1997 Denny’s: The Most Ambitious Set Ever?

I was introduced to holograms by Desi Arnaz, Jr in 1983. Arnaz played Walter Nebicher, a nerdy police officer/computer whiz who craved more responsibility within the police department. In his spare time, Nebicher developed a powerful crime-fighting, helicopter-piloting, Tron-like-hologram hero he dubbed “Automan.” Unfortunately, Automan was canceled after only 12 episodes and I pretty much forgot about holograms until those marvels of dimensionality began to be incorporated into baseball card sets in the late 1980s.

On the other hand, lenticular cards had been a hobby staple since the 1970s. These plasticky “3-D” oddball issues were first introduced as a Topps test issue in 1968. Collectors most likely became aware of the 3-D technology, however when they found baseball cards in their Kellogg’s cereal boxes or discs on the bottom of 7-11 Slurpee cups. The Sportflics issue in 1986 introduced the lenticular card on a much grander scale, incorporating a headshot and a pair of action poses for individual players and cards featuring up to 12 different player photos. Regardless, the 3-D card has largely remained a novelty.

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Whether a baseball card featured a holographic or lenticular element, the creator of that card was endeavoring to capture the action and movement of the game into a static format—what else could a collector ask for in a two-dimensional card? Many of these cards are downright magical.

Famous for its Grand Slam breakfast, Denny’s began producing a branded baseball card set with Upper Deck in 1991. That set featured a full bleed holographic image on the front and narrative statistical information on the reverse, along with—cleverly—the player’s career grand slam tally. One card was issued for each of the 26 Major League teams at the time. Denny’s followed a similar format in 1992 and 1993, the latter set growing to 28 cards with the addition of players from the Rockies and Marlins. These cards were given to patrons who ordered a Grand Slam breakfast.

In 1994, Denny’s and Upper Deck changed the format a bit and for the first time, the set included pitchers. The player’s grand slam tally was discontinued, perhaps because none of Jim Abbott, Kevin Appier and Cal Eldred had never hit a home run, let alone a grand slam. This year, the issue also included a special Reggie Jackson card that was reportedly distributed one to a location and was to be given away as a prize. This remains the rarest of any Denny’s issue.

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The 1995 Denny’s set was the last for Upper Deck, the restaurant chain having partnered with Pinnacle for 1996. While the 1991-95 Upper Deck holographic issues simply added some shimmer and dimension to the card fronts, the 1996 set really brought home the bacon. Touted as “Full Motion Holograms,” these cards—when pivoted at just the right angle—actually depicted fluid action of a batter’s swing or pitcher’s windup. This issue also added a randomly inserted ten-card Grand Slam subset, with a parallel ten-card Grand Slam Artist’s Proof subset. The holographic image on the Grand Slam subset card was just a generic Grand Slam breakfast advertisement, ironically making the chase cards much less desirable than those in the base set.

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Then, in 1997, the 24-hour diner chain turned the collecting world on its collective head. Not unlike the resplendent union of eggs and toast, a concept was hatched in which a single regulation-sized baseball card would include both lenticular and holographic elements. This intrepid design produced the most technologically ambitious baseball card ever—with roughly 71%* of the card’s real estate covered by special effects. The front of the card was oriented horizontally and featured crisp effects in front of or behind each subject. The back of the card contained biographical and career highlight information, along with a large holographic image of the player’s face. These cards were wrapped individually and were available for 59 cents to anyone who purchased an entrée and non-alcoholic beverage.

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The set was comprised of 29 cards, one for each of the 28 Major League teams of the day, along with a special Jackie Robinson card in honor of 1997 having been the 50th anniversary of his having broken baseball’s color barrier. The Robinson card was based on Ernie Sisto’s depicting Robinson being tagged out at plate by the Pirates’ Clyde McCullough at Ebbets Field on May 2, 1951.

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Oddly, Denny’s also produced a separately distributed card of Larry Doby, numbered “1 of 1.”** The Doby card was given out at the All-Star Game Fan Fest and National Sports Collectors Convention, both of which were held in Cleveland that year. [Additionally, there is anecdotal evidence that the Doby card was also available at Cleveland-area Denny’s locations, but this has not necessarily been substantiated.] As you may know, Doby broke the color barrier in the AL, playing his initial game for the Indians on July 5, 1947.

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The 1997 Denny’s cards are fun to handle not only because of the movement and special effects on both sides, but also because a good number include other identifiable individuals. For example, John Jaha appears to be holding Wade Boggs on at first. The Sammy Sosa card has Jose Hernandez positioned oddly as Sosa appears to be mid home run trot. It appears that Jeff Bagwell is depicted on Tim Salmon’s card, Hal Morris appears on Derek Jeter’s card, Kirt Manwaring is seen on Andruw Jones’s card, and Jim Thome makes a baserunning appearance on Bagwell’s card, the only dual Hall of Famer entry in the lot.

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Interestingly, Cubs catcher Scott Servais appears on two cards, those of Ray Lankford and Gary Sheffield. The Sheffield card is particularly interesting because the visible Wrigley Field bunting probably dates that photograph as having been taken during the Cubs opening series against the Marlins in 1997, not long before the set would have been finalized for manufacture.

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The card fronts are also interesting to study for the differing ways in which motion was added and whether the perspective of that motion was in the foreground, background, or both. The majority of the cards depict the main subject as a solid, two-dimensional figure. Several cards, however, animate a portion of the player’s body, such as Mo Vaughn’s glove, Mike Piazza’s arm, and Frank Thomas’s left hand gripping a baseball to autograph.

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Unfortunately, all this technology came at a price. While information regarding the cost to produce each of these cards has eluded the author, these cards could not have been inexpensive to produce and Denny’s ambition may have been the reason for the demise of their baseball card promotions. Alas, the 1997 set was the last that Denny’s would distribute.

Even now, Denny’s sets and singles are readily available and relatively inexpensive. The ambitious 1997 set is the pinnacle of baseball card fun, even more so than Automan ever was.

Here is the checklist: 1997 Denny’s Checklist

Notes:

*I say that “roughly 71%” because the hologram features a slight rounded contour of a baseball, not a straight line. I am not going to do any math that requires me to calculate the area of an arc section.

**Denny’s having chosen to celebrate Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby may have been an effort to help rehabilitate their corporation reputation on the heels of paying $54.4 million to settle a class-action racial discrimination lawsuit.

Sources:

Jeff Leeds, “Denny’s Restaurants Settle Bias Suits for $54 Million: Civil rights: Blacks complained of discrimination at the chain. Case marks new push for Justice Department,” Los Angeles Times, May 25, 1994.

Dwight Chapin, Greg Smith, “Highland Mint strikes gold in memorabilia market,” The Marion Star (Marion, Ohio), August 31, 1997.

On cropping and layers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The most boring cards in the set?

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

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

These days

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

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

Early nineties

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

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

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

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

1978-1989 Topps

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

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

…or on the back of team cards.

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

1974*

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

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

1967-69 Topps

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

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

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

1963

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

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

1961

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pre-1961 Topps

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

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

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

Ditto 1959 Topps…

…and 1958.

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

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

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

The crumbiest card in the set?

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

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

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

When is a checklist not a checklist?

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

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

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

No checklist but the next best thing?

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

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

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

…while the second series indicated 312!

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

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

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

The return of set checklists

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

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

The return of team checklists

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

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

The golden age of checklists

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

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

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

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

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

Size isn’t everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where it all began…almost

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

 

1: A History

  1. Andy Pafko

That’s a pretty obvious way to start this, right? Pretty much anyone who has spent time in the baseball card hobby knows how that digit and that name go together, that Andy Pakfo, as a Brooklyn Dodger, was card #1 in the landmark 1952 Topps baseball card set.

