Cardboard Famous

A reply to a recent SABR Baseball Cards social media post led me to think about the baseball players more famous for their baseball cards than for any of their on or off the field exploits. Here are ten who I believe fit the bill.

BILLY RIPKEN

Ripken lasted twelve years in the big leagues as an infielder, including an all-star caliber season in 1990. Today he is a frequent co-host on MLB Network. His brother is baseball’s ultimate Iron Man and one of the greatest shortstops in history. And still, say the name Billy Ripken and card collectors think only of one thing: his 1989 Fleer F*ck Face card.

BUMP WILLS

His career on the diamond lasted only half as long as Billy Ripken’s but he spent six years as the regular second baseman for the Rangers and Cubs, topping 30 steals four times while batting a respectable .266. Like Ripken, baseball also ran in his family. Of course any kid who collected baseball cards in 1979 will know him best for this seemingly impossible cardboard trickery.

BRANDON PUFFER AND JUNG BONG

Puffer played four years in the big leagues, appearing in 85 games for the Astros, Padres, and Giants. Jung Bong played one fewer season, appearing in 48 games for the Braves and Reds. The two pitchers combined for a WAR of -1.2. Though never teammates, the duo shared Future Stars cardboard in the 2003 Topps set on card #331, known to collectors (and chronicled by David Roth) as the “Bong Puffer card.”

OSCAR GAMBLE

Legitimately one of the best hitters of his time, scouted by the legendary Buck O’Neil, and the man behind the classic line, “They don’t think it be like it is, but it do,” Oscar Gamble would be remembered fondly even if he had no baseball cards at all. Fortunately that’s a hypothetical we need not ponder long when this pure cardboard gold is right in front of us.

SHERRY MAGEE AND JOE DOYLE

Magee built a borderline Hall of Fame career from 1904-1919 that included more than 2000 hits, four RBI titles, and 59.4 WAR. Even with those credentials I suspect many readers can only hazard a guess whether his name is pronounced Maggie, McGee, or Madgee.

Doyle, on the other hand, had a completely undistinguished career, seeing limited action on the mound over five seasons at roughly replacement level.

Whatever their on-field exploits, each of these players will forever be cardboard legends, with their error cards comprising half of the T206 set’s “Big Four.”

BENNY BENGOUGH AND ANDY PAKFO

Bengough was a career backup catcher who compiled 0.3 WAR over his ten seasons in the big leagues. When the 1933 Goudey set came out, he was already out of baseball.

Pafko, on the other hand, was a four-time all-star who batted .285 over 13 seasons with a career OPS+ of 117. His 1952 season (.287/19/85) was uncannily similar to his lifetime per 162 slash line of .285/19/85, and his midseason move from the Cubs to the Dodgers the prior year was one of the season’s biggest trades.

While neither player would top any list of all-time greats, each player topped many stacks of baseball cards, thanks to being numbered one in the 1933 Goudey and 1952 Topps sets respectively. Until the Upper Deck Ken Griffey, Jr., rookie card came along in 1989, I suspect these two players were the Hobby’s most famous set starters. Certainly both cards, in reasonable shape, carried a premium comparable to lesser Hall of Famers due to rubber banding, spills, and the myriad other ways stack toppers suffered disproportionate damage in collections prior to the advent of plastic sheets.

HONUS WAGNER

I’ll end the article with what may be my most contentious selection. Without a doubt, Wagner is a top shelf baseball immortal, considered by many to be the greatest shortstop of all-time if not the single greatest player of the Deadball Era. (In both cases, Pop Lloyd deserves consideration as well.) To an audience well versed in baseball history, therefore, Wagner is most famous for his tremendous playing career, even if most fans still pronounce his name wrong.

Yet whatever his accomplishments on the diamond, I suspect the Flying Dutchman is best known today, whether in the collecting world or the general public, for a single, transcendently pricey cardboard rectangle, our Hobby’s Mona Lisa.

Who else would you nominate for this elite club where ERR trumps WAR and even backup catchers can be number one? Sound off in the Comments!

The card that still haunts me

Stay in this Hobby long enough and you’ll have your share of heartbreak. Carry your favorite cards to school in your pants pockets, and you’re bound to put some through the wash. Sell a prized card when you need the money, and of course the value triples before you can buy it back. Stock up on your favorite phenom only to have his numbers plummet right in sync with your retirement plans. These tragedies happen. The only question is whether we have the resilience and perspective to weather them. I know I didn’t.

It was 1983 and I was thirteen. Cards were my whole world. I’m not saying that to brag. To put things another way, except for cards, I had no life, which is why this book had so much power over me. (In truth, mine was the second edition, but I couldn’t find a picture.)

It was this book that could turn an ordinary (and below average in most ways if we’re being honest) kid into a first-rate autograph collector. Sure I had some autographs in my collection already: Mickey Klutts, who signed at a show, and Nolan Ryan who I wrote to through the Astros, but Hall of Famers?! I wouldn’t have believed it except for the fact that it happened.

I don’t know how it’s done today but back then it was important to me to write each player a personal letter, praising their career and letting them know why their autograph would mean so much to me. I wish I could say my motivation was mere kindness. Sadly, I believe the only reason I did it was to up my chance of a return. “Flattery will get you everywhere,” as they say. Either way, I spent the weekend writing about 20 letters by hand, which I sent off (with SASE and accompanying baseball cards of course) all at once.

Any question about whether anyone would write back was answered quickly. I believe the exact time elapsed was four days, and the return address has remained in my head all these decades later.

Hank Greenberg
1129 Miradero Road
Beverly Hills, CA 90210

I don’t recall any note inside. Instead there was only a blank slip of paper folded to protect what was now the most amazing card in my collection.

Right in front of me was a 1983 Donruss Hall of Fame Heroes card of Hank Greenberg, signed in blue Sharpie, with an absolutely Hall of Fame quality autograph across the beautiful Dick Perez artwork. I stared at it for hours the day it came and then did the same just about every day after.

My second Hall of Fame autograph arrived a couple weeks later—I believe it was from Al Kaline—and from there it seemed every week another envelope would arrive: Stan Musial, Duke Snider, Charlie Gehringer, and so on. Even as the collection grew, the Greenberg still stood alone: first, best, and perfect.

