Last December I wrote a post about Topps Bunt, digital cards, and the ways that cards can exist in both digital and physical forms. It was very much from my point of view as a digital skeptic who distrusts the way that digital items are locked into proprietary software and rely on corporate maintenance to exist.
It’s one thing to sink a bunch of money into physical cards. If Topps dies, I still have the cards. Whereas with digital cards we have no idea what will happen in a decade. Will Topps be around? Will it be supporting the app still? Will it be maintaining a server where all that stuff exists on the web? None of us knows and that’s a leap of faith I’m unwilling to make.
At the same time, events in the hobby the past couple months have had reevaluating my thoughts on this. Yes this is related to Project 2020. No it’s not about the cards or even the values they had. Rather it’s about the way they were being bought and sold online.
It was wild to watch and I’ve never seen something where card prices were behaving like a stock ticker and people were buying and selling faster than the the shipping could keep up. While there’s been a market for digital only cards, I sort of ignored it until realized how many people are totally willing to flip cards without ever really having them in their possession.
In the same vein of things, I’ve been seeing discussions about flipping on COMC and can’t help but see that universe as also being digital cards. The same thing is going on there. There’s a big marketplace for buying and selling cards that you never physically own.
Yes, people point out that the cards on COMC are literally there and you can always request a shipment. But from where I sit this is remarkably close to how money used to work back when it was backed by a physical standard—something we abandoned almost a century ago.
I know I know. Cards aren’t money. But as we move into purely digital currencies and purely digital cards, I can’t help but wonder about if the upcoming generation will treat these things differently. I’m already seeing reports of blockchain-backed digital transactions of digital collectibles. I suspect such things will only increase in the upcoming years.
This is the kind of thing that likely freaks out a lot of us. Especially in this nostalgia-focused hobby. One of the only editorial points of view that Jason and I enforce is to focus on usage rather than value on here, this trend toward a digital-only marketplace for cards is one that has me asking myself what it means to actually use a digital card. I certainly hope that the usage is not only for flipping on a digital marketplace.
Some of those questions have already been answered in the Topps Bunt post where, refreshingly, the digital marketplace can serve as a pure version of card collecting where people can just have fun acquiring, trading, and set building. But those digital collections also feel incredibly ephemeral, focused on new items with no long tail or ability to deep dive into the past.
I don’t want digital cards to be emulating physical ones. I’d love to see them do things that physical cards can’t do. But I’d also like to see them be something that can be collected and shared across generations. At the end of the day what makes cards interesting to most of us here is the story they tell about baseball and our connection to the game, not the story about how much money we spent or the profits we made.
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.
Yordan Álvarez is depicted on the Topps 2020 Series One Variation short print card #276 in glorious landscape orientation, like a widescreen Panavision vista of mesas and buttes, the fever dream of John Ford ardently lusting after a sunset into which he might send his hero trotting. Álvarez possesses plenty of swagger, but on this card he does not look heroic. He looks defeated as he makes the long walk back to the dugout, a look of frustration on his face, or possibly anger, eyes cast into the middle distance, his mouth a thin, tight line. And this is not the frontier; it’s a ballpark.
Álvarez made his major league debut for the Houston Astros on June 9th, 2019, and this card was issued in February of 2020, which means the photograph was taken sometime during the latter half of the season. Over his shoulder looms the unmistakable sight of Camden Yards’ B&O warehouse, so he’s in Baltimore. Houston visited the Charm City only once that season, for a three-game set in August, so we can assume the shot was taken on one of those three dates.
Further, Álvarez is not wearing the Astros’ standard road greys, nor is he sporting the orange or navy alternate jerseys Houston has been known to wear. He is instead wearing a throwback uniform – a modern version of the getup the Astros donned from 1982 until ’93, the name ‘Astros’ across the chest in an Arial-like sans-serif font, navy blue over a plain navy star. Above that, things get weird: thick racing stripes of navy-red-orange-gold-orange-red-navy drape the shoulders. This was the toned-down version of their 1970s tequila sunrise uniforms, which we can only guess made sense at the time, but now look like a parodic representation of what that decade felt like if you were tuned in, pharmacologically.