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The reverse of a 1909 Philadelphia Carmel card, perhaps the earliest example of an organized numbering system in a baseball card set. (All images courtesy tradingcardb.com)

I’ve often wondered why Andy Pafko, of all people, got the fabled #1 spot in that set. But did it matter in 1952 that he was card #1? When it card #1 start mattering? The earliest example of a card set with a clear numbering system was the 1909 Philadelphia Carmel set. The cards aren’t individually numbered, but rather featured a numbered listing on the back for the 25-card set, with Honus Wagner is the #1 spot. Wagner was (and is) a huge name in the sport, but given that 10 of the 25 subjects of the set are Hall-of-Famers, it’s likely that Wagner was listed first, well, just because he was listed first. The 1910 Philadelphia Carmel set had the same numbering system, this time with Athletics’ first basemen Harry Davis is the #1 spot, with the checklist arranged by team and Davis in the top spot for no obvious reason.

The first true #1 seems to be Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown in the 1911 Turkey Red Cabinets set. This set, too, features a list of all subjects in the set on the backside of each card, but each card is also numbered, with “No. 1” gracing the backside of Brown’s card. The number system had a purpose – smokers could collect coupons from certain Turkey Red products and exchange them for the cards, instructed to “order by number only.” As for Brown’s place in the #1 spot, it isn’t clear whether not is was supposed to mean anything. There’s a haphazard alphabetical ordering to the set, but many of the names are out of place, including Brown’s. And while Brown was one of the biggest names in the sport at the time, the set is loaded with similarly famous names. The 1914 and 1915 Cracker Jack sets were also numbered, with no clear system to their assignment. The #1 card in each (the 1915 set re-issued most of the 1914 set) was Otto Knabe of the Baltimore Terrapins of the Federal League. Knabe had a few good years with the Phillies of the National League, but was hardly a star in Baltimore and was out of baseball by the end of the 1916 season. Again, we find a #1 with no obvious reason behind it.

The 1933 Goudey set is a landmark in hobby history, but no one cared to memorialize this occasion with it’s opening card. The spot went to Benny Benough, a career back-up catcher who had played his final season in 1932. But in the 1934 Goudey set, Jimmie Foxx – winner of the AL MVP award in both of the previous seasons – was given the lead-off spot. This is the first obvious example of the #1 used as an honorarium. And it would be the last until 1940, when the Play Ball set devoted the first 12 spots in its 240 card checklist to the four-time defending champion New York Yankees, with the #1 spot going to reigning MVP Joe DiMaggio. But in 1941, Play Ball went with Eddie Miller as card #1. Miller was an all-star the year before but, as a member of the moribund Boston Bees, was hardly a household name.

The first two major post-war releases honored a pair of reigning MVPs with their #1 spots – 1948-49 Leaf with Joe DiMaggio and 1948 Bowman with Bob Elliot. But Bowman got a little more obscure with their 1949 #1, picking Boston Braves rookie Vern Bickford – a member of a pennant-winning club, but hardly a national stand-out. Bowman’s 1950 #1 was Mel Parnell, an all-star and a sensation on the mound in ’49, and in 1951 they opened with rookie Whitey Ford, who’d helped lead the Yankees to another World Series win. Both were stand-out players and names collectors would have known, but neither are as convincing as purposeful picks for #1 as Foxx, DiMaggio, or Elliot. For Topps’ 1951 Game release, there were a pair of #1s (for both the blue and red back sets) – Yogi Berra and Eddie Yost – who, like Parnell and Ford, don’t really indicate any obvious attempt to use the number as an honor, particularly given the small size of 1951 issue.

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An unlikely #1, Dusty Rhodes had his heroics made clear on this 1955 Topps card.

So that brings us to “Handy” Andy Pafko. And tells us… well, not much. Sometimes the top spot was used to pay tribute and sometimes it was just used and sometimes it’s kind of stuck in between. But after Pafko, Topps would use the #1 spot for a variety of purposes, some honorific, others utilitarian. The 1950s were a mixed bag: a jumble of superstars (Jackie Robinson in 1953, Ted Williams in 1954, 1957, and 1958), executives (AL President William Harridge in 1956 and commissioner Ford Frick in 1959), and a postseason hero (Dusty Rhodes in 1955). The 1960s featured award winners from the year before (Early Wynn in 1960, Dick Groat in 1961, Roger Maris in 1962, and Willie Mays in 1966), mixed in multi-player league leader cards and a tribute to the 1966 Baltimore Orioles World Series win. Between 1970 and 1972, the #1 card honored the World Series winner with a team photo. 1973-1976’s top spots went to Hank Aaron, honoring his chase and breaking of Babe Ruth’s home run and RBI records. But this run of #1s could have been little more than a coincidence. After Aaron’s 1974 card (which is actually his base card, the front given a unique design to commemorate the home run records that he hadn’t actually set yet) was a pure #1 honor spot. But the ones that followed fit into a pattern that Topps would mostly use for the next decade – opening the set with either Record Breakers or Highlights and ordering those cards alphabetically. A fellow named “Aaron” setting records and making highlights was bound to take those top spots. (You can find Beckett’s visual guide to Topps #1s here)

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Despite an boom in card production, the 1980s would see dark times for #1 cards. Fleer and Donruss joined Topps in the baseball card market in 1981 and both companies put player base cards in their #1 spots. Fleer honored the veteran Pete Rose and Donruss led off with young shortstop Ozzie Smith, a decision that – in the context of the great work on the ’81 Donruss set by Jason in a recent post here – seems to not have been much of a decision at all, leaving their brand’s Hall of Fame leadoff man more of a coincidence than a tribute. But by 1982, all three companies had locked themselves into numbering formulas that left little room for creativity at the top. Topps went with Record Breakers or Highlights, bottoming out in the #1 game in 1983 when Tony Armas took the honors with a card commemorating him fielding 11 fly balls in a single game, breaking a five-year-old record. Donruss debuted its famed ‘Diamond Kings’ subset in 1982 and opened each set of the 1980s with it, leading to some big names at the top, but never really lining up the assignment with any big event from the prior year (only Ryne Sandberg’s #1 card in 1985 followed up on a major award win). Fleer, arranging its checklist by team, opened up each set with the previous year’s World Series winner. But with the players within each team arranged alphabetically, their #1s went to guys like Doug Blair and Keith Anderson as often as they went to stars. What’s more, Fleer goofed in 1989 and opened the set with the Oakland A’s (Don Baylor at #1), even though the Dodgers won the World Series in 1988. And just two years later, Fleer would make the same mistake,  handing the A’s a premature crown for the 1990 season by leading off with catcher Troy Afenir, who had 14 at bats the year before and hadn’t played at all in the postseason. Their habit of honoring (or at least attempting to honor) the World Champions at the open of their set was dropped after that year.

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Sportflics took a direct approach it its #1s.

The truest honorary #1 spot from the big three in the 1980s was the 1986 Topps Pete Rose. His base card – a “pure” card – was given top billing and followed by a series of career retrospective cards to commemorate his breaking of the all-time hits records in 1985. It was the first time since Willie Mays in 1965 that a player’s pure base card was given #1. 1986 also saw the debut of Sportflics, a gimmicky set, but one that took its #1 seriously. George Brett led off the set and, for the next four years, the set would always open not just with a star, but with a player sought after in the hobby. In 1988, the Major League Marketing, parent company of Sportflics, debuted the more standard Score set, which opened with Don Mattingly at #1, continuing the trend set by Sportflics and bringing it into the collecting mainstream.

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Ken Griffey Jr’s Upper Deck was a landmark card, but didn’t change how the #1 was assigned.

1989, of course, would be the year Upper Deck changed the hobby forever, in no small part to opening up their debut set with – for the first time ever in a major release – a player who has yet to make his Major League debut. This card, of course, was the iconic Ken Griffey Jr. rookie. It would become one of the hobby’s most recognizable cards and would join the Pafko as a famed #1. But oddly enough, it didn’t really change the trajectory of #1s. In fact, Upper Deck, who owed so much to that one card, didn’t even bother putting a player in the #1 spot in 1990 or 1991 – using that spot instead for checklists. The next big deal rookie to get a #1 spot from any brand was Mark Wohlers in the 1992 Donruss set. And who remembers that?

