In the summer of 1985, Pete Rose was inching closer by the day to breaking Ty Cobb’s all-time hit record of 4191. My friends and I made a five-dollar bet, the winner of which would be whomever among the three of us could compile the most different Pete Rose cards by the time he broke the record.
A few years earlier, Kmart issued a small boxed set that reprinted the Topps card for each player who was awarded a league MVP award from 1962 through 1981, in honor of the store’s 20th anniversary. The set was one that had collected dust on card dealers’ tables for years, eschewed by collectors (especially me) who viewed the set as a box of reprint trash.
For purposes of winning a bet, however, the Kmart set was golden (especially in the days when there were not 500 different cards of every star player printed each year). I knew that Rose would have a Kmart card for his 1973 MVP award and was pleasantly surprised to find the set also included a highlight card, which commemorated Rose having eclipsed Stan Musial’s all-time National League hit record on August 10, 1981. These two Rose cards helped push me over the top. That we were betting on Pete Rose at the same time he was betting on baseball is just a fun coincidence.
An unintended consequence of buying the Kmart set, however, was actually enjoying the remainder of the cards. One that struck me in particular was the 1972 Dick (“Rich”) Allen card because it was, quite frankly, a strange profile view so unlike the standard poses and action shots that Topps typically used. I knew this was a real card I needed to have.
The oddity of the photo used on the 1972 card was highlighted when researching the appearance of mustaches on baseball cards, which culminated in this ground-breaking SABR Baseball Cards Committee article. Allen was identified as having been the first ballplayer to appear on a Topps issue sporting a mustache in his 1971 high-number Dodgers card.
As a member of the White Sox in 1972, Allen slashed .308/.420/.603; led the American League with 37 home runs, 113 runs batted in, and 99 walks; and led all of baseball in facial hair with his trademark mustache and pork chop sideburns. Curiously, however, the 1972 Topps card depicts a youthful, clean-shaven Allen. The 1973 issue corrected the incongruity and featured Allen’s hirsute silhouette, still discernible despite his face having been obscured by shadows.
As Tim Jenkins will attest, Topps made a habit in the 1960s and 1970s of using the same photograph of a player across different issues. The 1972 Dick Allen is no exception in that the same photograph was used for his 1970 issue, while Allen was a member of the Cardinals.
Thanks to some airbrush magic, the photo was purposefully vague in its identification of a particular team, but was happily consistent with Cardinal red and the White Sox color scheme of the time.
It appears, however, that this photo was actually taken while Allen was a member of the Phillies. The clean-cut photo of Allen used in 1970 and 1972 also appears to have been used as the basis for the 1965 Topps Embossed Dick Allen card, which would date the photo to 1965, or earlier, and confirms it was used by Topps to depict Allen on three different teams across eight different seasons.
Dick Allen and Pete Rose may never have been teammates but they certainly share a sacred bond as members of the Kmart boxed set.
The 1965 Ernie Banks Topps flagship card featured a profile pose. Similarly, it appears that this same photo was used as the basis for Banks’ 1965 Topps Embossed issue and helps to document that the Topps embossing process included trimming the length of the ballcap’s bill so the image would fit more comfortably onto the more slender card.
As a player postcard aficionado, it has always bothered me that some checklists have fallen into broad-based categories such as ranges of year or types (usually based on uniform, printing styles, etc.). And to be fair, most of these items were issued haphazardly, even by the teams themselves- poses were repeated, “sets” were sold that amounted to mongrels of past issues, and many of the cards lacked basic indicia.
Recently, a contributor to Trading Card Database (TCDB) started a list called “1950-80 JD McCarthy St. Louis Cardinals Postcards,” which I felt was much too broad, given the specific nature of most of the checklists that comprise the site. JD McCarthy, the Michigan-based prolific baseball postcard producer (as well some football, hockey, and horse racing) published over 2000 items during his career, of all teams, not just the Cardinals.
So that got my juices flowing.
Fortunately, I’m friends with Bob Thing of Maine, a legendary collector who’s always had a soft spot for team-issued postcards and photos. I visited Bob in June of 2020 with my scanner, and took photos of his entire collection, which is short only a handful of known cards. Perhaps more importantly, he showed me three checklists of McCarthy postcards which were done in the 1960s by another legend, Charles “Buck” Barker of St. Louis, of which I had not been previously aware. That, combined with the massive list done by Rich Suen of California (aided by the late Dan Even of Dubuque, IA) would form the foundation of my new project- associating years with these cards.
