One of the underappreciated, yet voluminous, touchstones of the 1980’s – early 1990’s card boom (I try to resist “Junk Wax Era,” because there are a ton of wonderful cards that, though small in value, are high in aesthetics, i.e., not junk) was the mini-boxed set. If you had a chain store, you likely had a self-branded set, 33, maybe 44, cards in size. Ames had 20 Home Runs/20 Stolen Bases, Revco had Hottest Stars, KMart had AL and NL MVPs and many other titles. If I were so inclined to research how many of these sets there were, I’d be wading my way through stacks and stacks of them. I am not so inclined.
I can say, with some assurance, that Woolworth put out sets from 1985 – 1991, all made by Topps, all called Baseball Highlights (except the first two years, All-Time Record Holders and Super Stars, respectively), all 33 cards (except ATRH, which has 44).
I picked up the 1990 set (sans gum) for a buck at Yastrzemski Sports in Cooperstown, and it’s a glossy beaut.
The checklist is made up of players you’d expect to find circa 1990 – MVPs, Cy Young winners, ROYs and post-season heroes, but also MLBers who hit some milestones. It’s always swell to see a new Dewey Evans card.
As you’d expect, the set is overloaded with A’s and Giants, and that’s fine, but the highlights, for me, are in the Fisk, Murray, and Ryan cards. Especially that Murray card!
The tail end of the set is a run of World Series cards. Not a lot in the way of highlights, unless you’re an A’s fan, but excellent cards. Check out that Kevin Mitchell one. (I still believe that if there hadn’t been an earthquake, the Giants would have put up a better fight. That the A’s could go Stewart and Moore, then Stewart and Moore again after a long layoff, helped Oakland. The Giants may have had a hard time with Bob Welch, but I liked their chances against Storm Davis.)
The backs are simple, clear and uncluttered.
Granted, these boxes tend to blend into each other in checklist and shine. They’re not made of ticky tacky, but they do kinda all look the same. Still, I’m up to find more, but only at a dollar a piece. I do have my limits.
It’s early August, 1988. Steve Winwood’s “Roll With It” is holding down the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts, thanks to regular airplay on New York’s Z100 and countless other radio stations across America. Tom Cruise maintains the right mix atop the box office rankings in “Cocktail.” A gallon of gas costs about 90 cents, but that doesn’t matter to me – seventh graders can’t drive. Milk costs $2.19 a gallon, but again, I’m a month away from turning 12; I don’t control the family purse strings.
What I do control is my pursuit of the 1988 Topps set, and as I’m sorting my collection one more time before my family heads off for our annual vacation in Maine, I find there’s only one more card I need: No. 39, Gerald Perry, Atlanta Braves.
I’d been collecting cards casually since 1985, the year I went to my first two Mets games, and increased how much of my allowance went toward 40-cent wax packs in ’86 as the Mets bludgeoned the National League. In 1987, I really ramped up my trips downtown to the Family Pharmacy (still there! Despite a CVS and Walgreens also within a ballpark’s footprint of one another) to buy packs of Topps’ wood-grained design, though I fell short of the complete 792 before the boxes faded from shelves.
So in ’88, I was determined collect the whole set. I’d save up my allowance and money from sweeping a neighbor’s patio and wrap-around porch and purchase a box at a time: 36 packs at 40 cents each, plus tax, came out to $15.26.
It’s a bit unfortunate that the ’88 set is the first one I set out to complete, because I find it the least visually appealing of the late-’80s Topps sets. Though I hadn’t really gotten into the hobby in ’84, I possessed a few of those cards with team names in colorful block letters down the left side, a main action photo of the player and the inset headshot. The ’85 issue featured those bold colors on the lower fifth of the card: the team name in a diagonal box above the player’s name, mostly in team hues. The 1986 set wasn’t that much more appealing, but it did feature the team name in a Napoli Serial Heavy font at the top (and was the set available for purchase throughout that championship season for the Mets). The greatness of the ’87 set and its suburban-basement paneling has been discussed on this blog before.
But the ’88 design is … OK? There are elements of some of those previous sets in it. The team name across the top is a cousin of the ’84 block font presented horizontally instead of vertically. The player name in a diagonal banner harkens back to the placement of the team ID in ’85, which was also the last year before ’88 with an all-white border. The most notable thing about the design may be Topps’ decision to go back to spelling out “Athletics,” after three years of using “A’s.” This prompted my friend Joe to ask one day, “Hey, did you see there’s a new baseball team? The Athletics?” He was always more of a football guy.
So as I’m packing for our vacation, the Mets are a few games up on the Pirates in the NL East and clear of the Dodgers overall in the NL, thanks to a 5-1 head-to-head record thus far. If things hold and the Mets maintain their success against the Dodgers when they meet in the NLCS, a second World Series berth in three seasons is looking promising!
But one of the toughest parts about the trips to Maine – a place I always loved to visit, and still do – was losing such easy access to baseball. My relatives in Vacationland didn’t have cable, and it’s not like we would’ve spent our evenings watching Red Sox games or stayed inside on Saturday for the national game of the week. There were woods to explore, rivers to plunge into, lighthouses to visit. L.L. Bean is open 24 hours! Only at night could I get my fix, delighted to find that the radio could pick up the Mets on WFAN all the way from New York, and I’d fall asleep to Bob Murphy’s play-by-play or Howie Rose taking calls on the postgame show.
Before this trip, I gave my friend Will the status of my pursuit. He had already completed his ’88 set, so I asked him to keep an eye out for that Gerald Perry card so we could trade and I’d be able to fill in that last box on the duplicate checklist card. Our outings in Maine didn’t usually give me an opportunity to look for cards – souvenir shops aren’t inclined to stock wax packs – so my search was on hold. (One exception came the following summer, when I saw a newspaper ad for a baseball card show in Augusta and got my dad to drop me off for an hour. I came away with a 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. card.)
A week later, after the long drive home down I-95, I was the first one to step inside our back door. And there, on the beige-blocked linoleum floor of the kitchen, lay this 3 ½ by 2 ½ piece of cardboard depicting Gerald Perry manning first base for the Atlanta Braves.
In hindsight, it’s appropriate that Perry was the final piece to my ’88 Topps puzzle. He had the best full season of his career in 1988, posting a 109 OPS+ and making his only All-Star team (0-for-1, F7). But nothing he did on the field stayed with me – to this day, whenever I flip past any Gerald Perry card, I think back to this 1988 Topps, No. 39, the last one I needed to complete the set. Until looking up his career just now, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you which of his 13 seasons was his best or that he played until 1995 or that he spent one season in Kansas City and five in St. Louis.
He’ll always be the first baseman in that grey Atlanta road uniform, manning his position on a sun-splashed afternoon, waiting for me to open the door at the end of our annual summer vacation.
Looking back, the only truly useless piece of information on the backs of my childhood baseball cards was the name of the town where the player lived. It was the one tidbit of info that actually drove a wedge between young me and the player, the card, and the sport.
Sunland, Calif. Wayland, Mass. Spartanburg, S.C. Lilburn, Ga. Scottsdale, Ariz. Spring Hill, Fla.
These were either sun-soaked Southern and Western locales — the sorts of places where a man could take infield drills every day to stay sharp — or suburbs closely yoked to a big-league city where the player was employed. From time to time you’d also see towns in Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic, which made sense, since that’s where those players came from.
To a kid in the eastern reaches of the Rust Belt, all these destinations seemed impossibly distant.
This was part of a larger pattern. With rare exceptions — anybody remember Dabney Coleman’s short-lived TV host, Buffalo Bill Bittinger? — the communities of western and central New York didn’t possess the sort of glamour that drew anyone’s attention. People didn’t sing about Syracuse on the radio or set movies in Rochester, and Binghamton was definitely not the cradle of shortstops. The region had its glories — apples, autumns, snow days — but mostly it felt like a gray smear from which you gazed out on more interesting locales … like the faraway places ballplayers lived.
I savored the occasional exception. I remember the flash of recognition, while watching The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh one Saturday afternoon, when one of the Pisces’ players let slip that he’d played his college ball at St. Bonaventure. And of course you’d sometimes pull cards that listed minor-league stops in Rochester or Oneonta or Batavia or Elmira — usually when the guy on the front of the card hadn’t gotten up to much at the big-league level.
I was 12 years old when this changed, in the spring of 1986, when I pulled card 514 out of a pack of Topps.
