Collecting Goals for 2016

One year ago, as 2015 was approaching 2016, I was having a conversation on Twitter with some fellow collectors about our collecting goals for 2016. I had not made goals in previous years nor had I made any for the upcoming year. As a disciple of the Yoda-like collecting legend Eric, also known as @ThoseBackPages on Twitter, I have been trained in the ways of #FOCUS and buy the card not the holder so a list of goals was an idea I liked very much.

Following that conversation I scribbled six goals on a sticky note and stuck it on my above my computer screen where I could see it each day. The goals I set for 2016 are as follows.

  1. Acquire a 1967 Topps Brooks Robinson #600 graded in a PSA 7 NM.
  2. Acquire a 1966 Topps Jim Palmer #126, his rookie card.
  3. Reach 65% completion of my signed 1959 Topps set.
  4. Reach 70% completion of my signed 1981 Fleer set.
  5. Reach 55% completion of my signed 1984 Topps and Topps Traded sets.
  6. Reach 50% completion of my low grade 1934 Goudey set.

fullsizerender-5The first goal I was able to complete was the Palmer RC, I picked up a nice example of this card graded PSA 5.5 EX+ in early February. It is an excellent example of buying the card not the grade as the eye appeal is that of a much higher graded card at a much lower price.

The second, third and fifth goals completed were done rather easily as I underestimated the value of the Twitter collecting community in tracking down the people who have some of the tougher signed cards to find available. I reached 65% on the 1959 Topps set in early April with the purchase of signed Billy Consolo and Alex Kellner cards. Nearly two months later I crossed the 55% pole of the 1984 Topps sets with the addition of Gerald Perry and Ron Reed. The 1981 Fleer goal was reached sometime in August, and for the life of me I can’t find the details of which card pushed me over. Looking back as a whole these three goals were undershot by a significant amount as currently stand at roughly 72%, 81%, and 68% in ascending chronological order.

img_4796The fourth and from my view most difficult goal to reach was the 1967 Brooks Robinson in the PSA 7 grade. The card itself is both a high number and short print, and it is also prone to being off-center. Being a tougher card to find in excellent condition, I found it difficult to find one at a price I could live with. Finally after being snipped in several auctions I got a hold of the 67 Robinson in late July.

The often neglected and last completed goal was to reach the 50% mark of my low grade 1934 Goudey set. I completed this goal in late September with a flurry of eBay purchases from a seller I found who did not overvalue these well-loved cards solely because of their age.

Looking back on this journey I feel that it helped me focus and to keep from splurging on cards that didn’t necessarily fit my collections. I have a few goals already in mind for 2017 number one being a 1957 Brooks Robinson rookie card graded PSA 7.

img_4794

Elegance, thy name is … Circle K?

So this was originally going to be a super-short post about an old set – well, nearly a set – that was just sort of laying around, and that I’ve never quite been able to get out of my mind. But then I toddled off for just a tiny bit of research and now this won’t be super-short, probably not even short at all.

You’re welcome!

1985ck-11dAt some point back in the 1980s, I guess, I picked up a set of cards, (probably) sight-unseen because they were inside a box. As I remembered the set, they came from K-Mart and depicted the top 34 home-run hitters of all time.

At the time. Which meant the set included Lee May.

Lee May? Yeah, Lee May. When the set was released in 1985, Lee May’s 354 career clouts ranked 34th on the all-time list.

Now? Poor Lee May’s fallen well more than 100 percent on the all-time list, tied for 88th with Luis Gonzalez. But I remember enjoying the fact that one relatively small set of baseball cards included Hank Aaron and Lee May. Along with other non-immortals like Norm Cash, Frank Howard, and Dave Kingman.

But what I really liked about those cards, even 30-some years ago, was the simple elegance of their design. They did have a border – in those years, it seems that nobody could even imagine designing a baseball card without a border – but otherwise the card was pure image, with the player’s name in tiny print in the bottom-left corner of the border. (So I suppose this is becoming a running theme, as my previous post was about another simply elegant set. At some point early on, that apparently became my design preference, at least with baseball cards.)
41imymdgfclNow, about my research… This set was produced by Topps (as I correctly remembered) but not sold by K-Mart. It was actually Circle K, which surprised me mostly because we didn’t have Circle K stores where I lived.