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Perhaps the classiest #1 ever made.

The heart of the junk wax era saw some interesting uses of #1. In 1990 and 1991, Donruss’s new Leaf Set – among the first line of upscale releases – didn’t even have a card #1, instead opening with unnumbered card with the Leaf logo. The 1991 Bowman set opened with a tribute to Rod Carew. Intended as a fun set for kids, Donruss’s 1992 Triple Play set opened with a card of Skydome. And to showcase the classiness of its first upscale set, Topps put Dave Stewart at the 1 slot for its debut Stadium Club set – dressed in a tuxedo and a baseball cap. There were a few true head-scratchers from this era as well, such as 1993 Donruss opening with journeyman reliever Craig Lefferts. Or Bowman giving its #1 in 1993 to Glenn Davis, who was 30 games away from the end of his career (it was actually Davis’ third straight year getting a #1, as he got the spot in 1991’s Studio set and 1992’s Fleer Ultra due being the first alphabetical player for the Baltimore Orioles, the first alphabetical American League team).

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By the mid-90s, #1s like these had pretty much gone extinct.

By the mid-1990s, nearly all major releases – save for Fleer, who clung to their team-based numbering system that gave no attention to #1 – had taken up the practice putting a base card of a star player with hobby appeal in the top spot. That trend continues today, with Topps offering an online vote to determine who gets #1 each year, and the winning players – Aaron Judge, Mike Trout, Ronald Acuna, very much fitting that mold. So it ended up not being the legacy of Andy Pafko or Ken Griffey Jr. or Diamond Kings or broken records or hot rookies that live on as #1 in our binders today, but that of Sportflics and Score, who made things no more complicated than taking a player both talented and popular and putting him at the top of stack.

For a more complete list of #1 card, you can visit the Vintage Twins blog’s “First Cards” Page.

Stadium Club before Stadium Club

I just finished a book called “Ballpark: Baseball in the American City” by Paul Goldberger, which is just wonderful. The pictures alone make me stop for a minute to take in all the magic, but there’s more! There’s backstory on the ballparks – why the locations were chosen, who the architects were and why the parks were built at that particular time, just to name a few aspects of the book. I have been taken on a journey of the evolution of ballparks, and I love it.

This isn’t a book review. I want to talk about ballparks. Maybe I just really want to be AT a ballpark right now, but I can’t. Whatever the reason, let’s discuss 1988 Fleer logo stickers. The fronts feature either:    

  1. a team logo inside of a baseball sitting on a trophy stand OR
  2. two small logos with team names printed in all caps. The team names printed in all caps are dreadful. It’s not even in a team wordmark.

When I originally opened packs of 1988 Fleer, I wanted the cards! I’d hang on to the stickers because they come in handy for various projects, but I’d just stash them away in a pile in my closet or somewhere I could forget about them. But lately, going through a box of old cards I found a stash of Fleer stickers and I found myself locked in on the wonderful ballparks featured on the backs of those logo stickers. All of a sudden I was shuffling through wondering if I had a complete 26-ballpark set (no Marlins, Rockies, Diamondbacks or Rays just yet). I did!

Each card has a black & white photo of a ballpark with red stripe across the top & bottom, and a blue stripe right above the bottom red stripe, which noted the capacity, first game & dimensions.

Of the 26 ballparks:

  • 6 are still standing and in use as MLB ballparks – Fenway Park. Wrigley Field, Dodger Stadium, Angel Stadium (“Anaheim Stadium”), Oakland-Alameda County Stadium & Kauffman Stadium (“Royals Stadium”)
  • 3 others are still standing and NOT in use as MLB ballparks – Astrodome, Olympic Stadium & SDCCU Stadium (“Jack Murphy Stadium”)

I’ve seen a game at 13 of the 26 – the six current parks, Olympic Stadium, Comiskey Park, Metrodome, Yankee Stadium, Busch Stadium, Shea Stadium & Milwaukee County Stadium (which I don’t remember at all, but my parents insist they took me there).

One thing that would definitely stand out to fans today are the names.

  • Five are named after the team: Yankee Stadium, Dodger Stadium, Tiger Stadium, Royals Stadium & The Astrodome.
  • Three are named after an owner: Busch Stadium, Wrigley Field & Comiskey Park – kind of. Today, Anheuser-Busch pays for naming rights in St. Louis. As a matter of fact, Gussie Busch wanted to name Sportsman’s Park (which was the original Busch Stadium; this card is the second incarnation) Budweiser Stadium, but rules at the time prohibited him from naming a park after an alcoholic beverage, so he named it after himself and then created a beer named Busch. Take that, Major League Baseball!
  • Three are named after other people – William A. Shea Municipal Stadium was named after the lawyer who helped bring National League baseball back to New York. Jack Murphy Stadium was named after a popular sportswriter for the San Diego Union. The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome was named after a former Vice President.
  • Two – the two in Canada – are named after a function – Exhibition Stadium in Toronto was on the Canadian National Exhibition Grounds and was a multi-purpose venue used for many different things. Olympic Stadium was built for the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.
  • Three named after the city – Anaheim Stadium, Arlington Stadium & Cleveland Stadium
  • Four named after the county – Oakland-Alameda County Stadium, Milwaukee County Stadium, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium & The Kingdome (King County, Washington).
  • Four names inspired by the area – Fenway Park (in an area called The Fens), Riverfront Stadium (self-explanatory), Candlestick Park (built at a location called Candlestick Point) & Three Rivers Stadium (by the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela & Ohio rivers).
  • The final two ballparks had honorary names – Veterans Stadium & Memorial Stadium.

It’s quite a difference from today, where ballparks names are determined by whoever offers the most money in naming rights.

Each card has the “first game” played at the park – except for one. The Kingdome card says “christened March 1976” and I’ll assume that’s because while the Mariners didn’t play there until April 6, 1977, the actual first event there was a grand opening ceremony which took place on March 27, 1976. And besides, the first sporting event there was a NASL (North American Soccer League) exhibition between Pele and the New York Cosmos and the Seattle Sounders on April 9, 1976. The Seattle Seahawks played there later that season.

HOWEVER, why not just print the date of the first Mariners game at the Kingdome? That’s what they did in the case of Wrigley Field. On the Wrigley Field card, the date of the first game is listed as 4/20/16. That’s the first Cubs game there, however the first game was 4/23/14 for the Chicago Federals. Also, the San Diego Chargers & San Diego State Aztecs both played at Jack Murphy Stadium prior to 4/5/1968. Anyway, the Mariners “christening” seems odd.

Two additional cards don’t have a specific date, but the month of the first game instead. Anaheim Stadium (first game: 4/66) & Oakland-Alameda County Stadium (first game: 4/68). In the case of the Angels, they moved over from Dodger Stadium for 1966 and Fleer could’ve easily just pulled up baseball-reference and found that the first game was 4/19/1966 (I kid). As for the A’s, they had just moved to Oakland from Kansas City for 1968 and their first regular season contest at the Coliseum was 4/17/1968.

The oldest date printed on these cards is 4/25/01 for Tiger Stadium. And that’s incorrect. While the Tigers played at the same location continuously from their first game in 1901 through 1999, and while Bennett Park opened in 1896 on the same site, Tiger Stadium opened in 1912 and the first game should be listed as 4/20/12 – the same date as Fenway Park’s first contest. The most recently opened park of these cards is the Metrodome, which is already demolished; its first game was 4/6/82.

The capacities range from 33,583 (Fenway Park) to 74,208 (The Mistake by the Lake in Cleveland). The top of Cleveland Stadium looks like a toilet seat, no offense to fans of the Tribe who cherish memories of that building.

Four of the fields are not visible – because they’re domes – the Astrodome, Metrodome, Kingdome & Olympic Stadium (that card is a bit of a disappointment because the tower is cut off in the picture).

On two of the cards, you can see another venue, or at least a part of it – Royals Stadium (Arrowhead Stadium) & Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum (Oracle Arena).

