to reach an accord on November 19, 1968 that doubled the player’s annual payment to $250. More importantly, Topps agreed to pay royalties on its annual baseball card sales revenue, resulting in $320,000 (approximately $2.5 million today) paid to the MLBPA in the first year of the deal alone. The deal also allowed the MLBPA to grant a license for any products that were at least 5” x 7” and sold for 25 cents, although Topps reserved the right of first refusal as to any such proposal.

The MLBPA issued numerous trading card licenses during the 1968-1974 period to companies like Beatrice Foods, ITT Continental Baking, Kellogg’s, Pro Star, Inc., Madaras, Inc., Pasco, Inc., and Charles Linnett Associates—several of which were granted over Topps’ objection. In 1969 the MLBPA granted Sports Promotions, Inc., a license to market baseball cards “with cheap novelty rings, iron-on patches, and similar novelties so long as the value of the novelty represented half of the total retail value.” Topps complained to the MLBPA that their rights had been infringed when they learned of the agreement. Topps also objected to Kellogg’s selling baseball cards alone through the mail in 1974. Officially licensed by the MLBPA, Kellogg’s sold sets 54 baseball cards for $1.50, plus a box-top from box of cereal (that typically cost 60 cents). The MLBPA did not revoke Kellogg’s license but obtained a waiver from Topps to allow the continued license for cards sold in that fashion. (Topps could not object to the Kellogg’s cards inserted as premiums in Kellogg’s cereal boxes.)

Despite some occasional complaints to the MLBPA, several years of prosperity followed for Topps and by 1974, its sales of baseball cards and gum approached $6 million annually (approximately $34 million today). Pleased with their arrangement, the contract between Topps and the MLBPA was extended through 1981.

A Fleer in the Ointment

In 1974, Fleer’s president Donald Peck approached the MLBPA seeking approval to market 5” x 7” satin patches to be sold for 25 cents each. The proposal appeared to exploit the product size loophole granted by Topps but appears to have been bit of clever subterfuge in hindsight suggested by Fleer’s paltry $25,000 guarantee on projected sales of $1 million. Moreover, Fleer was likely aware Topps and the MLBPA routinely discussed whether proposed licenses infringed upon Topps’ rights.

Topps took the bait and advised the MLBPA that Fleer’s proposal “was probably not worthwhile.” Without explicitly asking that the license be denied, Shorin warned that the large-format satin patches proposed by Fleer would sit on store shelves and likely depress the sales of Topps’ baseball cards, along with the players’ royalties. Not surprisingly, Topps declined its right to claim the license for the satin patch product.

Miller presented both Fleer’s proposal and Topps’ criticism to the players’ executive board for consideration. Fleer’s offer was rejected unanimously because of fears “Fleer’s product would remain unsold on store shelves, prompting store owners to cut back on orders of Topps’ baseball cards.” Additionally, the executive board was skeptical of Fleer’s sales projections and inadequate guarantee. Miller suggested several changes that might secure a license for the product, but Fleer declined. By April 1975, Fleer had dropped its 5” x 7” product proposal all together.

Peck met with Joel Shorin on April 17, 1975 and threatened to file a lawsuit unless Topps granted Fleer the rights to sell “stickers, stamps, and decals depicting active major league players.” Shorin refused, so Fleer approached the MLBPA about joining in a lawsuit against Topps. The MBLPA declined.

The Monopoly Defense, Part Deux

Even though it had apparently abandoned a desire to produce baseball cards of current players by selling off its contract portfolio to Topps in 1966, Fleer kept a toe in the water by selling team logo cloth stickers with its gum from 1967 through 1972. While Curt Flood’s antitrust case captured headlines throughout the early 1970s and pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally played out their 1975 seasons without contracts in an effort to gain free agent status, Fleer pursued an antitrust case of its own in July 1975, filing a federal lawsuit against Topps and the MLBPA alleging they were co-conspirators in an illegal restraint of trade under the Sherman Act.

1970 Topps Curt Flood (#360) – Flood never played for the Phillies but appears on this card, a perfect example of the “underbrim” shot favored by Topps’ photographers.

