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.
Jim Osborne recently wrote a great post about set collecting, with a focus on building vintage sets. For newer products, acquiring a base set, which I’ll define as not including shortprints or inserts, is not all that difficult. If you want a 2019 Topps set without any bells and whistles, they are relatively easy to find.
I have dabbled in master set building since about 2000. I think the first one I tried to complete was 2000 Skybox Dominion. Why that product? The card shop kept getting boxes and they were not that expensive. The inserts were interesting to me. There are some rare inserts like the Eye on October Warp Tek cards numbered to the player’s uniform number – those are white whales. There are two Jeters – I’ve never seen either of them, yet I’ve seen all three A-Rods for sale at some point in time.
Defining “master set”
Two of Jim’s main points – educate yourself and know your budget – are just as applicable here. I will not go into depth on those points beyond stating that you may want a slightly flexible budget, and I’ll explain why later. I will start with:
Define what “master set” means to you. It is a hobby – it is supposed to be fun. Look at your budget and determine the cards that you will use to comprise a master set. I have been building master sets of Topps Opening Day for a while now. I got hooked because, like Skybox Dominion, boxes of Opening Day are not that expensive, and you usually get a complete set or fairly close with one box. When I first started around 2006-2007 there were no relic cards, no shortprinted cards, and the autographs were of players like Toby Hall and Johnny Estrada with a Matt Kemp every now and then. Earlier years did have autographs like Hank Aaron and Wade Boggs, and 2005 had some game-used cards. But they were fairly simple to put together (even though I’m still missing a handful of cards – that happens when you decide to build a master set of a product after it has been on store shelves for a while), and the autographs were not the usual suspects. Opening Day is a fun product, meant for kids, and the inserts are fun.
In 2013 Opening Day introduced shortprinted cards and a more expansive autograph checklist. In 2014 relics came back. In 2020 there are now numbered dirt relic cards with autographs. If I can pick one of those up for a good price I do, but I do not include them in my master set list that I am actively looking to fill because the prices can be extraordinarily high. Nearly every product has 1/1 printing plates – again, I’ll pick those up if I like the price for that player but trying to put together a 200 card set of one-of-ones (or one-of-fours if you mix and match colors) seems more frustrating than fun to me, so my master set list doesn’t include those cards.
To give a sense of how many insert sets there might be, I’ve used Pete Alonso to illustrate the rarer 2020 Opening Day insert sets as he is in many of them, except for the Mascot Patches (so I’ve used Mr. Met). There are other rare inserts not pictured (autographs, ballpark profile autographs, Canada variations, mascot relics, mascot autographs, and mascot autograph relics). There are 346 inserts in 2020 Topps Opening Day, counting those rare low-numbered autographs; removing them still leaves over 300 inserts.
Once you have educated yourself, determined your budget, and decided what master set means to you there are some additional guidelines I follow. I’m going to channel Tyler Durden here – the first rule of master set building is to get started when the product hits the shelf. The second rule of master set building is … to get started when the product hits the shelf. If you have done your homework and you get started when the product hits the shelf you should be able to get some good deals early on before prices start trending to their equilibrium (buy-it-nows on eBay are more likely to lead to better deals than auctions early on). Knowing how many of an insert set fall to a box or a case is important, as is knowing insert set size. If an insert is a case hit and the set size is 30 and another is also a case hit and the set size is 10 then the cards in that 30 card set are likely going to be harder to find. But beware, as there are times right when the product hits the shelf that cards sell for really high prices. There are deep-pocketed player, team, and master set collectors who will spend money to get rare inserts. I do a lot of searching to find deals early on.
The other reason I recommend starting early is because I see the biggest difference between vintage set collecting and master set building of newer products is that it is amazing how quickly some of the cards dry up. Once they dry up, they can be difficult to find at any price. If you want a 1952 Topps Mantle, they are on eBay. They are reasonably expensive in any condition, but you can at least find them. I can’t find the 2019 Topps Opening Day Dugout Peeks cards I’m missing. I can find the 5×7 cards in regular (numbered to 49) or gold (numbered to 10) versions all day, but the pack inserts are nearly impossible to find. There is a Lindor on eBay right now. There are none on COMC. There are none on Beckett Marketplace. You might get lucky 6 months later and get the card for a good deal once people have moved on to other projects, but there also might be three people looking for that one card that they haven’t seen for 6 months.
If you decide to collect a master set a few months or years after a product hits the shelves you will need patience and persistence (which may mean years, if ever) to find the card at the right price. The alternative is to have a healthy budget for picking up the cards, as some sellers know that inserts and shortprints do not appear regularly and put high price tags on them.
Jim mentioned looking at previous sales prices, and I agree. I will take it one step further for newer products. Unless someone finds a discrepancy reviewing game logs, Mickey Mantle’s numbers aren’t changing. Unless someone uncovers some unknown secret, Mantle’s life story isn’t changing. With newer products I recommend paying attention to price trends. A player’s performance (on and off the field) affects his card prices, which is a second difference between vintage set building (as the players are mostly retired, at least from active rosters) and master set building of newer sets. That’s why I mentioned a slightly flexible budget – if a player is having a monstrous year, you’ll need some flexibility. If a card started off selling at $30 when the product hit the shelf but has consistently sold in the $40-$50 range recently, it’s unlikely that it will be found for $30 unless you get lucky or want to wait. You can wait for the player to cool off, but then there is the risk that the cards will dry up again. Hot players tend to see their cards listed more often.
As an aside, if the card you need is of Mike Trout you are highly unlikely to get lucky with respect to price, so I recommend having a Mike Trout rule (will you go after his rare cards or not). I got lucky once with Trout (I got the puppy dog card for a really good deal) – I don’t expect it to happen again. Sometimes a Kurt Suzuki insert will cost as much as a Nolan Arenado from the same set; that doesn’t happen with Trout and a few other players. Even his parallel cards are going to cost a few dollars.