Of course what happened next was unthinkable yet entirely predictable.

For the third time in as many years, I came home to find my mom had thrown out my entire collection, Greenberg and all. To be clear, this wasn’t one of those “mom threw them out” stories about a kid off to college or interested in cars and girls. No, baseball cards were my whole life. That’s exactly what it felt like too, like my whole life had been thrown out.

Over the next couple weeks, almost cruelly, signed cards continued to arrive. I should have been thrilled to land autographs from Ted Williams, Yogi Berra, and Eddie Mathews, but instead I just dwelled on what I didn’t have. It would be too mild to say I experienced anger or sadness. Rather, it was the feeling of hating my life. I know that sounds extreme, but how would you feel if baseball cards were the only thing you cared about?

The Survivors

I did resume my card collecting almost immediately. What else was I going to do with my time? However, even as autographs kept trickling in, I just couldn’t get myself to care. Despite having barely even started, I was done as an autograph collector. This I knew.

Haunted day and night for months by my lost Greenberg, I now hated autographs. And then one day the obvious occurred to me. Why not write to him again?

Sure enough, there was an envelope from Miradero Road waiting for me no more than a week later. There was only one problem. My card was returned unsigned. Along with it was a typewritten note letting me know Mr. Greenberg required that a $5 check payable to the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (or maybe it was the Humane Society) now accompany all autograph requests. Like I even had a checkbook!

A couple years later, I saw the news that Hank Greenberg had passed away. I wish I could say my first reaction was sympathy for his loved ones or the legions of baseball fans who had lost a true giant of a man. Instead I was consumed by the thought that I’d blown my chance at an autograph. And yes, feel free to judge. Baseball cards were still my whole world.

About five years into my return to the Hobby, around 2019, I set up a saved search on eBay for a single autographed card: the 1983 Donruss Hall of Fame Heroes Hank Greenberg card. It had been 30+ years, for God’s sake! I thought I might be ready.

Only rarely did anything ever come up and most of the time when something did it proved to be an unsigned copy, misclassified by the seller or considered close enough by the eBay search engine. As it turns out, the bad results were a blessing. In contrast, it’s the truly autographed search results that strike me like daggers to the heart. Nonetheless, some self-destructive impulse, some bad mutation upon my collector DNA, compels me to retain this search, to keep looking.

Thankfully, the signatures on these cards are always black, not blue, ensuring at least some distance between the cards on the screen and the card I once had. Blue, that would probably kill me.

And then it happened.

A card came up last week that looked exactly like the one I had, the one I stared at for hours on end. Its blue Sharpie signature so uncannily matched the image burned in my head all these years that I now wonder if my mom really did throw away my cards or simply sold them to someone who sold them to someone who is now selling at least the best of them on eBay.

You might think I’d have already jumped at the chance to buy the card like some modern Ahab having at last cornered his White Whale. In truth, that would be confusing the hunter with the hunted. My journey back into the Hobby has been less about nostalgia than redemption, about rebuilding my collection without reliving its memories. Until now I have looked to the cards I buy to right, not revisit, my past. What happens then when one has the power to bring it all back?

The epitome of baseball card collecting

A friend recently sent me a surprise package of cards in the mail, highlighted by a new addition to my Steve Garvey collection.

The card was about one-and-a-half times the dimensions of a standard baseball card, featured what looked like a real autograph (see Author’s Note at end), and most notably was made from a ceramic material.

The back featured complete statistics, a serial number (430/1000), and some “Interesting Facts About Steve,” among them his favorite player being Gil Hodges and his nickname being Garv. There was also a 1985 copyright date in the bottom right corner, which in conjunction with Garvey’s stats, established a year for the card’s issue.

“Garv” was packaged in a tri-fold of corrugated cardboard, it’s front panel identifying the product as Armstrong’s Pro Ceramic Baseball Cards and indicating the full name of the player whose card was enclosed. The middle panel housed the card, and the back panel featured high praise from five of the era’s biggest stars: Reggie Jackson, Tom Seaver, George Brett, Pete Rose, and Steve Garvey.

According to no less an authority than Mr. October, these cards were “the epitome of baseball card collecting…Just like a classic car.” Meanwhile, Tom Terrific predicted the set to “soon become a bit of Americana” while Charlie Hustle declared the cards “winners.”

After doing some very light research I learned that the entire set of Pro Ceramic cards consisted of five players: exactly the ones who had hyped the cards on the back of the packaging. It was also evident that two different sets were released, one with autographs and one without. My gut sense from searches is that the unsigned cards are actually more scarce than the signed ones.

As nice a card as my “Garv” was, gold autograph and all, I toyed with the idea of pursuing the full set though I imagined at least the Seaver would be out of my price range.

Much to my surprise, I was able to nab all five cards for $29. And that’s total, not each! As good a deal as that seemed, my searches revealed other sets having gone for as little as $14.

On one hand it really is the “epitome of baseball card collecting” to see a high-end set from my collecting hey day fizzle its way into oblivion. On the other hand, it’s also the epitome of baseball card collecting to find bargains when you ignore “book value” and buy the cards you like.

After all, what really is oblivion but a hiding place for forgotten gems, a secret corner of the Hobby universe where ceramic baseball cards go not to die but only to await appreciation.

Author’s Note: A Pristine Auction listing for the set indicates the autographs as facsimiles. However, all look good to me, and they also vary from card to card enough to rule out an auto-pen sort of approach. For instance, here are two autographed Garvey cards with numerous evident differences in the signatures.

If someone faked these, I’d say they did a damn good job! That, and their ridiculously low price suddenly makes sense.

‘McCovey is off the table!’

I grew up in the ’80s, and yet my favorite TV show – and certainly the one I related most to – was one set in the late ’60s and early ’70s: The Wonder Years. The primary reason was that the protagonist, Kevin Arnold, and the actor who played him, Fred Savage, were both my age when the show premiered after Super Bowl XXII in 1988. In many ways, what I watched on ABC each week was a mirror of my own experiences in suburban New Jersey.

One of the parallels – along with puberty, crushes and teenage politics – was baseball. Though Kevin may not have been as obsessed as I was, he was definitely a fan. The first image we see in the opening credits shows Kevin in the street, bat in hand, waving to the camera before calling his shot. He may have been known more for wearing his green New York Jets jacket, but baseball is not forgotten in the series.