This should have been obvious, since the back of the cards carry the Circle K logo. But I didn’t recognize the logo because – have I mentioned this already? – we didn’t have Circle K stores where I lived!

Okay, so going through my set, I discovered I was missing a couple of cards. And by looking at that 1985 list of home-run leaders, I realized the missing cards were Ted Williams (#9) and Joe DiMaggio (#31). Cards that (I figured) I had probably misplaced, used as bookmarks, or gave away.

I found about Circle K by Googling K-Mart baseball cards … ‘cause it turns out K-Mart did have their own baseball cards, also in the 1980s. Actually, it turns out pretty much everybody had their own baseball cards in the ‘80s. You might recall the glut. Here’s the description of my set from a Sports Collectors Daily article about all those ‘80s boxed sets:

In a departure from the busy designs that would mar just about every other boxed set during the 1980s, each card in the Topps “Baseball All Time Home Run Kings” set featured a full-color photo surrounded by thin colored piping inside a thicker white border. As the name implies, the cards depicted the top 33 sluggers on baseball’s career home run list at the time and were distributed at Circle K convenience stores.

A mystery, though. Only 33 cards in the set? Lee May is #34. Then again,scan_pic0036 34 is a strange number for a set. Just in terms of printing, don’t you want a number that’s divisible by 3 or 4? In fact, all the other sets discussed in the SCD story were either 33 or 44 cards. So why 34 in this one? And what in hell did I do with my Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio cards?

My answer took a few days. A partial answer, anyway. I was so annoyed by those two missing cards that I purchased a full set on eBay – don’t worry; it was cheap! – and this one arrived today with the original box. And on the back of the box, a checklist.

Or what looks like a checklist. It’s not a checklist. It’s a list of the top 34 home-run hitters, Aaron through May. But right next to the number 31 and Joe DiMaggio, an asterisk. And below the list, in even smaller type, an asterisk with this note:

Picture card not included in series.

We can probably guess why. DiMaggio’s people probably wanted more money than Circle K was willing to spend. DiMaggio’s people were well-known for that sorta thing. So the (self-described) Greatest Living Ballplayer and his 361 career homers are on the box, but not in the box. Oh well. At least now I do have the greatest (then) living hitter.

41qcb3psenlOne more thing about the box… Below the list and the DiMaggio footnote, we’re told that the set is (for some reason) DISTRIBUTED by TOPPS IRELAND LTD. and PRINTED IN REP. OF IRELAND. Which I’ll leave here as a tidbit for the archivists among you.

Before letting you go, I do want to revisit a note from that SCD snippet. If you’ve got the stomach for it, check out those other boxed sets from the ‘80s, from places like K-Mart and Woolworth’s and Eckerd Drugs and Revco. The designs of those sets were all busy. And that’s putting it nicely. I would argue that the 1985 Circle K set is the only boxed set from the ’80s that’s not esthetically revolting.

One of the great things about collecting cards is that there is not really a premium for attractiveness. If you want to build a collection that simply looks good, you don’t have to spend much at all. And you could do a lot worse than 1985 Topps Baseball All Time Home Run Kings Exclusively From Circle K (33 Super Gloss Photo Cards).

DOUG McWILLIAMS: Baseball Card Photographer, Chronicler of Baseball History

You could talk about his 20-plus years setting the gold standard for baseball card photography as a lensman for Topps. Or his incredible collection of ephemera pertaining to the Oakland A’s. Or his friendship with Vida Blue and Willie McCovey. Or his amazing Zee-Nut baseball card collection of Oakland Oaks players from 1911-1939. Or the 11,000 negatives of his non-Topps work he donated to the Hall of Fame.

And you’d still come up short.

Meet Doug McWilliams, chronicler of baseball and American history. The Berkeley, CA, native has been photographing the national pastime since 1950. The trim, bearded 80-year-old (who looks as if he’s in his late 60s) recounted the day he was bitten by the bug in 1948:

doug-m-pcl-cards“I started listening on the radio to the Oakland Oaks baseball games. They had a little feature on there about the baseball cards they are giving away at Signal Oil and if you stop by your local gas station, they’ll give you a new card. They were in full color. I finally talked my father into taking me to one of the games. He wasn’t a fan of sports at all. We stopped by at a Signal oil gas station and I got a baseball card of a Ray Hamrick, who was a shortstop for the Oaks.

ray-hamrick-card259loWe got to the ballpark. It was evening and I got up to the top of the walkway and looked down on the field. It was all lit up. It looked like it was magic and saw down by the fence, there was Ray Hamrick signing autographs. I borrowed a fountain pen from my dad and ran down there and got him to sign it. I was hooked, hooked more on baseball cards than the game.”

