Picture perfect postcards

One of the most aesthetically pleasing sets in my collection is the 1991 “Living Legends” Negro League postcards.  The set was produced by Capital Cards in conjunction with the Negro League Baseball Players Association and features the impressive artwork of Ron Lewis, who produced several art sets in the 1980s and ‘90s.

The numbered cards measure 3-1/2” x 5-1/4” and were distributed in a 30-card boxed sets.  Supposedly, 10,000 sets were produced.  Mr. Lewis traveled the card show circuit to sell his wares.  Dealers such as Larry Fritsch must have purchased in bulk, since the sets are currently available for under $30.

The backs have typical postcard markings, players’ names and brief biography.  Mr. Lewis’ signature adorns the bottom, and the set’s specific number out of the 10,000 is shown on the right.

The depicted players will be very familiar to those steeped in Negro League history.  However, some are not household names.  For example, Verlan “Lefty” Mathis was a Memphis pitcher, seen here in this wonderful Red Sox uniform.  This study of Newark Eagle Max Manning is truly spectacular, as well.

Upon viewing the set for the first time in years, I discovered Jehosie Heard had a card.  I became familiar with him when I explored the first cards of the Baltimore Orioles.  The artist may have used the 1954 Topps card or the original photo as a model for Jehosie on the Birmingham Black Barons.

Another name that stands out is Lyman Bostock, Sr., the father of the late ‘70s Twins and Angels outfielder of with the same name.  Of course, Lyman, Jr., was shot and killed at the height of his career in 1978. Father and son were estranged, due to the younger Lyman’s belief that his father abandoned him.  I was unaware of Bostock, Sr., until obtaining this set.  He had a long Negro Leagues career stretching from 1938 to 1954.

Ron Lewis included a pair of brothers, Garnett and Lonnie Blair, who both played for the Homestead Grays.  The Pittsburgh-based club also called Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., home.

Catchers depicted wearing the “tools of ignorance’ are always a treat.  Bill Cash and Josh Johnson are no exception.

In addition to the lesser known players, Mr. Lewis produced cards for the famous too.  Examples include National Baseball Hall of Fame members Leon Day, Monte Irvin, Buck Leonard and Ray Dandridge.  Another well-known player, “Double Duty” Radcliffe, is part of the set.

The 60 years since the last Negro League game was played means that most of the players depicted have passed away. As of this writing, the immortal Willie Mays is still amongst the living.

In closing, I encourage you to add the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City to your baseball bucket list.  I was there in 2005 and enjoyed every minute.  Plus, Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue is a few blocks away on Brooklyn Avenue. After stuffing yourself, head down Brooklyn to the former site of Municipal Stadium.

Editor’s note: Card 24 in the set is often listed as Hall of Fame catcher, Josh Gibson. In fact, the card depicts his son, Josh Gibson, Jr.

Heading East? 1974 Topps “Washington Nat’l League” Cards

When I was in high school, my cousin from San Diego would visit for a week or so during summer breaks. We didn’t have  a whole lot in common, mainly because he was from the big city on the west coast and I was from small town in the midwest. One thing that we did share, however, was a love of baseball and baseball cards, particularly a love of our hometown teams. For him, it was the Padres. For me, the Reds.

I’m not sure how it came up, but one day I remember him dropping a bombshell on me one time that the Padres almost moved to Washington D.C. I remember being confused as I’d never heard the story before. After looking it up, I realized that the story was true and there were actually cards that Topps printed in the 1974 set that documented this curiosity. These cards had Padres colors but with the team labeled simply as “Washington Nat’l League” as the team’s new name had yet to be determined.

One of my current collecting quests is to put together the whole set of these cards. Currently I’ve got six of them, all of which I’ll document here, along with some player and/or team info as I go.

74wash team

By the time the 1974 season rolled around, the Padres were bad. The most wins they’d managed to muster in a season was 63 in 1970, and in 1973 they  went 60-102 under manager Don Zimmer.  This team card represents what was thought to have been the last Padres team when it was all but confirmed that the team was moving to Washington.

However, the sale to new owner Joseph Danzansky got tied up in legal action, and Ray Kroc (yes, that Ray Kroc) stepped in and saved the franchise. For the record, the 1974 Padres squad went and identical 60-102 under new manager John McNamara.