The front showed Royals pitcher Mike Jones against an improbably aqueous background that suggests, to my jaded adult eyes, the kind of low-budget day-for-night lighting celebrated on Mystery Science Theater 3000. (Either that, or the cover of Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky: It’s broad daylight where Jones is standing, but the dusk is falling on the bleachers behind him.)
But it was the back that counted, with its line of agate: “HOME: PENFIELD, N.Y.”
See, Mr. Jones and me, we shared a town. Not just a region — greater Rochester — but the very same town of about 30,000 souls. And there was its name, in black print on gray, just like all those distant California and Florida paradises where baseball players usually spent their offseasons.
The quiet suburb where I pledged allegiance to the wall, with its four elementary schools and its slushy bus stops and its sledding hills, had ascended to an elusive new level of reality. Penfield, New York, was Topps-certified.
Of course, just because Mike Jones lived somewhere within the same municipal boundaries didn’t mean I tracked him down for his autograph. It sometimes seems like boy baseball fans sort themselves into two groups — the hey-mister-sign-this screamers, and the please-don’t-hurt-me shrinking violets — and falling firmly into the latter camp, I made no effort to figure out where his house was. There were rumors that our school bus passed it on the way home each afternoon, but I never pursued that lead.
A few years later, during my high-school years, Jones pitched for the hometown Rochester Red Wings in an unsuccessful bid to return to the bigs. (Indeed, Jones’s big-league career was already over when I pulled his ’86 card.) I probably could have obtained his signature at the ballpark with a little persistence, but I didn’t go after it then, either.
It didn’t matter in the end. Nothing he wrote on the front would have been as noteworthy as what was already written on the back.
I admit it. Even in the best of times I sometimes wonder if I spend far too many hours and dollars assembling stacks of cardboard with baseball men on them. Now add the chaos we find ourselves in today, and it’s even harder to deny the futility of this Hobby other than as an escape. That said, sometimes all that keeps us sane is the occasional break from reality. Better occasional than permanent, right?
I spent the first couple weeks of the pandemic mentally and emotionally checked out from card collecting. I didn’t buy anything, I didn’t write about anything, and I didn’t even miss anything. Two weeks of experiencing life a little bit more like the other adults around me. (Not you guys, of course. The other adults!) Two weeks was all it lasted, but I think it changed me nonetheless.
Meanwhile some cool things were happening around the Hobby.
An anathema to many collectors, I genuinely enjoyed some of the creative work being done as part of Topps Project 2020. I even threw down $20 on one of the Dwight Gooden cards, making it the third or fourth most expensive card in my Dr. K collection of more than 700 cards the day I bought it. Bizarrely the price would hit $3500 just two months later, making it (while the mania lasted) the third most valuable thing I owned behind only my house and car.
Perhaps influenced by Project 2020, an artist-collector I followed on Twitter began something called the #MakeCardsMoarBetter project and invited other collectors to join. Sharp-eyed readers will no doubt find the two changes I made to Hank Aaron’s 1969 Topps card. (My completed sheet is here for anyone interested.)
More renowned baseball card artists like Mark Mosley and Gypsy Oak were also putting together their own Project 2020 inspired creations, and don’t even get me started on these guys!
In contrast with the usual “doing nothing” brought on by the pandemic, here were collectors doing things with cards: being creative, having fun, and building community.
Then George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police.
Cards, hobbies, and fun itself all became a form of privilege, with escape being the ultimate privilege. Still, that’s not to say cards had no place.
…and Mike Noren, also known as Gummy Arts, put the original artwork behind his 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates All-Black Lineup set on eBay with all proceeds going to Black Lives Matter. (UPDATE: These same cards are now on their way to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum!)
Again I was seeing collectors doing something and it made me wonder what I was doing.
Scissors, school glue, glitter paper, and a Wade Boggs rookie later, I’d managed to raise $45 for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum with a card I made.
Now I’m cutting up old Dave Parker and Kirk Gibson cards to raise money for Parkinson’s Disease research. (Team Cobra currently leads Team Gibby $25 to nothing, but I’m hoping eventually to raise at least $125 for each of their foundations.)
I’ve also had fun practicing on some other cards that I was able to find happy homes for across the Hobby community. There’s even a registry for this kind of thing now!
At the end of the day, I still love the old stuff: my Aaron collection, my Brooklyn team sets, my Campy collection. What’s different now is that I also love some other stuff: making and giving.
There was a time I’d look at my stack of 500 Kirk Gibson cards and think, “Not enough.” Then I hit that point in collecting where I’d look at the same stack and think, “Too many.” Now I’m at the point where I’d at least like to think each one of those cards, by itself worth maybe a nickel and already owned in spades by all the other Gibson collectors out there, could turn into something special for someone. Ditto Dale Murphy, Steve Garvey, Eric Davis, Doc Gooden, and all those other guys I have stacks and stacks of to this day.
If so, I wouldn’t be the first guy out there turning junk wax into gold. I wouldn’t even be the second. Or the third! And God knows I wouldn’t be the guy making the most money off trimmed cards. All I can hope for is to be the guy having the most fun with it and at least in some small way making a difference in this goddamn crazy world of ours.
UPDATE: I have a website now for the work I’m doing. Enjoy!
Author’s note: All teams noted refer to their most recent MLB incarnation.For example, the San Diego Padres here are the MLB team and do not include cards/players from the PCL franchise of the same name.
This post celebrates a set of cards largely off the radar to most collectors but historic nonetheless, and it begins with an ambiguous question. What was the first baseball card to depict a Hall of Famer for each of baseball’s current and historic franchises?
To help clarify, I’ll start with a couple of teams featured on SABR Baseball Cards Twitter.
When most collectors imagine an early Montreal Expos card of a Hall of Famer, good chance they picture this.
However, this didn’t become an Expos card of a Hall of Famer until 2003 when Carter made the Hall. What I’m looking for here is the first time a collector could hold up an Expos card and say, “Hey, this guy’s in the Hall of Fame!” and this would have been 23 years earlier when Expos legend Edwin “Duke” Snider headed to Cooperstown.
At that time, there was only this single card depicting Snider in his Expos colors, his coach card from the 1976 SSPC set. (Yes, I’m ignoring team cards and team issued photos here.)
This Snider card remained the only Expos baseball card of a Hall of Famer until Larry Doby made the Hall in 1998, conferring HOF status on this Topps/OPC card from 1973.
San Diego PadreS
Continuing through the 1969 expansion teams, the answer is once again a subject better known for his tenure on other teams. When you think Billy Herman, you probably think of the ten-time all-star second baseman and baseball cards like this, if not his 1950s and 60s coach/manager cards with the Dodgers and Red Sox.
But the first time a young Padres collector could put a Hall of Famer in his pocket to take to school was in 1978, thanks to this Family Fun Center card of the Friars batting coach. As the back of the card notes, Herman got the call from New York in 1975, making this card a HOFer card the moment it was issued.
Kansas City Royals
It’s hard to think of Royals Hall of Famers and not instantly (or exclusively!) think of George Brett, who made the Hall in 1999. However, that didn’t mean Royals collectors had no Hall of Famers in their collections until then.
Eight years earlier, well traveled hurler Gaylord Perry made the Hall, thereby promoting several of his 1984 cards to Hall of Fame status. The Fleer set alone had three, including one with Brett, to go with two highlights cards from Topps.
Six years before Perry, in 1985, Hoyt Wilhelm’s plaque went up in Cooperstown. Like Perry, Wilhelm had pitched for seemingly every team. Unlike Perry, his cardboard legacy with the Royals was quite thin, paper thin to be exact. In fact the knuckleballer’s only card came courtesy of the 1969 Topps Stamps set. (UPDATE: Per Tim Jenkins, Wilhelm was also a Royal in the Deckle Edge set that same year.)
Of course the prior year another Royal saw his plaque go up. The Killer became a Hall of Famer in 1984, elevating his 1976 SSPC card with Kansas City to HOF status.
In reality, however, Royals collections were well stocked with Hall of Famer cards well before 1984, thank to Bob Lemon’s induction in 1976 and his early 1970s Topps and O-Pee-Chee manager cards.
The final 1969 expansion team was the Seattle Pilots. As the team existed for only a single season and wasn’t exactly stocked with talent, there is not a single Pilots card of a Hall of Famer. This Ichiro retro card from 2010 may be as close as the Pilots ever come.