I met Doug at a SABR event earlier this year, where I was presenting my last film about writer Arnold Hano. We happened to be sitting next to each other and introduced ourselves. I’m a baseball card hound since 1964, and I found his story fascinating. My latest project, “The Sweet Spot—A Treasury of Baseball Stories” features people from across the baseball spectrum, and Doug’s story fit the bill for an episode.

My cameraman, Otis, and I spent the better part of the day with Doug at his home, and I was awed by the baseball artifacts, relics and photography he had collected during his lifetime. I interviewed Doug extensively, covering his career shooting for Topps and love of the game.

“I got away from baseball when I was a kid because I went away to college and got married, joined the army, although I was a photographer in the army also. I just didn’t have time for it, but the A’s came to Oakland in 1968 and in 69, they had a picture day. I went down the field with my 35 millimeter Leica and flash bulbs and took pictures of the players as they came by. It reminded me of when I was a kid. I started going to the games and shooting out of the stands and got to know the players. Some of them wanted to buy pictures, too. At that point, I had already been a photographer at the University of California for 10 years almost. I knew I could do well because I’d been doing well. I just kept shooting out of the stands and pretty soon a guy came by, named Jim Mudcat Grant, who I had photographed as a kid probably 15 years before. He remembered me, which totally shocked me. He was with the A’s for a while. I did some pictures for him. He got traded to Pittsburgh and then he came back. The A’s told him to get some new PR pictures. He needed to make an appointment with their photographer.

Mudcat said, “Doug is going to do my pictures for the PR.” They said, “Who?”[laughs] I got my foot on the field for the first time through him. When he posed for me, I got the pictures up to the PR people and they approved them and use them. About that same time, Vida Blue was coming up in the September to show what he could do. He stayed with Mudcat. I did some pictures for Vida for his family. Well, the next year, which I guess was 71, I may have my dates mixed up, but he won the Cy Young and MVP both. He came to me and says, “I need postcards.” I’d been doing photographic postcards in black and white for quite a few of the A’s by that time. He says, “I want color.” I say, ”Well, what do you want a 100 or 200?” I was thinking photographically making them. I made my black and whites photographically. He says, “I get a 100 letters a day, I need lots of them.” The upshot was that I did three different printings for him, about 15,000 color postcards. All of them had my name and address down the center of the postcard back. One of them landed on the desk of Sy Berger at Topps in Brooklyn. Soon, I got a call from him, saying, “We like your work. Would you like to shoot for Topps?” I said, “Well, is the Pope Polish? I think I would.” [chuckling]

dm-topps-pass339loShooting for Topps was a side job for Doug, who spent his days working for UC Berkeley as an industrial photographer. But it was baseball that owned his heart, and every spring Doug would appear in Arizona to create the images that would enrapt children, and later, adults, across America. I asked him about the scope of work for those shoots.

“Take six posed pictures, everybody in full color, shoot 16 rolls at 36 exposure action during the games. The posed pictures were shot on Ektachrome, which is very difficult to shoot. You have to be right on the button or you’re in trouble exposure wise. The action film was in color negative, which is not quite as critical. The big problem early on was that lenses weren’t fast enough. They insisted on using 100 ASA film, which they thought gave better color. Also, I was instructed to photograph the player facing the sun with a shadow of the across their face and they told me that showed ruggedness and character. I, to myself thought it showed poor lighting. I never shot my own pictures that way. Why not turn the guy around, use flash film, you got the sun, coming from behind to separate him from the background and you get beautiful portraits of people.”

Did he have an assistant to keep track off all the players he shot? No.

“I devised a system where I had a roster sheet. I printed up my own and I’d have [the team name and] little stickers with all the numbers of the players on it. I could get two players per roll of 120 film on the posed shots and I’d pull off the sticker, put it on the roll when I was through and then put a piece of tape around it. Then, I’d send the roll off. It would have like number 3 or number 10. If they keep track of it at the processing place, then they’d know who’s on that roll.”