In one Season 3 episode, “The Unnatural,” Kevin tries out for his junior high baseball team. The final scene shows him hitting a game-winning home run (despite missing third base; look for it), with Russ Hodges’ call of Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World” playing in the background.

But the most notable baseball scene involves a different Giant, and a way of engaging with the game we’re all familiar with here: The Hobby. In an earlier Season 3 episode, “Odd Man Out,” Kevin and Paul discuss a baseball card trade centered around Willie McCovey. The episode aired in November 1989, meaning it was set in 1969 (events depicted in the show were meant to be 20 years earlier than when they aired).

It’s not clear which McCovey card they’re talking about. Kevin and Paul are 13 in 1969, and Kevin’s voiceover saying that they’d “been through this a hundred times before” indicates that it’s an on-going discourse, so it’s probably a mid-to-late ’60s McCovey card. Paul’s stern response – “McCovey is off the table” – carried enough weight to be included as a magnet in the deluxe edition of the complete series DVD released in 2014 and inspired an indie rock song.

The McCovey Negotiations magnet in the deluxe DVD release.

The Wonder Years returned to TV this fall in a reboot set around the same time – beginning in 1968 – but with a Black family and a 12-year-old protagonist, Dean, at the center of it. Baseball has an even bigger presence in the first few episodes of this series, starting in the pilot when the climactic scene occurs during Dean’s Little League game. Subsequent episodes show pennants on the wall of the room he shares with his older brother (who’s fighting in Vietnam); the Cardinals, Phillies, Yankees, and Dodgers are all represented.

And, in a nod to the “McCovey is off the table” scene, a trading session among Dean and his friends outside of school pops up in Episode 3.

Dean reads the (fake) stats on a (presumably fake) 1968 Bert Campaneris card.

This time the names offered, in a much more elaborate negotiation involving at least four boys, are Jim Fregosi, Bill Freehan (mispronounced as “Freeman”), Hank Aaron, Bert Campaneris, Carl Yastrzemski, and Willie Mays.


DEAN: OK, Cory, if you trade Brad your Jim Fregosi, Brad can trade Sam his Bill Freeman [sic], and I’ll just take this Hank Aaron, I guess. I think we have a deal here, fellas.

BRAD: Wait, who are you giving up?

DEAN: Well, I really don’t want to do this, but I guess I could get rid of my Bert Campaneris.

BRAD: Who’s Bert Campaneris?

DEAN (chuckling in disbelief): Who’s Bert Campaneris? Only the utility infielder for the Oakland A’s that hit .232 with four doubles and six hit-by-pitches last season.

CORY: I don’t know, man. My mom told me not to trade with you anymore after you took that Willie Mays card off my hands because he “ruined it” by signing it.

DEAN: I’m sorry – am I trading with Cory, or Cory’s mom? Do you ask your mom to cut your steak, too?

CORY: Well, yeah, actually – she does it the best.

BRETT: I’ll take the Bert Campaneris!

DEAN: Finally! Someone who’s his own man. Now, let’s see who do I want in return. [Picks up a card, reading.] “Carl Yas-term-ski?” That’s a weird name. Guess I could take this one off your hands.


Back in 1989, before “high definition” was a thing, Fred Savage – who directed that 2021 episode with the trading session – was given 1989 Topps cards when talking about Juan Marichal, Luis Tiant, and Willie McCovey. In 2021, the props master (they really should rethink that title) at least managed to get reprints of 1968 (and earlier) cards, though the script writer made up a Bert Campaneris season that never happened. In ’68, Campaneris was an All-Star shortstop who finished 11th in AL MVP voting after hitting .276/.330/.361 in 159 games, leading the league in plate appearances and at-bats.

At least they aren’t in bicycle spokes? (Click to enlarge.)

A 1965 Topps Bill Freehan is on top of the cards being held on the left; those shown in the grass include three from 1963: Earl Averill (near center), Jimmie Schaffer (far right), and Casey Stengel and Gene Woodling of the Mets on a card titled “Veteran Masters” (top right of the pile). The bulk of the rest are from ’68, among them (roughly from left to right): Hank Aaron, Dick Kelley, Ken Suarez, Dave Morehead, Adolfo Phillips, Gary Peters, Cal Ermer, Bill Monbouquette, Tom Phoebus, Dan Schneider, Bubba Morton, and – yep, alone at the top – Carl Yastrzemski.

I wonder how things would have gone if Kevin had offered a Yastrzemski for the McCovey. Seems pretty fair to me.

Anatomy of a Reprint

This will be a short post but I just received a copy of the 2021 Stadium Club Will Clark reprint. It’s a striking portrait of The Thrill. In 1992 Topps treated  Clark, Matt Williams, and Kevin Mitchell all very similarly. Black jackets and a black background with just enough light to expose their faces and one other feature—glove, ball, etc.—while everything else receded into shadow.

They’re striking cards and I figured it would be fun to compare the Clark reprint with the original card that I have in my collection.

Starting off with a side-by-side pair of scans. I scanned and processed these together before splitting them into different images so the differences in color reflect actual differences between the two and not anything I introduced in post-processing the scan. In this pair, and the other pairs of images in this post, the original 1992 card is on the left and the 2021 reprint is on the right.

Two obvious differences. 1992 is a bit darker and yellower. 2021 has lower contrast and better shadow detail. First off, the yellowness extends to the white point of the paper and is very likely an effect of aging. Maybe the paper is getting old. Maybe the UV coating* is yellowing slightly. The contrast and shadow detail differences though suggest that a lot more is going on.

*UV coating is the high-gloss finish that Topps started using in 1991 Stadium Club and which took over the hobby in the 1990s. It’s called UV because it’s cured with ultraviolet light. It can yellow with age and, as many of us have found, can stick to other UV coated items as well.

Yup. Time to look closer. The print screens shows that Topps recreated the original cards and that they have, someplace, the original images that they used in 1992. How can I tell? The two different cards use different line frequencies—1992 is around 125 LPI, 2021 is around 170 LPI—and there’s no evidence of rescreening.*

*Poorly done reprints often scan and rescreen on top of the older screen and the result is often a mess.