In defining master set, do you consider the parallels to be part of your set and if so where do you draw the line? Do you go after the retail parallels as well or just stick to the hobby parallels? I think parallel set collecting is probably the closest to vintage set collecting. I buy lots like I would for a vintage set and try to sell or trade doubles (or at least I used to) to save on monetary cost. Unlike the base sets, there usually aren’t very many complete parallel sets available, and complete parallel sets are usually expensive, so I recommend buying lots until you get down to a few cards. Like with vintage set building, pay attention to the star cards in the lot. Sometimes you can get a lot for the exact same price as buying the star card individually, which to me makes sense because the extras can always be sold or traded. While that part of set building is similar to vintage sets, a third difference between vintage set and newer product master set building is that condition rarely comes into play with newer cards, unless you are concerned with the difference between a graded 9 and a graded 10. It is unlikely that cards from 2020 have been put in bicycle spokes or carried around in wallets. That also means there is not much room to trade off lower condition to try to get the card for a lower price.
Lastly, there are the “non-rare” insert sets. I have focused more on the rare cards because complete insert sets of the more common inserts, at least for a product like Opening Day, can usually be picked up for a much lower cost than if you were to buy the cards individually. For dealers who crack a case they will usually get multiple complete insert sets of this type. For some bigger insert sets I have used the same approach as I do with parallels in that I buy lots of the inserts until I get down to a few cards, and then pick-up the last few cards individually.
Those are just my thoughts given my experiences building master sets. Mostly I work on products with lower price points, so there may be different strategies with higher-priced products. I welcome others’ thoughts on their experiences.
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.
A fixture of many modern sets are cards older collectors might dismiss as “the shiny stuff.” I’ll resist a complete taxonomy, but two major genera here would be metallic cards (e.g., chrome, foil) and cards displaying “advanced” optical properties such as refraction, holography, and “magic motion.” And of course, there are cards that check off both these boxes if not more, for example this (hurry, put your sunglasses on!)2020 Topps Heritage Chrome Gold Refractor of Kevin Pillar.
The recent history of such cards is either completely irrelevant to most older collectors or the lived experience of younger collectors, so I will skip all of it based on the assumption you either know far more than I do or care far less.
These cards checked off all the boxes back then. They were literally everything and a side of bacon!
For collectors wanting to go “off menu” for dessert, all that was needed in 1991 was a trip to the corner 7-Eleven where “magic motion” coins had been packaged under Slurpee cups on and off since 1983.
And speaking of magic motion, Sportflics had been a major player on the card scene since 1986, more or less mimicking the 7-Eleven technology but onto standard 2-1/2 x 3-1/2 inch rectangles.
At least to a certain extent, precursors to the 7-Eleven and Sportflics offerings came from Kellogg’s, who had been pumping out 3-D cards on and off since 1970.
As for truly shiny, though, the first “cards” I remember buying as a kid came from the Topps Stickers sets of the early 1980s. While most of the stickers were of the standard variety, the sets included special foil inserts. Each of the Dave Parker stickers from the 1981 set is shown below.
“Okay, fine,” you say, “but what about true vintage, y’know, pre-1980?” Not a problem! If you were opening packs between 1960 and 1978 (but not 1974) I’m sure you ran across the occasional shiny trophy on your cardboard.
I mentioned earlier that the 3D sets from Kellogg’s date back to 1970 (see also Rold Gold), but I know some of you are thinking “3D” barely even qualifies as shiny. Then how about two sets that combine genuine shine and 3D: the 1969 Citgo Coins set, and the 1965 Topps Embossed set.
Though the shine was limited to the very edge, the 1971 Topps coins set warrants mention as well.
Ditto the 1964 Topps Coins set, but as with the 1980s sticker sets the all-stars get some extra shine.
Old London also included baseball coins with some of their snack products in 1965. If they look familiar, it is because they were produced by the same company that worked with Topps in 1964 and 1971.
And finally, before we leave the coin realm for good, the Cardinals put out a set of “Busch Stadium Immortals” coins in 1966 and were kind enough to dedicate one entire slot from the 12-coin checklist to a St. Louis Brown!
It’s been a while since we saw any magic motion, but the mid-1960s has that too. In commemoration of their championship season the Dodgers put out a set of three “flasher” pins: Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, and “Our Champs.”
In much of this post we are pushing the definition of baseball card a fair amount, and it’s possible most readers will feel I’ve gone too far in including this next set: 1950 Sports Stars Luckee Key Charms. Then again, if we keep the charm affixed to the packaging, just maybe!
Backing up several decades we get to a very early gold-bordered set. Ah, but not the one you’re thinking of. I’m talking about the 1915 PM1 Ornate-Frame Pins, a somewhat mysterious set with about 30 different players known thus far to make up the checklist.
An even earlier shiny set was also the first to have stats, bios, and even autographs. At last we’ve come to the masterpiece known as 1911 American Tobacco Company Gold Borders (T205). I believe the use of three significantly different designs (National League, American League, Minor Leagues) is also an innovation of this set, but perhaps a reader can verify.
However, among the firsts the T205 set accomplished, gold borders was not one of them. Two years ahead and one entry up in the American Card Catalog is the 1909 Ramly Cigarettes (T204) set, which not only features gold borders but additional gold framing around the player images.
A bit of gold could also be found in the 1910-11 Turkey Red (T3) cabinets, both in the nameplate and around the edge of each image. (See also 1911 Sporting Life Cabinets.)