 “Some of the managers were extremely good to me. John McNamara and Dick Williams in particular … [Williams] managed about four of the teams that I shot in Arizona. He seemed to have been there my whole career. He would come up to me and say, “How’s it going?” He said, “You got everybody?” I’d say, “No I still need to get a few people.” He’d stand right beside me and call men off the field and make sure I got everybody. Occasionally, I’d have the San Diego Padres or the Seattle Mariners team shot by 11 o’clock and the game starts at 1 o’clock or so. Generally, I had to chase them down for hours and hours and come back another day. It was really nice to be helped that way by several of the people who knew me.”

Clearly, this is a bright guy with a strong work ethic. But what was it that made his photography so good?

“Well, I went to professional photo school. I went to a place called Brooks Institute doug-shoots-mccovey264loof Photography in Santa Barbara. I was a commercial illustration major, but we had portraiture also and we got the classical portraiture posing and that’s what I used. You just don’t have a guy stand up and look at you. I mean you give them some angle and angle his head and make it look correct, so he doesn’t have a broken neck. You shoot women one way and men another way just to feature them. I always shot a gray scale and a color chart every time I started because the lab could use that. I never saw other photographers doing that and that’s something I used to do at the University of California when I was shooting there. Quality: that’s the whole name of the game. I insist on having the best quality possible.”

reggie-on-deck2-dm114loOver the years, Doug formed friendships with some of the players, like Ted Kubiak, Willie McCovey, Vida Blue and Reggie Jackson. If he has a favorite, it might be Vida.

“I met him when he was a young 18-year-old kid and he was very friendly. I enjoyed that. He came to me to have some work done and he got me going as far as a second job. In an area that I just pinched myself that I actually had 24 years in the big leagues, 23 years actually shooting for Topps, but I made a lot of friends and I still have many friends that were baseball players. I keep in touch. I enjoy that.

Doug ended up shooting Vida’s wedding at Candlestick Park, where Willie McCovey was the best man.

“Willie McCovey was a special one. When he retired, he had a thing and had a special all-star game. He had a big get-together at Palace Hotel. He let me bring my son along and so that was fun. I had some pictures of us together, the three of mccovey-sf-giants-dm164lous and I just covered the whole event for him and made a great big picture book for him. That was special. I did a lot of postcards for Willie also, maybe three different times. I loved his Southern drawl and the way he spoke. He would call the house and Mary, my wife just loved talking to him. He always said [lowers voice], “Doug this is McCovey.” You know who he was way before he even said his name.” [chuckles]

I asked Doug if he ever got any oddball requests from ball players.

“I had one fellow who was a pitcher with the A’s and also the Cubs and I think maybe Seattle too, named Jim Todd. He liked photography and he liked my photography and so he would challenge me to do something different each year and pay for it. He had me take a picture of him going through his entire pitching windup, where he changed colored [jerseys] all the way through. Then, I picked out the best ones and had him change from the start to the end of his delivery as his jersey color changed and that was kind of fun. Then, I mounted it in front of a portrait of him that I did and then mounted it on a wood plaque.”

Like all card collectors, I’m interested in error cards. Was Doug ever involved in an error card?

1981cvox“I had a habit of photographing all the Oakland A’s players when they were in the minors if I could. I happen to have photographed Jeff Cox with Modesto and Vancouver and San Jose, just about everywhere he played. I knew him and he finally got up to the big club, spring training and he was so excited to find out that he might be on a Topps card. That happened several times with the young players and it’s kind of fun. The card came out (1981 Topps #133) and I was so happy to hear about that. I looked at the back and all the statistics were correct and it said Oakland A’s on the front. I looked at the picture and it was Steve McCatty. I don’t think the hobbyists discovered that yet. I had never seen it mentioned, but it was McCatty. It wasn’t Jeff. I felt so bad for him that I made him a custom card — this was before computers — and gave them to him to give to his family and friends.”

I asked if there was a particular set of cards he shot that was meaningful to him.

“I thought when [Topps] came out with the “Stadium Clubs”, those were really well done, attractive. They had full bleed edges and they were on thicker stock and they were glossy, looked good.”