A few more random observations:

  • After looking at some of these cards, I feel like rolling out cookie dough and cutting cookies for some reason. Or eating donuts.
  • The Shea Stadium picture isn’t close enough to make out the 300 auto part shops lined up next to each other.
  • I miss Comiskey Park. I still can’t watch footage or see pictures of the demolition because it makes me cry. I’m serious.
  • There appears to be a game going on in 10 of the 26 cards, but it’s tough to tell in some of them.
  • Exhibition Stadium looks like an awful place to watch a game.
  • The Wrigley Field shot looks like it was taken a really long time ago. The little bits of rooftops visible seem empty.
  • Arlington Stadium looks like it’s in the center of a crop circle.

I’m extremely glad I hung onto these. They didn’t mean much to me when I was growing up, but today I feel that the ballparks are every bit as worthy of having their own cards as the players who competed in them.

Five sheets to the wind with 1981 Donruss

Not long again, fellow SABR Baseball Cards blogger Mark Del Franco posed three questions about the 1981 Donruss set he was paging in his binder.

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When the insider information Mark was hoping for didn’t arrive, I decided to make a day of delving deep into the Donruss checklist. Best case scenario, I’d have answers to all Mark’s questions. Worst case scenario, you’d get an article that at least brought back some of the nostalgia and fondness of the company’s debut baseball offering.

Apropos to Mark’s questions, let’s take a closer look at the cards that open the set.

Much like some of the early Bowman sets or even 1940 Play Ball, the set’s numerical checklist (cards 1-17 shown below, including both Duffy Dyer variations) includes small team runs. As already noted by Mark, cards 1-4 above are San Diego Padres and cards 5-10 are Detroit Tigers.

Were the pattern to continue throughout the set, no deep study or article would be warranted. However, the Mike Schmidt card is our first of many hints that the organization of the set is hardly as simple as your binder’s opening sheet might have suggested.

Was Schmidt’s presence simply a mistake? After all, like the Fleer set of the same year, the set did include several errors and variations. A look at the next two pages in the binder might shed some light.

Things start out simple enough: Astros, Astros, Astros, Astros, but then what’s this? Another lone Phil, this time Manny Trillo, appearing out of nowhere, before the run of Astros continues. Next up, a run of Rangers cards, a run of Blue Jays, and then…you guessed it! Another Phillie, this time Steve Carlton, pops in.

Were we forced to describe the structure of the set based only on what we’ve seen so far, I suppose the description would go something like this: groupings of 4-6 teammates, punctuated by the occasionally lone Phil.

This schematic of the set’s first hundred cards (excluding variations) illustrates that our description continues to hold, at least mostly, well past the cards we’ve seen so far. The only deviation comes from our lone Phils ultimately giving way to lone Braves.

The schematic also shows us that the placement of the lone Phils/Braves cards is not random. Geometrically, they form a perfect diagonal down the grid, meaning numerically they differ by exactly eleven. Specifically the cards are numbered 11, 22, 33, 44, 55, 66, 77, 88, and 99.

You might wonder if the numeric pattern extends further down the checklist. It does, at least sort of, but not for long. The next number in the pattern, 110, does correspond to a player all by himself, amidst a larger Yankees run. However, he’s an Oakland A’s player rather than a Phillie or a Brave.

Phillies? Braves? A’s? What does it matter, as long as these loners keep popping up every eleven cards. That’s the real pattern we care about, right? Well, I have bad news. Card 121 in the set, Dave Cash, is hardly a loner but instead the leader of a run of four Padres. Drat!

Are we done then? Not a chance! Inserted between a run of Tigers and Pirates is card 131, Pete Rose, another lone Phil! Then at 142, eleven cards later, Larry Bowa, another lone Phil! Card 153? Another lone Phil—

Does the pattern continue even further? As the signs used to say at Veteran’s stadium in 1980, DEL-IVERS! Card 164 is another lone Phil, Del Unser! Poppycock, you say? I think you mean Bull! Yes, Greg Luzinski does keep the Phillies solo parade going with card 175.

The loners continue every eleven cards like clockwork (if clocks had eleven numbers), just not with Phillies. As before, the team run interrupter baton is passed to Atlanta before (again!) having an Oakland player crash the party.

  • 186 – Brian Asselstine (Braves)
  • 197 – Rick Camp (Braves)
  • 208 – Bruce Benedict (Braves)
  • 219 – Chris Chambliss (Braves)
  • 230 – Jeff Cox (A’s)

I wish I could say card 241 was another lone Phil or Brave or even Athletic, but I can’t—as before, the Oakland A’s player proved a harbinger of discontinuity. All we get at card 241 is Gene Tenace (first sheet, second card) initiating a run of four Padres.

Well talk about deja vu all over again! Again, Pete Rose restarts the pattern of lone Phils, this time with his second card in the set, number 251. (Recall Donruss included multiple cards of many top stars in 1981.)

Do a host of lone Phillies again follow the Hit King at intervals of eleven? You bet!

  • 262 – Bob Boone (Phillies)
  • 273 – Tug McGraw (Phillies)
  • 284 – Sparky Lyle (Phillies)
  • 295 – Lonnie Smith (Phillies)

And if you guessed some Braves would come after that, you are on a roll!

  • 306 – Gary Matthews (Braves)
  • 317 – Rick Matula (Braves)
  • 328 – Phil Niekro (Braves)
  • 339 – Jerry Royster (Braves)

And if you’ve really been paying attention, you can probably guess the next two things that will happen. (Bonus points if you can guess the next three!)

  1. Yes, an Oakland A’s player shows up at 350.
  2. Yes, nothing special happens at 361. We just get Bill Fahey kicking off a four-card run of Padres (first sheet, third card below).

“But what’s number three,” you ask!

It’s Pete Rose once again, with his third card in the set (371), serving as Grand Marshal of the solo parade:

  • 382 – Keith Moreland (Phillies)
  • 393 – Bob Walk (Phillies)
  • 404 – Bake McBride (Phillies)
  • 415 – Dallas Green (Phillies)
  • 426 – Bobby Cox (Braves)
  • 437 – Dale Murphy (Braves)
  • 448 – Doyle Alexander (Braves)
  • 459 – Glenn Hubbard (Braves)
  • 480 – Mike Davis (A’s)

We’ve now made it through 80% of the set, ignoring the five unnumbered checklists, and we have seen a remarkably consistent if not perfect pattern all the way through. You may think you know the ending then: more of the same. Unfortunately (unless you like chaos), things get much more complicated in our final 20%, so much so that I’ll pause here and “solve the riddle” before unleashing the cacophony of the set’s final 100+ cards.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In our case, that picture is an uncut sheet of the first 121 cards (sort of) in the set. (Like Topps at that time, the Donruss set used 11 x 11 printing sheets.)

Read from left to right and the sequencing appears random, but read top to bottom and you see that the sheet in fact runs in numerical order. Head down the first column and we have cards 1-11: our four Padres, six Tigers, and Mike Schmidt. Head down the next column and we see the run of Pirates and the start of an Astros run, interrupted briefly by Manny Trillo of the Phillies.

As for those darn Phils and Braves, we now see that they too are part of consecutive team runs, only horizontally rather than vertically down the sheet. But what about Mickey Klutts, or for that matter any of the A’s streak-breakers who seemingly crashed the parties solo? Mickey isn’t so much alone but simply nudged aside one slot by the first unnumbered checklist in the set. (That checklist is why I said the sheet “sort of” showed the set’s first 121 cards. From a numbering perspective, you are really seeing 1-120 plus an unnumbered card.) Swap Mickey with the checklist, and he’d fit right in with a nice vertical strip of A’s teammates.

The second uncut sheet in the set (cards 121-240 plus another unnumbered checklist) follows EXACTLY the same pattern, right down to the A’s player nudged by the sheet’s checklist.

Ditto for the third sheet, featuring cards 241-360 and the third unnumbered checklist.

And finally, sheet four, featuring cards 361-480 and the fourth unnumbered checklist.