Barker’s lists were done in May of 1963, June of 1964, and December of 1966. While not perfect, they figured to give me some guidelines as to what was done when, at least from the early 1950s to 1966. Coupled with some baseball knowledge, other images from TCDB.com, my copy of Marc Okkonen’s Baseball Uniforms of the 20th Century, and some common sense, I figured I could at least come up with good guesstimates for most of what was out there.
After the cards were scanned, I started grouping cards by era and approximate year. Working on the premise that McCarthy probably didn’t make many special trips (especially outside of going to Tiger Stadium) for the sake of taking photos of one player, I began to see similarities in pose locations and photo exposures. Using players who only played for one season with a team helped me connect veterans to certain years.
The St. Louis Cardinals players were not big customers of Mac’s, likely because the team issued photocards regularly during this era. The version of the Suen Checklist that I’ve been using lists 42 cards, and Thing had 37 of them, minus a Ken Boyer, a Ray Sadecki, a Curt Simmons, and two variations of Dick Groat.
Seven players played only one season with the Cardinals, making them easy to date- Al Cicotte (1961), Gino Cimoli (1959), Vic Davalillo (1969), Leon Durham (1980), Minnie Minoso (1962), Jerry Morales (1978) but with two different cards, and Carl Taylor (1970).
I was intrigued by Hall of Famer Steve Carlton’s card, which looked to be taken at Wrigley Field. He’s wearing a pullover away jersey, and according to Okkonen’s book, the first year the Cards wore them was 1971, Lefty’s last year with the team. Lou Brock’s card, also taken at Wrigley, fit as a match in terms of pose location and uniform.
Nelson Briles looked to me as if it were taken at the same time as the Carl Taylor, so I attributed it to 1970, which turned out to be Briles’ last year in St. Louis.
Curt Flood had a long run with Cardinals, of course, so he might be difficult. Here’s where Barker’s lists came in handy. There is no mention of Flood’s card in any of them. Therefore, there’s a good chance that the card is from 1967-1969. I posted it as a 1967.
The photo of Bob Gibson is a pretty popular one. I’ve seen it on color 8x10s over the years, and I believe it’s one of the postcards that was reproduced plentifully in the 1980s when hobbyists got hold of McCarthy’s printing plates. Because Barker’s lists do not mention any Gibson cards and because he’s wearing a button up uniform, the (original) postcard can be connected with a 1967-70 time frame. I posted it, too, as a 1967, for lack of any other clues. Maybe someone can use his sideburns to further specify a date?
There are 13 cards which are from the late 1970s to 1980. For most of them, tossing a coin could just as easily determine the year from one to the next. Because Jim Kaat’s career in St. Louis started in 1980 and because it seems McCarthy’s work was diminishing by then, I assigned 1980 to the left-hander’s card.
As his career was winding down, Darold Knowles spent 1979 and 1980 with the Birds. He has two different cards, and I felt the one with his hands on his knees was a sibling of the Kaat. That meant the other pose was 1979, given the unlikely chance that he ordered more than one batch of postcards from Mac a year.
Acquired in the winter of 1975, Pete Falcone went on to pitch three seasons in St. Louis. However, judging from team-issued photos, it looks like he had a beard in the spring of 1976. Therefore, I assigned 1977 to this less-hirsute postcard.
Tom Herr got 10 at-bats with the club in 1979. Logic dictates that he probably didn’t have enough of a firm footing in the big leagues to orders postcards until the following year. I decided to piggyback two other cards with Herr, based on looks- Dane Iorg and Mark Littell. Could I be off a year on those two? Absolutely.
Catcher Terry Kennedy got into 10 games in 1978 as a September call-up and 33 games in 1979 as a spare part from June to September before the 1980 season, when he participated in 84 contests. Since he was traded following that campaign, I figured 1980 was the best fit for this postcard.