UPDATE: Thank you to David Bender for alerting us to this 1992 Leaf Studio Heritage card of Class of 2014 Hall of Famer Paul Molitor decked out in Seattle Pilots gear. If only!
Following the 1969 season, Bud stole the Pilots and renamed them the Milwaukee Brewers. Unlike the other three teams covered thus far, the first Hall of Fame Brewers card is very likely the one you would have guessed.
In 1982, Hank Aaron became the first Brewer to enter the Hall. Among his many Brewers cards, 1975-76 and post-career, we’ll go with card #660 from 1975 Topps.
With the new locale and nickname in 1972, I’ll distinguish the Rangers from their not very long and not at all storied history as the (new) Washington Senators. If we don’t see Rangers on the jersey or a “T” on the cap, it doesn’t count.
Unless it’s Teddy Ballgame, in which case an airbrushed cap, psychedelic team lettering, and satin collar is all we need!
Major League Baseball returned to the Pacific Northwest in 1977 with the arrival of the Seattle Mariners. For the first 14 years of their existence the Ms had no Hall of Fame baseball cards. That changed when Gaylord Perry entered the Hall in 1991. Perry has dozens of cards with Seattle, but his earliest comes from the 1982 Topps Traded set.
Toronto Blue Jays
1977 also marked the first year of the Toronto Blue Jays franchise. McCarthy postcards issued that same year included 1972 inductee Early Wynn and 1986 inductee Bobby Doerr.
However, my focus in this article is on “true” baseball cards, a notion we often note around here could be a whole series of posts in itself. With this stricter criterion in mind, Jays collectors would need to wait two more decades for a card of a Hall of Famer.
With Phil Niekro’s induction in 1997, his lone Toronto card (1988 Classic) became the inaugural Hall of Famer baseball card in Blue Jay collections and it would remain the only such card for more than a decade until Rickey Henderson’s 2009 induction.
The Rockies, who began play in 1993, famously had a total of zero Hall of Famers until the recent election of Larry Walker to the Class of 2020. Not surprisingly then, Walker provides (or will provide, if you want to be technical) Rox collectors with their first ever Rockies HOF card.
Walker, of course, has over a billion different Rockies cards (okay, not quite), but I’ll feature his 1995 Topps Traded and Upper Deck cards as among the many from his first year with the squad.
Entering the league the same year as the Rockies, the Marlins can boast baseball cards of numerous Hall of Famers and may even add another if the new Jeter/Topps collaboration extends into the dismal GM chapter of his career. The first time Marlins collectors could know the joy of a Hall of Famer in their midst was thanks to the 2002 Topps set, which included a manager card (okay, eight different-ish ones) of recent inductee Tony Perez (HOF 2000).
The D-Backs joined the National League in 1998, and have so far had two Hall of Famers on their roster: Roberto Alomar (2011) and Randy Johnson (2015). Their first HOF card is therefore of Alomar, and you can take your pick from nearly 200 of them, all from 2004.
UPDATE: Am thankful for our terrific readers, including fellow SABR Baseball Cards author Artie Zillante, for turning up this nugget from the 2002 Keebler Arizona Diamondbacks set. If you’re good with the shared real estate, then Yount (HOF 1999) definitely nudges Robbie Alomar aside.
Tampa Bay Rays
The team formerly known as the Devil Rays entered the American League in 1998 with the instant star power of Fred McGriff and Wade Boggs, quickly followed the next year by Jose Canseco. Of the three, Boggs (2005) is the only one in Cooperstown, hence the man responsible for the first Devil Ray HOF cards. He has too many cards to count in the various 1998 sets, but here are two.
With the change in both geography and nickname, I’ll treat the Nationals franchise as distinct from its Expos ancestry and just treat it as if the Nats were a brand new team that appeared out of nowhere to start the 2005 season. While the Nats may claim Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, Walter Johnson, and even Josh Gibson in their Ring of Honor, I’m starting the franchise with Ryan Zimmerman.
Regardless, Nats fans didn’t have to wait before adding a HOF card to their collections. All they had to do was get lucky opening packs that year.
Houston Astros/Colt .45s
Having looked at baseball’s newest franchises from 1969 forward, we’re now ready to go in reverse. First up are the Houston Astros, who entered the National League in 1962 as the Colt .45s.
Of the future Hall of Famers (Nellie Fox, Eddie Mathews, Robin Roberts, Joe Morgan) lurking in 1960s Astros sets, the first to make the Hall was Roberts in 1976. Another Astro, Yogi Berra, made the Hall four years earlier but his first Astros cards didn’t come until much later. Therefore, Roberts it is!
New York Mets
The Rajah had been a Hall of Famer for 20 years when he joined the Mets as their third base coach in 1962. However, there was no immediate cardboard to herald his arrival. The closest we come is a 1966 James Elder postcard.
Baseball card purists (emphasis on “card”) may prefer this 1962 Topps card of Casey Stengel, which gained Hall of Fame status upon the Old Perfessor’s 1966 induction. Not the airbrushing department’s best work, but perhaps it was part and parcel for the altogether woeful season Mets fans endured that season.
los angeles/california/anaheim angels
Too many official name changes to keep track of here, but you know who I mean. The Halos joined the American League in 1961, the same year MLB adopted the 162-game schedule. Their wait on a HOF baseball card was decidedly longer than that of Mets fans. It was not until Frank Robinson made the Hall in 1982 that Angels collectors could add a HOF card to their binders.
Robinson’s first Angels “card” is from the hard-to-find 1972 Topps Candy Lid test issue, and is much like the 1962 Stengel in that Frank appears as an Angel in name only.
Rather than rectify the wardrobe malfunction the next year, Topps may have actually made things worse with its 1973 release.
His 1973 photocard aside, it was not until 1974 that Angel fans (and Rodin fans!) truly had a Robby card they could be proud of.
Washington Senators II
These are the Senators, 1961-1971, not to be confused with the Senators, 1901-1960, which means there will be no Walter Johnson cards to consider. As was the case with the Rangers team they became, their first HOF card was Ted Williams.
Just as the new Senators started up in D.C., the old Senators headed to the Minnesota and became the Twins. The star of the team at that time also (in 1984 upon induction) gave Twins fans their first Hall of Fame baseball card.
The team formerly known as the St. Louis Browns began play in 1954 and would not have an eventual Hall of Famer on a baseball card until 1957 when they added three to the cardboard lineup.
However, it was not until 1983 that even the first of these men received his call from Cooperstown. First Orioles HOF baseball card honors instead went to Robin Roberts who made the Hall in 1976 and had cards with Baltimore as early as 1963.
My focus in this article has been on expansion teams or franchise moves that ditched both the city and the nickname. As such I skipped over the Oakland A’s, Kansas City A’s, Los Angeles Dodgers, and the like. All told, that leaves me with 16 modern-era franchises left to cover in a future article.
Unlike the cards identified in this article, where any one of them could be had in good shape for less than $10, the cards in the next article would be a bit more difficult to collect, with pre-war cards of Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, and Babe Ruth representing nine of the sixteen teams.
I started collecting baseball cards in the late 1970s. The earliest cards I remember having were Brewers from the 1979 Topps set. Unfortunately, though I have obtained them again, I did not hold on to those cards. The card that has been in my possession the longest is a 1980 Jerry Augustine card. And I still remember the first “old” card I got, a 1974 Bill Parsons that I received in a trade in about 1985.
In the 1980s, I bought wax packs, usually Topps, though I did get ‘82 and ‘83 Donruss and ‘85 Fleer. I remember opening the packs and sorting and resorting the cards. Sometimes I sorted them by team, sometimes by position, sometimes by making teams of my favorite players. By the time I was in high school, I started to focus on a collection. I decided that I wanted to collect all of the Topps Brewer cards.
Hunt For Brewer Cards
When I started this collection, Topps had four main sets: Main, Traded, Tiffany, and Traded Tiffany. The two Tiffany sets were almost identical to the other two, except they had a higher quality print. I decided to limit my collection to the Main and Traded sets. I also decided to include the ’69 and ’70 Seattle Pilots.