While these sheets don’t answer every question about the set’s quirky checklist, they do provide a nice visual context for not only the patterns but the breaks in the patterns previously noted.

  • The “every eleven” patterns of lone Phils, Braves, and sometimes A’s corresponded exactly to the bottom rows of each sheet.
  • The breaks in our “every eleven” patterns (cards 121, 241, 361) were caused by the insertion of an unnumbered checklist at the end of each sheet.
  • As for Pete and Re-Pete (sorry, wrong brand!) and Re-Re-Pete re-starting the pattern each time, his (honorific?) spot in the bottom left corner of sheets 2, 3, and 4 are what make it work. (For what it’s worth, the first sheet also had a Phils great, Mike Schmidt, in the lower left corner.)

With the sheets in front of us, we can add two more observations to our list.

  1. The order of the teams on each sheet is identical: Padres, Tigers, Pirates, Astros, Rangers, Blue Jays, Mets, White Sox, Mariners, Angels, Dodgers, Reds, Cardinals, Giants, Indians, Brewers, Expos, Red Sox, Royals, Yankees, Orioles, and A’s (with Phils and Braves along the bottom).
  2. Two teams are nowhere to be found: Cubs and Twins.

Now that you know just about everything about the set’s first 480 (or 484 counting checklists) cards, we are ready for the final sheet. Just be sure you’re sitting down…or standing on your head.

Again, we have a Phillies great, Mike Schmidt, in the lower left hand corner and a checklist in the lower right. Next, notice…oh gosh, you’re not gonna let me do this to you, are you? Okay, fine, let’s try this again.

As promised, chaos. But not total chaos. I’ll illustrate the order by using thick red borders to identify contiguous team groupings (horizontal or vertical) and use big black “T” markings to identify cards like these.

A hallmark of the 1981 Donruss set is the subset of cards where player uniforms mismatch their team names. While Topps would have gotten out the airbrushes, Donruss left player photos intact, using only the team designation to reflect updates. If we include these players with their former (uniform) teams, we end up with twelve mini-team runs. Not surprisingly, half are Cubs and half are Twins.

The fact that Donruss placed all 17 of the “T” cards on the final sheet surprised me at first but perhaps isn’t surprising at all. I’ll illustrate this with two examples.

Ron LeFlore, photographed as an Expo, was granted free agency on October 28, 1980, but not signed by the White Sox until November 26. If we assume Donruss was in the homestretch of card-making for most players come November, then it makes sense that LeFlore would be moved to the back of the line while his team status was in limbo. (Note LeFlore’s bio opens with his signing by the Sox.)

On the other hand, what about Larry Milbourne, who was traded from the Mariners to the Yankees on November 18? While his team status changed, there was no prolonged limbo period attached. I can’t say what happened for sure, but there are a couple possibilities that seem viable.

  1. Donruss had already completed Milbourne’s Mariners card prior to the trade and then bumped him to the back of the line for correction once the trade took place.
  2. Donruss was aware of the trade when Milbourne’s card was being worked on, but they had not yet reached a decision on how to handle team changes. Would they ignore them? Would they go the airbrushing route? Would they race to Spring Training for a new photo? Or would they simply update the team name while leaving everything else the same? Again, back of the line makes sense pending a design decision.

You’ll notice the sheet has several other special cards not yet mentioned: a “Best Hitters” card featuring George Brett and Rod Carew, two MVP cards (Brett/Schmidt), and two Cy Young Award cards (Stone/Carlton).

We can add all of these cards to the “seems logical to have them here” pile, and we end up with 63 cards on the final sheet making sense. There may be a story to the remaining 58 (e.g., other pending free agents who stayed with their prior teams, rookies identified late in the process), but most are probably players who simply didn’t fit on the first four sheets.

To illustrate that there really are cards in this last category, consider Steve Howe (card 511). He was the reigning National League Rookie of the Year and had completely unambiguous team status as a Dodger. As such, Howe would have been an absolute lock for the set from the beginning but was nonetheless part of this final sheet.

UPDATE: From Keith Olbermann…

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I’m not sure my work here directly answers any of Mark’s original questions. At best I can say Ozzie Smith has card #1 because he is a Padre and the Padres lead off every sheet. Still, why Ozzie as opposed to other Padres, including bigger stars like Dave Winfield and Rollie Fingers? And why are the Padres with their last place finish in the top spot at all?

About all I can do is (maybe) add some rationale for the organization of the set into mini-team runs as opposed to complete team runs such as Fleer used that same year. I’ll start with a wrong answer but one that in some small way may inform a right answer.

At the very beginning of this article I mentioned the use of mini-team runs in 1940 Play Ball. For example, the New York Giants cards in this set occur at numbers 83-93, 154-159, 209-215. (There are also some “retired greats” cards at other checklist locations, but I’ll keep my focus on the active roster.) The Play Ball set was released in series, meaning had all 24 Giants cards been together on the checklist (e.g., cards 1-24), one series would have been jam-packed with Giants while the remaining series would have had none at all.

Of course 1981 Donruss was not released in series. All 605 cards came out all at once. As such, nothing terrible would have happened if the Padres simply opened the set with cards 1-18 rather than 1-4, 121-124, 241-244, 361-364, 525, and 595. On the other hand, let’s say that Donruss lacked whatever machinery Topps had in place for randomizing and collating cards into packs and boxes, something their past experience with non-baseball sets might have made clear to them going into the enterprise. If we assume that cards from the same sheet would have had a much higher than chance probability of going into the same packs, it’s easy to see that sheets with complete rosters would lead to collation issues more evident to consumers than sheets covering 24 different teams.

Personally, my own pack opening experience with 1981 Donruss (some as recently as last year) was that I still managed to open a great many packs with runs of 10-12 of the 18 cards spread across only two teams (e.g., Expos/Red Sox only). While this undoubtedly reflects poor collation, the fact is it could have been even worse. Had Donruss grouped entire team rosters together, those same packs might have yielded all Expos or all Red Sox.

Perhaps to address collation issues, the next year Donruss not only moved away from team runs entirely but also made several updates to their uncut sheets.

Among the other changes identifiable on this 1982 Donruss sheet are—

  • New size of 11 x 12 (132 cards), with five sheets again building the complete set, this time of 5 x 132 = 660 cards.
  • Change from vertical to horizontal sequencing of cards. For example, the top row run of Cal Ripken to Ray Burris covers cards 407-417 consecutively.
  • Insertion of Diamond Kings every 26th card.
  • Sheets covering a more complicated range of numbers. For example, the first six rows of the sheet shown (excluding Diamond Kings) cover cards 405-467 consecutively while the next six rows cover cards 279-341. (If you must know, the six Diamond Kings on the sheet are 16-18 followed by 11-13.)

Rather than go down the rabbit hole of 1982 any deeper, I’ll just close with some fond recollections of the 1981 set, some foggy and some vivid. I was 11 when the set came out, a perfect age for believing cardboard was magic while also being old enough to have more than a few cents in my pocket. We won’t talk about where the money came from, but I somehow “found” enough to ride my bike to 7-Eleven just about every day from March to October, often more than once.

I didn’t think in terms of monopolies and competition back then. In my world, more cards was a good thing, case closed. There was a lot for a kid to like about 1981 Donruss. More cards per pack, for one thing, and super colorful cards for another. Yes, there were plenty of errors, but boy were they fun to discover.

We had no internet back then to look this stuff up. (There were hobby mags, but I didn’t have subscribe yet.) It was just kids comparing notes at school: Steve Rodgers with a “d,” that’s not right! And then imagine the thrill of pulling a Rogers (no d) later that same year! Of course, some of the errors were funny too, like Bobby Bonds and his 986 home runs (giving father and son 1748 homers combined, by the way)!

Most of all though, I loved that some of my favorite players had extra cards in the set for no reason. Sure Topps might give a guy two cards if he was a Record Breaker, but here was Donruss with two Steve Garvey cards just because. Ditto Yaz. Tritto Pete Rose.

How about you? If you were a kid in 1981 what memories do you have of the set? And as you look back on it today, do you love it any more or any less?