Tom Bruno was acquired on March 18, 1978 from Toronto and spent the next two seasons on the Cardinals staff before being released at the end of Spring Training, 1980. Two days after Bruno was released, the Redbirds parted ways with veteran OF-PH Roger Freed. Neither would ever play in the Majors again. Since it is also unlikely that, two weeks before the end of 1978 spring training, McCarthy would have been in St. Petersburg to shoot Bruno and that either would have produced cards after being given their walking papers, I’m attaching 1979 to both. Maybe Freed is off by a year, as he spent 1977-79 on the roster.
This is the part where the hand-banging and nit-picking begin. Here’s three-quarters of the Cardinals infield at the end of the 1970s- Keith Hernandez (first base), Mike Tyson (second base), and Garry Templeton (shortstop). Tyson was gone after 1979. I decided to categorize them as 1979, only because it seems other players with similar photos were taken that year.
Dick Groat joined the Cardinals in 1963 and played three seasons before being dealt to the Phillies. Buck Barker’s second list has Groat as the lone addition from St. Louis to his update. Over time, five versions of the card have been reported. Check out the placement of the JM logo in each of the cards to the left- white lettered logo to the left, white lettered log left and black lettered logo right on the same card, and black lettered right- each with cropping differences. For now, they are all classified as 1963s until someone can help differentiate by year.
With one year player Gino Cimoli as the guide, I grouped together under 1959 these three players based on poses, facsimile autographs, and service time with the club- Ken Boyer, Gene Green, and Ray Jablonski.
Similarly, I took the same approach with these three, which I considered from 1960- Ken Boyer, Ronnie Kline (whose first year with St. Louis was 1960), and Curt Simmons (who also debuted with that year.) Interestingly, the Simmons card is an ad back for a hotel he co-owned in Wildwood Crest, NJ with Philadelphia Eagles running back Pete Retzlaff.
No mention of utilityman Phil Gagliano in Barker’s lists, so that starts the guessing at 1967, and he was with them until 1970. I’ll call it 1967.
Which brings us to the greatest Cardinal of them all, Stan “The Man” Musial. Surprising, no mention of it among Barker’s checklists. Interesting, considering the top player postcard collectors of the day were after these cards. In addition to Barker and Even, hobbyists Bob Solon and Elwood Scharf contributed to the lists. All four had strong Midwest connections.
St. Louis wore that uniform style from 1958-61. However, the cards I’ve catalogued as 1959 and 1960 were made from photos that were signed in felt marker of some kind, and this one is free of signature. Of course, Musial was a big enough star that McCarthy would make a special trip solely to take photos of him if requested.
If I operate on the premise that the card wasn’t published until 1967 because it doesn’t appear on Barker’s list, what would explain its existence? Was it done at behest of Musial post-retirement? The name in the white box might suggest mid-1960s in terms of publication.
For now, in deference to Barker and his compatriots, I’m listing it as a 1967 until I can be convinced otherwise.
I hope that seeing this article inspires anyone with a collection of McCarthy postcards to check out the backs for possible postmarks. I’m no expert in philately, but it seems that it became rare to have these cards used traditionally after the mid-1960s. Presumably, the player stuck the card in an envelope and sent it on its way. Those postmarks can be valuable when it comes to dating these pieces, especially when looking at older players.
Additionally, maybe there is someone who knows “the code,” if one does, in fact, exist. I am operating under the belief that there was no rhyme or reason to the type of back McCarthy used, the location and color of his JM logo, or the style of name plate used. But what do I know? I can use all the detective help I can get- including using uniform history when possible.
The one advantage we have nowadays is the scanner. So much time and effort was devoted by Barker and Suen to try to describe the cards succinctly using abbreviations and codes.
Now, we can see what we’re dealing with- it’s just time to date them.
Editor’s note: We welcome SABR’s newest member, Brian Kritz, to the Baseball Cards blog. Brian is a longtime Dodger fan and collector who was gracious enough to share this remembrance of Tommy Lasorda literally minutes after joining SABR.
Most baseball-loving kids who grew up in Southern California in the 1970s and 1980s likely have a similar story. The day they met the ultimate Dodgers legend, Tommy Lasorda. Yes, the Tommy Lasorda of the career 0-4 record and a 6.48 ERA (or for the younger stat heads, a -1.3 career WAR).