Doug proceeded to take me through his favorite Topps cards from 1983-1993 and some of the stories behind them. [Check out Doug’s episode on “The Sweet Spot” to catch them here for $2.99: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/thesweetspot]

I wondered how Doug was perceived by other baseball card photographers, as well as the industry.

“Two years ago, I and two other Topps photographers were inducted into the Cactus League Hall of Fame as photographers for Topps. It was really pretty nice and one of the other photographers was the person who was just starting when I was finishing up [in 1993]. We were in Tucson, shooting the Cleveland Indians and before the game, the posed stuff and action during the game, and it was very hot. This fellow, he kept looking over at me. In his speech at the Hall of Fame induction, he said that he kept looking over at Doug to see if he was ready to go because he was thinking about going back to the hotel and jumping in the swimming pool.” He kept looking over at me and I was still there. Then, the game got over and he says, “Wow, now I can finally head off to the hotel and go swimming.” He looked around and there I was, out on the mound, grabbing players and taking pictures of them. He said, “Now, there’s a baseball card photographer.”

I recently happened on some of Doug’s work as part of the Hall of Fame’s traveling photo exhibit at Dodger Stadium’s current “pop-up museum” [open weekends now through March 5- http://dodgerblue.com/dodgers-pop-up-museum-dodger-stadium-dec-2-vin-scully-items/2016/12/01/%5D

doug-m-hofHis photo of Bert Blyleven, along with the supporting curatorial text, tells us he was not only a world-class photographer, but a baseball historian of note. His contributions to the game, and baseball history, are immeasurable.

But, there’s a couple of problems for Doug:

“Baseball has become a problem to me because I’m so immersed in it. Photography has become a problem with me because I’m continuously looking at everything and making a picture out of it.”

 What’s next for Doug?

I still have 15,000 [negatives] to send [to the Hall of Fame], 35 millimeter and digital and keeps me busy, keeps me alive, keeps me going. I’ve got plenty to do!

 [note: I will be presenting Doug’s episode and my project “The Sweet Spot—A Treasury of Baseball Stories” at the Lefty O’Doul Chapter’s SABR Day meeting in San Leandro on January 26, with Doug in attendance).

Doug was not unlike that kid in the neighborhood who had the coolest toys and baseball card collection and who enjoyed sharing them.

Death of a Museum

caseclosedFor Christmas in 1968, my grandmother gave 8-year-old me a green plastic baseball card “locker” to hold my growing collection. There were “slots” for each of the 24 teams, the American League alphabetical on the left, the National League on the right. To this day, if you ask me to list the major league teams I will recite them in the order I learned from this locker: Baltimore, Boston, California (now LA), Chicago, etc. Assuming I remember to add the newer expansion teams at the end, it takes me 20 seconds, tops.

Truth be told, this locker could not really hold my collection, which already required a few shoe boxes. Instead, each team’s slot held the most recent cards I had of everyone on the current roster. If I got a 1968 Willie Mays card, I would place it in the Giants’ slot, removing the 1967 Willie Mays card (if I had it). When the Red Sox made a 10-team deal with the Brewers in 1971, I transferred each of these players, so that George Scott could immediately join his new mates in Milwaukee. When the Yankees released Johnny Callison in 1973, he was moved into a shoe box until he got another job.

I did not have to wait for a newspaper to tell me what the new Red Sox lineup might look like–the cards in my locker were completely up-to-date, and I could immediately use them to envision Tommy Harper in left field, and Marty Pattin as the number 2 starter. I could do this in June, and I could do this in January. Baseball cards were a useful (and awesome) tool for obsessing about baseball 365 days a year. This locker was a fixture in my house until I went away to college.

s-l1600During the 1980s, as the card market was booming and I was becoming an adult, I went along with the growing trend of putting cards in plastic sleeves, nine to a page, sets stored numerically in thick three-inch binders. And not just for old cards–you could buy a brand new set of Topps, Fleer, or Donruss, and within minutes, barely touched by human hands, all your cards could be preserved in pristine plastic. Perfect condition, someday I will be rich! What more could you ask for?

s-l1600-1Soon more products were available to keep you from ever touching your cards. For my old Jackie Robinson and Ted Williams cards, plastic sheets would simply not do. No, they needed thick plastic screw cases. Every card worth more than $50, no better make it $10, got its own screw case. And keep your paws off of them, by the way. I might need a safety deposit box.