Through a glass, darkly

Last year, I purchased the 1981 and 1982 Fleer sets for essentially the shipping cost.  Both sets were in binders, but the pocket pages were the old PVC type with the cards inserted two to a pocket.  I “freed” the 1981 set last year and finally did the same for 1982 recently.  This re-paging task allowed me to closely examine the 1982 cards-which left me astonished at the poor quality of photos, bad lighting and odd poses.  There are a few positive aspects, but one must dig deeply.

Since 1982 was Fleer’s second go-round, one would assume that they would strive to produce a quality product to make up for the mistake-laden inaugural 1981 set.  Instead, consistently murky images make season two a step back in quality.

1982 National League MVP Dale Murphy is an example of badly blurred image.  You would think that an in focus shot of a player posing with a bat could be executed properly.  Of course, the fuzzy images may have been the result printing issues.  But if this were the case, why didn’t Fleer fix the issue once they saw the proofs?

Both Cal Ripken and teammate Lynn Sakata are typical examples of the “Fleer fuzz,” and Jack Clark shows blurred action.

“Big Daddy” Rick Reuschel is viewed through a camera darkly.  Most of his card is black.  The low light for Gary Allenson is a typical shot of a stationary figure in the daytime that still comes out dark and out of focus.

If poor photo quality wasn’t enough, many of poses are head scratchers.  Brian Kingman is a good example of the fixation on photographing left-handed pitchers from behind.  There are way too many shots of players’ backs.

Another overused pose is to have players seated alone in the dugout. It was as if Fleer was anticipating social distancing requirements 38 years ago.

Photos taken around the batting cage were common for decades.  But Fleer takes it to a new level by photographing players in the cage.  A few players taking batting practice might work as a fresh angle, but they took this idea and ran it into the ground.

And, what is with the pose used for Jack Morris?  He is barely in the frame. Also, there may be a UFO in the background.

Now that I have ranted and raved, let’s look at some of the good aspects of the set. I like the Fernando Valenzuela shot showing him looking to the sky.  Also, you must appreciate Manny Trillo’s World Champions jacket. Steve Stone in front of the helmet rack is another excellent shot.

Two players with same name are found in this set: former Seattle Pilot Mike Marshall and the Dodger outfielder with the identical moniker.  I didn’t include this in a previous post on players with the same name, since I only looked at Topps. 

Speaking of ex-Seattle Pilots, you will find Fred “Chicken” Stanley on the A’s.  He is the last Pilot to be in a base set as a player (1983).

There are several great “hair” cards.  John Lowenstein sheds his cap to show off an impressive perm.  Danny Darwin offers up an excellent example of “helmet” hair.

Finally, Fleer provides Carlton Fisk fans with three different cards.  He is shown with the Red Sox on Rich Dauer’s card, with the White Sox on his regular card and with his namesake, Steve Carlton, on a multi-player card.

Fleer saw through a glass, darkly. The result was a most ungodly, photographic apocalypse.

Donruss Diamond Kings breakdown

The quarantine has allowed me to spend more times with my card collection. And that leads to ridiculous ideas such as a deep dive into Donruss Diamond Kings. I took all of the Diamond Kings from sets in 1982 (the first Diamond Kings) through 1991 (the last year they were part of the base set before becoming an insert set in 1992). I considered ignoring the 1991 Diamond Kings since they started doing full-body action shots (hated that) rather than strictly headshots (which I like much more), but in the end I included them. I examined the Diamond King selections using the stats from the prior season, so for example 1984 Diamond Kings will be judged by their 1983 stats, etc.

Of course, this isn’t perfect since Donruss avoided selecting the same players in consecutive years, and they also had a few examples of “lifetime achievement” selections. I only used the Diamond Kings at the beginning of the sets (the cards numbered 1-26 in every Donruss set from 1982-91) and did NOT include examples such as the standalone “King of Kings” cards such as Pete Rose’s #653 in the 1986 set or Nolan Ryan’s  #665 in the 1990 set. So with all of this being said, here’s more than you ever wanted to know about the Donruss Diamond Kings run from 1982-91!

In all, there were 260 Diamond King cards, one per team, 26 teams for 10 years. There were 232 different players, which means there were 28 players who had repeat performances. But none with more than two.

Diamond King highlights & nuggets by year

1982

Pete Rose is card #1 – technically the first Diamond King. He also appeared in 1986 as a “King of Kings” – card 653 –  but I’m not counting it in this project. Pete looks great in the helmet. On average, there were about 2 or 3 helmet cards per 26-card Diamond King set.

Ivan De Jesus was a 1982 Diamond King after hitting .194 the season prior. It’s the worst batting average of any position player DK.

Carlton Fisk looks particularly amazing in the 1976-81 White Sox collared uni.

There were four position players to be a Diamond King after a season where they hit no home runs. Three of them were 1982 Diamond Kings – Pete Rose, Ozzie Smith & Ivan De Jesus. The other one was Ozzie Smith again (1987).

1983

1982 & 1983 Diamond Kings are almost identical on the front. There was some blue printing on the back of the 1982s, only black on the 1983s.

Rollie Fingers has arguably the best mustache of any Diamond King. That’s two great Brewers in a row (Gorman Thomas in 1982 was awesome).

Willie Stargell’s card is maybe the most perfect Diamond King card ever made. Great looking headshot (with the Pirates pillbox cap), but the subtle row of Stargell’s Stars in the background are a nice touch.

The SOX on Britt Burns’ cap looks a little off, but the warmup jacket looks amazing. There weren’t many pitchers pictured in warmup jackets, but this is the best one.

1982 & 1983 both boast 10 Hall of Famers. Most of any 26-card DK set from 1982-91.

11 of the 26 Diamond Kings were pitchers – the most of any DK set from 1982-91. In 1984 & 1988, there were only five pitchers.

1984

This is the only Diamond King set (1982-91) without the traditional “Diamond Kings” gold ribbon across the top. Instead, there’s decorative bunting along the top of the card. Also, the mini action shot is in a rectangular frame, which is also exclusive to 1984.

There are three bespectacled Diamond Kings in 1984. Ron Kittle, Leon Durham & Andre Thornton. In the other 9 DK sets from 1982-91, there are three players with eyewear combined.

Four 1984 Diamond Kings are pictured with batting helmets. Along with 1987, that’s the most of any of the ten DK sets featured here.

Wade Boggs had the highest batting average (.361) leading to his Diamond King selection (among position players).

1985

Don Sutton’s action shot is engulfed by his large poof of gray hair, which is amusing.

Alvin Davis is one of THREE Mariners Diamond Kings following their rookie year. Matt Young (1984) & Ken Griffey Jr. (1990) are the others.

DK DETOUR: Diamond Kings as a rookie

  • Mariners: Matt Young (1984), Alvin Davis (1985) & Ken Griffey Jr. (1990)
  • A’s: Jose Canseco (1987) & Mark McGwire (1988)
  • Angels: Wally Joyner (1987) & Devon White (1988)
  • Others: Benny Santiago (1988), Chris Sabo (1989), Delino DeShields (1991), Mark Grace (1989), Ron Kittle (1984), Kent Hrbek (1983), Juan Samuel (1985) & Sandy Alomar Jr. (1991).

1985 (CONT’D)

Rich Dotson (4.3 WAR) had the highest WAR of any White Sox Diamond King season. The collective 28.0 WAR by White Sox Diamond Kings from 1982-91 was lowest of any team. Cubs were second lowest at 28.2.

DK Detour: Lowest WAR by by team (1982-91)

  • White Sox (28.0) – highest contribution was a 4.3 WAR season by Richard Dotson (1985). Three seasons of 1.9 (Ron Kittle 1984, Britt Burns 1983 & Greg Walker 1987)
  • Cubs (28.2) – dragged down by the two worst WAR seasons of all 260 cards
  • Braves (32.5) – a season of 0.2 by Gerald Perry (1989) and a 1.2 by Phil Niekro (1982) don’t help.