At the time, the only way to get older cards was to go to a card shop or a card show. I spent many Saturdays at card shows rifling through boxes of older sets looking for Brewers that I did not have. I always brought my notebook that had all of the players that I knew were in each set, helped tremendously by the Topps Baseball Cards of the Milwaukee Brewers picture book that was a giveaway at one of the Brewer games. I still remember the TV commercial for that, with broadcaster Mike Hegan having his 1976 card pointed out.
It took me close to 20 years to complete the set. Now I make two or three orders a year to collect the Series 1, Series 2, and Update sets. Currently, I am only missing one of the 2019 Keston Huira Update cards (#150). I will pick that up when I get the Series 2 cards this summer.
Collecting The Faves
Right around the time I started to get close to completing my Brewer collection, I started to collect cards of my favorite players. I stuck with Topps Main and Update (or Traded) sets. The first players I collected were Ozzie Smith, Jim Gantner, Pudge Rodriguez, and Brooks Robinson.
Of those players, the only cards that I’m missing are of Robinson. I still need his ‘57 rookie card, his ‘67 main card, and a ‘67 checklist that has his picture on it. I have two of each of the Gantner cards, one for my Brewer collection and one for my player collection.
I have since added three other players. I have a complete set of Jonathon Lucroy and Gary Carter, adding to the former when a new card comes out. The other player that I collect is Jose Altuve. I am only missing his 2011 Update rookie card. I’m not sure if I will continue collecting Altuve in light of the cheating scandal.
Gotta Love The Team Portraits
My most recent collection is Topps team portrait cards. They were some of my favorites when I first started collecting. Topps had them almost every year from 1956 through 1981, and then from 2001 through 2007. For some reason, they did not have them in 1969, and some teams were not represented in 1968. Houston had a card in 1963, but did not have another until 1970, when they were renamed from the Colt .45s to the Astros.
The team cards are my favorite to collect right now. All of my other collections are either complete, I’m missing some expensive cards, or are just getting the current cards. The team cards still involve the hunt, trying to find as many as possible in one shop to save on shipping. In all, there are 729 team portrait cards, and I have almost half of them.
Paging Through The Boys Of Summer
There are currently 2,097 cards in my collections, which are currently housed in four binders. I only order cards two or three times a year, but each time I pull out all of the binders and go through them.
Usually, that brings me back to summers spent riding my bike to the store to buy packs of cards. Sometimes it reminds me of a particular Brewer memory. And sometimes I remember being seven years old in the back yard, pretending to play a game with a lineup made up of the names on the back of the team cards.
I was introduced to holograms by Desi Arnaz, Jr in 1983. Arnaz played Walter Nebicher, a nerdy police officer/computer whiz who craved more responsibility within the police department. In his spare time, Nebicher developed a powerful crime-fighting, helicopter-piloting, Tron-like-hologram hero he dubbed “Automan.” Unfortunately, Automan was canceled after only 12 episodes and I pretty much forgot about holograms until those marvels of dimensionality began to be incorporated into baseball card sets in the late 1980s.
On the other hand, lenticular cards had been a hobby staple since the 1970s. These plasticky “3-D” oddball issues were first introduced as a Topps test issue in 1968. Collectors most likely became aware of the 3-D technology, however when they found baseball cards in their Kellogg’s cereal boxes or discs on the bottom of 7-11 Slurpee cups. The Sportflics issue in 1986 introduced the lenticular card on a much grander scale, incorporating a headshot and a pair of action poses for individual players and cards featuring up to 12 different player photos. Regardless, the 3-D card has largely remained a novelty.
Whether a baseball card featured a holographic or lenticular element, the creator of that card was endeavoring to capture the action and movement of the game into a static format—what else could a collector ask for in a two-dimensional card? Many of these cards are downright magical.
Famous for its Grand Slam breakfast, Denny’s began producing a branded baseball card set with Upper Deck in 1991. That set featured a full bleed holographic image on the front and narrative statistical information on the reverse, along with—cleverly—the player’s career grand slam tally. One card was issued for each of the 26 Major League teams at the time. Denny’s followed a similar format in 1992 and 1993, the latter set growing to 28 cards with the addition of players from the Rockies and Marlins. These cards were given to patrons who ordered a Grand Slam breakfast.
In 1994, Denny’s and Upper Deck changed the format a bit and for the first time, the set included pitchers. The player’s grand slam tally was discontinued, perhaps because none of Jim Abbott, Kevin Appier and Cal Eldred had never hit a home run, let alone a grand slam. This year, the issue also included a special Reggie Jackson card that was reportedly distributed one to a location and was to be given away as a prize. This remains the rarest of any Denny’s issue.
The 1995 Denny’s set was the last for Upper Deck, the restaurant chain having partnered with Pinnacle for 1996. While the 1991-95 Upper Deck holographic issues simply added some shimmer and dimension to the card fronts, the 1996 set really brought home the bacon. Touted as “Full Motion Holograms,” these cards—when pivoted at just the right angle—actually depicted fluid action of a batter’s swing or pitcher’s windup. This issue also added a randomly inserted ten-card Grand Slam subset, with a parallel ten-card Grand Slam Artist’s Proof subset. The holographic image on the Grand Slam subset card was just a generic Grand Slam breakfast advertisement, ironically making the chase cards much less desirable than those in the base set.
Then, in 1997, the 24-hour diner chain turned the collecting world on its collective head. Not unlike the resplendent union of eggs and toast, a concept was hatched in which a single regulation-sized baseball card would include both lenticular and holographic elements. This intrepid design produced the most technologically ambitious baseball card ever—with roughly 71%* of the card’s real estate covered by special effects. The front of the card was oriented horizontally and featured crisp effects in front of or behind each subject. The back of the card contained biographical and career highlight information, along with a large holographic image of the player’s face. These cards were wrapped individually and were available for 59 cents to anyone who purchased an entrée and non-alcoholic beverage.
The set was comprised of 29 cards, one for each of the 28 Major League teams of the day, along with a special Jackie Robinson card in honor of 1997 having been the 50th anniversary of his having broken baseball’s color barrier. The Robinson card was based on Ernie Sisto’s depicting Robinson being tagged out at plate by the Pirates’ Clyde McCullough at Ebbets Field on May 2, 1951.
Oddly, Denny’s also produced a separately distributed card of Larry Doby, numbered “1 of 1.”** The Doby card was given out at the All-Star Game Fan Fest and National Sports Collectors Convention, both of which were held in Cleveland that year. [Additionally, there is anecdotal evidence that the Doby card was also available at Cleveland-area Denny’s locations, but this has not necessarily been substantiated.] As you may know, Doby broke the color barrier in the AL, playing his initial game for the Indians on July 5, 1947.
The 1997 Denny’s cards are fun to handle not only because of the movement and special effects on both sides, but also because a good number include other identifiable individuals. For example, John Jaha appears to be holding Wade Boggs on at first. The Sammy Sosa card has Jose Hernandez positioned oddly as Sosa appears to be mid home run trot. It appears that Jeff Bagwell is depicted on Tim Salmon’s card, Hal Morris appears on Derek Jeter’s card, Kirt Manwaring is seen on Andruw Jones’s card, and Jim Thome makes a baserunning appearance on Bagwell’s card, the only dual Hall of Famer entry in the lot.
Interestingly, Cubs catcher Scott Servais appears on two cards, those of Ray Lankford and Gary Sheffield. The Sheffield card is particularly interesting because the visible Wrigley Field bunting probably dates that photograph as having been taken during the Cubs opening series against the Marlins in 1997, not long before the set would have been finalized for manufacture.
The card fronts are also interesting to study for the differing ways in which motion was added and whether the perspective of that motion was in the foreground, background, or both. The majority of the cards depict the main subject as a solid, two-dimensional figure. Several cards, however, animate a portion of the player’s body, such as Mo Vaughn’s glove, Mike Piazza’s arm, and Frank Thomas’s left hand gripping a baseball to autograph.
Unfortunately, all this technology came at a price. While information regarding the cost to produce each of these cards has eluded the author, these cards could not have been inexpensive to produce and Denny’s ambition may have been the reason for the demise of their baseball card promotions. Alas, the 1997 set was the last that Denny’s would distribute.
Even now, Denny’s sets and singles are readily available and relatively inexpensive. The ambitious 1997 set is the pinnacle of baseball card fun, even more so than Automan ever was.
*I say that “roughly 71%” because the hologram features a slight rounded contour of a baseball, not a straight line. I am not going to do any math that requires me to calculate the area of an arc section.