You might expect by now we’ve reached the end of our journey, one that’s taken us back more than a century from the Kevin Pillar card that started this post. In fact we will go back another 20+ years to the 1888 H.D. Smith and Company (formerly known as Scrapp’s Tobacco) die cuts. Admittedly I’ve never seen one of this cards in person, but the lettering on the St. Louis player and the lacing on the Detroit player seem to have some gold sprinkled in.
Finally, just because I like to do this kind of thing, I’ll go back even one year earlier to 1887 and suggest an Honorable Mention, the 1887 Buchner Gold Coin (N284) tobacco series. I know, these cards don’t look shiny but they do have “Gold” in their name. In addition, this set had all the ingredients. Not only do we have plenty of Orr but we even have some Silver Flint!
And if that’s still not enough to warrant an honorable mention, here are two other cards in the set, Billy Sunday and Old Hoss Radbourn.
The man on the left, once he left the diamond, was known to tell his flock, “Give your face to God and he will put his shine on it.” And the man on the right? He’d be the first to tell you to take your cigarette cards and put ’em where the sun don’t shine!
For my birthday last October my son gave me a wood number supposedly from the old Forbes Field scoreboard. My son obtained it from a business colleague who said that his grandfather got it directly from the Pittsburgh Pirates sometime in the 1970s. There was no documentation with the number. Being a huge Pirates fan and having gone to a number of games at Forbes Field I was thrilled with the gift.
A few hours after my birthday party ended, I started a journey to authenticate the number. I scoured the internet for images of the Forbes Field scoreboard. What I found was encouraging. Although there were no close-up shots of individual numbers, the images of the scoreboard with a 2 did seem to match the sharp angles of the 2 that was gifted to me. I also searched on eBay to see if there were any Forbes Field scoreboard numbers for sale, but I came up empty.
My journey then took me to Hunts Auctions in Exton, PA. They are very knowledgeable when it comes to Pirates memorabilia and even have a stand at PNC Park. I emailed them some photos of the number from different angles. One of their experts got back to me with some disappointing news. The scoreboard numbers that he has come across “have been made of thin (but heavy) sheet metal.” He did state to “not give up hope, since there are always anomalies, and this could be number a number used a different part of the stadium.”
Soon afterwards I reached out to the Pirates directly. They put me in touch with their unofficial Forbes Field historian. He actually had a metal Forbes Field scoreboard number which he emailed me pictures of. He was not aware of any wooden scoreboard numbers but did post the pictures of my number to the Forbes Field Facebook page. No one in the group posted any comments about encountering any wooden numbers. However, this exchange did result in a positive outcome. The dimensions of my wooden number were almost identical to the dimensions of the metal number. The unofficial historian also thought that the colors on my number looked correct.
In the article Jeff states that – “They hung from the scoreboard with one hand while flinging the wooden numerals through the air like Frisbees.”
Things were now looking up and it was time to kick it up a notch.
I attended the SABR 2018 Annual Convention in Pittsburgh and remembered that Frank Thomas “The Original One” was a panel member for the “Branch Rickey: The Pittsburgh Pirates Years” session. Frank was a last-minute substitute for Dick Groat who was sick that day. Frank had some stories about dealing with Branch Rickey at contract time that were brutally honest and very entertaining. I also remember him talking about some charities that he was involved with.
Frank came up with the Pirates in 1951 and for the next 4 years played exclusively in the outfield. After being traded by the Pirates 1959 he continued to play for National League teams before retiring in 1966. Frank was definitely someone who was familiar with the Forbes Field scoreboard.
On December 19th I wrote a letter to Frank Thomas that walked him through my authentication journey and asked him if was aware of the scoreboard numbers ever being wood or some wood numbers being used in other areas of Forbes Field. I enclosed a donation for his charities and a self-addressed stamped envelope. I was hoping to get back a short reply. Just a yes or no answer.
The day after Christmas I received a large envelope from Frank. Inside the envelope was a two-page hand-written letter from Frank, along with an autographed picture of when he was with the Milwaukee Braves. Also included was a custom Christmas card with a picture of Frank as a Pittsburgh Pirate with Forbes Field in the background.
In the letter Frank thanked me for the donation and provided me information on his charities. He also gave me a run-down of the historic game on June 8, 1961, when four home runs were hit in succession in the same inning by four different players (first and only time in major league history). The four players were Eddie Matthews, Hank Aaron, Joe Adcock, and Frank. All four are in the autographed picture.
As far as my scoreboard number goes, he did say – “To your question – I have no idea. All I know that when playing left field all the numbers I have ever seen, even when I would go into the scoreboard, have always been metal. If SABR can’t help you I have no idea who might be able to help you. I’m sorry.”
This past Christmas season there were definitely some positive Frank Thomas vibes out there. On December 26th Sports Collectors Daily published an article about Frank and the work that he does to help kids with cancer. If you are interested in writing to Frank the article contains his address. There was also an article on Frank’s chartable work that appeared in the Crux on December 25th.
In early January I sent Frank a Thank You note for taking the time to write back to me and sending me the photo and Christmas card. I enclosed another small donation.
Much to my surprise I received another large envelope from Frank. Included in the envelope was a short note thanking me for the donation and an autographed photo of all Frank’s baseball cards. Also included was an autographed 2001 Topps Archives card.
For the moment I have hit the pause button on my authentication journey. If anyone has any suggestions for my next destination point please provide directions by way of a comment.
I like collecting autographs. In those years in the early 1990s when the hobby exploded and the number of available sets to purchase had jumped from three to at least seventeen, one of the things that kept me sane was collecting autographs.*
*I prospected at college games. Pursued minor league coaches and managers. Went to Spring Training. Hung over the rail at Candlestick. Sent out some through the mail requests. Hit a couple card shows.