1985 (CONT’D)

Of all the Diamond King years from 1982-91, 1985 had the best combined WAR of 116.8. That total (remember, it’s stats from the season before – in this case 1984) was led by Cal Ripken’s 10.0, Ryne Sandberg’s 8.6 & Bert Blyleven’s 7.2.

DK DETOUR: Combined WAR by year (26 Diamond Kings totaled)

  • 1982        63.1 (1981 was strike year)
  • 1983      106.7
  • 1984        81.3
  • 1985      116.8
  • 1986        95.0
  • 1987      110.0
  • 1988      111.6
  • 1989      96.8
  • 1990     101.1
  • 1991      114.6

Diamond Kings with the highest & lowest WAR by year (remember, the stats are from the year prior). Everything here is using baseball-reference WAR, by the way.

1986

Jerry Koosman is one of two players (along with Willie Stargell in 1983) to be a Diamond King following his last career MLB season. Koosman’s 4.62 ERA is the highest of any Diamond King pitcher, though it’s more of a lifetime achievement selection.

Dwight Gooden’s 13.3 WAR is the highest of any Diamond King during the 1982-91 run.

1987

The first year of repeat Diamond Kings. From 1982-86 there were 130 Diamond Kings (just counting cards 1-26), all different players. Dale Murphy, Dave Winfield, Fred Lynn, George Brett, Jack Morris & Ozzie Smith are the first two-time Diamond Kings. By the way, in all, from 1982-91 there are 28 two-time Diamond Kings; 17 of them with the same team, 11 with two different teams.

Same team (17)

  • Dave Winfield, Yankees, 1982 & 1987
  • George Brett, Royals, 1982 & 1987
  • Dwight Evans, Red Sox, 1982 & 1988
  • Alan Trammell, Tigers, 1982 & 1988
  • Carlton Fisk, White Sox, 1982 & 1989
  • Jack Morris, Tigers, 1983 & 1987
  • Dale Murphy, Braves, 1983 & 1987
  • Dave Stieb, Blue Jays, 1983 & 1991
  • Robin Yount, Brewers, 1984 & 1989
  • Dave Righetti, Yankees, 1984 & 1991
  • Cal Ripken Jr., Orioles, 1985 & 1988
  • Don Mattingly, Yankees, 1985 & 1989
  • Frank Viola, Twins, 1985 & 1989
  • Tony Gwynn, Padres, 1985 & 1989
  • Lou Whitaker, Tigers, 1985 & 1990
  • Ryne Sandberg, Cubs, 1985 & 1991
  • Roger Clemens, Red Sox, 1987 & 1991

Two different teams (11)

  • Dave Parker, Pirates 1982, Brewers 1991
  • Ozzie Smith, Padres 1982, Cardinals 1987
  • Fred Lynn, Angels 1984, Orioles 1987
  • Jack Clark, Giants 1984, Cardinals 1988
  • Pedro Guerrero, Dodgers 1984, Cardinals 1991
  • Andre Dawson, Expos 1986, Cubs 1988
  • Kirk Gibson, Tigers 1986, Dodgers 1989
  • Johnny Ray, Pirates 1986, Angels 1989
  • Willie Randolph, Yankees 1986, Dodgers 1990
  • Steve Sax, Dodgers 1987, Yankees 1990
  • Bob Welch, Dodgers 1988, A’s 1991

1987 (CONT’D)

Keith Moreland (-1.7) is the lowest WAR of any Diamond King. The second lowest season WAR by a Diamond King from 1982-91 is also a Cub (Ivan De Jesus, 1982, -1.3).

1987 is the least mustachioed group of Diamond Kings (7 of 26 players; 8 if you count Hubie Brooks, who’s questionable).

1988

The “Bash Brothers” are Diamond Kings following their rookie years in both 1987 (Jose Canseco) & 1988 (Mark McGwire).

Danny Tartabull has the odd distinction of being a two-time Rated Rookie (1985 and 1986) and a Diamond King (1988). Same with Sandy Alomar Jr. (1989 and 1990 Rated Rookie, 1991 Diamond King). The pattern in the background of Tartabull’s card reminds me of a Mondrean-esque grid. I like it.

Here are all the players to be Rated Rookies and Diamond Kings within the span of 1982-91:

DK DETOUR: Rated Rookies who were also Diamond Kings (DK year in parentheses)

  • 1984: Tony Fernandez (1988), Ron Darling (1988), Kevin McReynolds (1987)
  • 1985: Danny Tartabull (1988), Mike Bielecki (1990), Billy Hatcher (1988)
  • 1986: Kal Daniels (1988), Fred McGriff (1989), Cory Snyder (1989), Andres Galarraga (1989), Danny Tartabull (1988), Jose Canseco (1987)
  • 1987: Benito Santiago (1988), Bo Jackson (1990), Rafael Palmeiro (1991), Devon White (1988), Mark McGwire (1988)
  • 1988: Roberto Alomar (1991), Mark Grace (1989)
  • 1989: Sandy Alomar Jr. (1991), Ken Griffey Jr. (1990), Gregg Olson (1991)
  • 1990: Sandy Alomar Jr. (1991), Delino DeShields (1991)

1988 (CONT’D)

If you glance at Paul Molitor’s card, the pattern in the background makes it look like he’s wearing a cowboy hat.

Ivan Calderon’s card is missing his signature gold chains.

Tommy John is the oldest Diamond King – following his age 44 season.

1989

The most mustachioed set of Diamond Kings (18 of 26 players).

With the skyline and baseball laces, the background design of David Cone’s card looks like the Mets logo.

Chris Sabo is the only Diamond King to wear goggles.

Dave Henderson is the second A’s Henderson to be a Diamond King (Rickey Henderson 1983).

Speaking of Daves, 11 different Daves were Diamond Kings from 1982-91. Concepcion, Dravecky, Henderson, Kingman, Magadan, Parker, Righetti, Schmidt, Stewart, Stieb &Winfield. And that’s NOT counting David Cone or Davey Lopes!

1990

This DK set had Bo & Junior but is the most underwhelming lineup of the bunch. Only two Hall of Famers. Ken Griffey Jr. is the youngest Diamond King (following his age 19 season).

Steve Sax has a card that looks like somebody dropped pick-up sticks in the background.

Dave Stewart rocking a sweet jacket.

Ellis Burks has a sweet background. Multi colored splashes of color. Looks great.

Pete O’Brien looks like he exploded onto the scene.

Mike Bielecki is the only Cubs pitcher to be a Diamond King (1982-91). The Angels (Chuck Finley in 1991) are the only other team with just a lone pitcher over the ten-year run. The Astros, Brewers, Dodgers, Mets, Orioles, Phillies & Yankees had pitchers four out of ten years.

1991

1991 changed format; no more small action shots along with large headshots. Some were full body action shots. Gone were the patterns in the background. I’m not a fan of the break from tradition. At least they were in the base set.

The first (and only through 1991) Diamond King appearance by Barry Bonds.

Cecil Fielder is the only player to be a Diamond King following a 50+ HR season.

Craig Biggio was the first full-size headshot in a catcher’s mask (some of the smaller action shots had featured catchers in gear). Sandy Alomar Jr. & Brian Harper were in catcher’s gear as well.

For the first time, players without hats/helmets!  Dave Parker & Pedro Guerrero both show off their heads of hair.

Roger Clemens led the way with 10.4 WAR. Red Sox Diamond Kings (1982-91) had the highest collective WAR of any team.

DK DETOUR: HIGHEST WAR BY BY TEAM (1982-91)

  • Red Sox (54.4) – including seasons by Roger Clemens of 10.4 (1991) and 8.8 (1987), 7.8 by Wade Boggs (1984) & 7.5 by Mike Greenwell (1989).
  • Tigers (48.4) – led by a season of 8.2 by Alan Trammell (1988) and 6.5 by Cecil Fielder (1991).
  • Dodgers (47.1) – led by Bob Welch’s 7.4 (1988), Kirk Gibson’s 6.5 (1989) and Orel Hershiser’s 6.3 (1986).