Donald Peck claimed that “Topps’ methods had made it impossible for a competitor to bid for rights to the players’ pictures, that the players had been deprived of a chance to maximize their income,” and “the gum and candy industries had been deprived of open competition.” In its complaint, Fleer alleged that it had attempted to obtain the rights needed to produce a set of current major league baseball 5” x 7” cloth stickers as recently as 1974 and was otherwise equipped to reenter the market, but for its lack of “suitable contracts with baseball players.” 

Now united, Topps and the MLBPA vowed to vigorously defend the case, which made antitrust accusations eerily similar to those Topps had successfully defended just a decade earlier in the FTC matter. Joel Shorin remained confident that Topps “had complied with all relevant laws.” Likewise, Marvin Miller was satisfied with the Topps’ arrangement and “would not like to see it disrupted.”   

In response, Topps filed a motion to dismiss asking the court to find that Fleer was a de facto party in the FTC matter, alleging “Fleer took such an active part in the FTC hearings, and its interests were so aligned with those of the FTC complaint counsel, that it had a “full and fair opportunity . . . to present its evidence and arguments on the claim.” Because the FTC matter had already been resolved in Topps’ favor, they felt it unfair to allow Fleer another bite at the apple.

It seems reasonable to infer that Fleer had no intention of ever issuing a set of 5” x 7” satin stickers, especially when they rebuffed Miller’s attempts to restructure the deal. Most likely, Fleer’s proposal was engineered to be rejected by the MLBPA, both by its puny guarantee and bold expectation Topps would exert its influence to sink the project. By perpetuating this bluff, however, Fleer could allege the requisite intention and capacity to reenter the baseball card market necessary to prove its antitrust case.

The court found that Fleer had undertaken substantial steps to compete in the marketing of current baseball player picture cards and had sufficiently pled that the alleged conspiracy between Topps and the MLBPA prevented them from entering the market. The defendants’ motion to dismiss the case was denied on May 28, 1976; Fleer survived round one.

The Pure Card Set

In late 1974, Topps was alerted that Mike Aronstein and Sports Stars Publishing Company (SSPC) was interested in issuing cards featuring current baseball players. Topps notified the MLBPA, who issued a cease-and-desist letter to Aronstein asserting Topps’ status as the “exclusive licensee for baseball cards sold alone or together with confectionary products” of the MLBPA. Up until Fleer’s request for a license to issue its 5”x7” cloth stickers, the MLBPA had refused but one license request—Aronstein’s—because the SSPC cards conflicted with Topps’ rights to sell cards alone.

1976 SSPC cards: George Brett (#167), Steve Stone (#302), Ron Cey, back (#75)

Undeterred by Topps’ monopoly and after success with Mets and Yankees team sets and a 24-card “puzzle back” set in 1975, SSPC set its sights high for 1976, with plans to issue a massive 630-card “Pure Card Set” inspired by Aronstein’s admiration of 1953 Bowman’s clean design. SSPC partner, Bill Hongach, (former Yankees’ batboy and Renata Galasso’s husband) helped obtain the photographs. A young Keith Olbermann wrote the card backs. The issuance of the Pure Card Set in 1976 (though copyrighted 1975), however, involved a fair bit of daring.

Two of Mike Aronstein’s other partners in SSPC were attorneys who opined the company could legally issue the cards because (1) the current players were public figures and (2) SSPC was simply disseminating editorial information about each player. They believed the SSPC format (despite its dimensions corresponding precisely to those of a Topps baseball card) was not substantively different than a photograph of a player accompanying a magazine article. Regardless, Aronstein said they “waited to be clobbered by Topps” once the set was advertised for sale.  

Distribution of the Pure Card Set—printed and ready to ship as of January 21—was stopped in its tracks when Aronstein received notice that Topps had been granted a temporary restraining order. Despite Topps’ later admission it had no issue with TCMA’s minor league and reprint sets (as long as they did not contain any cards of active MLB coaches of managers under contract with Topps), the order also halted distribution of all TCMA card sets and otherwise attempted to put Aronstein’s Collector’s Quarterly magazine out of business. The SSPC operation was small (i.e., no employees) and had gone $40,000 in debt to print the Pure Card Set.  Topps, on the other hand, tallied $8 million in revenue (approximately $40 million today) on sales of 250 million baseball cards produced in 1976. 