74wash romo

Vicente Romo was a well-traveled pitcher by the time he landed in San Diego via a trade with the White Sox. In his two years with the Padres, he was 7-8 with a 4.08 ERA over 103 appearances (all but two in relief). After the 1974 season, he was out of the majors and played in the Mexico until he briefly resurfaced with the Dodgers in 1982.

74wash kendall

Fred Kendall was one of the original Padres and spent pretty much his whole career in the down in the 619 (that’s the San Diego area code for those not in the know) with the exception of 1977 (Cleveland) and 1978 (Boston). In 1974, he hit .231/.308/.333 with 8 homers and 45 RBI. You may also know him as the  father of longtime Pirates catcher Jason Kendall.

74wash colbert

Nate Colbert was another of the original Padres and was coming off three straight All-Star campaigns in 1974. His batting average slipped dramatically in 1974 from .270 the year prior to .207. After the ’74 season, he was traded to Detroit and then bounced from there to Montreal and finally two games with Oakland in 1976.

74wash beckert

Glenn Beckert had spent his whole career with the Cubs before a November 1973 trade to the Padres. His time in San Diego was not a happy one. Hampered by injuries, he only played 73 total games for the Padres, the majority of which were in 1974 and then was released by the club in April 1975.

74wash mccovey

And now, we come to the final Washington card in my collection and most notable Washington card overall, Willie McCovey. I think it’s pretty cool that there’s this Washington variation card of a Hall of Famer floating around in the 1974 Topps set and when I got back into collecting this was the first single I bought from the card shop. I found it digging through a vintage bin and promptly snatched it up. Old “Stretch” spent about 2 1/2 seasons with the Padres and clubbed 52 of his 521 career homers with them. Also, could you imagine McCovey playing in Washington, DC? I can’t.

If you’re like me and are interested in collecting the whole run, there are 15 cards to this set:

#32 Johnny Grubb
#53 Fred Kendall
#77 Rich Troedson
#102 Bill Grief
#125 Nate Colbert
#148 Dave Hilton
#173 Randy Jones
#197 Vicente Romo
#226 Padres Team Card
#241 Glenn Beckert
#250 Willie McCovey
#309 Dave Roberts
#364 Clarence Gaston
#387 Rich Morales
#599 Rookie Pitchers – Ron Diorio/Dave Friesleben/Frank Riccelli/Greg Shanahan

Research credit: Baseball Reference, SABR Bio Project, Sports Collectors Daily, Washington Post

Chrome, Finest, Reversed Printing, and Opaque Whites

Last December fellow print geek @robbyt86 tweeted an astute observation about someone else’s printing plate rainbow when he noticed that the rainbow consisted of both regular and Chrome cards and that the Chrome cards were printed in reverse. The top two printing plate cards in the image are regular paper printed right-reading (as can be seen in the jersey logo and number). The bottom two are Chrome printed wrong-reading.

This got me thinking and I hypothesized that Chrome was printed in reverse on clear plastic and then fused to the foilboard. This would explain the difference in the printing plates as well as the mix of foil and non-foil finishes. Opaque white ink isn’t usually the best thing to print on top of but this technique would lay it down last, on top of the other inks, which is a perfect use for it.

The more I thought about this the more I realized that this was also probably how Finest was made in the mid-1990s* and that I wanted to do some digging to confirm whether or not this was indeed the case.

*and that there was a decent chance that the protective coating on Finest is still on the clear layer of these Chrome/Finest cards today only it’s getting peeled off after printing but before packing.

So I decided to soak one of my excess Chrome cards to see what I could find out. I selected a 2015 Topps Chrome Hunter Strickland for this since I had gotten tired of him after the 2018 broken hand debacle. 2015 is a good design for this since the colored border meant there was, presumably, some opaque white right there on the edge.

Soaking went well. Card came apart as expected except for the surprise Tide Pod marks inside the card stock. After cleaning everything up I was left with just the front of the card and a literal foil backing.

The next step for me was to start sanding each side to confirm what side the ink was on and see if I could find a way to remove just the foil. This didn’t work super well but I did confirm that the ink is indeed printed on the inside layer of the plastic. You can make out the scuff marks on Strickland’s face and how they stay on the surface of the card rather than removing any ink. Compare this to where I sanded on the back by the Giants logo. The foil and image both start to disappear—especially along the edge.

So I was stuck both because Chrome is impossible to scan and because I hadn’t really produced anything interesting. And then Artiezillante commented on my previous post where I dove into the patent archive. I’ll just reproduce it in full here as well.