But to a couple of generations of Southern California kids, Tommy was the biggest and most important Dodger of them all. Bigger than Garvey, Lopes, Russell, or Cey. Bigger than Dusty Baker, Reggie Smith and even bigger than Orel Hershiser and Fernando Valenzuela. When Kirk Gibson hit his game winning home run in Game One of the 1988 World Series, to whom did NBC pan? It was Tommy, trotting in joy out of the Dodgers dugout.
When I was 11 years old, I visited the Dodgers clubhouse before a game against the Atlanta Braves. After meeting and getting autographs from Dodgers greats such as Jerry Reuss and Bob Welch as well as obscure former Dodgers such as Terry Whitfield and Jack Fimple, I was taken to meet Tommy in his office. He was sitting behind his desk, larger than life, with pictures of him with Frank Sinatra and Ronald Reagan in the background.
He rose from his desk and made me feel like the most important person in the world when he told me to sit in his chair. I was floating on air and asked him to sign my copy of his 1982 Donruss card. He did, and then pulled out a postcard of himself from his desk and signed it To Brian, a future Dodger, Tom Lasorda.
Being a very literal kid, I pretty much figured that Tommy had just signed me to a contract and that I would play for the Dodgers some day. Tommy would see to it personally. He was Tommy Lasorda, he could do anything. Having collected baseball cards for the last forty years, and having turned my baseball card hobby into a business since eBay came along, I have seen probably three hundred signed Tommy Lasorda items with that same tag line, To [Fill In Your Name], a future Dodger, Tom Lasorda.
That was Tommy. He made you feel special, he made you feel like you could be a Dodger one day, he made you Bleed Dodger Blue. Rest in Peace, Tommy. Thank you for making us all feel special.
Editor’s note: SABR welcomes newmember Dylan Brennan of the Philadelphia area Connie Mack chapter. You can follow Dylan’s wonderful journey through the Hobby at his Twitter page @cardsstory.
For as long as I can remember baseball and card collecting has been a passion of mine since I ripped my first pack as a kid somewhere around the age or 8 of 9, idolizing legends like Derek Jeter, Ken Griffey Jr., Albert Pujols, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and so-on. It’s always been more than a hobby to me, it’s been a way of life.
My first two best friends and I would run to the closest store that sold cards, which was a K-Mart about 500 feet from our front doors. Whenever we had some money in our pockets it was like Christmas. We’d all run over there. If we had $7, it all went toward baseball cards. We’d go straight to one of our basements and start ripping through pack after pack hoping for the games biggest stars and some hometown heroes.
It’s funny to think back to these times, when one of my biggest worries was when I could go out and play sports with my buddies and what players I was going to pull in a pack of Topps baseball cards, long before the real world inevitably hit me out of nowhere like a freight train. But what I didn’t know during those 30 seconds of ripping through a pack of cardboard, was that I was starting to form my deepest passions in life: baseball and card collecting.
Ever since those first packs I was hooked on collecting, having added thousands of cards in my childhood. As I got older and started high school, I collected frequently until about junior-senior year when I soon discovered that hanging out in the woods with my buddies and having a few beers was slightly more interesting to me at the time.
A few years later, I went away to college which to tell the truth, wasn’t really for me. I did about 3 semesters away at school then came home when I was 18 and went straight to work. (Ah, the American dream!) This is about the time I started getting back into collecting. I collected mostly autographs of any and all Hall of Famers, star players, and childhood favorites that I could get my hands on.
I’ve always had a keen interest in vintage cards. It’s a hard thing to explain, as a lot of things that we love can be. But seeing pictures of cards of legends like Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Walter Johnson, and Christy Mathewson was like a short tour through the Baseball equivalent of the Louvre. I had to have them. And once I started to add some vintage to my collection, I quickly learned what I truly loved to collect.
There’s just something unique about vintage baseball cards. The feel, the smell of old cardboard that strangely enough has been one of my favorite smells in the world. Small pieces of art that have been passed around for 70, 80 or even 100+ years. I think that’s what makes some cards similar to a painting or any work of art.
Art almost always has a story to tell and often, the artist leaves it up to its viewers to interpret their own version of the story in their mind. Baseball cards are like that in a unique way. The feeling of holding a beautiful T206 card in your hand and wondering where that card has been for the last 110 years is what makes it so special. The hands they’ve passed through. The stories they could tell, I could only imagine.