By the early 1990s I was no longer buying new cards, and my older cards were all properly sealed, safe from all humans (or oxygen). Like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, they were to admired from a distance, no flash photography please. For the next 20 years I occasionally added to my collection of 1950s and 1960s cards, filling those empty sleeves in my notebooks, completing long ago sets. A few cards would come in the mail, I would pull the correct notebook down from the shelf, insert each of the cards into their proper place (or into a screw case), and then put the notebook back on the shelf for another month or two. It was … kinda fun?

caseopenSeveral years ago I was on eBay and I saw that old card locker for sale and, I gotta be honest, it called to me. As my childhood version was long gone, I made the purchase and the locker showed up at my house a week later. On another whim, I took my 1969 set out of its notebook, sorted the cards by teams, and placed them in the locker. And what do you know, I discovered that I was riffing through these cards every evening, revisiting the season.

I will now spare you the gory details and bring you up to the present.

My screw cases are all gone. Thankfully, I avoided (and continue to avoid) the grading services that have blighted the hobby, so I didn’t have to worry about taking apart their ugly slabs. My plastic notebooks filled with plastic sleeves? Gone.

My lone concession to “taking care” of my cards is that every one of them (pre-1980) is in its own thin plastic “penny” sleeve, but otherwise all of them can be held and “played with” just as they were when I was a child. My cards are all in cardboard boxes, sorted by year, and can be arranged into lineups, or culled for Hall of Famers, or sorted alphabetically, or arranged by height. My maintenance is democratic–the 1952 Jackie Robinson and the 1975 Bob Heise are accorded the same level of protection.

img_0851Pictured to the left is the cardboard box I use to hold my 1969, 1970, and 1971 sets. At the moment they are sorted into teams, though that might change tomorrow. I could instead arrange my 1969 cards based on each team’s actual Opening Day roster, and use them to imagine the season ahead. I don’t think this Mets lineup is going to hit, but the Seattle Pilots sure look good, don’t they?

One important point. My cards are in great condition and well taken care of. I am not bending, folding, scuffing the edges. My 1957 Mickey Mantle, in Near Mint condition 25 years ago in its screw case, is in Near Mint condition today in its thin plastic sleeve, only now the Mick is filed with Bobby Richardson and Hank Bauer, where I think he would want to be and was meant to me.

My museum is dead, but my cards have never been more alive. Cards were meant for kids, and I shall never forget that again.

80s Oddballs: Milwaukee Brewers Police Cards

The decade of the 1980s in baseball card collecting was one of explosive growth. Fleer and Donruss rumbled onto the scene in 1981 after being victorious in a legal battle to break Topps’s monopoly for issuing a fully licensed, nationally available baseball card set. By the end of the decade, Score and Upper Deck joined the fray and the overproduction/”junk-wax” era was off and running.

The 1980s was also the decade when seemingly every product imaginable started using baseball players and baseball cards as a way to induce consumers to part with their hard-earned money. Certainly this was nothing new — using baseball cards to bolster product sales was the very reason that baseball cards were invented. But the 1980s in this regard was different. Likely because of the escalating interest in baseball cards as an “investment,” everyone from General Mills and Burger King to Mother’s Cookies, Tetley Tea, and Rite-Aid pharmacies issued small sets of baseball cards.

Not only were national retailers and food companies jumping on the baseball-card bandwagon, but local police and sheriff’s departments across the country did as well. Just as was the case with product-based baseball cards, having police officers hand out baseball cards was nothing new. A search on Beckett.com for “Police” provides the answer that the 1967 Philadelphia Phillies had a thirteen-card set issued. The Washington Senators followed in 1970 and 1971 with ten-card sets. But after 1971, police-issued cards went away.

Police cards did not become more regularly issued until the late 1970s, when NBA teams such as the Portland Trail Blazers (1977-78) and the Seattle Supersonics (1978-79) used the idea. In 1979, ten different sets were issued including two from the baseball world — the San Francisco Giants Police and the Iowa Oaks Police.