In many ways my card collecting hobby transformed into a way for me to be able to pull a card of any player at any time. No this was not efficient, but in those pre-internet days it was better than betting on my local shop having a card of the player I was planning to get. Having a couple years of complete Topps sets was a great way to be sure I had cards of almost everyone who played in the majors.
Getting into autographs also meant that I had to make a decision about hobby orthodoxy. In those early 1990s there were a lot of rules. Rules about what cards to collect.* Rules about how to store them.** And rules about what condition to keep them in. Chief among the condition rules was that writing on a card was bad even if it was an autograph.
*Prospects, Rookies, Errors, and inserts.
**Rubber bands out. Binders OK. Toploaders better. Screwdown cases best.
It didn’t take me long to decide that rule was stupid but it’s also part of a larger debate that we still have in the hobby. For a lot of collectors, writing on a card does indeed ruin it. Even if it’s an autograph. For others like me, there are many cards which are enhanced by getting them signed. That there’s no one way of collecting is great but it feels like the autograph divide is one where neither group understands the other.
The appeal of cards as an autograph medium is pretty simple since it piggybacks on the same appeal as baseball cards themselves. They’re mass-produced photographs so they’re usually both the cheapest and easiest thing to find. They label who the subject is and have information about him on the back. They’re small enough to carry in a pocket or send through the mail in a regular envelope. And after they’re signed they’re easily stored and displayed.
But that doesn’t mean that just any card will do for an autograph. One of the fun things about talking autographs with other collectors is discussing what kinds of cards and designs we prefer to get signed.
First off, things we want to avoid. It’s inevitable that you’ll get cards where a player has signed on his face. Cards are small and there’s almost always a time crunch. Avoiding closely-cropped portraits and picking a card that doesn’t encourage face signing is an important factor to keep in mind.
Dark backgrounds are also dangerous. Especially if you’re sending a card out through the mail or otherwise can’t control the pen being used. When I was a kid my hands were tied because silver sharpies didn’t exist and I was limited in my card options. Now though I just assume that the dark backgrounds won’t work.
What I did end up liking? Simple photo-centric designs with the bare minimum of design elements. A name. A team. A border. Nothing else. These designs often underwhelmed me as cards* but I found that I really enjoyed them signed.
*As my photo and print literacy has improved I found myself appreciating the photos and design in many of these sets.
In many ways I got into the hobby at exactly the right time as the early 1990s were a heyday for these kind of designs. 1989–1993 Upper Deck and 1988–1993 (except 1990) Topps in particular were tailor-made for my autograph preferences and are still sets I return to when I can.
The rise of full-bleed photos also occurred during this time. I was scared of gloss as a kid but have started looking for these designs whenever I can now. They’re an even more extreme point in my “simple photo-centric design” preference but the key for me is that I like the ones which adhere to the simplicity.
A lot of the full-bleed designs are anything but simple with crazy graphics and other stuff going on. But the ones where the designs are essentially just typography? Beautiful. In the same way that many of the guys who don’t like signed cards prefer signed 8×10s, these function more as signed photos than anything else.
To be clear, I’m not against more colorful designs. They just require me to think extra hard about the way things will look. In addition to considering how the autograph will work with the image there’s the additional concern about how it will interact with the design.
These cases usually result in an autograph which isn’t as pronounced but ideally still combine a bright colorful design and a nicely signed image into a pleasant and presentable result.
With these less-simple designs there’s the possibility for the wonderful occurrence when everything works together perfectly and results in an even stronger look. Would these look better just as photos? Maybe. But for me the complete package of a strong design and a perfect signature/photo combination is something I especially enjoy.
And sometimes the point isn’t how things will look but just about getting a specific photo signed because it’s funny, important, or both. These are the requests I enjoy most because I can talk about the specific photo being one of my favorites and why I chose this specific card to get signed.
The key for me is to be as intentional as possible with my card choices. An important season. A specific team. A nice photo. A special event. A favorite design. Or just something silly like a picture of a player milking a cow.
I have 12 decks of playing cards that I’ll never use.
They’re called Hero Decks, and they first came out around 2005, as far as I can tell.
These are regular 52-card decks of playing cards (plus “jokers”) that feature caricatures of famous people – whether it’s famous figures from history or politicians or musicians or athletes.
I collect the baseball decks, and they’re done by city. They are advertised as such (Boston Baseball Heroes, Philadelphia Baseball Heroes) I’m assuming due to licensing issues. The Milwaukee deck features both Braves & Brewers greats, and the Los Angeles & Brooklyn deck features Dodgers greats across all eras. The San Francisco deck sticks to only San Francisco Giants. There are separate Chicago decks (North Side & South Side) as well as separate decks for New York (Yankees & Mets).
I bought my first deck (the White Sox deck) at a Borders bookstore probably in the late 2000s (I miss Borders) and shortly after I picked up the Cubs deck and the Milwaukee deck. One of the decks had a mail in offer for a free deck and I added the Yankees. In 2013 I worked a series of Cubs broadcasts in Pittsburgh and while visiting the Pittsburgh Sports Museum I found the Pittsburgh deck. I purchased a few on eBay (Philadelphia, St. Louis & LA/Brooklyn) and one on Amazon (Cleveland), and I also make a habit of buying a deck when I visit our friend the Mayor in Cooperstown (they sell Hero Decks at the Hall of Fame!), as I have picked up Cincinnati, Boston & San Francisco each of the last three trips I have made.