I’ve been lucky enough add a lot of cards this past year that I never thought I would own. I’ve also been able to meet some truly great people along the way. I’m excited for what 2021 brings for my collection and I look forward to meeting more awesome people in the process.
Last couple weeks ago Mark Armour and I had a brief conversation about markings on cards. In short, we disagree. Not a bad thing—we all collect differently and have distinct standards about what kind of condition we like—rather, like most good conversations, our discussion caused me to think more clearly about what my standards are.
The discussion Mark and I had was specifically about marked checklists. He avoids them while they don’t bother me in the least. Do I seek them out? No. But I’m also not going to pay a premium for an unmarked one.
Checklists were intended for kids to be able to keep track of their collections. Seeing one that’s marked up tells me about a kid who was keeping track of his collection and I enjoy seeing how his set progress was going, what good cards he had, and who he was missing.
They also remind me of my first year in the hobby when I dutifully marked all my checklists. As I remember it, I enjoyed the activity as a way to both gauge my progress and to see what cards I still needed. I don’t remember studying the checklist as much as looking through them and feeling like I just missed certain cards if they were near a card I was checking off.
What I realized when talking about the checklists is that I really just like seeing cards that have been used. For example, 1964 Topps has these cool rub-to-reveal backs. Some of mine have been rubbed, others have not. I can’t bring myself to rub the ones I get (same goes with marking checklists now) but the fact that some kid followed the instructions over 50 years ago is very cool. Heck I know I certainly would’ve if I were a kid.
Technically I guess this kind of thing is back damage. Practically though I treat it the same as a marked checklist where the subsequent handling qualifies as usage.
There’s a whole bunch of other cards in this kind of category where the intended usage results in wear and tear to the card. Pop-ups, whether it’s a 1937 O-Pee-Chee Batter Up or a junk wax Donruss All Star, are probably one of the best examples here. That the card has been punched out and folded and perhaps has even lost some of the pieces is immaterial.
The same thing goes with stamps and stickers that have been pasted into albums. I understand the desire for something to be nice and minty but there’s also something sad about it sitting in protective storage and never being used for its intended purpose.
My interest in usage though extends beyond the uses intended by card companies. I very much love annotations that reflect how fans have used cards to enjoy and enhance their baseball fandom. Things like the do-it-yourself traded cards which I’ve written about before demonstrate how people watch baseball through their cards.
For many people cards weren’t just something that you acquired and stored, they were references for when you had to look things up. Updating them each season with new teams and positions kept those references current and, when taken to extreme, results in something that documents a career better than a non-modified can ever hope to.
I also consider autographs to count as usage. They document experiences with players whether in-person or through the mail. Many times the choice of card is intentional whether it’s a favorite photo or a memorable season. And in all times the autograph is intended to complement the card as a way of enjoying the sport.
I love all of these things which indicate how a card was used by a previous owner. They tand in stark opposition to cards that have been abused or damaged though non-baseball-related activities. From drawn-onfacial hair to flipping and bicycle spoke damage there’s a whole range of modifications that are deal breakers to me.
Yes I have some abused cards in my collection too but they’re the kind of cards I’ll always be wanting to upgrade. It’s the rare doodle that stands out as being clever to me, the rest I can’t help but see as mindless destruction.
When I look at a card that’s been damaged intentionally, the use or abuse question turns out to be the first thing I think of. I just hadn’t quite realized that that was actually the question I was asking.
Rather than making it a top-50 list or some other ranking, we decided to go a different direction and treat baseball cards as timeline that they are with a post of 50 cards for 50 years.
Baseball cards aren’t just something to collect. They mark the seasons and document the game as it happens. Looking back at them shows us the history of the game. Who played. What was important. What happened. How we analyzed things. Cards may fall under the category of “ephemera” but the ephemeral nature of what they record is what makes them such an important chronicle of the game.
Our list is not intended to be definitive or authoritative. Both the history of the hobby and the history of the game are way too interesting for each year to be able to be summed up in a single card. Instead we look forward to the discussion and critiques that always follow such lists.
While Jason and Nick are credited with compiling the contents, we wish to thank the multiple other experts who allowed us to pick their brains and challenged our choices.