I grew up in the Milwaukee area. Police cards came to the Milwaukee Brewers in 1982, and they came with a splash: the first ever Baseball Card Day at Milwaukee County Stadium. In a rare show of transparency, the Brewers and the Milwaukee Police Department told kids (and collectors) everything they needed to know through a press release published in the Brewers’ mouthpiece magazine, What’s Brewing?:

img_0005

The cards featured a simple design — a photo of the player takes up about two-thirds of the front with the player’s name, uniform number, and position immediately underneath. Below that information, the issuing department’s name and any local sponsors are said to be “saluting” or “presenting” a particular year’s Milwaukee Brewers team.

4-molitor

As was the case with other police department cards, the Brewers cards always featured safety tips or life advice ostensibly written by the player in question. For Paul Molitor in 1982, he advised kids that they should not steal anything.

4-molitor-back

The Milwaukee Brewers cards proliferated in ways unlike any other team. Police and sheriff’s departments across the State of Wisconsin worked with the team and the card sets’ printers to issue their own sets. This got so out of hand that by 1993, the Oshkosh Police Department is listed on The Trading Card Database as issuing four sets with four different sponsors — McDonald’s of Oshkosh, OshKosh B’Gosh, Inc., the Oshkosh Noon Kiwanis, and the Copps Food Center of Oshkosh.

As a Brewers collector, these police sets are both fun and frustrating. They are tremendous fun to try to find, track, and purchase. Most of the time, the sets are not that expensive. Call it the first instances of parallel burnout, but the number of departments issuing sets got so high that people pretty much stopped trying to collect all the variations. That caused demand for all of the sets to decline.

That is also what makes them frustrating. EBay sellers just call them “Milwaukee Brewers Police cards.” While that is true, most of us who are Brewers collectors really are not looking for their fifth set of the Milwaukee Police Department’s 1986 set — we are looking for the cards from Verona, Medford, Hartford, Winneconne, Viroqua, and Mequon. When sellers are vague about what department issued them, it makes it more difficult to determine what a buyer is actually going to get.

In the end, though, they are a boon for me as a player collector in particular. It gives me dozens of variations of cards of Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, Cecil Cooper, Dan Plesac, and others to chase and add to my player collections.

They also have led to a lifelong love for 80s oddballs.

“BO”: The History of the Perfect Junk Wax Card

If there was a single athlete who personified the so-called “junk wax” era of trading cards, it was Bo Jackson. Bo was a force unlike anything the sporting world had ever known when he burst onto the scene in the late 1980s. As was the idea of grown men taking over a hobby once deemed the realm of children, the idea that a single freak of athletic nature could be the most exciting player in both baseball and football seemed ridiculous. And, just as with the hobby that promised to turn a stack of Todd Van Poppels into a college fund, Bo Jackson vanished from the scene before his potential could truly be realized. And in the summer of 1990, the forces that were Bo Jackson and the riding-high trading card hobby melded into what might be the definitive card of the junk wax era… 1990 Score baseball #697.

bofront

In 1988, Major League Marketing, the company that had given the world Sportsflics, introduced Score. The brand was a more mainstream play on the Sportsflics concept, which was largely defined by the gimmick of their plastic-coated changing-image obverses. Score was a more tradition cardboard issue, but utilized the underappreciated back-of-the-card features of Sportsflics – color photos and extensive biographical information – to create something truly revolutionary. A year ahead of Upper Deck and a year and a half of Pro Set, 1988 Score was a slick, premium trading card that brought collectors closer to the players than anything else on the market.

By 1990, with Upper Deck having enter the fray, the baseball market was more competitive than ever and brands were looking to differentiate themselves. For their third year of baseball, Score issued their most colorful and rookie-loaded set to date. They introduced draft pick cards – something pioneered by Topps the year before – and robbed Upper Deck of the illustrated card idea with their “Dream Team” subset. They also brought back an old-school concept with a playoff subset, highlighting the League Championship Series and the World Series.

But with card 697, they did something somewhat unprecedented in the hobby. There had been special, one-off cards of players before – honoring accomplishments, recognizing retirements, and the like – but card 697 was a tribute to nothing more than the sheer force that was Bo Jackson. The card itself, even devoid of context, is pretty remarkable. The front featured a black and white, horizontal image of Jackson in shoulder pads, hands draped over a baseball bat resting behind his neck. The photo was taken from a Nike Air poster titled “The Ballplayer” that had been issued the previous year. The image was framed by a white border and inset with the Score logo. The card’s minimalism, the subtle tones of the artful image, Jackson’s effortless pose and impressive physique all melded to form one of the most beautiful baseball cards yet issued. On the card’s reverse side, inside a green border and above the requisite branding and licensing bugs were just two letters – BO – done in black and blue (Raiders and Royals). To anyone who was a sports fan or a collector in 1990, those were the only two letters necessary to convey the power of the card. If you didn’t know BO, you might as well just put down the baseball cards and start collecting stamps.