**Denny’s having chosen to celebrate Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby may have been an effort to help rehabilitate their corporation reputation on the heels of paying $54.4 million to settle a class-action racial discrimination lawsuit.
Jeff Leeds, “Denny’s Restaurants Settle Bias Suits for $54 Million: Civil rights: Blacks complained of discrimination at the chain. Case marks new push for Justice Department,” Los Angeles Times, May 25, 1994.
Dwight Chapin, Greg Smith, “Highland Mint strikes gold in memorabilia market,” The Marion Star (Marion, Ohio), August 31, 1997.
For most of baseball card history there have been two basic types of card designs. Either the photo is placed in a box* or the player is silhouetted onto a background.** Both of these designs are pretty straightforward with their image requirements in that designers only have to think about what is and isn’t shown in the photos.
*Straightforward but none more pure of an example than 1953 Bowman.
**1914 Cracker Jacks, 1949 Bowman, 1958 Topps, and many of the inserts from the 1980s to today.
There’s a third design though which took over cards in the 1990s and has made photo cropping difficult ever since. Rather than putting photos in boxes the trend toward full-bleed cards has created design after design that layers text and other graphic elements on top of the photo itself.
While it’s true that this design took over in the 1990s and was made extremely easy to do by foil stamping, it’s important to realize that its ancestry has been in cards for decades and in fact tended to surface every decade. So let’s go back to one of the first such designs.
Yup. 1957. I sometimes jokingly refer to this as proto-Stadium Club except that the photos themselves are pretty standard Topps photos that you’d expect to see until about 1991 or so. Posed shots showing a player’s upper body, headshots, and a few full-body “action” (at this point still posed) images.
The first thing to point out here is that Topps likes to put the players’ heads as high in the frame that it can. The next thing to look at—specifically in the Kluszewski and Thompson cards—is how Topps deals with the text overlapping the image. Topps likes to crop at players’ waists and at their necklines. In 1957 this is frequently where the top of the text starts but there’s another half inch of image visible under the text.
On the upper-body portraits this extra half inch can give us a little more information about the location of the photo and allow us to see the field and stadiums.
Photographically, these photos were also composed somewhat loose since the image area of the film is huge* and the photographer knew things would be cropped later. This is why in the Gomez card there’s so much grass in the foreground.
*at least 2 and a quarter inches square and quite likely more like 4 inches by 5 inches.
Now we flash forward a decade. On a lot of other sets* before this the image frame is knocking off a corner of the photo. This isn’t the same kind of design/photography issue since most of the photos are somewhat centered so there’s rarely something of import in the corners.
*eg. 1962, 1963, and 1965. Plus in 1966 there’s a layering effect in the corner.
1967 though is exactly like 1957 only there’s text at both the top and the bottom of the card now. Topps is doing the same thing as it did in 1957 too except that the players’ heads are now a little lower in the frame so that the names and positions can fit. The waist and neckline croppings though are pretty close to the 1957 croppings.
The net result here is that we get to see a lot more stadium details in many of the cards—giving the set a photographic character which differs from the other 1960s Topps offerings.
The Fuentes card though shows the dangers of this kind of design. Unlike the 1957 Gomez, Fuentes’s feet—and even his glove—are covered by the team name. This isn’t a big problem with a posed “action” photo but becomes much more of an issue when we move into the age of action photography.
I’ll jump to Japan for the 1970s since the Calbee sets of that decade deserve a mention. It’s obviously doing something very similar with extending the photo under the text. At the same time the simplicity of the text almost makes it an absence of design. In a good way.
It might be because I can’t read the text but the way it’s handled encourages me to not see it. Not because it’s not readable. Quite the opposite in fact. The way the text changes from black to white on the Sadaharu Oh card is handled masterfully in how my brain barely notices it. It’s there as information but manages to not take anything away from the photos.
It is worth noting though that the cropping on Oh and Davey Johnson is pretty similar to Topps’s standard cropping. And that third card of Hisao Niura tying his shoes has enough foreground space to give the text plenty of room to be legible.
Toppswise I skipped 1969 since it’s such a photographic nightmare that I don’t feel like it’s a fair to look at the photos. (Offhand though it’s interesting to note that it tends to crop the photos tighter at the bottom than 1967’s or 1957’s designs do.) 1980 is close, super close, to being included but it still feels like more of a corner-based design. Which brings us to 1988.
Not much to note with 1988 except for the layering of the player on top of the team name which is on top of the background. This is a wonderfully subtle bit of design that allows the photos to feel like they’re cropped similarly to the rest of Topps’s cards. Instead of getting more image area the layering doesn’t affect the image too much.
1991 brought us Stadium Club and the beginning of the full-bleed era of cards. Looking at this first set shows both that Topps was being pretty considerate with its cropping and how things would start to break.
Where earlier sets had the benefit of posed photos which could be cropped, as action photography began to be the priority for card companies the room for cropping started to decrease. For every card like Kent Anderson where there’s enough room for the graphics there’s a card like Damon Berryhill where the graphic is starting to intrude into the image.
1992 Stadium Club shows an alternative to just slapping a graphic on the bottom of the card. That Topps moves the graphic depending on where it best fits the photo is fantastic.
It’s also a lot of work since it requires each card to be designed individually. Instead of positioning an image into a template, this design requires the image and graphic to be adjusted until they work together. Find the best cropping, then adjust the graphic. This extra amount of work is probably why this approach hasn’t really been revisited since 1992.
By 1993 the standard operating procedure had been set. This design captures the way most sets ever since have been designed. A basic template, drop the picture in. Don’t worry if the graphic obscures an important part of the photo.
One of my pet peeves in the full-bleed era is when there’s a photo of a play at a base and the graphic obscures the actual play. The Bip Roberts is a textbook example of this. Great play at the plate except the focus of the play is obscured by the Stadium Club logo.
This is a shame since in 1993 Upper Deck showed how to do it right. The layering effect like 1988 Topps at the top allows the image to be cropped nice and tight at the top of the frame. Upper Deck though selected photos and cropped them to have empty space at the bottom.
You wouldn’t crop photos in general this way but as a background for the graphics it works perfectly. It forces the photos to be zoomed out enough that you can see the entire player and get a sense of what he’s doing within the game.
Most of the 1990s and 2000s however look like these. I could’ve pulled a bunch more sets—especially from Pacific and Upper Deck—here but they’re all kind of the same. Big foil graphics that cover up important parts of the photo. Some sort of foil stamping or transparency effect that cuts off the players’ feet.
Instead of cropping loosely like 1993 Upper Deck most of the cards in these decades feel like the photos were cropped before being placed in the graphics.
It’s easy to blame the card companies here but this is also a photography thing. Portrait photographers often find the crop after they take the photo. They use larger-format film and understand that the publication might need to crop to fit a yet-to-be-determined layout. Action photographers though get in tight and capture the best moment. This is great for the photos but not so great with baseball cards.
Baseball is a horizontal sport and there’s no reason to include dead foreground space. The only reason to include that space if you know that you’re shooting for a baseball card design that’s going to need it.
We’ll make a brief stop at 2008 though. This isn’t a transparency or overlay design but it’s doing something similar. Rather than the usual cropping at a corner of the image box, Topps placed its logo in a uvula at the top of the image box. Right where it would normally place the players’ heads.
The result? Very similar to 1967’s effect where the photos get zoomed out a little and you see more background. The problem? These photos are already somewhat small and the change to mostly-action means that in most of them you’re just seeing more blurry crowds.
Fred Lewis is emblematic of the standard cropping. Small player image with lots of wasted space in the upper corners. That the posed photos like the Matt Cain are often bare skies at spring training locations instead of in Major League stadiums makes the added “information” there generally uninteresting.
All of this is a shame since the Tim Lincecum shows that when a selected photo is not impacted by the uvula, not only is the photo area not that small but the design can actually look pretty nice.
Okay. To contemporary cards and Topps’s recent dalliance with full bleed designs in flagship. I’m looking at 2017 here since it’s kind of the worst but 2016 to 2018 all do this. The transparency at the bottom of the cards is huge now. Yes it gets blurred out a bit but the photo information still needs to be there and as a result the cropping has to be even tighter.
As much as Topps was drifting toward in-your-face all-action shots, the actual designs of these cards sot of prevents any other kind of action. They also prioritize action that focuses in the top half of the frame. Any plays at a base gate stomped on by the design and even photos like the Chase Headley which don’t focus low in the frame are pretty much ruined too.