So in addition to cards I have a fairly extensive collection of wrappers from the 1980s-today because you never know when you’re going to need to go to the wrapper to answer a question. On the 1997 Finest Series 1 and 2 wrappers they have the following language:

Topps Finest is a registered trademark of The Topps Company, Inc.
SGW US Patent #4933218, #5082703, #5106126, Chromium (R), Holochrome (R), #5223357, Skin Protector TM, ClearChrome (R), Pat. Pending

I don’t have a 1996 Finest wrapper, but I do have one from 1995 and none of that language is there. The 1998 Finest wrapper is nearly impossible to read (the wrapper is clear so the print on the back gets jumbled with the design on the front) but it also mentions US & Foreign patents for Chromium, Holochrome, Skin Protector, and ClearChrome, though there are no patent numbers. The earliest Topps Chrome wrapper I have is from 2002 and it has the same language as the 1998 Finest wrapper.

This was fantastic and turned out to be exactly what I was looking for. Patents 5082703, 5106126, and 5223357 in particular describe exactly what’s going on with Finest and Chrome.

Patent 5082703 describes the clear layer,* how it’s printed on the back side, and how the thickness of the ink printed can be changed so as to create textural effects. The pictures in the patent show a generic image in Figure 1 with Figures 2, 3, 4, and 7 representing different cross sections with the clear layer always being labelled 12 and the different ink layers on the back being shown in profile.

*Patent 4933218 that Topps also mentions is an earlier version of 5082703.

Patent 5106126 meanwhile covers the opaque masking of portions of the printed image so that multiple finishes are available after a metallic layer is added to the piece. More specifically it builds on printing on a clear substrate (what the previous patent covers) by depositing an opaque layer behind select portions of the image before layering reflective/metallic material on the back of the entire piece. This results in some portions of the printed piece having a metallic sheen and other pieces being dull and paper-like.

One key point here is that metallic layer is laminated or sprayed on to the substrate. This is not how cards are produced so the key takeaway here is the custom opaque ink sections.*

*Compare this to the custom foil stamping detailed in Upper Deck’s hologram card patent I mention in my previous post

The last patent, number 5223357, covers the assembly of the cards. The patent specifies holographic film but the key takeaway for me is that it discusses adhering together two distinct sheets—the clear layer (labelled 12) and the metallic/holographic layer (labelled 14)—rather than the single sheet that the other two patents discuss.

The cross-sectional drawings in this patent also distinctly show how the ink is located between the two layers and confirms that my hypothesis about how these cards are assembled is correct.

It also explains why the Chrome printing plates are wrong-reading since, once they’re printed on the the clear substrate, they become right-reading when viewed through the plastic.

When you look at a Chrome card you’re looking at the back of the printing through the clear plastic sheet that it’s been printed on. The non-shiny sections have opaque white ink printed on top of the colored inks (remember you’re looking at the back of the printing). The shiny sections are from a foil sheet that has been glued to the plastic sheet. The rest of the card is regular paper card stock* on which the card backs are printed just like traditional paper cards.

*The plastic/paper dual composition is why Chrome cards tend to curl so much. Paper responds to humidity much more than plastic and so depending on conditions in the Topps plant vs conditions in your home it will expand or contract a little and result in curling.

Patent dive

When I wrote my post about Collect A Books, I stuck my nose into Google Patents because it was the easiest way for me to produce a citation for Bouton actually being the inventor. Once inside though I couldn’t help myself and started looking around at other patents related to baseball cards.

I should’ve realized the danger here. As someone with a mechanical engineering background, patents and patent drawings are always something I enjoy looking through. So without further ado, a handful of patents which correspond to cards that we’re somewhat familiar with. Since this blog doesn’t keep a patent attorney on retainer I’m merely going to note the patents and what cards the correspond to.

US Patent 5517336 is held by Upper Deck and involves mixing printing with holograms. While the patent is dated 1995, that the initial filings date to 1993 feels about right to me. 1993 is when the Denny’s Holograms switched from being all-hologram to a combination of hologram and print. It’s also when Upper Deck released the Then and Now insert set which did the exact same thing.

Patent number 5328207 dates to 1991 and describes sticker autographs. I don’t remember these existing at all in the early 1990s so it’s interesting for me to see this showing up so long ago. I do like that the patent application is clearly a baseball player rather being a more-generic person.