I absolutely love them. Not only do I enjoy the artwork (I dabble in drawing in my free time – I may soon do a post of the baseball cards I draw*), but it’s sort of like one massive baseball card set since they all look similar, except for a slight difference in style in the earlier decks. Those earlier decks (like the Jackie Robinson card shown below from the Los Angeles & Brooklyn deck) feature a larger player image, the name of the player, position and years with the team. The later decks (see Dick Allen card) give you a brief factoid about the players.
Editor’s note: YES PLEASE!! (HIS ARTWORK IS INCREDIBLE!)
Luckily for me, my two favorite players to collect are featured in multiple decks!
Whenever possible, the numbers on the cards correspond to the positions played. And the four suits are divided up among eras, as best as could be done.
The Aces are, well, aces!
The Kings are generally reserved for the hardest hitters. Particularly the Kings of Clubs, or at least it seems that way.
The 10 is used as a spot for the best players who didn’t crack the starting 2-9 slots. The Jacks & Queens are usually reserved for the rest of the outstanding pitchers.
…but other times are simply used like the 10 for other top players.
Since not all teams are the same strength, I think it’s cool to see some players crack the decks who you wouldn’t expect.
One thing I am excited to see with each deck I open are who the “jokers” are. It’s a wild card spot for…
And even Broadcasters! I love that; otherwise there would be no cards of Harry Kalas, Marty Brennaman, Jack Brickhouse & Jon Miller in my collection!
There have been updates to at least a few of the decks, which is exciting. There’s an updated Cubs deck for after they won the World Series; I haven’t tracked that one down yet. It may look strange in my binder. I don’t really want to put in duplicates, so I think I’ll just add the new cards to the Cubs section.
But yes, I know, these are card collector problems. I’ll gladly figure out a solution when the time comes.
Rather than imagine the Topps intern assigned to building the checklist simply whiffed on Joltin’ Joe (or that there even was a Topps intern with such a job!), I have to believe Topps simply lacked the rights to feature DiMaggio’s likeness on cardboard. A look at other postwar sets during and after DiMaggio’s career show his absence in 1961 was definitely the rule and not the exception.
1933-1941 (AKA “Prewar,” depending where you lived!)
During the early part of the Clipper’s career, while he was not in EVERY set, one can say he tended to appear in every major set you’d expect to see him in, and then some, including these two gems from the 1933-36 Zeenut set.
Knowing DiMaggio didn’t make his Yankee debut until 1936, it’s not a big surprise that he didn’t appear in the three major gum card releases of the mid-1930s: 1933 Goudey, 1934 Goudey, and 1934-36 Diamond Stars. That said, his appearance in 1933 Goudey wouldn’t have been completely out of the question since that set did include 15 minor leaguers, including a fellow Pacific Coast Leaguer, Pete Scott.
Meanwhile, the 1934 Goudey and 1934-36 Diamond Stars checklists did not include any minor leaguers, so there’s no reason DiMaggio would have even been up for consideration.
Now some of you may know about the 1937 Diamond Stars extension set and surmise that Joltin’ Joe might have cracked that checklist. Unfortunately, all that seems to have survived is a single sheet of 12 cards, which of course DiMaggio is not on. All we can say for sure then is that if National Chicle did have a Diamond Stars card planned it would have been a gem!
The two-year stretch from 1936-37 did see DiMaggio appear on several cards, now as a Yankee, though there is room for debate among the collecting orthodoxy as to which constitute his true rookie card. (Don’t ask me, I’d vote for his San Francisco Seals cards!)
These four from 1936 have the benefit of being a year earlier than the 1937 cards, hence score a few more rookie points for their date of issue. On the other hand, all are of the oversized premium variety, which not all collectors put in the same category as the smaller cardboard offerings that come from packs of gum or cigarettes.
In fact, DiMaggio did crack one (cataloged as) 1936 (but really 1936-37) set of gum cards, but the fact that the World Wide Gum were only issued in Canada gives pause to a good many of the Hobby’s arbiters of rookiehood. If nothing else, though, note the nickname on the back of the card. A bit harder to read but the bio would not pass muster today in its reference to Joe as “a giant Italian.”
One of DiMaggio’s most sought after cards, rookie or not, was another Canada-only release and came out the following year under the later-on-much-more-famous O-Pee-Chee name.
Back in the U.S., DiMaggio made it onto two cards in 1937, but as with the preceding year they were both of the larger premium variety. The Goudey offering (left) is not much (any?) different from its 1936 counterpart, while the Exhibits 4-in-1 is particularly notable in its pairing of the Yankee Clipper with Lou Gehrig. (Oh, and the other two guys are pretty good also.)
It is finally in 1938 that Joltin’ Joe receives his first ever, God honest American gum card as a Yankee, thanks to the 1938 Goudey “Heads Up” set. Like the other 23 players on the checklist, he in fact appears twice, once with a plain background (card #250) and once with a cartoon background (card #274).
Finally, DiMaggio and Gehrig make it onto another 4-in-1 of Yankee legends, this time swapping out Tony Lazzeri for Bill Dickey.
To this point, just about every card I’ve shown, save the 1938 Goudey pair, has some level of oddball status attached. This was not the case from 1939-41 when Gum, Inc., hit the scene with its three year run of major bubble gum releases under the Play Ball name. Though the term is perhaps overused, I’ll throw DiMaggio’s 1941 card out there as one of the truly iconic cards of the Hobby.
The Play Ball cards weren’t DiMaggio’s only cards from that three-year stretch. He could also be found in the 1939-46 Exhibits “Salutations” set, yet another oversized offering…
And the 1941 Double Play set, where he was paired with his outfield neighbor, Charley Keller.
If there’s a theme to all of this, beyond just the opportunity to post a lot of incredible cards, it’s that Joe DiMaggio was no stranger to cardboard during the prewar portion of his career. On the contrary, he was in just about every major set there was, and then some!