LPI stands for lines per inch and refers to how many rows of dots occur in each inch of printing. A higher number means you have the ability to show more detail in the image but also requires better quality paper and a better press to hold that detail. Printing too fine a line screen can actually produce a darker image than expected if done incorrectly since the dots are closer together and can “plug” if the paper or press is wrong.* In the 1980s and 1990s, anything over 120 LPI was high quality. Nowadays things are routinely printed around 170 or higher.

* It’s my opinion that 1989 Upper Deck suffered a bit from this as it would completely explain why so many of the images are darker than they should be.

More importantly though, I can see in the blacks that the screen on the 2021 card is a lot more open. At the top of this pair of images, the 1992 version is almost solid black. There are occasional dots of color but it’s mostly plugged with ink. The 2021 version though is clearly a mix of inks. Not only is the linescreen much finer, Topps kept it from plugging up with ink. As a result, there’s a lot more visible detail in the cap, jacket, and even the background texture.

There’s also a lot less yellow being printed in 2021. Looking at Clark’s eye shows that even if the UV coating in the 1992 is yellowing, there’s actually a lot of yellow being printed as well. I see way fewer yellow dots in the 2021 card.

This pair of images shows off the difference in detail that we can see in the glove but what caught my eye is the way the Stadium Club logo is printed. This wasn’t clocked by most people in 1991 but in addition to the full-bleed images, glossy finish, and foil stamping, Topps also used a spot-color ink* for the first time on the front of its cards.** This continued in 1992 and in the scans here the difference between the pink stadium seats is pretty obvious.

*I’m not going to explain spot colors in much depth here since I’ve already done so elsewhere on the blog but in short, full-color printing uses four process inks (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) and any additional ink that’s not one of those four colors is a spot ink.

**1991 Stadium Club is the first full-color plus spot color I can think of for Topps. 1990 Leaf with the silver ink  if the first full-color plus spot color I can think of in general. Adding a spot ink to the four process inks was a serious premium step up in production.

No screening at all in 1992. Clear magenta and yellow screen patterns and even some slight misregistration in 2021. I can’t show this in images but the 1992 spot ink fluoresces under a black light as well.

I know why Topps chose not to use a spot color in 2021 since that would be a lot of extra production for an insert set that no one was really excited about anyway.* At the same time, that they didn’t strikes me as being as wrong as if they’d replaced the foil stamping with a gold color ink mix.

*Seriously, does anyone like Stadium Club inserts? I’m pretty sure we all just get Stadium Club because the base card photography is so great.

Still, it was fun to do a dive into the printing differences so I can’t complain too much. While things like Heritage or Archives often play a bit loose with adapting old designs to modern usage, a reprint is supposed to be the same and when it’s not I’m glad the differences give us a look in to how Topps’s production quality has changed and, for the most part, improved.

On the alluring promise of an unopened pack

I took the kids out the other day to hit some balls. It’s been a bit of a frustrating summer in terms of weather—stifling humidity, or thunderstorms with leveling winds and torrential downpours—but we hit a sweet stretch of sunny, high-skied days, so we grabbed one by the lapels and the four of us headed out shortly after breakfast. We had four gloves, nine balls, and four bats: two aluminum, my old ash Slugger with Junior’s signature burned into it, and a bamboo Mizuno I picked up this spring. We had one batting helmet to pass between us. We also found a half-finished pouch of Big League Chew in the bottom of the old gym bag we use to carry our stuff. All signs pointed to this being a good day.

We do this pretty often. In this house taking the kids to a diamond to play catch, field grounders, shag flies, and thwack balls on hot summer days is as non-negotiable an aspect of the season as eating fresh cherries, sleeping with the windows open, and canoeing across smooth water to take a cooling dip in the buggy, violet dusk.

On this particular day I was wearing a Pirates tee with the old grinning pirate logo—the one that looks like a lobby card for a swashbuckler starring Dean Martin—and my son’s cast off Peterborough Tigers house league cap, mesh and adjustable, which he abandoned the moment he made the rep team, whereupon I swooped in to claim it. I finished off the ensemble with cut-off Levi’s and a pair of shabby running shoes. The kids all pretty much follow my sartorial lead, though given that they’re fifteen (my daughter) and eleven (her twin brothers), it doesn’t read for them like the cry for help it probably is for me. Among the hard lessons of adulthood is that what plays when you’re a kid doesn’t necessarily retain its currency as you age. I still haven’t fully internalized that one, as evidenced by my eBay search history.

We drove to a nearby diamond hemmed by a pair of busy roads and a construction site. A crane towered over centerfield. But the outfield grass was a thick, brilliant green—all that rain—and the freshly-raked dirt of the infield promised true bounces. Taking the first step onto that groomed and untrodden earth felt a lot like tearing open a brand new pack of cards. Maybe that’s why I hesitated.

Unopened packs are some powerful stuff, psychically, spiritually, precisely because you just don’t know what’s inside. I mean, you know what’s inside in broad terms—the packaging tells you, if it’s doing its job. But the specifics elude you, and that’s when the imagination takes over, making room for hope and anticipation. The box of 2021 Topps Series 2 that sits on my shelf tantalizes by virtue of its newness and the possibilities it represents, and that’s why, though I love opening cards with my kids, taking turns drafting until all the cards are gone, I also relish holding off on even telling them that I’ve picked up a new box or pack. Part of that is the joy of surprise, but the bulk of it is that hope, ephemeral and addictive. Maybe Tatis, Jr. waits to be taken, or Soto. There might be an Ohtani. There might even be a Vlad, Jr. In our house, that’d be the first card chosen. We’re a little crazy about Vlad.

Less exciting for the kids, by virtue of simple math, is the hanger pack of 1990 Donruss that I’ve been holding on to for a couple of years. It’s funny that I should be so reverent of that set, which I collected, but did not love, in its year of issue, with its funky and immodest Memphis Milano design cues, and the fact that I was at the time primarily obsessed with Upper Deck’s offerings. But I found this cellophaned relic in a junk shop a few years ago, where it was underpriced, sitting next to NASCAR models and board games marked “MISSING PIECES,” so I brought it home, and it has rested within arm’s reach of my desk ever since, waiting for a day that seemed to beckon toward the finality of tearing open its brittle envelope and revealing its contents.