My favorite players all share one thing in common: they are all great defensive players. Pudge Rodriguez is one of those, one of the best defensive catchers of all time. He came up with the Rangers in 1991 and went on to to become a 14-time All-Star, 13-time Gold Glove winner (MLB record for catchers), 7-time Silver Slugger, and the AL MVP in 1999 on his way to Cooperstown.
Pudge picked of an MLB record 88 runners in his career, and I was there for one of them in 1998. In the third inning against the Angels, he picked off Phil Nevin at first base. Rodriguez also had an RBI infield single in the first. I was so excited to see one of my heroes have such a good game.
Pudge signed with the Marlins in 2003 and went on to win the World Series that season. Then he went to the Tigers in 2004 and had another trip to the World Series in 2006.
Pudge was traded at the deadline in 2008 from the Tigers to the Yankees. He signed with the Astros before the 2009 season, then was traded back to the Rangers in August of that year. He then signed with the Nationals and finished his career with two years in Washington.
I have 39 cards in my Pudge collection, all of them from the Topps Flagship, Traded, or Update sets. These include All-Star, Gold Glove, and Postseason Highlights.
Most of my favorites show him in his catcher’s gear. I’m a sucker when it comes to cards showing catchers in their gear. I was a catcher when I was in Little League and if I played again I would be behind the plate.
Number one on my list is the 1994 Topps card. It shows him right after he released a throw to second base, with his mask falling to the ground. It highlights his legendary throwing ability.
His 2002 Gold Glove card shows him ready to receive a pitch. He’s wearing the blue Rangers uniform and gear with red trim. I like that color combination better than the all red that the Rangers wore for a while.
His 2009 Update card is excellent. Pudge is shown making a play at the plate with a runner crashing into him. It looks like the runner is getting the raw end of this deal.
Finally, even though there are several more that show Pudge in his gear, his 2005 card shows him standing on second, and it looks like he’s pointing to the scoreboard and showing the Tigers that they are either not out of it yet, or that they have the lead.
I have decided to add Fleer and Donruss to my player collections, so I went from having 100% of the Pudge cards, to having just 57%. Oh well, that’s what happens when you’re a collector, right?
In the summer of 2019, a small cadre of baseball card enthusiasts from the Chicago SABR chapter gathered at the home of Jason Schwartz to open a mound of junk wax packs, talk baseball, and devour pizza. Ever since, we have endeavored to gather every few months to bust packs and enjoy an evening of laughs and nostalgia.
At our latest gathering, collector-extraordinaire Rich Ray brought a fresh 1985 Donruss wax box and a 1987 rack pack box. [Rich always puts the rest of the group to shame with his generous contributions!]
While opening the 1987 Fleer packs, Jason noticed a player in the background on the Joe Sambito card and wondered whether it was Wade Boggs. Unfortunately, the upper righthand corner of the player’s second number was obscured by the winsome Sambito, so it was not immediately clear whether the full uniform number was a “26” or “28.”
If you read this article, you may know that Wade Boggs is my favorite non-Cub player and that I was previously under a mistaken notion that I had an impressive collection of Boggs cardboard. I quickly made a trade for the Joe Sambito card (sending some unwelcome Steve Garvey* cards Jason’s way), on the chance it was Boggs.
In order to solve the mystery, I turned first to Baseball-Reference.com with the hope there was no player on the 1986 Red Sox roster with the number “28.” Unfortunately, twirler Steve Crawford was a “28” so I had to turn to elsewhere.
The collecting community responded swifty and decisively. Wade Boggs super collector David Boggs (no relation) found a Steve Crawford jersey and observed that the left side of the second letter was different for a “6” and an “8.” Things were looking good.
Next, Wade Boggs super collector Richard Davis evoked his medical training and observed, sans palpation, that the appearance of the player’s forearm proved it was Boggs.
The ultimate confirmation, however, came from Mr. Boggs himself, which included a good-natured poke at Steve Crawford’s girth. Only in the age of social media could such a groundbreaking baseball card mystery be solved so quickly and resolutely.
If you collect cards that happen to feature Wade Boggs in the background, you may now want to add the 1987 Fleer Joe Sambito (#43) to your album along side the 1985 Fleer Jackie Gutierrez (#160), 1993 Donruss Carlos Baerga (#405, on back), and 1997 Denny’s John Jaha (#8).