Patent number 7413128B2 is another one owned by Upper Deck and concerns relic cards. There are a bunch of relic card patents out there, each with different methods of enclosing the pieces. I like this one since it’s held by Upper Deck and because it’s got the best images about how the relic cards are assembled and how they can accommodate different kinds of enclosures.

That this patent dates to 2004—a decade after relics had been out in the wild—shows how companies have been trying to improve and update the relic card to be more than just a small swatch of material. This patent isn’t just relics, it’s any insert from cut autographs to manufactured non-card materials and it doesn’t even have to be flat.

The last patent from this dive is number 20080202947, held by Topps. Yup, this is the Allen and Ginter Rip Card patent. The patent text references prior art from Pinnacle but there doesn’t appear to be a patent for that in the citations.

It’s interesting to me how so much of the patent application concerns the gambling aspect of the rip card and emphasizes how the outer card is intended to be destroyed.

I plan to continue digging through the archive and seeing what else I find. I’ve found some cool-looking stuff that doesn’t look like it was ever turned into a product. There are also a few products which I’d love to find patents for (Topps Chrome I’m looking for you) since I’ve been reverse engineering their production for a while as part of future posts. And if anyone else wants to start digging (even just starting with the related patents in the citations here), the more the merrier.

The #Apollo50 All-Time Team

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landing, the SABR Baseball Cards blog is pleased to announce the “Apollo 50 All-Time Team!”

Pitchers

Our right-handed starter is John “Blue Moon” Odom, and our lefty is Bill “Spaceman” Lee. Coming out of the pen are Mike “Moon Man” Marshall and Greg “Moonie” Minton. Sadly, a failed drug test kept a certain fireballer with a space travel-themed nickname on the outside looking in. Finally, in keeping with tradition, Tony “Apollo of the Box” Mullane was intentionally overlooked.

Catcher

Behind the plate is Fernando Lunar, who enjoyed a cup of Tang with the Braves before assuming backup duties for Baltimore in the early 2000s.

First base

While primarily an outfielder, Wally Moon will man first base and provide some power from the left side of the plate with his prodigious moonshots.

Second Base

Ford “Moon” Mullen won the first ever NCAA Men’s Basketball title as a member of the 1939 University of Oregon Webfoots five years before he made his Major League debut with the Phillies in 1944. Owing to the dearth of baseball card sets at that time, his only playing era cardboard comes from the 1943 Centennial Flour Seattle Rainiers set.

Third Base

Mike “Moonman” Shannon had a solid nine-year career with the Cardinals, highlighted by titles in 1964 and 1967 and a 1968 season that included a pennant to go with his seventh-place finish in an unusual MVP race where four of the top seven finishers were teammates.

Shortstop

“Houston, we have a problem. Our shortstop has a .185 career batting average!” Can the Flying Dutchman be modified for space travel?

Outfielders

“The Rocket,” Lou Brock, is our leftfielder; “The Gray Eagle,” Tris Speaker, plays a shallow center, and patrolling rightfield is Steve “Orbit” Hovley.

Pinch-hitter

Looking for his first ever Big League at-bat is Archibald “Moonlight” Graham.

utility man

Without this man, would there even have been an Apollo program?

manager

Though he never suited up in the Bigs, we’ll gladly take a guy named Crater who managed the Rockets.

Mascot

And speaking of guys named Crater!

But seeing as this Crater is a volcanic crater rather than an impact crater, we will double-dip by adding the inimitable Orbit!

Feel free to use the Comments section to air your snubs (“What? No ‘Death to Flying Things’ Ferguson?”) and note your Pilots sightings (Hi, Tim!). We’ll radio our guy in the Command Module and be sure your thoughts receive all due consideration.

Ten quirks of the 1934-36 Diamond Stars set

The 1934-36 Diamond Stars set from National Chicle is a personal favorite thanks to its bright colors, its creative backgrounds, and the overall personality of its artwork. It’s also a set that makes for interesting study due to a variety of quirks and even a possible mystery.

10. NO Ruth or Gehrig

Though the Diamond Stars checklist is stacked with Hall of Fame talent, the set does not include the era’s two biggest stars, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Other notable absences include Dizzy Dean and Chuck Klein. While the omissions detract from the set in the eyes of many collectors, they may prove a blessing in disguise to set collectors on more modest budgets.