Photos courtesy Andrew Aronstein

Eventually, Aronstein was able to reach a deal that allowed SSPC to distribute the Pure Card Set to anyone who had ordered it on or before February 20, 1976. Aronstein was thrilled—SSPC had sold some three million cards (distributed as complete or team sets), which allowed them to cover the printing costs and claim a tidy profit. The deal also permitted SSPC to produce cards of current players in sizes other than the standard 2½” x 3½” size, which led to SSPC’s creation of fully sanctioned 27-card uncut sheets that the Phillies and Yankees included in their 1978 yearbooks.             

Closing out the 1970s

In 1976, Topps and Fleer began to lose market share with their flagship hard bubblegum products (“Bazooka” and “Dubble Bubble, respectively) due to the introduction of “Bubble Yum,” a soft bubblegum product. Despite its new competition, revenue remained healthy for Topps through 1978, with total sales about $67 million (roughly $290 million today), $9.2 million of which (approximately $40 million today) originated from the sales of baseball cards. With revenue of $15.2 million in 1978 (about $66 million today), Fleer surely salivated at the opportunity to issue baseball cards as a way to close its revenue gap.

In 1978, royalty income for the MLBPA approached $1.1 million (approximately $4.7 million today). Topps’ royalty payments accounted for about $847,000 (approximately $3.65 million today) of that total. That Topps payment comprised more than 75 percent of the MLBPA’s total licensing revenue neatly explains why the MLBPA was reluctant to cross Topps.

The Bubble Bursts

Fleer’s antitrust case against Topps and the MLBPA rolled on for the better part of four years in Pennsylvania without much publicity until the defendants were dealt a massive blow on June 30, 1980. After trial on the matter, the district court issued its decision finding that Topps and the MLBPA had acted in concert to exclude Topps’ competitors and were in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act by having restrained trade in the baseball card market. Damning to be sure.

In order to arrive at its decision that Topps and the MLBPA conspired to monopolize, the court had to find a “specific subjective intent to gain an illegal degree of market control.” As a result, Fleer was entitled to monetary damages and the court was empowered to grant equitable (non-monetary) relief that could levy restrictions on Topps and the MLBPA and/or impose mandatory injunctions that would require defendants to perform specific actions. The equitable relief granted by Judge Clarence Newcomer would change the baseball card landscape forever. 

In order to calculate any monetary damages owed to Fleer, the court assumed that, absent the conspiracy to monopolize, “the MLBPA would have granted Fleer a non-confectionary license for some product” at the market price. The court, however, considered the realities of Fleer’s chances for success in the market, “Fleer has never had a great deal of success marketing trading cards of any type (Topps and Donruss are the leaders in the field), and had it obtained an expensive license, its expertise would have been greatly tested. Fleer’s distribution system is not as effective as that of Topps (Topps uses its own sales force; Fleer works through brokers and wholesalers), and Topps could have been expected to have beaten Fleer to the shelves in the spring. Finally, Topps’ product has a great deal of market acceptance among retailers and consumers.” The court admittedly could not find that “Fleer would have been the company to succeed at the endeavor,” but it at least should have had the opportunity to try.

Damage, Inc.

Generally, monetary damages must be provable in order to be recovered. Unfortunately for Fleer, the court found that trying to quantify Fleer’s losses depended on “an unacceptable amount of speculation,” especially because Fleer was “not a particularly robust company at the moment.” Its sales were roughly a fifth of those of Topps and both companies were suffering loss of market share at the hands of soft bubble gum products sold by larger competitors. Moreover, Fleer had never sold a trading card item that achieved $750,000 in sales.

Even without any conspiracy between Topps and the MLBPA, “Fleer would have faced two obstacles between it and its first dollar of profit. First, it would have had to obtain a license from the MLBPA to market a set of cards. Second, it faced the significant market power of a firmly entrenched competitor.” Because of this uncertainty, the court awarded Fleer symbolic damages of $1 (which was trebled to $3 pursuant to statute). The defendants were also ordered to reimburse Fleer its attorneys’ fees—likely hundreds of thousands of dollars incurred to pursue the protracted litigation.

More importantly, the court permanently enjoined Topps from enforcing the exclusivity clause in its player contracts and prohibited Topps from entering into any player contract that gave Topps the exclusive right to sell that player’s photograph. Wow.

The MLBPA was ordered to carefully consider any applications it received for licenses to market baseball cards and was explicitly required to enter into at least one such licensing agreement before January 1, 1981 “to market a pocket-size baseball card product, to be sold alone or in combination with a low-cost premium, in packages priced at 15 to 50 cents.” Fleer was granted right of first refusal as to any such license. The MLBPA was also cleared to grant as many similar baseball card licenses as it chose to.