That those contents might underwhelm is both a statistical probability and a compelling argument for leaving the packaging untroubled, and the mystery it cradles intact. Already there are indications that the cache could disappoint; the three cards visible through the clear wrapper are Jose Uribe (SFG), Clint Zavaras (SEA), and Brian Holton (BAL). I mean no disrespect to any of those men, but short of family has anyone ever longed to see those names when they crack open a fresh pack? You’re looking for Griffey, Bo Jackson, Barry Bonds, a Larry Walker rookie card, not commons and filler.

Hope for one outcome and the suspicion that another is all that awaits; this is the fine tension that fuels the excitement of an unopened pack of baseball cards. The only thing preserving this delicate balance is the packaging, be it waxed paper sealed with glue, a foil pouch, rectilinear cardboard, or clear plastic. Once breached, the mystery—and the promise—evaporates. Maybe Vladdy’s in there, maybe he isn’t, but knowing he is, or knowing he isn’t, isn’t as interesting as not knowing that he is, or isn’t. Ignorance is bliss, while hope is divine.

The kids didn’t hesitate to step onto the dirt, of course. Theirs were the first footprints on the unspoiled infield. They charged ahead and I followed, and we lay all our stuff at the foot of the chain-link backstop. We put on our gloves and started tossing a ball around. When the ball hit the dirt it left round impact craters and, from rollers, long runnels like sandworm tracks. Before long we’d collaborated on an original work, an abstract in dirt, a study in forms.

Then the bats came out. I walked to the mound and lay down a cluster of balls, most of which were worn and scuffed—last year’s crop, from the box I ordered to give us something to replace all the balls we were losing over the backyard fence during early pandemic games of catch. Of that batch of a dozen there are now six left untouched, gleaming and beautiful in their box, other iterations of promise, threats of diminishment. On this day I brought two of those fresh pearls, smooth and white, because there’s nothing like hitting a new ball. My son stepped in, waggled his bat, and I began serving up fat cookies right over the heart of the plate, which he hacked and whacked all over the field, leaving more craters and lines. His siblings fielded the balls and tossed them back in.

The kids took turns at bat and sullied the new balls, and it was glorious. Dribblers, stingers, high pop flies. The orbs picked up grass, dirt, scratches in their soft hides. They’re still brighter than the other balls, but a little less clean, and in time they’ll show evidence of heavy use, which is as it should be. An unused baseball is, I think, a tiny crime against the universe.

The cards, too, will eventually be opened. Let’s face it, I lack the willpower to hold out forever. The balance will tilt until it overwhelms me, and I’ll succumb to a moment of high-grade hope, and maybe there will be a gem or two buried within. Vlad, or Larry Walker, or Andre Dawson. And if no superstar appears, no Hall of Famer, or member of the Hall of Very Good—or even the Annex of Guys Who You Know Aren’t Very Good, But You Root For Them Anyway—the disappointment will dissolve nearly as soon as it sets in. There are no real stakes in this, and that’s what’s so wonderful about it.

Player Collection Spotlight: Representing the 772 (or 561 or 407 or 305)

Our collecting habits are almost certainly influenced by time and place, and my own certainly are. The players I collect were primarily active in the 1980s and 1990s, the team I collect was on top of the baseball world in 1986 with their spring training site moving about two miles away from my house, and, with my formative collecting years being the late 1980s and early 1990s, I find having a single card producing company with a full MLB license maddening.

At some point, probably in the early 2000s, I began collecting “cards” of players from the area in which I grew up. “Cards” is in parentheses because I have other items of the non-card variety, including Starting Lineup figures for the few who had them as well as other assorted card-like items. While the definition of a card varies by individual, my own definition of a “card” is broad.

Port St. Lucie was small when I lived there – the title of the post shows how much the area codes changed due to population growth over the span of about 15 years. There was not actually a high school in the city of Port St. Lucie until 1989 (I was in the second class that could possibly have attended the school all four years) – so I branched out a little into the rest of St. Lucie County as well as neighboring Martin and Indian River counties. But despite its size there were a few players who made it to the show.

The most famous player from the area is almost certainly Rick Ankiel. A highly touted pitching prospect who likely would have gone higher in the draft if he didn’t have Scott Boras as his agent, he finished second in Rookie of the Year voting to Rafael Furcal then proceeded to struggle with control against the Braves and Mets in the playoffs. He of course made it back to the majors as an outfielder, which, according to his book, may not have happened had he not had Boras as his agent. It’s that story which likely elevates him to the most famous player from the area.

Charles Johnson went to Fort Pierce Westwood and was drafted in the first round twice – once out of high school and once out of the University of Miami. I believe his dad was the baseball coach at Westwood for many years. He is probably the best player (at least according to WAR) to come out of the area, or at least he was until Michael Brantley came along. Again, there are dividing lines for a collection – I don’t collect Brantley because I had left the area before he became a local player. He was in the right place just at the wrong time. Brantley’s time in that area did overlap perhaps an even more famous individual from the area – you may have seen Megan Fox in a movie or two.

There are other players from the area, more minor players in the history of the game. Ed Hearn, who was born in Stuart and went to Fort Pierce Central, was a favorite of my best friend’s mom. He also happened to play for the 1986 Mets, which is good enough for me. Like Charles Johnson, Terry McGriff is a catcher out of Westwood and is actually Charles Johnson’s uncle. He’s also a cousin to Fred McGriff (who I also collect in a limited fashion though that has nothing to do with location – it has everything to do with time). A friend of mine in elementary school got Terry McGriff’s autograph when Terry visited my friend’s elementary school. Eventually that card ended up in my collection through a trade of some sort.

Danny Klassen, who went to John Carroll High School, is the closest in age to me, and while I didn’t play baseball with him (I was on the north side of Port St. Lucie and played at Sportsman’s Park; he was playing on the south side at Lyngate Park) I know many people who played on teams with him in Little League and Legion Ball. I believe he has a World Series ring with his time on the Diamondbacks. Wonderful Terrific Monds was a player I didn’t know much about, but (1) a good friend of mine’s parents couldn’t stop talking about how good he was and (2) his name is awesome. He never made it to the majors, but he has minor league cards and a handful of cards from mainstream sets due to being in the minors at the right time (a prospect in the early 1990s).