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1990 Score baseball hit the store in January, right around the time Bo Jackson was finishing up an 11-game NFL season in which he ran for 950 yards on just 173 carries – which itself followed up a baseball season in which he hit 32 homers, made the all-star team, and placed 10th in the MVP voting. It was, perhaps, the height of Bo-mania both in the sporting and pop culture realms. 1990 was also near the peak of card-mania and, laughable as it seems today, adults were tearing through fifty-cent packages of Topps, Upper Deck, Score, Fleer, and Donruss baseball – carefully setting aside Ben McDonalds, Pat Combes, and Steve Hosesys with the honest belief that they were something akin to blue chip stocks.

Card 697 was the perfect combination of subject and timing. The oddity of it (I can’t think of any truly comparable card that had been issued to that date) and the hobby obsession with Jackson soon became the card of the season. By February, it was selling for a respectable sixty cents – about the same as the base cards of superstar players. By March, it was going for $4 – an unheard of sum for a new issue card that was not an error or rookie. By April, it had reached $8 and was drawing interest from the media outside of the hobby. Just weeks into the baseball season, with Jackson off to a blistering start, the Chicago Tribune reported that area card shops were selling packs of Score baseball for a dollar each – twice their retail price – and limiting customers to ten packs per day. Rumors flew that the entire 1990 Score set had been short-printed because of the brand’s newly expanded football line. Other whispers had it that card 697 was about to be pulled from production because of a Nike lawsuit. Score denied all the rumors (indeed, the 1990 set was just as overproduced as anything of the era), but that could not stop the furor over the card. In late April, 25-year veteran National League umpire Bob Engle was arrested for shoplifting seven boxes of 1990 Score from a Bakersfield, CA store. He was suspended by the league for the incident and later retired after being convicted and receiving probation. Bo-mania was officially causing strange behavior.

By June, even with Jackson having cooled off at the plate, the card was selling for $15 and Beckett Baseball Card Monthly ran the full-length Bo-in-shoulder-pads image on its cover. That same month, a spree of counterfeit 697s began to appear in Mississippi, Chicago, and New Jersey. They were strictly low-end knock-offs, given away by their lack of color on the reverse (some shady dealers were hocking them as Score “press proofs”). The Associated Press picked up on the story and newspaper coast-to-coast ran the story of the fake cards.

As the season wore on, the card began to cool off. In September, it hit its Beckett price guide peak of $12, and was down to $9 by December. This was due in part, no doubt, to overkill. Only Nolan Ryan had more baseball cards in 1990 than Jackson and, by the season’s end, the market was flooded with Jackson football cards as well. Then came the January 13, 1991 divisional playoff game between Jackson’s Raiders and the Cincinnati Bengals, when a tackle dislocated Jackson’s hip and effectively ended his days as the nation’s most captivating athlete. Many thought his professional careers were over and, the following March, the Royals released him. That summer, as Jackson worked towards his comeback, Beckett listed the card at $4.50 – more of a novelty than an investment (more on that here). I recall that for years afterward, as it remained above common card status, the card was listed as “697 Bo Jackson (FB/BB)…” in price books. And still, everyone knew what it meant.

Today, the card can be had for a few dollars online and can probably be found in dollar binders at card shows across the nation on any given weekend. Certainly a hard fall from the summer of 1990, but it remains a remarkably sought-after card. Take a look on eBay and you will inevitably find a few copies (ungraded) listed at outrageous prices given the marketplace – $10, $20, $30 (the complete 1990 Score set can be had for about $15). It’s easy to mock people who list junk wax era stuff for such prices as ignorant of the hobby, but with card 697, it feels just a little different. I’ve still got my copy of the card, still encased in the top-loader that my shaky little 8-year-old hands slipped it into a quarter century ago. I understand that I could only get a few bucks for it if I ever tried to sell it. But I also know it’s worth a lot more than that.