The standard theory, which I subscribe to, on why these players are missing is that they were locked into contracts with Goudey and/or mega-agent Christy Walsh. However, Ron Rembert offers an alternate explanation in his article, “Idols and the 1934-36 Diamond Stars Set.”

9. AUSTEN LAKE BIOS

The back of each Diamond Stars card features a novel biographical format that doubles as a baseball instruction manual and scouting report tailored to the featured player. The byline on this content is Austen Lake of the Boston American.

1934-36 Diamond Stars Lefty Grove with Austen Lake bio

Lake himself has an interesting bio, having at one time tried out as a catcher with the Yankees, played football professionally, and rose to prominence as a war correspondent during World War II. Of course, some vintage collectors might know the name (and even most of the bio!) from another set of 1930s trading cards.

1933 DeLong Lefty Grove with Austen Lake bio

8. what year are the cards?

As the name suggests, the 1934-36 Diamond Stars were indeed released over a three year period. However, that is not to say that each of the cards was available all three years. More detail is provided in an excellent article Kevin Glew wrote for PSA, but a basic summary of the 108-card release is as follows.

  • 1934: Cards 1-24
  • 1935: Cards 1-84
  • 1936: Cards 2, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 12, 16, 22, 26, 30, 31, and 73-108

For example, this Luke Appling card (#95) would have only been available to collectors in 1936 whereas the Lefty Grove card (#1) shown earlier would have been available in 1934 or 1935. (As you’ll see in the next section, this isn’t 100% true, but we’ll call it “true for now.”)

7. what year are the cards…really?

For cards spanning more than one year, such as the Lefty Grove, a different version of the card was issued each year. The most telltale feature for distinguishing the variations is the line of stats at the bottom of each card back. If you scroll up a bit, you’ll see the Grove card that led off this article featured stats for 1933, hence was part of the 1934 series, whereas this Grove card features stats for 1934, hence was part of the 1935 series.

6. color change

Card backs featured green ink in 1934, blue ink in 1936, and a mix of the tw0—at least for cards 73-86—in 1935. As such, a set collector hoping to collect all possible variations would need three of each card from 73-86: a green 1935, a blue 1935, and a blue 1936.

5. other variations

Two well front variations in the set are the Hank Greenberg and Ernie Lombardi cards, originally misspelled as Hank Greenburg and Earnie Lombardi. Less known are five cards in the set where the player uniform changes due to a transaction between one series and another. I have a more comprehensive article on this subject here, but here are images of the five.

In other cases, such as with Johnny Vergez, card fronts stay the same but card backs note team changes.

4. more ambitious set planned?

Similar to the 1933 Goudey set, the bottom of each card back advertised a set of “240 major league players.” Despite that, the set included only 108 cards and only 96 different players.

One explanation for the smaller set is that player contracts with Goudey greatly reduced the number of players available. Another explanation is the 1937 bankruptcy of National Chicle. That said, at the established pace of only 32 new players (or 36 new cards) per year, it would have taken a good 7+ years to make it to 240.

3. DOUBLED dozen

While the first 96 cards in the checklist represent 96 distinct players, the final 12 cards in the set are all repeats. For example, Bill Dickey has card 11 (1934, 1935) and card 103 (1936) in the set. A possible explanation for the repeated twelve cards will come at the end of this article.

2. mystery uncut sheet

An uncut sheet of Diamond Stars was discovered in the 1980s by the family member of a former National Chicle printer. While other uncut Diamond Stars sheets are known to exist, what made this one particularly unique was that none of its 12 cards appear anywhere on the Diamond Stars checklist! (See Ryan Cracknell article for more info.)

In addition to blank-backed cards of Hall of Famers Goose Goslin and Lefty Gomez, the sheet also includes a particularly noteworthy card pairing Browns teammates Jim Bottomley and Rogers Hornsby.

Original artwork for the Bottomley/Hornsby card sold at auction in 2012, and good news…the owner is evidently actively entertaining offers!

In addition, the press photo, taken at 1936 Spring Training, that the artwork and card were based on has also made the rounds.

1. connection between uncut sheet and doubled dozen?

I have seen some speculation that the twelve repeated cards (97-108) on the Diamond Stars checklist might have taken the place of the twelve cards on this uncut and unreleased sheet. I have also seen the Bottomley/Hornsby card at its neighbors proposed as part of an unrealized 1937 extension to the original set.