I should probably have a Jon Coutlangus collection, but alas, I think he was a year too late. At one point I identified Joe Randa as the best MLB player to attend Indian River Community College (which is now Indian River State College), so I started a Randa collection, though I don’t remember much about his IRCC career.

The more prominent players (Ankiel, Johnson, and Randa) have some game-used and autographed cards; most have parallel cards in one product or another. Okay, Ankiel has over 100 different autographed cards and over 50 memorabilia cards according to Beckett; he was a hot prospect at a time when there were multiple fully-licensed producers. He’s also popular enough that he has autographed cards in recent Topps issues, well after his retirement from baseball. Hearn, McGriff, Monds, and Klassen only have a handful (or what I would call a handful – less than 75) of cards. It’s usually easier to find the rarer cards of the bigger names because sellers will list them, with the cards of the less popular players coming up occasionally.

While the cards of these players aren’t going to set records at an auction or allow me to buy an island, the collection provides a tie to my formative baseball playing and baseball card collecting years. For me, those types of connections are why I collect.

Were the All Star FanFest Cards from 1994-2000 the Precursor for Topps Project 2020?

As a baseball card collector and enthusiast, I feel that I am living through the Renaissance era of baseball card art. My Twitter feed is filled daily with spectacular images of cards from many artists that are working with a variety of mediums to produce their own interpretations of what cards of past and present players should look like. A number of these artists are also using their artwork to support charitable causes.

There was certainly an undercurrent of fine baseball card artwork being produced long before 2020, but the Topps Project 2020 brought to the surface a tidal wave of beautiful cards from a wide variety of artists.

Was Project 2020 an original idea or was it a variation on a project from the Junk Wax era? A case can be made that Project 2020 can be linked back to the All Star FanFest Cards from 1994 to 2000.

The two projects are similar in that they have multiple artists and designers coming up with unique cards of a single player and they also share some common player subjects – Roberto Clemente (1994 – Pittsburgh FanFest), Nolan Ryan (1995 – Dallas FanFest), and Jackie Robinson (1997- Cleveland FanFest).

The other player subjects for the All Star FanFest sets were Steve Carlton (1996 – Philadelphia FanFest), Lou Brock (1998 – St. Louis FanFest), Carl Yastrzemski (1999 – Boston FanFest), and Henry Aaron (2000 – Atlanta FanFest).

Ray Schulte was responsible for the All Star FanFest cards from 1994 to 2000. At the time he was working as an event consultant for MLB Properties, and cajoled some of the major baseball card producers of the 90’s to design and distribute unique cards of an iconic player from the city that was hosting the All Star Game. To obtain the cards a fan had to redeem 5 pack wrappers of any baseball product of the manufacturer at their FanFest booth.

I was introduced to the cards when I attended the All Star FanFest event held at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston in 1999. I attended the event with my family and upon learning about the cards from a Fleer representative sent my two kids on a mission to purchase 5 packs of cards produced by each of the four manufacturers from dealers at the event so we could exchange the wrappers for the Carl Yastrzemski cards designed just for the 1999 FanFest.

Now let’s take a closer look at the All Star FanFest sets which feature players that overlap with the Topps 2020 Project.

1994 All Star FanFest Set – Roberto Clemente

1994 was the first year that FanFest cards were issued and with Pittsburgh hosting the All Star Game the player subject was Roberto Clemente. Topps, Fleer, Upper Deck, Donruss, and Pinnacle issued cards for the event.

Fleer and Topps decided not to mess with perfection and produced cards that were essentially reprints of Clemente’s 1955 Topps rookie card and his 1963 Fleer card with 1994 All Star logos. Upper Deck issued a metallic looking card of Clemente that contains career stats and accomplishments on the front. Upper Deck would utilize the “metallic look” design for player subjects for the next 6 years. As you would expect, an image of a Dick Perez painting of Clemente is on the front of the Donruss Diamond King card.

1995 All Star FanFest Set – Nolan Ryan

With the 1995 All Star Game being held in the home park of the Texas Rangers the logical choice for the player subject for the FanFest cards was Nolan Ryan who retired in 1993.

The 5 card manufacturers who designed cards for the 1994 All Star FanFest also produced cards for 1995 All Star FanFest event held in Dallas.

Topps produced a re-imagined 1967 Rookie card of by eliminating the Jerry Koosman photo and enlarging the Nolan Ryan image to fill the front of the card. In microscopic print, Nolan’s complete major league pitching record is on the back of the card. Steve Carlton got the same treatment a year later when Topps enlarged his airbrushed 1965 photo to produce a new version of his Rookie card. Fleer issued an Ultra Gold Medallion version of a Ryan card. Upper Deck continued with its metallic design for a Ryan card. The Pinnacle card featured a Nolan Ryan painting and Donruss produced a Tribute card.

Get out the magnifying glass. Back of Topps 1995 Nolan Ryan All Star FanFest card.

1997 All Star FanFest Set – Jackie Robinson

With the All Star Game 1997 marking the 50th year of his major league debut, Jackie Robinson was the correct selection for the player subject for the 1997 set.

Topps released a reprint of his 1952 card with a All Star logo on the front and his complete major league batting record on the back. Leaf distributed a reprint of Jackie’s 1948 “rookie” card with small All Star Game logo in the upper right-hand corner. Fleer choose a nice posed photo of Jackie looking like he is going to tag out the runner for its Ultra card. On the back of its Tribute card, Pinnacle included a great action shot of Robinson coming in head-first at home plate with the catcher about to make a tag. The photo leaves you wondering – Which way did the call go? Upper Deck once again used a metallic design for its Jackie Robinson FanFest card.

Other All Star FanFest Cards

1997 All Star FanFest Larry Doby Cards

Depending on your definition of a complete set, collectors should be aware that Fleer and Pinnacle released Larry Doby cards to coincide with the All Star game being held in Cleveland. Included below are photos of the Fleer Ultra card and the Pinnacle 3-D Denny’s card.

2000 Henry Aaron FanFest Error Card

For some reason Topps decided not to make a reprint of Aaron’s 1954 Rookie card part of the official 2000 All Star FanFest set. Instead, Topps designed a unique card that featured a spectacular color photo of Aaron in a posed batting stance. Topps did however print some of the 1954 Rookie reprints with an All Star Game logo. These Aaron Rookie reprints are considered “error” cards.