Fleer and Donruss Enter the Fray

1981 Topps Bill Buckner (#625), 1981 Fleer Mark Fidrych (#462), 1981 Donruss Pete Rose (#131)

Following the court’s decision in June 1980, Fleer scrambled to assemble its 1981 set. At 660 cards, it was by far the largest set the company had ever produced. President Donald Peck was downright giddy, “I don’t know why we succeeded this time. I guess our case was just presented better. . .We’re just having a lot of fun competing in this area.” He predicted Fleer would sell less than Topps, but “more than Topps thinks.”

In 1980 the standard Topps wax pack contained 15 cards and a stick of gum for 25 cents. Topps included 15 cards and a stick of gum for its 1981 set but increased the price to 30 cents per pack. It also added “The Real One” tagline to its boxes and wrappers for the first time.

1981 Topps Wax Box

Fleer tried to outdo Topps by inserting 17 cards and a stick of gum in its 1981 wax packs, sold for 30 cents. It also included two extra packs in each wax box, promising retailers “60 cents extra profit”! Fleer’s 1981 issue was the first to market.

Donruss was an experienced player in (mostly non-sport) trading cards but had to scramble to produce a set once it was granted a license by the MLBPA in September 1980 (reaping the rewards without having to engage in expensive litigation. Although not a party, Donruss personnel was involved in the Fleer case only as witnesses).

Donruss’ president Stewart Lyman reached out to New York sportswriter Bill Madden, who was hired to write the backs for the 1981 set. Mike Aronstein was granted the exclusive right to sell complete hobby sets that year. Donruss sold its wax packs, 18 cards and a stick of gum, through its established distribution channels.

Unfortunately, the 1981 Fleer and Donruss issues were plagued by errors as they rushed to produce their sets, prompting collectors to question whether the errors were included intentionally to stimulate publicity. Fleer corrected some of its errors in its second printing, some more in its third. By June 7, Donruss was in its third printing and had made corrections to most of the errors that dogged its hastily assembled set. Lyman denied Donruss had intentionally included the error cards as a way to increase sales, “I’m embarrassed we made any errors, but I’m proud so few were made considering the timetable we had to put out the set.”

Can you spot the errors?
1981 Fleer Fernando Valenzuela (#140) and Graig Nettles (#87), 1981 Donruss Bobby Bonds (#71)

Interestingly, the district court observed that as of 1980, “no baseball cards are marketed which include statistics on stolen bases or fielding percentage, game winning hits, successful sacrifice attempts, or any number of other statistics which a competitor might choose to offer to attract baseball card purchasers.” Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Topps and Fleer both included stolen bases on their card backs in 1981.    

The Appeal

Despite having prevailed, Fleer was not fully satisfied and appealed the district court’s decision. Fleer wanted the court to bar Topps from the baseball card market for at least one season and to require Topps to deal only with the MLBPA rather than through its exclusive individual player agreements. In addition, Fleer sought reconsideration of the award of nominal damages ($3). Topps appealed as well, seeking a reversal of the court’s findings of liability, damages, and injunctive relief.

In a bit of déjà vu, the Third District Appellate Court found that the agreements in place between Topps and the MLBPA “were neither unreasonable restraints of trade. . .nor monopolization of the relevant market.” Topps had won the appeal (again). The court held that just because Topps had managed to obtain licensing agreements with the overwhelming majority of major league players “did not make the aggregation of these contracts an unlawful combination in restraint of trade.” They noted further that Fleer chose to leave the trading card market in 1966 and sold all its existing licensing agreements to Topps.

In addition, Fleer had admitted it could compete against Topps for license agreements in the minor leagues, but it would take several years before it could produce a marketable product. The court found that this argument simply “identified a characteristic of Major League Baseball, rather than an illegal restraint of trade” or “an indictment of Topps’ licensing agreements.” While a Fleer may not have been able to sign major league players already under contract to Topps, it could still compete for player licenses at the minor league level. That this might take six or seven years to bear fruit did not make Topps’ agreements anticompetitive.