These next ten years take us to the end of the Yankee Clipper’s career while also leading us through the wartime era where not a lot of card sets were being produced. DiMaggio cards didn’t simply follow the dip in overall card production but practically disappeared altogether.
Joe’s first card, post-1941, comes from the 1943 M.P. & Company card, a somewhat “off the radar” almost certainly unlicensed set, something we’ll see quite a bit more of as we proceed through this section of the article. (Side note: This set is screaming out for one of you to solve the remaining 21% of a mystery.)
Two notable aspects of the card are Joe’s position, right field (!), and the fact that his recent hitting streak is not mentioned.
The latter of these notables is addressed five years later in the 1948 Swell “Sport Thrills” set, which also happens to be the first gum card set of baseball highlights and a possible inspiration for the 1959 and 1961 cards Topps put out under a similar name.
First off, I’ll show the back of the card, which is everything you might expect to see in a card featuring The Streak.
However, the front of the card is more than a bit disappointing to DiMaggio collectors for obvious reasons. “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” indeed!
What I read into this card is that Sport Thrills did not have permission from DiMaggio to use his likeness on the card. Yes, it’s possible the folks at Swell truly considered “stopping the streak” a greater achievement than the streak itself, but I kind of doubt it.
But then again, look who made it onto the set’s Ted Williams card, so who knows!
1948 was also the year that Gum, Inc., reappeared on the scene, beginning an eight-year stretch (1948-55) of baseball card sets under the Bowman name. the Bowman sets managed to include pretty much every big name of the era but one: Joe DiMaggio.
Personally I would have loved to see the Yankee Clipper in one of these early Bowman sets, but a “what if” we can consider as collectors is whether the rights to Joe D. would have left another Yankee centerfielder off the checklist in 1951.
You might not have expected any mention of Topps so soon, but it’s worth noting that Topps made its baseball debut not in 1952 or even 1951 but in 1948 with 19 of the 252 cards in its Magic Photos release featuring baseball players.
The first five cards pictured could lead you to believe the players were all retired greats, but in fact six of the cards in the set featured images of the 1948 World Champion Cleveland Indians. Well shoot, this was the one year from 1947-53 that the Yankee’s didn’t win the World Series! Crazy to think it, but perhaps if the Yankees and not the Indians had signed Paige and Doby, there would be a playing career Topps card of Joe DiMaggio!
One of the least known (in terms of origin, not familiarity) releases of the era was the 1948 Blue Tint set. DiMaggio has a card in the set but in what’s emerging as a common theme the card (and entire set!) are believed to be unlicensed.
Similar to the 1938 Goudey cards a decade earlier, the 1948 1949 Leaf set finally presents us with an unambiguously mainstream, all-American, picture-on-the-front, New York Yankees card of the Clipper. It even boasts #1 in what is one of the earliest examples of “hero numbering” in a baseball card set.
Astute collectors may now say, “A-ha! That’s why he wasn’t in Bowman. Leaf signed him first.” However, my own belief is that Leaf not only didn’t sign DiMaggio but didn’t sign anyone, making this card as well as the rest of the set unlicensed. (As always, I would love it if a reader with more information is able to confirm or correct this in the comments.)
The next same year M.P. & Company was back with what I wrote about last year as the laziest set ever, adding to our tally of unlicensed Clipper cards. I rather like the blue added to Joe’s uniform since the 1943 release, but I don’t love the bio remaining unchanged even six years later.
In 1951 Topps hit the shelves in earnest with five different baseball offerings, a number that now feels small but was huge for its time. Though DiMaggio had already achieved all-time great status, there was no reason to expect him in the Connie Mack’s All-Stars set, in which the most modern player was Lou Gehrig.
However, there was reason to expect DiMaggio in the Current All-Stars set, which featured 11 participants from the 1950 All-Star Game. While DiMaggio wouldn’t consider the contest among his career highlights, having gone 0-3 and grounded into a double play, his presence at Comiskey that day at least qualified him for this tough Topps release.
Two other closely related Topps issues from 1951 were the Red Backs and Blue Backs. Though nobody would confuse their checklists for the top 104 stars of the era, it seems reasonable to think Topps would have gone with DiMaggio if they could have.
The final Topps offering of 1951 is one that seemed almost assured to include DiMaggio but didn’t. Topps Teams featured complete team photos of every team on the checklist, but there was only one problem. The checklist did not include the Yankees!
We close out the 1942-1951 stretch with the 1951 Berk Ross set, one that did in fact include a Joe DiMaggio card. In fact, there were two cards if we count his two-player panel with Granny Hamner as separate.
While not a lot is known about these Berk Ross cards, the one thing most collectors believe is that these cards, much like the other DiMaggio cards of the era, were unlicensed.
As much as some collectors, then and now, would have loved to see a 1952 Topps card of the Yankee Clipper, we of course know he did not crack the set’s 407-card checklist, nor should he have been expected to. While “career capper” cards are the norm today, the tradition at Topps for many years was to focus its flagship set on the players expected to play in the current season.
DiMaggio did find himself with an unlicensed career capper in the 1952 follow-up from Berk Ross
Beyond 1952 we are clearly in post-career territory, meaning DiMaggio cards would mainly rely on three types of issues: all-time greats, highlights, and reprints.
Of course that’s if we’re talking about the cards themselves. Joltin’ Joe was in fact the frontman for the 1953 Bowman set, his likeness and endorsement appearing on the boxes and the wrappers.
Side note: Topps liked the idea enough to try their own version of this in 1954.
The first opportunity for a post-career DiMaggio card came from Topps in 1954. If you’re confused, the set I’m talking about isn’t the 1954 Topps baseball set of Hank Aaron RC fame but a 1954 Topps set that mainly consisted of cards like this.