Costs

Almost all the All Star FanFest sets can be purchased for under $12 on eBay. The exception is the 1994 Roberto Clemente All Star FanFest set. Each manufacturer produced 15,000 cards for the event. Less than 10,000 of each card were distributed at FanFest. The rest of the cards were destroyed. A Clemente set will set you back about $60.

Albert Pujols, next man up!

I had to see it with my own eyes to believe it, but there he was: Albert Pujols in Dodger Blue.

Photo: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Following the Pujols signing, baseball savant Jay Jaffe was quick to point out that Albert was in good company.

Ditto Chris Kamka.

While late to the party, I’ll carry on the theme with the baseball card angle. We’ll blow right past Jackie, Sandy, Pee Wee, and the Duke and focus on the players you don’t normally think of as Dodgers.

THE BROOKLYN ERA

Chief Bender

There’s a great reason you don’t think of Bender as a Dodger. He never was. Yet, here he is in the 1916 Mother’s Bread set representing the Brooklyn National League club!

Without doing a ton of digging, I’m going to assume this is simply an error card. The same set also has Bender (same image) as a Philadelphia Athletic, which would have been equally incorrect. (Bender was a Baltimore Terrapin in 1915 and a Philadelphia Phillie in 1916.)

Roberto Clemente

The Great One, as is well known, never suited up for Brooklyn. Instead he was smartly and fatefully signed by the Pirates after the Dodgers left him unprotected in their farm system.

The 1994 Topps Archives set chose to include Roberto as a “1954 PROSPECT” of the Brooklyn Dodgers, depicting Clemente in a Montreal Royals uniform and aping the 1954 Topps design.

Charlie Gehringer

Okay, now you know there’s something funny going on here. The Mechanical Man as a Dodger? Heavens no! However, the uniform must have looked close enough that someone logged the card this way in Trading Card Database. (And don’t worry. I’ve submitted a correction.)

Still, it may well be that your Albert Pujols Dodgers card looks this jarring 50 years into the future. (Perhaps your Albert Pujols Angels cards will as well!)

Tony Lazzeri

Here’s one thing we know. If a player even spent a minute as a Dodger the 1990 Target Dodgers megaset took note.

In Lazzeri’s case, it was only 14 games, but he did have the highest OBP, SLG, and OPS of his entire career!

Babe Ruth

Lazzeri wasn’t the only member of the Murderers Row to have a Dodger baseball card. The Bambino, who coached for the squad, had several, beginning with this one from the 1962 Topps “Babe Ruth Special” subset.

If my eyes don’t deceive me, the next time Cody Bellinger steps to the plate for the Dodgers (hopefully soon!) his uniform number 35 will take on new significance.

Paul Waner

Thanks to Don Zminda for reminding me in the comments that Big Poison also had some Dodger cardboard.

Vintage collectors will prefer his 1941 Double Play card, shared with the season’s most ill-fated backstop. However, if beauty is what you’re after then this 1973 card will fill you will “Glee.”

Hack Wilson

Perhaps the only thing that could have diminished the thrill of my fellow SABR Chicago member John Racanelli landed his “holy grail” Hack Wilson card was flipping it over to see the team on the back.

Like Pujols, Wilson had his best seasons behind him, though he did knock a total of 38 homers for Brooklyn across 2+ seasons.

THE LOS ANGELES ERA

Dick Allen

This Dick Allen card is better known as the first major release with a mustache since T206 but is more importantly a must in any Dodger collection.

Unlike Pujols (at least we assume!), Allen’s best years weren’t behind him at all when he joined the Dodgers. He would of course win the American League’s MVP award in 1972 as a member of the White Sox, where he would also garner back-to-back Topps All-Star cards in 1974 and 1975.

Jim Bunning

Don’t worry. I didn’t remember this either.

Three wins, one loss, and a respectable 3.36 ERA.

Whitey Ford

Wait, what?! The Chairman of the Board? Yes, if his 1962 Post Cereal (Canadian) issue is to be believed.

Don’t panic. It was only an error card.

Rickey Henderson

While it seems like Rickey played for just about every team at some point, it sometimes takes cardboard proof to reassure me I wasn’t just imagining him in Dodger Blue.

So thank you, 2003 Fleer Tradition…I think.

Greg Maddux

Buy the time Maddux came to L.A. in 2006, by way of the Cubs, the Dodger faithful may have worried he had little left in the tank.

As his 2006 Upper Deck Season Highlights card reminds us, he could still get outs, tossing six no-hit innings in his first game as a Dodger. The magic didn’t last long though, as he went on to surrender 28 hits over his next three games.

Juan Marichal

Of course the Target Dodgers set was there for it, but we’ll go 1983 ASA instead.

The picture is sure to feel like a dagger to the hearts of Giants fans, but they could of course parry with an equally blasphemous Jackie.

Frank Robinson

Robby may have entered the Hall as an Oriole, but that didn’t stop SSPC from immortalizing him as a Dodger.

Naturally, many other cards include Frank Robinson’s Dodger stint, including his 1973 Topps flagship issue.

Jim Thome

Hall of Famer Jim Thome (or J M H M if your eyes are as bad as mine) had a brief pinch-hitting stint for the Dodgers in 2009, batting 17 times in 17 games with 4 singles.

Still, that cup of coffee was enough to make him one of THREE 600 HR club members Dodgers collectors can claim, along with Babe Ruth and now…

Albert Pujols!

Man, remember when we had to wait a year for this kind of thing!

Hollywood Stars Were in the Cards: Part 4

One of baseball’s enduring little mysteries arose the day I opened a pack of Topps in 1979 and pulled out a Rick Honeycutt: “Is Rick Honeycutt the son of Korean War veteran, Capt. B.J. Hunnicutt, U.S. Army Reserve?” I mused. It was, after all, just the sort of question an 11-year-old experiencing a sugar high from an alarmingly excessive amount of Topps bubble gum would ask himself on a warm spring day. The immediate and obvious answer, thanks to the spelling of the surname, is no. However, such variation in relations is not unheard of, nor are baseball cards free from error, so I decided to delve deeper once I got some free time—which I’d hoped would arrive before the summer of ’79’s conclusion but, unfortunately, didn’t present itself until last Tuesday.