His batting helmet is navy, unlike the bright orange lids those ‘70s Houston teams wore – hunter blaze, we’d call that now, usually worn with a full neck-to-toe camo ensemble, the cap designed to make you clearly human and decidedly not ungulate in the eyes of fellow sportspeople lurking in the bush with long guns and trigger fingers made itchy by hours of inaction.
An odd thing about those ’82-’93 Astros uniforms is that there was no true road version. At home they wore white, and on the road they sported the very same uniform in cream. But Yordan Álvarez, it appears to my eyes, is wearing white. Of all the orthodoxies I hold dear to my heart, this is among the strictest: a ballclub should wear white at home and grey on the road. Ever was it thus, ever thus should it be.
The actual home team was commemorating near-glory. August 9th, 2019, a sultry Friday night in Baltimore, was a celebration of the 1989 “Why Not?!” Orioles, a team of scrap and grit that came close to winning the AL East, heading into the season’s final weekend needing a sweep of the Blue Jays to take the division. The Jays won two of three.
But the Frank Robinson-led Orioles had taken their fans on such a great ride that thirty years later, in the midst of a miserable 108 loss season, the 2019 O’s dressed up in ’89 uniforms to mark that exciting run, and the Astros played along by wearing period-appropriate (if not geographically consistent) togs, never mind that in 1989 the Astros were a National League club and so, short of a World Series matchup, would never be in Baltimore to play the Birds.
When commemorating what once was, we usually get the details a little bit wrong.
I pulled Series One Variation #276 from a retail pack sometime back in March, and ever since this card has held me in wild fascination. The effect is oversized in relation to my regard for Álvarez; I’m basically indifferent to him. I’ve only ever given Yordan Álvarez—an imposing, Aaron Judge-like presence in the middle of the Astros’ order—a passing thought as an avatar of modern baseball.
But the card is mesmeric, a small object around which gravity bends subtly but perceptibly. This is what the best cards do, I think, whether they’re of our favorite players, or feature some odd quirk or error, or otherwise manage to imprint themselves in the folds of our soft brains and stick there. They carry a series of signals betraying disparate and competing energies, emitting a persistent, high-pitched buzzing.
This one buzzes with questions that zip like unruly voltages. Like: why that uniform? What date? And given that it is clear from his carriage that he has just struck out: is there still room for shame in a post-shame world?
Álvarez’ slow, simmering post-K saunter is anything but exceptional; it’s what he did in over 25% of his plate appearances last season. Historically speaking that’s remarkable, but in the narrow trough of these launch-angle days, it’s par for the course: the average strikeout rate across baseball was 23% in 2019, an astonishing new historical high. Graphed, it resembles a bull market.
When tabulated, collated, filtered, and parsed, the numbers tell us that the Rob Deer approach of Three True Outcomes – i.e., steadfastly refusing to put the ball in play – wins ballgames. It’s a style of baseball condoned by the cubicle-dwellers for whom the ones and zeroes of absolute efficiency trump all aesthetic arguments, because The Datapoints Do Not Lie.
But here’s the friction: despite what the numbers say, the human soul still harbors a strong vestigial dislike of failure, and the one-on-one nature of the hitter-pitcher dialectic makes the called third strike, or the big-swing-and-a-miss look unmistakably like failure. The strikeout elicits micro-scale stirrings of shame. It can’t be helped. Nobody likes to whiff, and Álvarez is no exception, though his debut campaign would suggest an attempt at immersion therapy.
Álvarez’ photo on Series One Variation #276 reflects the unavoidable distaste. His face is captured in a candid moment of naked emotion, a sliver of time tucked beneath the game’s joints and surfaces, when he should no longer be the focus of attention, having ceded it to Carlos Correa, who followed him in the lineup. But the camera found him, and the result is a wonderful photo, with echoes of the great John Dominis shot of Mantle dejectedly throwing his batting helmet while retreating to the Yankee Stadium dugout in 1965.