An examination of licenses granted by the MLBPA for the sale of trading cards with non-confectionary goods demonstrated that the fear of decreased royalty payments did not stop the MLBPA from licensing products competitive with Topps. As a licensor, “the MLBPA is free to grant licenses to any competitor, or none at all.” Ultimately, appellate court held that Fleer had not proven any intent on the part of Topps and the MLBPA to monopolize the trading card market.

In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Fleer’s appeal, which made final the Third District’s decision.

Restitution in Delaware

No longer free to market their cards with gum, Fleer and Donruss set about to distribute their cards in 1982 with a non-confectionary premium to exploit the loophole in Topps’ exclusive rights to market cards alone or with gum, candy, or confectionaries. (Fleer did not resurrect the cookie packed with cards in 1963.) Though Topps presumably protested to the MLBPA that Fleer’s team logo stickers and Donruss’s Babe Ruth puzzle pieces were simply “sham” products tantamount to selling cards alone, the MLBPA continued to officially sanction Fleer and Donruss, presumably content with the fruits of the royalty arrangements with each.  

In May 1982, shortly after Fleer’s appellate recourse was exhausted, Topps filed a lawsuit in Delaware’s chancery court alleging Fleer was unjustly enriched by “sales of products to which Topps had the exclusive rights to manufacture and sell.” Topps sought to recover the profits Fleer realized on its $4 million in sales (approximately $12.4 million today) of 1981 cards. Fleer president Donald Peck dismissed the charges as meritless and assured that Fleer had no intentions of pulling its 1982 cards from the market. Regardless, in the course of the lawsuit Fleer acknowledged that did owe some amount of restitution but urged that disgorgement of its profits was unreasonable.   

While the Delaware case was pending, Topps filed a separate lawsuit against Fleer in the Southern District of New York on March 29, 1983 seeking to recover all of Fleer’s profits for 1982 and 1983—along with $3 million in punitive damages—claiming that Fleer’s team logo sticker was a “sham product.” This lawsuit was settled confidentially in 1985, with Fleer given consent to “continue with the baseball cards and team logo stickers, as before.”

Back in Delaware, Fleer filed a motion asking the chancery court to declare that Topps was not entitled to recover Fleer’s profits “because those profits were earned under the protection of a court order and not as the result of any illegal infringement of Topps’ exclusive contract or licensing rights.” The court denied Fleer’s motion, finding that even though Fleer had legally marketed its 1981 cards in accordance with the Pennsylvania district court’s order—once the decree was reversed by the appellate court, it was as though Fleer had infringed on Topps’ exclusive rights all along.

In 1988, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling that Fleer had issued cards in 1981 under a wrongfully issued injunction and were responsible to reimburse Topps damages equal to the “net profits received by Fleer arising out of Fleer’s use of Topps’ previously exclusive license agreements.” The matter was returned to the lower court for an accounting. It is unclear how the chancery case ultimately resolved, but it seems likely that the parties reached confidential settlement. (No newspaper articles reporting on the resolution of the case have been located and no information is available remotely from the court.)

1988 Topps Jose Cruz (#278), 1988 Fleer Edgar Martinez (#378), 1988 Gregg Jefferies (#657), 1988 Sportflics Wade Boggs (#50), 1988 Score Bo Jackson (#180)

Otherwise, the MLBPA began preparing in 1988 for a potential work stoppage in 1990 when the collective bargaining agreement with MLB expired. At the time, baseball card royalties paid into the MLBPA garnered each player roughly $18,000 per year in additional income (approximately $43,000 today). The MLBPA used those royalty payments (only $5000 of the $18,000 total was distributed to the players) to fund a war chest, which proved a savvy move when the owners implemented a 32-day lockout that delayed the start of the 1990 season.

Also in 1988, newcomer Score joined Topps, Fleer, Donruss, and Sportflics (who began producing sets in 1986) as a major set manufacturer. Deep in the throes of the junk wax era, Dr. James Beckett expected some five billion cards would be manufactured in 1988. Predictably, more industry players would mean more fighting.