A few more observations

In 1992, Diamond Kings were taken from the base set and turned into an insert set. Whereas the previous Diamond King sets (well, not exactly 1982-84) had the card design border, these new inserts were borderless. It just wasn’t the same anymore. And in my opinion, the heyday of the Diamond King was over. But I hope you enjoyed going back in time with me and giving a fresh look at some really great cards.

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The Prehistory of Shiny

A fixture of many modern sets are cards older collectors might dismiss as “the shiny stuff.” I’ll resist a complete taxonomy, but two major genera here would be metallic cards (e.g., chrome, foil) and cards displaying “advanced” optical properties such as refraction, holography, and “magic motion.” And of course, there are cards that check off both these boxes if not more, for example this (hurry, put your sunglasses on!)2020 Topps Heritage Chrome Gold Refractor of Kevin Pillar.

The recent history of such cards is either completely irrelevant to most older collectors or the lived experience of younger collectors, so I will skip all of it based on the assumption you either know far more than I do or care far less.

We’ll pick up our story then in 1991, which is still too modern for some of your tastes but (good God!) is practically 30 years ago now. Prior to my Hobby re-entry in 2014, it was my last year buying cards and I can’t even tell you how many Grand Slams my roommate and I ate in pursuit of the Upper Deck Denny’s Holograms set. (Side note: Does this Denny’s Howard Johnson qualify as an anti-metacard?)

These cards checked off all the boxes back then. They were literally everything and a side of bacon!

For collectors wanting to go “off menu” for dessert, all that was needed in 1991 was a trip to the corner 7-Eleven where “magic motion” coins had been packaged under Slurpee cups on and off since 1983.

And speaking of magic motion, Sportflics had been a major player on the card scene since 1986, more or less mimicking the 7-Eleven technology but onto standard 2-1/2 x 3-1/2 inch rectangles.

At least to a certain extent, precursors to the 7-Eleven and Sportflics offerings came from Kellogg’s, who had been pumping out 3-D cards on and off since 1970.

As for truly shiny, though, the first “cards” I remember buying as a kid came from the Topps Stickers sets of the early 1980s. While most of the stickers were of the standard variety, the sets included special foil inserts. Each of the Dave Parker stickers from the 1981 set is shown below.

“Okay, fine,” you say, “but what about true vintage, y’know, pre-1980?” Not a problem! If you were opening packs between 1960 and 1978 (but not 1974) I’m sure you ran across the occasional shiny trophy on your cardboard.

I mentioned earlier that the 3D sets from Kellogg’s date back to 1970 (see also Rold Gold), but I know some of you are thinking “3D” barely even qualifies as shiny. Then how about two sets that combine genuine shine and 3D: the 1969 Citgo Coins set, and the 1965 Topps Embossed set.

Though the shine was limited to the very edge, the 1971 Topps coins set warrants mention as well.

Ditto the 1964 Topps Coins set, but as with the 1980s sticker sets the all-stars get some extra shine.

Old London also included baseball coins with some of their snack products in 1965. If they look familiar, it is because they were produced by the same company that worked with Topps in 1964 and 1971.

And finally, before we leave the coin realm for good, the Cardinals put out a set of “Busch Stadium Immortals” coins in 1966 and were kind enough to dedicate one entire slot from the 12-coin checklist to a St. Louis Brown!

It’s been a while since we saw any magic motion, but the mid-1960s has that too. In commemoration of their championship season the Dodgers put out a set of three “flasher” pins: Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, and “Our Champs.”

In much of this post we are pushing the definition of baseball card a fair amount, and it’s possible most readers will feel I’ve gone too far in including this next set: 1950 Sports Stars Luckee Key Charms. Then again, if we keep the charm affixed to the packaging, just maybe!

Backing up several decades we get to a very early gold-bordered set. Ah, but not the one you’re thinking of. I’m talking about the 1915 PM1 Ornate-Frame Pins, a somewhat mysterious set with about 30 different players known thus far to make up the checklist.

An even earlier shiny set was also the first to have stats, bios, and even autographs. At last we’ve come to the masterpiece known as 1911 American Tobacco Company Gold Borders (T205). I believe the use of three significantly different designs (National League, American League, Minor Leagues) is also an innovation of this set, but perhaps a reader can verify.

However, among the firsts the T205 set accomplished, gold borders was not one of them. Two years ahead and one entry up in the American Card Catalog is the 1909 Ramly Cigarettes (T204) set, which not only features gold borders but additional gold framing around the player images.

A bit of gold could also be found in the 1910-11 Turkey Red (T3) cabinets, both in the nameplate and around the edge of each image. (See also 1911 Sporting Life Cabinets.)

You might expect by now we’ve reached the end of our journey, one that’s taken us back more than a century from the Kevin Pillar card that started this post. In fact we will go back another 20+ years to the 1888 H.D. Smith and Company (formerly known as Scrapp’s Tobacco) die cuts. Admittedly I’ve never seen one of this cards in person, but the lettering on the St. Louis player and the lacing on the Detroit player seem to have some gold sprinkled in.

Finally, just because I like to do this kind of thing, I’ll go back even one year earlier to 1887 and suggest an Honorable Mention, the 1887 Buchner Gold Coin (N284) tobacco series. I know, these cards don’t look shiny but they do have “Gold” in their name. In addition, this set had all the ingredients. Not only do we have plenty of Orr but we even have some Silver Flint!

And if that’s still not enough to warrant an honorable mention, here are two other cards in the set, Billy Sunday and Old Hoss Radbourn.

The man on the left, once he left the diamond, was known to tell his flock, “Give your face to God and he will put his shine on it.” And the man on the right? He’d be the first to tell you to take your cigarette cards and put ’em where the sun don’t shine!

Pinnacle Patent Dive

One of my favorite oddballs from my childhood was Action Packed. The 3D embossed effect was pretty cool but even as a kid I was impressed at the way they were made. As I’ve been looking for card-related patents I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for Action Packed.

This has been somewhat frustrating because Action Packed actually mentions patent number 315364 on the cards themselves but every time I searched that number I couldn’t find anything. A couple weeks ago though I got a tip from Paul Lesko that the Action Packed patent was in fact a design patent and should be listed as D315364.

Compared to the more-common utility/mechanical patents which describe how a product works, design patents are strictly about how the product looks. In the case of Action Packed, its design patent covers the different profile levels.

This is cool to see but also ultimately disappointing since design patents are literally just about how the product looks. I’m not a patent attorney but even though Action Packed put this patent number on all its cards—not just the ones that have this border design—I can’t help but think that this patent only applies to the specific profile of the original design.

Original design is on the left. It’s clearly the same design as the one in the design patent. I’m not sure if there was ever a proper baseball release in that design since all the baseball cards I’ve see are the design on the right.

Flipping the cards overs shows how they were made. There’s a seam that goes the length of the card (above the card number on Cunningham and above the stats on Jenkins) which shows how they’re printed on only one side of the paper and subsequently glued together. This is pretty clever since it hides the back of the embossing is on the card fronts.

It’s worth noting the prototype baseball cards which date to when the design patent was filed in 1988 use the design in the patent and are assembled differently. Instead of folding each side over and putting a seam on the back, this is just folded in half.

Anyway I’m still hoping to find more details about the production of these but I did notice that the patent is now assigned to Pinnacle Brands. So I decided to click on that name and see what else they owned.

There wasn’t as much interesting stuff in there as I was hoping for but this patent jumped out a me. Fellow early-90s collectors like myself will recognize it immediately, everyone else will be pretty confused.

The patent title itself gives it away. This is an anti-counterfeiting device. Where Upper Deck used holograms on its cards, Pinnacle decided to leverage its Sportflics brand and use lenticular printing.

That little slug under the player portrait on the back of every Pinnacle card? It’s basically what a Sportflics or Kelloggs card looks like before the plastic lens layer is added on top of the printing. It definitely confused me as a kid so it’s cool to see how it’s actually supposed to work.