As is well known—or should be, considering the Korean War is little taught in schools, sadly contributing to its lamentable sobriquet, “the Forgotten War”—the armistice declaring a permanent ceasefire (officially known as the Korean Armistice Agreement) was signed 27 July 1953. Although many American troops remained in South Korea until 1954 due to this fragile peace, Capt. Hunnicutt, a surgeon stationed at the 4077th MASH at the time of the ceasefire, was, like many officers, rapidly returned to the United States. (Being an officer, he almost certainly traveled by aircraft. Remember: in the waning days of the conflict, Capt. Hunnicutt got as far as Guam before his erroneous orders to rotate home were rescinded and he was sent back to the 4077th—all in a time frame possible only by air travel.) This means that Hunnicutt would have arrived home in Mill Valley, California, within the first days of August—to the great delight of his wife, Peg, and his young daughter, Erin. (Even had he been shipped home by sea, Hunnicutt still would have walked in his front door before the end of August.)

Rick Honeycutt was born 29 June 1954, in Chattanooga, Tennessee—which means that he was conceived in late September 1953. Baby booms are commonplace in the first weeks and months after wartime, as overjoyed and undersexed servicemen return to their wives or sweethearts. So, Rick Honeycutt’s conception falls right when we’d expect it to occur.

But why would Rick Honeycutt be born in Chattanooga if B.J. and Peg were living just north of San Francisco? One possible reason could be that, sometime in 1954, B.J. decided to honor his parting promise to Swamp-mate, Capt. B.F. Pierce, that they’d see each other back in the States, so he and Peg set out for the East Coast—surely with a stopover in Quapaw, Oklahoma, through which the major highway of the day, Route 66, conveniently passes, to visit Peg’s parents. Yet because this predated construction of the Interstate Highway System, travel by car was significantly slower than by standards of the late 1950s, causing the pregnant Peg Hunnicutt to unanticipatedly give birth to Rick in Chattanooga, either on the way to, or returning from, their easterly destination.

But that is a scenario fraught with geographic variables, and I believe the case to be much more along the lines of B.J. Hunnicutt attending a medical convention at Chattanooga State Community College—possibly traveling there on the yellow 1932 NSU 501 TS motorcycle on which he departed the 4077th (B.J. easily could have bribed an airman to stow it on the cargo plane taking him home). While at the convention, he had a fling with a local woman—a precedent had been set between the supposedly true-blue Hunnicutt and an on-the-rebound 4077th nurse, 1LT Carrie Donovan—and this latter affair produced a son, whose mother, either out of shame or ignorance of spelling, named the boy Rick Honeycutt. If this is the case, then it’s entirely possible that B.J. never knew of the existence of Rick.

As if additional evidence were needed, the 6’1” Rick Honeycutt apparently inherited the 6’3” B.J. Hunnicutt’s height and lean frame. (His 1979 Topps card also displays an extremely high crown to his cap, indicating that Rick likewise inherited his father’s abnormally spacious forehead.)

Honeycutt attended high school in nearby Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, so, at some point, his mother up and left Rick’s birthplace, taking her son from the disapproving eyes of Chattanoogans and across the state line, where her sordid past might not be the talk of the town.

After returning to Tennessee for his collegiate years, where Rick developed into a crackerjack first baseman and pitcher, Honeycutt was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Pitching well in AA ball, he became the “player to be named later” in an earlier trade with the expansion Mariners, making his major league debut for Seattle in August 1977. This must have pleased Capt. Hunnicutt, a keen baseball fan who, during his time in Korea, had predicted big things from a little-known rookie named Mays, helped fabricate a radio broadcast of a Yankees-Indians game, and whooped it up to Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.”

Rick’s years in Seattle, however, proved no better than the stalemate in Korea, as poor teams kept him on the losing end despite an ERA near league average. His frustration piqued during a start in Kansas City on September 30, 1980, as Honeycutt resorted to taping a thumbtack to the middle finger of his glove hand in an effort to covertly cut the baseball. But his ploy was spotted in the bottom of the third inning—as was the gash on his forehead after absent-mindedly wiping his face with his glove hand—resulting in immediate ejection from the game. Honeycutt quickly incurred a ten-game suspension and a $250 fine for his transgression.

Such unscrupulousness lends support to the theory that Rick was a product of an extramarital affair, because Dr. Hunnicutt would not have been around to imbue Rick with the strong moral foundation that would keep him from, ironically enough, doctoring a baseball.  

Whether the thumbtack incident hastened Honeycutt’s end in Seattle is debatable, but an 11-player swap just 10½ weeks later deputized him as a Texas Ranger, where, except for a disastrous 1982, his fortune improved.

Soon after the 30th anniversary of the armistice that brought Capt. Hunnicutt back to the United States, Texas packed off Rick to the Los Angeles Dodgers, despite Honeycutt owning the lowest ERA in the league (which would hold up after the trade, giving Rick the American League crown at season’s end despite now wearing a National League uniform).

The 1980s also, presumably, meant that B.J. now could follow Rick’s sojourn through the majors thanks to the newfangled gizmo known as cable television—a predilection that might have intrigued Peg and Rick’s half-sister, Erin, to see B.J. watching, or eagerly waiting for scores about, Rangers and Dodgers games rather than the hometown Giants.

Honeycutt experienced a homecoming of sorts when Los Angeles dealt him to the Oakland A’s in August 1987. Now just across San Francisco Bay from Mill Valley, Rick could reside close to his parents, or, if the scenario involving an illicit affair were, indeed, the cause of his birth, B.J. could clandestinely attend Athletics games and spend time with his son afterward—either of which made all the sweeter by Rick’s impending appearance in three consecutive World Series (including a championship against the Giants, though I have yet to discover a press photo of a champagne-soaked Rick celebrating with B.J.—perhaps Capt. Hunnicutt found San Francisco’s loss too dispiriting to celebrate and could not bring himself to join Rick in the clubhouse).

Some of this evidence might seem inconclusive, even far-fetched. However, what, for me, cements Rick Honeycutt’s lineage to Capt. Hunnicutt is the message he left the world after his final game, when Rick pitched an inning of mop-up for St. Louis at Shea Stadium in May 1997—a message in rosin bags that conclusively demonstrated Rick to be his father’s son…