Anyway, what Álvarez did in 2019 when not striking out was noteworthy: .313, 27 HR, 75 RBI in 369 plate appearances after his early June callup, and a unanimous selection as 2019 American League Rookie of the Year. That trophy was supposed to belong to Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., but Vladito turned in a performance that evinced mortal fallibility and not the demigod we’d been promised, while Álvarez came in and raked. The choice was clear.
The game log informs us that Álvarez singled in the top of the first to score Alex Bregman from second; in the top of the third, Álvarez struck out swinging on Baltimore starter Dylan Bundy’s 1-2 offering; struck out swinging again in the top of the sixth, once more Bundy’s victim, on an 0-2 pitch; in the eighth, deep into the Orioles’ bullpen, Álvarez hit a fly ball to left off Paul Fry that was caught by Anthony Santander for the first out. That was Álvarez’ night: 1 for 4 with a single, an RBI, and two strikeouts. The Astros won 3-2.
The photo in question must be from the first K, in the third inning, because the sky behind Álvarez’ head, over the great brick warehouse, is purplish, heavy-seeming, but not yet dark. At that time of year, in that part of the world, the sun sets shortly after 8:00, and first pitch that night was 7:05. By the time Álvarez struck out for the second time, in the sixth, night had fallen.
The next night the Astros walloped Baltimore 23-2, with Álvarez homering three times, including a grand slam, for a total of seven RBI. But the Yordan Álvarez of Friday night’s third inning strikeout is of greater interest to me. He stands at the nexus of innumerable convergences: strains of information, history, prognosis and apology, wayward currents pinched to a single point in space. He’s an individual upright but unguarded, caught in 1/100th of a second and preserved against a background, that great brick facade vivid but blurred, which suggests that he is stalked by uncertainties. The thick, hazy air of a dog day’s evening makes time’s immateriality evident. Much has come unmoored.
There’s a lot to be said about the Houston Astros circa 2017-19, both about those accusations preserved in Official Accounts and related disciplinary reports, and those many things suspected but unproven. Nobody’s linked Yordan Álvarez’ great rookie season to electronically abetted sign stealing, but the suspicion may follow him anyway, as it will everyone connected to that team during those years. Stains spread.
It’s also possible that you don’t think what Houston is purported to have done constitutes anything but the logical progression of a time-honored baseball tradition. But it feels safe to assert that the Astros are emblematic of those shifting values and practices that make modern baseball feel morally ambiguous. For a hundred years there was, at least, a Right Way to do things, and a Wrong Way. The in-game definition of virtue was skewed and problematic, but it was at least a definition. Now a cold integer logic means fewer stolen bases and fewer manager ejections, and it makes homers feel cheaper by virtue of oversupply. We’ve allowed the old gods to die and replaced them with Win Probability. You might understand why these things have happened, and yet still long for the old structure the way an atheist envies the adherent’s certainty.
Yordan Álvarez is connected to all this, but not implicated. He plays baseball the way he’s been taught and trained to play it, and he does it well, and the rewards are plain. Series One Variation #276 is just a baseball card. But I look at it in something like the narcotized daze of phone hypnosis, this smooth and glossy cardboard rectangle, hints of the mystery with which all such mementos are imbued, images of figures in collision with history, men bound by contracts, time working its silent will. The tracers are barely visible but strangely evident, those countless converging forces, smell of popcorn and beer, close summer nights full of love and torpor, and all our accidental associations.
Editor’s Note: For more of Andrew’s award-winning writing, visit his website. Of particular note is his book of baseball essays, “The Utility of Boredom.”
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!
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!
It is scary out there. And probably not the best time for a post, but writing helps me keep sane during these trying times. I also thought that there might be a few of you looking for a diversion as we shelter in place.
One of the posts that I read when I first came across this blog was by Nick Vossbrink about creating your own baseball cards. I thought that was a pretty cool thing to do and was very impressed by the images of the creations in the post. In the post Nick mentioned that Matt Prigge was using the Rookies App to create his cards, so I decided to give it a try.
I downloaded Rookies App from the Apple App Store (it is free) and installed it on my iPhone.