The 1954 Topps Scoop set captured 156 notable moments in our history, and four of them came from the world of baseball.
DiMaggio and his famous Streak would have been right at home in the set, but their absence was hardly conspicuous either given the primarily non-sports focus of the set.
The next opportunity for a DiMaggio card came in 1959 when Topps issued a ten-card Baseball Thrills subset as part of its main release. However, Topps focused all ten of the cards on current players.
The same year, Fleer issued its 80-card Ted Williams set. As the set’s name indicated, all the cards were of Ted Williams. At the same time, many of the cards included cameos of other players and personalities. As linked as the careers of Williams and DiMaggio were, a card of the pair would have fit the set perfectly.
The very next year, Fleer issued the first of its two “Baseball Greats” sets. The checklist boasted 78 retired greats and one active player (an eyesore of a Ted Williams card) but no Joe DiMaggio.
The checklist nearly doubled to 154 cards in 1961, leaving plenty of room for Joltin’ Joe. Of course, he was nowhere to be found.
Another player highlighting the history of the game in 1960 and 1961 was Nu-Cards. Their 1960 “Hi-Lites” set of 72 postcard sized cards was at the time the largest set of its kind ever issued. Two of the set’s cards featured DiMaggio, ending his decade-long exile from cardboard.
The 1961 Nu-Card “Scoops” set, one of my favorites, added 80 cards, now standard sized, but numbered as if the set were much larger. Again, DiMaggio makes the set twice.
As already mentioned, Topps was also back in 1961 with “Baseball Thrills,” but this time they departed from the 1959 version by including mostly retired stars. Still no Joe.
Nostalgia was evidently in the air in 1961 as yet another player entered the scene with an all-time greats offering. Golden Press produced a booklet of 33 cards that I rate among the best looking ever made.
I don’t know enough about the Nu-cards and Golden Press sets to know if DiMaggio’s image was used with his permission or if perhaps different rules might have applied when cards were issued in book form, as was the case with Golden Press. What I will say is that his absence from the biggies (Topps, Fleer), particularly on the 20th anniversary of the Streak, was more than just accidental.
This next ten-year stretch is one that was fairly thin on tribute cards, so there were few sets produced were a DiMaggio would have made sense.
The 1962 Topps set included its ten-card “Babe Ruth Special” subset, no doubt timed with the falling of Babe’s single-season home run record the year before. It was a fun set but not one that Joe DiMaggio would have belonged in.
DiMaggio did make an appearance in a 1967 set that might cause some collectors to say, “Hey, he finally got a Topps card!” The card came in the “Retirado” subset of the 1967 Venezuelan issue often referred to as Topps Venezuelan. However, the set was almost certainly not produced by Topps, and was more than likely a…you guessed it…unlicensed issue. (A future SABR Baseball Cards article will cover this topic in more detail.)
Bazooka issued an all-time greats set in 1969-70 that included small cards of baseball’s immortals and larger cards of baseball’s greatest achievements. In this case, DiMaggio might have fit either but ended up in neither.
Topps again featured amazing achievements in its 1971 “Greatest Moments” set. However, with all moments coming from current players, there would have been no place for Joe D.
As in the previous ten years it would be up to the smaller players to keep Joe DiMaggio’s cardboard legacy alive. One such player was Robert Laughlin, later affiliated with various Fleer sets of the 1970s. His cult classic World Series set (original version) from 1967 featured DiMaggio as the broom swinger of the 1939 Fall Classic.
With production of these Laughlin cards limited to 300 sets, collectors were forced to head to Oakland area Jack in the Box restaurants to feed their appetite for the Clipper, though it’s possible the younger burger eaters would have been even happier to land a different Yankee slugger.
The birth of TCMA in 1972 almost single-handedly accounted for the rapid spike in DiMaggio cards over the next decade, with Robert Laughlin and Shakey’s Pizza doing their part as well.
Two Robert Laughlin offerings that included DiMaggio were the 1972 “Great Feats” set and the 1974 “All-Star Games” set.
The “Great Feats” set, with mostly minor changes, became Fleer’s 1973 “Baseball’s Greatest Feats” set. One major change, however, was that DiMaggio’s card was dropped, almost certainly out of legal fears by Fleer.
TCMA’s first DiMaggio card was part of a beautiful set dedicated to the All-Time New York Yankee Team.
As were the Laughlin cards, TCMA cards were unlicensed and sold direct to hobbyists by mail order. Lawsuits would eventually hit TCMA, but at least for the time being they were able to issue cards of the Clipper with impunity. I can certainly see their “1930s League Leaders” card (left) from 1973 escaping the notice of Joe and his legal team, though was sufficiently under the radar, but I wonder if their 1973-74 “Autograph Series,” designed for signature by the players, might have been pushing things just a bit.
Among TCMA’s other DiMaggio offerings around this time were these postcards pairing the Yankee Clipper with other top-shelf Hall of Famers.
TCMA’s 1936-39 Yankees Dynasty set, issued in 1974, produced another two cards of Joe DiMaggio.
And if you couldn’t get enough DiMaggio/Williams cards, TCMA had your back in 1974 with its “1940s League Leaders” set.
I know a lot of collectors knock the unlicensed stuff, but I’m personally thrilled that TCMA was out there creating the cards that needed to be created. Topps had more than 20 years to figure out a way to pair Joe D. and Teddy Ballgame, and it never happened. This card needed to happen, and I’m glad it did.
We’ll take a quick intermission from TCMA cards to present a three-year run (1975-77) of DiMaggio cards from Shakey’s Pizza.
And now we’re back with more TCMA, this time a 1975 reboot of their All-Time Yankees set featuring all new photos.