*As a Padre in 1984, Steve Garvey broke this Cub fan’s little heart. I have not forgiven him, so it is unfortunate that Garvey remains Jason Schwartz’s favorite player from childhood.
Baseball-Reference.com, David Boggs, Richard Davis, Wade Boggs
On Election Day, I was looking for ways to occupy my mind. Luckily, I got a message from Yastrzemski Sports that the Spectrum Mets set I’d been looking for was in! I probably would’ve killed some time on Tuesday with cards anyway, but this was too perfect.
The anniversary set celebrating the 1969 Mets World Champs was issued in 1994 (though the three promos in the box are dated 1993) to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the team of my youth. Here’s how the Standard Catalog describes it:
The 1969 Miracle Mets card set, produced by Spectrum Holdings Group of Birmingham, Mich., was part of what the company called “an integrated memorabilia program, with the 1969 Mets card set as the centerpiece.” The 70-card set measures the standard 2-1/2″ x 3-1/2″, with UV coating on both sides and gold foil on fronts. It was sold complete at $24.95, and limited to 25,000 sets. A reported 1,000 numbered sets were signed by all 25 living players, including Hall of Famer Tom Seaver and future Cooperstown resident Nolan Ryan.
I don’t know who Spectrum Holdings was, or what an “integrated memorabilia program’ means, but this set is nice. The box is sweet and simple, numbered to 25,000, a far cry from the 1 of 1s we see today. (I’ve got #19,980!).
The cards are reminiscent of 1956, though vertical, posed pictures in the foreground, action photos in the background (unlike 1956, the photos aren’t painted over). Glossy and crisp, quite beautiful.
Once the players are covered, there’s a wonderful series of season highlights, and post-season showcases, including the Mets win over the Braves. Good to see. Those games are often lost in the shuffle except to die-hard Mets fans.
There does seem to be some dispute over the number of signed sets. The Catalog says 1,000, but the promotional information says 750. I’d go with the latter. Thanks to the original owner saving peripheral material and folding it under the card tray, we’ve got some better factual material.
I wouldn’t have paid $244.95 back then for a signed set, and I wouldn’t now. I did search for them on eBay and COMC, because I’d rather have an autographed Bobby Pfeil and/or Jack DiLauro card than a Seaver or Ryan. They’re pricey – $15-75 – though it doesn’t look like they actually sell for those prices. Strangely, it looks impossible to tell whether the signed cards offered are from the 750 sets issued, or regular cards signed later on. I don’t see any markings denoting “limited to 750” or something like that.
Regardless of where you sit politically, Election Night (and morning and, I’m guessing, the coming days) was stressful. It was soothing to look through the Spectrum Mets sets. Cards have kept me sane these last four years. Looks like I’ll need them to work hard for the next four!
One of my favorite Joe Morgan stories is one I first came upon in Joe Posnanski’s book on the Reds (The Machine, 2009). In a 1975 game against the Giants, Morgan doubled off of Charlie Williams. When the pitcher threw the next pitch in the dirt and Morgan saw the ball roll away from catcher Marc Hill, he sprinted towards third only to stop suddenly 20 feet from the bag. Hill, sensing an opportunity, gunned his throw to third but wild, and Morgan scampered home.
In the clubhouse after the game, Morgan explained that he had deliberately stopped running to draw a throw which he thought might go wild. The Giants players were livid, calling Morgan an arrogant son-of-a-bitch for disparaging their catcher. Morgan, believing arrogance to be a necessary quality in a star, was thrilled. He had gotten in their heads, which was his plan.
“If Joe keeps up his current pace,” said his manager, Sparky Anderson, “he’ll be dead in another month.”
Many complimentary words have been written about Joe Morgan, the player, since his death last week, and there is no need to gild the lily here. Suffice it to say that I believe Morgan to have been one of the two greatest players of the 1970s (along with his teammate, Johnny Bench), and the greatest second baseman to ever play the game.
Today, I am here to praise his baseball cards.
A couple of things are very striking about Morgan’s cards. First, so many of them are spectacular–he was a good looking man his entire life, but never more so than on a baseball field. And second, his cards are remarkably affordable compared with contemporaries of comparable or lesser accomplishment. You could buy 10 of his rookie cards (1965) for the price of a single rookie card for Pete Rose, Tom Seaver, Johnny Bench, or Nolan Ryan. And none of his later cards have price tags that reflect his stature in the game’s history.