It’s easy to blame the TV graphics in Flagship but even Stadium Club—a set I love—has this same problem. On action photos the name/type often gets in the way of the image (compare Tim Anderson to the 1993 Upper Deck Lou Whitaker) but it’s the otherwise-wonderful wide-angle photos which fare the worst.
As the angle gets wider and the players get smaller, the odds that the text becomes intrusive increase tremendously. On Dexter Fowler’s card he’s the same size as the text and, as great as the photo is, the design of the card ruins it. Same goes with the Jose Berrios where the text is covering the entire mound and the ground fog Topps adds for contrast covers the whole playing field.
Which brings us to 2020 and a design that gets a lot of flak because it features sideways names.* What isn’t mentioned very frequently is how moving the transparency effect to the side of the card results in tremendously better photos and photo cropping.
*I don’t mind the sideways names except that I think they should’ve been rotated 180° so that when paged the horizontal cards don’t end up upside down.
All of a sudden we can see players’ feet again. Images aren’t all as in-your-face. We can have action images at second base where you can actually figure out what’s going on. Instead of cropping out the bottom of an image which a photographer has already framed, this design uses the space the photographers already provide for players to “move into.”*
*In action photography you’re generally trying to give the subject some room to move into the frame.
More importantly, it opens up the possibility for great photos that would never have worked in the previous full-bleed designs. For example, Omar Narvaez’s image is impossible to use in any design that puts transparency at the bottom of the card. Even Stadium Club. But 2020 Topps is flexible enough that it can use a wider variety of images.
I hope Topps learns some lessons from 2020 and that if we’re to see further full-bleed designs that they’ll be done in such a way so as to not get in the way of the images or to take advantage of the Transparency to give us more interesting photos.
I’d been sitting on the idea of this article for a while, and I finally decided to “check it off” when I saw an exchange between fellow SABR Baseball Cards blogger Matt Prigge and prewar savant Anson Whaley (with a guest appearance by Jeff Smith) on the first numbered baseball cards.
Interesting question. The N48 cards are generally cited as being from 1886. These featured women as baseball players and since those are some of the earliest baseball card sets in general, I’m thinking those could be it. No guarantees. Just a guess. https://t.co/5uO0MlW67B
Today the idea of numbered cards goes hand in hand with that of a (contemporaneously published) checklist. However, that was not always the case. While numerous examples abound, one famous numbered set with no checklist was 1933 Goudey. Likewise, we will encounter sets that had checklists but no numbered cards. This article will not be exhaustive, so don’t use it as a checklist. Rather, it will just highlight some of the variety attached to what in my collecting heyday was considered the most boring card in the pack.
Had I written this article a year ago, I might have assumed erroneously that on-card checklists were a hobby dinosaur. After all, why waste a card in the set when it’s easy enough to post a checklist online? However, the lone pack of 2019 Topps update I bought last fall included a surprise on the back of my Albert Pujols highlights card.
Though I have to imagine the past three decades of baseball cards have more of a story to tell, I’m going to quickly jump all the way back to what otherwise was the last time I remember pulling a checklist from a pack.
The very last packs of cards I bought before entering my long “real life took over” hiatus were in 1992. I don’t recall buying any mainstream sets that year, but I liked the Conlons and their close cousins, the Megacards Babe Ruth set, of which I somehow still have the box and three unopened packs.
The Ruth set had no checklist, but the Conlon issue had several, much in the style of the Topps cards of my youth, right down to the checkboxes.
While there’s something to be said for the familiar, I was an even bigger fan of the checklists I pulled from packs of 1990 Leaf.
Checklists adorned with superstar players was new to my own pack opening experience. However, as with most “innovations” in the Hobby, it wasn’t truly new, as we’ll soon see.
This was my absolute pack-buying heyday, and it was a great time to be a checklist collector, assuming there is such a thing. Yes, we had the standard checklist cards each of those years…
…but we also got team checklists, either on the backs of manager cards…
…or on the back of team cards.
As a quick aside, I’ll note that EVERY collector I knew in 1978 sorted his cards by team and used the team card to mark progress, making the set checklists (e.g., 1-121) completely superfluous.
Though I’m skipping most years, I’ll make a quick stop at 1974 to highlight two features in particular. In addition to the standard checklists AND team photo cards without checklists, the 1974 Topps set used unnumbered team signature cards as team checklists. (Aside: Though unnumbered cards had a mile-long history in the Hobby and are hardly extinct today, I rarely ran across them as a kid apart from the 1981 Donruss checklists or the 1981 Fleer “Triple Threat” error card.)
A final note on these team checklists: they did not include late additions from the Traded set (e.g., Santo on White Sox), so a separate “Trades Checklist” was provided also.
If I had to declare a G.O.A.T. checklist it would come from 1967-69 Topps, all possible inspirations for the 1990 Leaf card I showed earlier. (In fairness, 1984 Fleer might have played a role.)
At first glance I mistakenly thought these checklists brought more than just a bonus superstar to the mix. Take a look at entry 582 on the back of card below.
Could it be? Were we looking at the pinnacle of 1960s artificial intelligence technology: checklists with the self-awareness to check themselves off? Sadly, no. We were just looking at an abbreviation for “Checklist – 7th Series.” After all, this “smart checklist” was card 504 in the set and the ostensibly checked off card was a completely different card.
While our friends at Topps were having a ho-hum year, checklist-wise, as if there’s any other kind of year to have, checklist-wise, I do want to provide recognition to the efforts at Fleer. Haters of the Keith Shore #Project 2020 designs will probably not be fans, but I’m a sucker for this cartoony, colorful approach to checklists.
Even the title, “Player Roster,” is a nice twist, don’t you think?
The first appearance of numbered checklist-only cards from Topps came in 1961. Each checklist featured a baseball action scene on both the front and back of the card, and collectors can have fun trying to identify the players. (Side note: I believe these are the first ever game-action photos ever used by Topps.)
While the image on the back persisted across the set, the images on the front differed with each card. For example, here is Mr. Cub on the front of the second checklist. (Banks also appears prominently on the fifth checklist!)
Meanwhile in Philadelphia, Fleer introduced its first ever checklist cards.
The series one checklist featured Home Run Baker, Ty Cobb, and Zach Wheat well past their playing days, while series two did the same for George Sisler and Pie Traynor.
Incidentally, a similar approach was used 15 years later by Mike Aronstein in the 1976 SSPC set.
While Fleer had baseball sets in 1959 and 1960 as well, neither used checklist cards. However, this was not because the concept had not yet dawned on them. On the contrary, here’s a card from one of their more notable non-sport issues way back in 1959!
Note that the card pictured is #63. Cards 16 and 64 in the set are also known to have “checklist back” variations. However, the much more common versions of these same cards simply feature humorous descriptions or jokes.
I referred to the 1961 Topps cards as checklist-only because there were in fact numbered checklist cards issued in the 1960 set. The 1960 cards were the perfect (or anti-perfect) hybrid of set checklists and team cards, perhaps offering a glimpse of the “why not both!” direction Topps would ultimately adopt.
Shown below is the Braves team card, but the back is not a Braves checklist. Rather, it’s the checklist for the set’s entire fifth series!
But wait, how does that even work? The set only had seven series but there were 16 teams, right? Yes, somewhat inelegantly Topps repeated checklists on the back of multiple team cards. For example, the A’s and Pirates each had sixth series backs.
Ditto 1959 Topps…
We have to go all the way back to 1957 to see checklist-only cards. Aside from being unnumbered and landscape oriented, these cards check off all the boxes of the staid checklist cards I grew up with.
The 1956 set did the same but with an unusual turn, and not just the 90-degree reorientation. While the 1957 card shown includes the first and second series, the 1956 cards included non-adjacent series. The card below is for the first and third series, while a second card has series two and four.
The 1956 checklists also featured the first (that I could find) appearance of checkboxes. As such, it wouldn’t be wrong to regard (or disregard!) all predecessors as mere lists, unworthy of the checklist title.
The crumbiest card in the set?
It may have looked like Topps was blazing new trails with their checklist cards in 1956 and 1957, but take a close look at the second card in this uncut strip from the Johnston’s Cookies set, series one.
You may need to be the judge as to whether this qualifies as an actual card in the set vs a non-card that just happens to be the same size as the other cards.