Reprint cards and sets hit the hobby mainstream in 1977, including these two cards of DiMaggio, both originally from 1938. The first came from Bert Randolph Sugar’s book of “Dover Reprints” and the second came from Jim Rowe. (DiMaggio’s 1941 Play Ball card would come out as a Dover Reprint the following year.)
1977 was also the year that Renata Galasso began her 270-card magnum opus known alternately as “Decade Greats” and “Glossy Greats.” The first series of 45 cards, issued in 1977 in partnership with TCMA, assigned its very first card to Joe DiMaggio. (DiMaggio returned to the set in the 1984 Series 6 release.)
Evidently it was very much in vogue to lead off a set’s checklist with the Yankee Clipper as we see it happen two more times in 1979 TCMA issues, their 1953 Bowman-like “Stars of the 1950s” and their lesser known “Diamond Greats” set.
Before heading to 1980, I’ll just note that we’ve made it to 1979 with not a single Topps card of DiMaggio and possibly not a single licensed card from any company since either 1941 or 1948.
The Me Decade kicked off with a beautiful Perez-Steele postcard of the Clipper. Dick Perez was not yet associated with Donruss, but Dick would soon lend his artwork to multiple all-time greats sets produced by Donruss over the next few years. You can probably guess whether or not those sets would include Joe DiMaggio. (Interestingly, there was no DiMaggio in the 108 “Great Moments” postcards released by Perez-Steele from 1985-1997. Ditto for the 44-card Perez-Steele “Celebration” series in 1989.)
DiMaggio was in an 30-card unlicensed set of “Baseball Legends” produced by Cramer Sports Promotions, the company that would soon become Pacific Trading Cards.
While other card makers joined the party, TCMA was still king in the early 1980s when it came to the all-time greats. Their third go-round of an All-Time Yankees set presented collectors with an early version of a “rainbow” nearly 40 years after Goudey did the same.
This same year, TCMA also included DiMaggio in its “Baseball Immortals” issued under their SSPC brand.
These 1980 “Superstars” are sometimes listed as TCMA and sometimes listed under the Seckeli name. (Andrew Aronstein, son of TCMA co-founder Mike Aronstein, believes the cards were sold by TCMA but not produced by TCMA. The Standard Catalog notes the cards were probably produced by Card Collectors Closet in Springfield, MA.) The set included 45 cards in all and five of DiMaggio.
A second series of 45 cards followed in 1982, this time with some non-baseball cards in the checklist and only a single DiMaggio.
The same year, Baseball Card News put out a set of 20 cards, including two with DiMaggio, one solo and one alongside Bob Feller.
1982 also saw three more TCMA sets with DiMaggio cards. Baseball’s Greatest Hitters and Baseball’s Greatest Sluggers featured standard sized baseball cards, and “Stars of the 50s” featured larger postcard-sized cards.
The streak of (probably) unlicensed DiMaggio cards finally met its end following the release of one last (probably) unlicensed DiMaggio card from the Big League Collectibles “Diamond Classics” set.
Before presenting the licensed DiMaggio issue, we’ll take one quick detour to highlight a set DiMaggio should have been in but wasn’t. The 1983 Donruss “Hall of Fame Heroes”set of 44 cards presented a terrific opportunity for DiMaggio to make his “big three” debut. (Donruss continued to put out all-time greats sets in 1984 and 1985 but neither included Joe D.)
Instead, DiMaggio signed on with Authentic Sports Autographs (ASA) for a twelve-card, limited edition set consisting entirely of DiMaggio cards.
I suspect “The Joe DiMaggio Story” by ASA represented the first time the Yankee Clipper got paid for his likeness on a baseball card in 42 years.
Rather than continue set by set, I’ll refer readers to an article from Night Owl Cards on DiMaggio’s more modern issues (or lack thereof) and simply close with some highlights.
DiMaggio’s next appearance with a major baseball card maker, which for now I’ll define as holding an MLB/MLBPA license, came in 1986 as part of the Sportflics “Decade Greats” set.
I can’t say for certain, but I think this was the first DiMaggio card to come out of a pack since 1961’s Nu-Card Scoops set.
I hate to bill this next one as “major card maker,” but it fits the definition I offered earlier. So here it is, 1989 Starting Lineup Baseball Greats.
The next major card maker to score a deal with Joe was, well, Score, in 1992. Several different cards, most very nice looking, were inserts either in packs or factory sets. The relationship would migrate to Score’s Pinnacle brand in 1993.
DiMaggio finally made his Fleer debut in 1998, though it was in a somewhat unusual way. The card was part of Fleer’s tribute to the Sports Collectors Digest hobby publication and showed DiMaggio signing cards for Pinnacle in 1993. How many times do you see one brand of baseball cards featured on another?
It was only a matter of time before Upper Deck got into the DiMaggio derby, though it would have to be posthumously. The relationship would continue until more or less the baseball (mostly) death of the company in 2010.
And what about Topps? The “baseball card company of record” at long last issued its first Joe DiMaggio card in 2001 as part of the “Before There Was Topps” subset. (For all those Mantle collectors who regard the 1952 Topps as Mantle’s rookie due to its being his first Topps card, I present to you your DiMaggio rookie!)
Topps would really jump into the DiMaggio game in 2007 and to this day remains your most likely source for future DiMaggio cards, even if Topps does not have an agreement in place at the moment. Overall though, Topps produced baseball cards from 1948-2000, a span of 53 years, with no Joe DiMaggio. Topps didn’t quite match 56, who who the hell ever will?
So all of this was my really long way of saying that it makes sense there was no Streak card in the 1961 Topps Baseball Thrills subset. Too bad though, it would have been a helluva card!