To be continued…

Sources/Notes:

Websites

www.baseball-reference.com

www.retrosheet.com[JS27] [JR28] 

www.tcdb.com

www.mlbplayers.com

Cases

  • In re Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. 67 F.T.C. 744 (1965).
  • Flood v. Kuhn, 407 U.S. 258 (1972). In January 1970, Curt Flood filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of New York against the Commissioner of Baseball (Bowie Kuhn), the presidents of the two major leagues (Joe Cronin and Chub Feeney), and the 24 major league clubs after he refused an October 1969 trade from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood’s complaint alleged violations of federal antitrust laws, civil rights statutes, and the imposition of a form of peonage and involuntary servitude contrary to the Thirteenth Amendment, which had abolished slavery. Flood refused to report to the Phillies in 1970, despite a $100,000 salary offer, and sat out for the season. He appeared in 13 games for the Washington Senators in 1971 but left the club, and organized baseball, for good on April 27 unsatisfied with his performance. On June 19, 1972, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in the Flood v. Kuhn matter, holding that, in accordance with Federal Base Ball (1922), the business of baseball—including the reserve clause—was exempt from antitrust laws. No other business (i.e., vaudeville, professional boxing, National Football League) that had sought antitrust exemption in reliance on Federal Baseball had been successful. Accordingly, MLB had (has) the only legally sanctioned monopoly in the United States. Despite candidly admitting that “professional baseball is a business and it is engaged in interstate commerce,” a majority of the Supreme Court ruled against Flood, imploring any change to the law be had “by legislation and not by court decision.” 
  • Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 415 F.Supp. 176 (E.D. Pa. 1976).  With regard to the FTC matter, “Fleer’s representatives were star witnesses and, in proportion, carried the burden of making the record in this proceeding. They were in constant attendance throughout the hearing. . . In retrospect, much of the struggle for contracts with ballplayers seems to be Fleer’s private struggle with Topps . . .The Hearing Examiner is, however, of the opinion that the delegation of the Commission’s ‘adjudicative fact-finding functions’ does not embrace a policy question going to the public interest.”
  • Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 501 F.Supp. 485 (E.D. Pa. 1980). The only trading card product ever to outsell baseball cards was Wacky Packages in 1973-74. The court noted that the slab of gum weighed “4.30 grams” in 1978. Fleer had a net operating loss in 1978 and its net income (loss) was as follows: 1977—$346,621; 1976—$502,257; 1975—$720,274; 1974—($309,261); 1973—$382,354; 1972—$268,926; 1971—$148,494; 1970—($200,016). Roughly two thirds of baseball cards purchased are purchased by “heavy” buyers (i.e., those who purchase more than 200 cards per year.)  
  • Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 658 F.2d 139 (3rd Cir. 1981). The number of players included in each licensing agreement varied. Some contracts, like those with Coca-Cola and Kellogg’s covered all the players, while others included “not less than 72, and not more than 300.”
  • Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., cert. denied, 455 U.S. 1019 (1982).
  • Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. v. Fleer Corp., 547 F.Supp. 102 (D. Del. 1982).
  • Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. v. Fleer Corp., 799 F.2d 851 (2nd Cir. 1986). Fleer’s contract with the MLBPA required that the production cost of the logo sticker had to be “not less than 15 percent of the production cost of the baseball cards in a package.” No evidence was presented to show the production costs for the team logo stickers.
  • Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. 539 A.2d 1060 (Del., 1988). “Restitution serves to ‘deprive the defendant of benefits that in equity and good conscience he ought not to keep, even though he may have received those benefits honestly in the first instance, and even though the plaintiff may have suffered no demonstrable losses.’”