On one hand, why not? On the other, how many collectors would consider the “How to Order Trading Cards” end panel a card?
When is a checklist not a checklist?
In 1950, Chicago-based publisher B.E. Callahan released a box set featuring all 60 Hall of Famers. The set was updated annually and included 80 Hall of Famers by 1956, the last year it was issued. At the very end of the set was what appeared to be a checklist for the set, but was it?
As it turns out, the card back wasn’t so much a checklist as it was a listing of all Hall of Famers. Were it intended as a checklist, it presumably would have also listed this Hall of Fame Exterior card and perhaps even itself!
Simple logic might also suggest that a checklist would have been particularly superfluous for cards already sold as an intact set; then again, stranger things have happened.
No checklist but the next best thing?
Prior to 1956 Topps a common way to assist set collectors, though a far cry from an actual checklist, was by indicating the total number cards in the set right on the cards, as with this 1949 Bowman card. Note the top line on the card’s reverse indicates “No. 24 of a Series of 240.”
Though this was the only Bowman set to cue size, Gum, Inc., took the same approach with its Play Ball set a decade earlier. The advertised number of cards in the set proved incorrect, however, as the set was limited to 161 cards rather than 250.
Goudey too overestimated the size of its own set the year before. The first series of 24 cards seemed to suggest 288 cards total…
…while the second series indicated 312!
Add them up and you have a set of 48 cards evidently advertised as having more than six times that number. In fact, some collectors have speculated, based among other things on the similarity of card backs, that the 1938 issue was a continuation of the 1933 (!) issue. Add the new 48 to the 240 from 1933 and you get 288. Perhaps, though the number 312 remains mysterious either way.
Tobacco card collectors are no stranger to the advertised set size being way off. Consider the 1911 T205 Gold Borders set for starters. “Base Ball Series 400 Designs” implies a set nearly twice the size of the 208 cards known to collectors and perhaps hints at original plans to include Joe Jackson, Honus Wagner, and many other stars excluded from the set.
As for its even more famous cousin, the 1909-11 T206 set. How many cards are there? 150 subjects? 350 subjects? 350-460?
The return of set checklists
While I’ve just highlighted several non-examples of checklists, there are several, probably dozens, of sets pre-1956 Topps that include checklists. The most common variety involved printing the entire set’s checklist on the back of every card in the set, as with the 1933 George C. Miller card of Mel Ott shown here.
As evidenced not only by Ott’s name but also brief biographical information unique to Master Melvin, the Miller set provided a unique card back per player in the set. As we travel further back in time to examine earlier checklisting, you’ll see that a far more common approach involved applying the same card back to multiple players in the set, often by team, by series, or across the set’s entirety.
The return of team checklists
It’s been a while since we’ve seen team checklists, but some great early examples come our way from the 240-card 1922 American Caramel set.
As the small print indicates, the set included 15 players apiece from each of the 16 teams, leading to an even 240 cards. As the Ruth back suggests, all Yankees in the set had identical backs, as was the case for all team subsets within the set. Rival caramel maker Oxford Confectionary produced a much smaller set (E253) the year before and was able to fit the set’s entire 20-card roster on the back of each card.
The golden age of checklists
Though neither the T205 nor T206 sets included checklist cards, many other sets of the era did. A fun one, checklist or no checklist, is the 1912 Boston Garters set. Note the back side (of the card, not the player!) lists the 16 cards in the set. (These are VERY expensive cards by the way. For example, the card shown is easily the priciest Mathewson among his various cards without pants.)
Another such set was the 1911 Turkey Red set where, as with the 1922 American Caramel cards, every card was a checklist card (subject to back variations). Low numbered cards had a checklist for cards 1-75 or 1-76, and high numbered cards had a checklist for cards 51-126.
The 1910 Tip Top Bread set provided collectors a much kneaded set checklist and team checklist for their hard-earned dough. Of course, this was by default since all the subjects in the set were all on the same team. While the checklist suggests numbered cards, individual cards have do not include a card number as part of the design.
The 1908-1910 American Caramel E91 cards similarly provided a checklist for each year’s set and the three teams that comprised it. For example the 1910 set (E91-C) listed Pittsburg, Washington, and Boston players.
And just to show these sets weren’t flukes, there are the 1909 Philadelphia Caramel (E95), 1909 E102, 1909-1910 C.A. Briggs (E97), 1910 Standard Caramel (E93), 1910 E98, 1911 George Close Candy (E94), and 1913 Voskamp’s Coffee Pittsburgh Pirates, and various minor league issues of the era.
Size isn’t everything
Another early approach to checklists is illustrated by the 1909-1913 Sporting News supplements.
The picture backs were blank, but sales ads provided collectors with the full list of players available.
By the way, the highlighting of “SENT IN A TUBE” provides a hint that collectors even more than a century ago cared at least a little bit about condition.
Obak took this approach a step further in 1913 by including a complete checklist in every cigarette box.
Though not technically a card, one could make some argument that this Obak insert represents the very first standalone checklist packaged with cards.
I don’t know enough about this 1889 (!) checklist of Old Judge cabinet photo premiums to say whether it was inserted with the cigarettes and cards as was the Obak or lived somewhere else entirely as did the Sporting News ad.
Either way, it won’t be our oldest example of a checklist.
Where it all began…almost
There aren’t many baseball card sets older than the 1888 Goodwin Champions and 1887 Allen & Ginter World Champions issues. Ditto 1887 W.S. Kimball Champions (not pictured). Take a look at the card backs, and it becomes evident that checklists are almost as old as baseball cards themselves.
And while most of the card backs I’ve seen from these issues are rather dull, here is one specimen that makes me smile.
It’s not the easiest thing to see, but I do believe the collector crossed Kelly off the checklist…
…before running out of money, running out of ink, or just moving on like any good player collector.
As my examples demonstrate, baseball card checklists have taken on many forms, and the question of which baseball card checklist was first is one that depends on your definition of a checklist and perhaps even your definition of a baseball card.
Though it’s risky to infer motives from men long since dead, it seems reasonable that the creation and publication of baseball card checklists indicates a recognition that the cards themselves were not simply throwaway novelties but items to be collected and saved. What’s more, this was evidently the case as far back as 1887!
Note also that these checklists weren’t simply offered as courtesies. They reflected the at least an implicit assumption that set checklists were more valuable (to the seller!) than other forms of advertising that would otherwise occupy the same real estate whether the product was bread, tobacco, or candy. A standard Hobby 101 education teaches us that cards were long used to help sell the products they were packaged with. What we see here is that the allure wasn’t simply a baseball player or his likeness on cardboard but also the set of such likenesses that kept the pennies and nickels coming.
I started this article with a question. Are checklist cards the most boring cards in the set? By and large, yes, I think they are. However, that’s only true most of the time.
For with every checklist, at least those put to purpose, there is that one moment of glory, of sweetness, and of triumph when the checklist—formerly mocked and yawned at—informs collectors young and old that their springs and summers were not spent in vain but rather in pursuit of the heroic, the noble, and the—holy smokes, it’s about damn time!—DONE!
That’s a pretty obvious way to start this, right? Pretty much anyone who has spent time in the baseball card hobby knows how that digit and that name go together, that Andy Pakfo, as a Brooklyn Dodger, was card #1 in the landmark 1952 Topps baseball card set.
I’ve often wondered why Andy Pafko, of all people, got the fabled #1 spot in that set. But did it matter in 1952 that he was card #1? When it card #1 start mattering? The earliest example of a card set with a clear numbering system was the 1909 Philadelphia Carmel set. The cards aren’t individually numbered, but rather featured a numbered listing on the back for the 25-card set, with Honus Wagner is the #1 spot. Wagner was (and is) a huge name in the sport, but given that 10 of the 25 subjects of the set are Hall-of-Famers, it’s likely that Wagner was listed first, well, just because he was listed first. The 1910 Philadelphia Carmel set had the same numbering system, this time with Athletics’ first basemen Harry Davis is the #1 spot, with the checklist arranged by team and Davis in the top spot for no obvious reason.