You can actually tell the story of Topps baseball cards using Morgan as a central figure. His 1966 and 1967 cards are fine specimens of those classic Topps sets–posed photos of a player doing baseball things, with easily recognizable faces. Beautiful.
I bought my first cards in 1967 but I do not believe I saw this Morgan card until a few years later. Which means that my first Morgan cards were these two.
These Morgan card were, as you all likely know, the victim of two unrelated problems: the MLBPA boycott, and Topps’ dispute with the Astros over the use of their name and logo. The latter led to the hatless, uniform-less image, and the former to Topps using this uninspiring image a second time.
It got better the next year.
The card above left, from 1970, is one of my all-time favorites. The ending of the disputes referenced above allowed many kids across America to see these glorious uniforms for the first time. In addition, what we later learned about Joe’s dissatisfaction with his years playing for Harry Walker (being asked to bunt, chop the ball on the ground, etc.) is well captured here, as is Joe’s sour expression. (Good times were coming, Joe.)
In 1971 Topps (above right) first dabbled in action shots, and Morgan was one of their test subjects. Presumably, he is roping a base hit in this gorgeous image.
In 1972 Topps introduced “Traded” cards for the first time, limiting the feature to just seven players who received a second card showing them on their new team. Both of the Morgan cards are excellent, highlighted by Morgan’s well-lit face and his new sideburns.
By the mid-1970s, Topps’ card sets were a mix of action and posed shots, and they would remain so for 20 years. Kids who got Joe Morgan cards in their pack were getting a superstar, one of the game’s best players, a two-time MVP. Whether he was posing, or vaulting out of the batter’s box, Joe Morgan was a card you wanted in your stack.
Joe Morgan’s career had three acts. At the start were 6 full seasons with the Astros as an under-appreciated player, occasionally a star. He finished in the top five in walks every year, an accomplishment no one noticed, stole a lot of bases, made a couple of All-Star teams. His second act was his first 5 years with the Reds (1972-76), when he was as valuable as Willie Mays or Mike Trout, and played for one of history’s greatest and most glamorous teams (The Big Red Machine). Finally, he finished up with 8 years as a very good player, making a positive contribution all the way to the end. The Silver Slugger award was introduced in 1980, and Morgan won it in 1982 at age 38. Had the award come long earlier, of course, he could have won a dozen.
The Topps monopoly ended in 1981, and it is fun to look at some of Morgan’s cards from this era, at a time when he was changing teams almost every year.
A sampling of his Donruss cards:
Morgan returned to the Astros for one season (1980), and helped them to their first division title. The next year we got this gorgeous shot of Joe at Wrigley Field, and one is struck that Joe looked very much like this for 20 years. He moved to the Giants in 1981, and almost led them to a pennant the next year, then was back in the World Series with the 1983 Phillies. None of this was surprising, nor was Joe vaulting out of the box on his 1984 Donruss card.
Now for some Fleer cardboard:
Not surprisingly, 1981 Joe looked great in Houston’s “Tequila Sunrise” togs, just as he had in their glorious late 1960s uniform. The 1983 Joe looks a little more serious, and his 1985 Fleer (he retired at the end of the 1984 season), he looks like peak Joe Morgan about to lace a double to left-center.
Morgan was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1990 with 81.8% of the vote. I understand none of this matters–he’s an all-time great, beloved by historians and fans and statheads. Still: what exactly were the 18.2% thinking? Joe Morgan doesn’t get your vote?
Joe went on to great success as a sportscaster, was a respected executive with the Hall of Fame, and was admired by all of his former teammates and opponents and apparently everyone else. Sparky Anderson said he was the smartest player he ever saw. Johnny Bench said he was the best player he ever saw. That’s not nothing.
I rooted against Joe Morgan in the All-Star game every year, though I knew that the National League was better and that Morgan played a brand of baseball of which my team was unfamiliar. (Morgan was on 10 All-Star teams, and his side won all 10 games). I also rooted against Morgan in the 1975 World Series, and his game winning single into centerfield in the top of the 9th inning of Game 7 broke my heart.
But none of that matters now, as we mourn yet another hero in this Godforsaken year. I just remember the greatness.