Articles

  • “Mickey’s Bubbles Busted by Ol’ Case,” The Sporting News, September 23, 1953: 17. Mantle was redressed by Yankees manager Casey Stengel for having the audacity to blow a bubble while playing in the outfield.
  • Dick Young, “Young Ideas,” (New York) Daily News, December 2, 1967: C26.
  • Richard Wright, “Off-Season Paydirt for Pro Stars,” Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan), December 8, 1968: 59.
  • “Lawyer Probed on Ballplayers’ Complaints,” Detroit Free Press, November 2, 1970: 30.
  • Don Lenhausen, “Lawyer Linked to Tigers Is Accused of Misconduct,” Detroit Free Press, December 17, 1970: 16.
  • “Bad Check Charge Lawyer Sentenced,” Detroit Free Press, July 28, 1971: 17.
  • “Competitor Sues Topps Over Players’ Pictures,” Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) Times Leader, July 10, 1975: 4.
  • “Gum Firm to Pop Rival’s Bubble,” Detroit Free Press, July 10, 1975: 25.
  • “The battle of the baseball cards,” The Record (Hackensack, New Jersey), March 10, 1976: 62.
  • Mike Aronstein, “The Great Card War,” Collectors Quarterly, Summer 1976.
  • “The Topps-sponsored Bubble Gum Blowing Championships of 1975,” The Tampa Tribune, September 5, 1976: 118. In 1976, Topps issued a card honoring Milwaukee Brewers infielder Kurt Bevacqua as the “Joe Garagiola/Bazooka Bubble Gum Blowing Champ.” The win netted Bevacqua a first prize of $1000 ($5200 today) for his 18¼” bubble. Phillies catcher Johnny Oates was second with a 14½” bubble that won him $500. 
  • Andy Lindstrom, “Kids still trade their baseball heroes,” News-Pilot (San Pedro, California), September 10, 1976: 11.
  • Michelle Mitkowski, “Baseball Card Collectors Have Field Day at Show,” Daily Record (Morristown, New Jersey), January 12, 1981: 19.
  • Paul Marose, “Just like runs and cards, errors part of the game,” The Dispatch (Moline, Illinois), June 7, 1981: 13-14.
  • “Bubble gum game goes into extra innings,” Baltimore Sun, June 1982: 38.”
  • “No Hits, Runs, Errors Yet in Chewing Gum Lawsuit,” Scranton Times-Tribune, March 30, 1983: 11.
  • “Topps gum firm agrees to buy-out,” Philadelphia Inquirer, November 17, 1983: 121.
  • “Gumming up the works,” Santa Fe New Mexican, April 8, 1985: 11.
  • “Investment in Baseball Cards is Topps,” Record-Journal (Meriden, Connecticut), April 18, 1988: 14.
  • Claire Smith, “Players saving for strike in ’90,” Hartford Courant, June 18, 1988: 191, 194.
  • Frank Litsky, “Frank Scott, 80, Baseball’s First Player Agent,” New York Times, June 30, 1998: Section B, Page 9.
  • Mark Armour, “The 1967-68 Player Boycott of Topps,” SABR Baseball Cards Committee Blog,  https://sabrbaseballcards.blog/2017/01/03/the-1967-68-player-boycott-of-topps/, January 3, 2017.
  • Michael Haupert, “Marvin Miller and the Birth of the MLBPA,” Baseball Research Journal, Spring 2017.

Interview

Mike Aronstein, telephone interview with author, March 10, 2022.

Miscellaneous Notes

  • The players’ first choice for Executive Director was Milwaukee County Judge Robert Cannon, who turned down the offer because his request to place the MLBPA office in Milwaukee or Chicago was refused and the association would not guarantee him a pension equal to what he would have received as a county judge.  Cannon was later instrumental in moving the Seattle Pilots franchise to Milwaukee. The licensing deal with Coca-Cola was $60,000 per year for two years and was instrumental in securing funding needed to keep the MLBPA solvent until dues were first collected in May 1967. Topps agreed to pay an 8% royalty on the first $4 million in sales and 10% thereafter.
  • The MLBPA group licensing program applies to any company seeking to use the names or likenesses of more than two Major League Baseball players in connection with a commercial product, product line or promotion must sign a licensing agreement with the MLBPA. The license grants the use of the players’ names and/or likenesses only and not the use of any MLB team logos or marks.
  • Presumably a deal was reached between Topps and Major League Properties considering team logos appear in every set of the 1960s, but the terms of this deal have eluded the author.
  • The author has been unable to identify any products marketed under the name “Sports Promotions, Inc.” although this appears to be a company linked to Livonia, Michigan attorney Edward P. May, who along with Tigers pitcher Joe Sparma sold Tiger player caricatures in 1968 and had attempted to “merchandise bubblegum cards on a nationwide basis.”   May had represented Al Kaline, who complained to the Wayne County prosecutor’s office that May had defrauded him out of $14,000 tied to a health club named for the slugger.  Denny McLain complained he lost $100,000 on an ill-fated paint company venture May arranged. The MLBPA complained May had not paid royalties on baseball cards sold and accused him of forging the signature of a printing company executive on a document that guaranteed those royalties. In 1971, May was placed on three years’ probation for writing bad checks and suspended indefinitely from practicing law in Michigan.
  • Before 1981, Topps had only included stolen base statistics on the backs of its 1971 cards.

Special Thanks

Special thanks to Jason Schwartz for reviewing this article and offering several helpful suggestions.