The first true #1 seems to be Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown in the 1911 Turkey Red Cabinets set. This set, too, features a list of all subjects in the set on the backside of each card, but each card is also numbered, with “No. 1” gracing the backside of Brown’s card. The number system had a purpose – smokers could collect coupons from certain Turkey Red products and exchange them for the cards, instructed to “order by number only.” As for Brown’s place in the #1 spot, it isn’t clear whether not is was supposed to mean anything. There’s a haphazard alphabetical ordering to the set, but many of the names are out of place, including Brown’s. And while Brown was one of the biggest names in the sport at the time, the set is loaded with similarly famous names. The 1914 and 1915 Cracker Jack sets were also numbered, with no clear system to their assignment. The #1 card in each (the 1915 set re-issued most of the 1914 set) was Otto Knabe of the Baltimore Terrapins of the Federal League. Knabe had a few good years with the Phillies of the National League, but was hardly a star in Baltimore and was out of baseball by the end of the 1916 season. Again, we find a #1 with no obvious reason behind it.
The 1933 Goudey set is a landmark in hobby history, but no one cared to memorialize this occasion with it’s opening card. The spot went to Benny Benough, a career back-up catcher who had played his final season in 1932. But in the 1934 Goudey set, Jimmie Foxx – winner of the AL MVP award in both of the previous seasons – was given the lead-off spot. This is the first obvious example of the #1 used as an honorarium. And it would be the last until 1940, when the Play Ball set devoted the first 12 spots in its 240 card checklist to the four-time defending champion New York Yankees, with the #1 spot going to reigning MVP Joe DiMaggio. But in 1941, Play Ball went with Eddie Miller as card #1. Miller was an all-star the year before but, as a member of the moribund Boston Bees, was hardly a household name.
The first two major post-war releases honored a pair of reigning MVPs with their #1 spots – 1948-49 Leaf with Joe DiMaggio and 1948 Bowman with Bob Elliot. But Bowman got a little more obscure with their 1949 #1, picking Boston Braves rookie Vern Bickford – a member of a pennant-winning club, but hardly a national stand-out. Bowman’s 1950 #1 was Mel Parnell, an all-star and a sensation on the mound in ’49, and in 1951 they opened with rookie Whitey Ford, who’d helped lead the Yankees to another World Series win. Both were stand-out players and names collectors would have known, but neither are as convincing as purposeful picks for #1 as Foxx, DiMaggio, or Elliot. For Topps’ 1951 Game release, there were a pair of #1s (for both the blue and red back sets) – Yogi Berra and Eddie Yost – who, like Parnell and Ford, don’t really indicate any obvious attempt to use the number as an honor, particularly given the small size of 1951 issue.
So that brings us to “Handy” Andy Pafko. And tells us… well, not much. Sometimes the top spot was used to pay tribute and sometimes it was just used and sometimes it’s kind of stuck in between. But after Pafko, Topps would use the #1 spot for a variety of purposes, some honorific, others utilitarian. The 1950s were a mixed bag: a jumble of superstars (Jackie Robinson in 1953, Ted Williams in 1954, 1957, and 1958), executives (AL President William Harridge in 1956 and commissioner Ford Frick in 1959), and a postseason hero (Dusty Rhodes in 1955). The 1960s featured award winners from the year before (Early Wynn in 1960, Dick Groat in 1961, Roger Maris in 1962, and Willie Mays in 1966), mixed in multi-player league leader cards and a tribute to the 1966 Baltimore Orioles World Series win. Between 1970 and 1972, the #1 card honored the World Series winner with a team photo. 1973-1976’s top spots went to Hank Aaron, honoring his chase and breaking of Babe Ruth’s home run and RBI records. But this run of #1s could have been little more than a coincidence. After Aaron’s 1974 card (which is actually his base card, the front given a unique design to commemorate the home run records that he hadn’t actually set yet) was a pure #1 honor spot. But the ones that followed fit into a pattern that Topps would mostly use for the next decade – opening the set with either Record Breakers or Highlights and ordering those cards alphabetically. A fellow named “Aaron” setting records and making highlights was bound to take those top spots. (You can find Beckett’s visual guide to Topps #1s here)
Despite an boom in card production, the 1980s would see dark times for #1 cards. Fleer and Donruss joined Topps in the baseball card market in 1981 and both companies put player base cards in their #1 spots. Fleer honored the veteran Pete Rose and Donruss led off with young shortstop Ozzie Smith, a decision that – in the context of the great work on the ’81 Donruss set by Jason in a recent post here – seems to not have been much of a decision at all, leaving their brand’s Hall of Fame leadoff man more of a coincidence than a tribute. But by 1982, all three companies had locked themselves into numbering formulas that left little room for creativity at the top. Topps went with Record Breakers or Highlights, bottoming out in the #1 game in 1983 when Tony Armas took the honors with a card commemorating him fielding 11 fly balls in a single game, breaking a five-year-old record. Donruss debuted its famed ‘Diamond Kings’ subset in 1982 and opened each set of the 1980s with it, leading to some big names at the top, but never really lining up the assignment with any big event from the prior year (only Ryne Sandberg’s #1 card in 1985 followed up on a major award win). Fleer, arranging its checklist by team, opened up each set with the previous year’s World Series winner. But with the players within each team arranged alphabetically, their #1s went to guys like Doug Blair and Keith Anderson as often as they went to stars. What’s more, Fleer goofed in 1989 and opened the set with the Oakland A’s (Don Baylor at #1), even though the Dodgers won the World Series in 1988. And just two years later, Fleer would make the same mistake, handing the A’s a premature crown for the 1990 season by leading off with catcher Troy Afenir, who had 14 at bats the year before and hadn’t played at all in the postseason. Their habit of honoring (or at least attempting to honor) the World Champions at the open of their set was dropped after that year.
The truest honorary #1 spot from the big three in the 1980s was the 1986 Topps Pete Rose. His base card – a “pure” card – was given top billing and followed by a series of career retrospective cards to commemorate his breaking of the all-time hits records in 1985. It was the first time since Willie Mays in 1965 that a player’s pure base card was given #1. 1986 also saw the debut of Sportflics, a gimmicky set, but one that took its #1 seriously. George Brett led off the set and, for the next four years, the set would always open not just with a star, but with a player sought after in the hobby. In 1988, the Major League Marketing, parent company of Sportflics, debuted the more standard Score set, which opened with Don Mattingly at #1, continuing the trend set by Sportflics and bringing it into the collecting mainstream.
1989, of course, would be the year Upper Deck changed the hobby forever, in no small part to opening up their debut set with – for the first time ever in a major release – a player who has yet to make his Major League debut. This card, of course, was the iconic Ken Griffey Jr. rookie. It would become one of the hobby’s most recognizable cards and would join the Pafko as a famed #1. But oddly enough, it didn’t really change the trajectory of #1s. In fact, Upper Deck, who owed so much to that one card, didn’t even bother putting a player in the #1 spot in 1990 or 1991 – using that spot instead for checklists. The next big deal rookie to get a #1 spot from any brand was Mark Wohlers in the 1992 Donruss set. And who remembers that?
The heart of the junk wax era saw some interesting uses of #1. In 1990 and 1991, Donruss’s new Leaf Set – among the first line of upscale releases – didn’t even have a card #1, instead opening with unnumbered card with the Leaf logo. The 1991 Bowman set opened with a tribute to Rod Carew. Intended as a fun set for kids, Donruss’s 1992 Triple Play set opened with a card of Skydome. And to showcase the classiness of its first upscale set, Topps put Dave Stewart at the 1 slot for its debut Stadium Club set – dressed in a tuxedo and a baseball cap. There were a few true head-scratchers from this era as well, such as 1993 Donruss opening with journeyman reliever Craig Lefferts. Or Bowman giving its #1 in 1993 to Glenn Davis, who was 30 games away from the end of his career (it was actually Davis’ third straight year getting a #1, as he got the spot in 1991’s Studio set and 1992’s Fleer Ultra due being the first alphabetical player for the Baltimore Orioles, the first alphabetical American League team).
By the mid-1990s, nearly all major releases – save for Fleer, who clung to their team-based numbering system that gave no attention to #1 – had taken up the practice putting a base card of a star player with hobby appeal in the top spot. That trend continues today, with Topps offering an online vote to determine who gets #1 each year, and the winning players – Aaron Judge, Mike Trout, Ronald Acuna, very much fitting that mold. So it ended up not being the legacy of Andy Pafko or Ken Griffey Jr. or Diamond Kings or broken records or hot rookies that live on as #1 in our binders today, but that of Sportflics and Score, who made things no more complicated than taking a player both talented and popular and putting him at the top of stack.