Overview of the Rookies App
The Rookies App is extremely easy to use.
To get started you click on the Create Your Own button. A template pops up, but you can change it by tapping on the 4 small squares at the bottom left of the screen. From there you can choose from 24 templates. In each template there will be a plus sign button or buttons (some templates allow you to have 2 images on a card) for uploading images. You can choose images stored in you photo library on your phone, take a photo with you camera and use that image, or choose photos from your Facebook library (you will need to sync the app with Facebook library). You can resize the image by pinching up or down on your photo.
Once you choose you image or images you can enter text in the various fields on the front of the by tapping the Aa letters at the bottom of the screen. By tapping the ink dropper icon on the bottom of the screen you can change the colors used in the template that you have selected. You can even add information on the back of the card by tapping on the icon with 2 boxes. This will allow you select one of 5 different template to add information to the card.
You will also need to enter information for a credit card if you want to order cards. You order 20 cards at a time. The price with shipping and taxes is $16.99 (will vary slightly depending on where you live).
Once you place your order you will get your cards in about 10 days. The cards arrive in packs of 20.
The quality of the cards are excellent.
Using Published Photos
There are tons of possibilities for utilizing already published photos of players for your cards – magazines, picture books, scorecards, yearbooks, etc. I have found that if you have a steady hand and a smart phone with a good built-in camera that you can take photos of published pictures that are fine for your cards. A few things to keep in mind are to make sure the image is as flat as possible and that there are no shadows.
Included below are some cards from my Pittsburgh Pirates Team Set using photos from the 1979 Pirates Yearbook.
Using Original Photos
I enjoy taking photos and the Rookies App allows me to merge my two hobbies – photography and baseball cards. I have included below some of my favorite cards that I have made using photos that I have taken. Under each card are some details about the picture.
The Topps “Bunt 20” smartphone app for digital/electronic baseball cards is here, replacing “Bunt 19.”
I am a latecomer to Bunt. Even though it has been around since 2012, I didn’t even know of the app’s existence until December 2019, when I read a posting about it by Nick Vossbrink here on the SABR Baseball Cards Blog (and a write-up by Jenny Miller that Nick linked to).
Once I joined in December 2019, though, I became a regular user. I initially was going on daily, as one received gold coins—the free currency for acquiring cards—every day, plus bonus amounts for activity every seven consecutive days. Once my gold-coin total started exceeding 100,000 and my card collection approached 2,000, however, I cut back to going on every two or three days.
Like Jenny, I have not spent any of my own money on Bunt, relying on gold coins. Diamonds, which can be exchanged for apparently more ritzy products, carry a fee. I have simple tastes, enjoying the sharp photograph quality of Bunt cards and the process of collecting by team. Other than trying a couple of trades (which failed), I have not gotten into any of the more elaborate aspects of Bunt, such as its fantasy-type games.
Anyway, I started wondering recently when (and how) the transition from Bunt 19 to Bunt 20 would occur. Last Friday, March 13, it happened. When I tapped the Bunt 19 app on my phone, it said the Bunt 20 reader was ready for download.
Bunt 20 features some changes compared to Bunt 19. Users can claim gold coins not only immediately upon entering the app, but also after waiting periods (e.g., 10 minutes or 1 hour). One can also claim a “Mystery Box” upon entering, which basically just seems to be a small number of cards. I’m sure there are additional differences between Bunt 20 and 19, which I’ll notice after additional use.
One thing that took me a while to get used to when I first started using Bunt is the probabilistic nature of some of the special deals in the “store.” You’ll see a feature advertised, such as cards with photos from Players’ Weekend or historical greats, but when you buy a packet, there may be one or none of the thematic cards.
My least favorite aspect of Bunt is the large amount of duplicate cards you get. They clutter up your team-by-team collections (if you choose to organize your digital cards that way) and, unless you want to use them for trading, they serve no useful purpose. I am not aware of any way to delete duplicate cards.
Ultimately, for its cost—which is nothing, unless one wants to purchase diamonds and fancier cards—Bunt is definitely a fun way to fill some down time.