As with most 80+ year old mysteries, any definitive answer is likely lost to history. At least some clues that suggest the sheet was produced along with the rest of the 1936 series are the cards for Jim Bottomley, Roger Cramer, and Gene Moore, all of which show teams they joined in early 1936, and Benny Frey, Rip Collins, Linus Frey, and Lon Warneke, still shown on teams they were no longer with in 1937.

When I first saw this unreleased sheet, what jumped out at me were the zanier more geometric backgrounds versus the more traditional (but still colorful) stadium and cityscape backgrounds of the original 108 cards. Perhaps this mismatch prompted a National Chicle exec to kill the sheet and a panicking product manager to replace it with the fastest thing he could throw together: repeats of earlier cards.

BONUS KAWhi leonard tie-in

As Kawhi Leonard contemplates whether to remain in Toronto or join forces with LeBron and A.D. to form the greatest Big Three in NBA history, I thought I’d call out my favorite Cardboard Big Three ever. I defy you to top it, even if I spot you a Ruth and a Gehrig!

You want even more?

Still can’t get enough Diamond Stars? See our next Diamond Stars article, “Diamond Stars Fails Its Background Check.”

Fahrenheit .407

Listen: Ichiro is the Guy Montag of George Sisler.

Like many students, I read Ray Bradbury’s dystopian classic, Fahrenheit 451, in middle school. Several of its ideas stuck with me for years afterward and I picked up a personal copy not long ago, to keep them fresh.

Near its climax, protagonist Guy Montag joins a clan of exiles who protect the written word from state-organized destruction. They memorize whole manuscripts as hedge against an American society locked in fiery struggle against its own texts. Guy’s recall of a portion of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes becomes his torch to carry.

Whatever your religious background, many SABR readers also know some Ecclesiastes, thanks to Pete Seeger’s adaptation of its third chapter into the 1960s folk-rock hit “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season),” intersecting with antiwar themes from Bradbury’s 1953 novel.

This cultureball matters to me now because of the link between Ichiro, one of our greatest 21st century players, and George Sisler, his parallel from a century ago.

I used to know just table scraps about the onomatopoeically “hot” Sisler. I remember lots of other stuff, like how Dave Philley spent three years as a Phillie (1958-60) and Johnny Podres finished his career with the Padres (1969). Yet…diddly about “the greatest player in St. Louis Browns history.”

Just a handful of significant facts came to mind when I started this article: he hit over .400 twice, they called him “Gorgeous George” (predating the pro wrestler), and Ichiro broke Sisler’s single-season hits record. Oh, and he appeared in the 1972 Kellogg’s All-Time Greats set.

Sisler retired in 1930, explaining why I find him so unfindable. Despite writing about cards for years at the Number 5 Type Collection, almost all of my card research follows Goudey Gum’s 1933 baseball debut, making earlier players a crapshoot. Even my deep dive into a trivial question, “Who’s E.T. Cox and why’d he appear on a card in 1927?” stands out for what didn’t happen, not what did.

I give Ichiro full marks for breaking an 84-year-old record when he notched 262 hits in 2004. Yet hitting isn’t their sole connection. Let’s catch up with George, circa 1920.

Kids could buy this artful W514, trimmed from a strip of five, out of arcade vending machines during Sisler’s mammoth performance for an otherwise fair-t0-middling 1920 Browns squad.

  • .407 average, 1.082 OPS, 182 OPS+
  • MLB record-setting 257 hits, in 154 game era
  • 49 doubles, 18 triples, 19 homers, 42 SB

Zero other seasons in MLB history include that balance of speed and power. None! Ichiro came close as a base runner, stealing 40+ bases five times, turning ground ball singles into scoring threats. As frosting to his power cake, George Sisler led the AL in steals four times.

Even if you drop stolen bases as criteria, just one other season in history, Lou Gehrig’s 1927, includes at least 49 doubles, 18 triples, and 19 homers. The Iron Horse, of course, enjoyed Murderers’ Row as “protection” for his spot in the lineup. St. Louis, however, depended on George’s stealing prowess just to get more guys in scoring position.

This photo from Sisler’s other 1920 card, part of the scarce Holsum bread issue, hearkens back to his younger days as a southpaw pitcher. (Read George’s SABR bio for those details.)

While pitching had moved to his back burner by 1920, George nonetheless closed out St. Louis’s final game on October 3 from the hill (box score), perhaps to help home fans enjoy one last bit of that remarkable year. Although he notched a .420 average two years later, OPS+ rates 1920 “better,” as Sisler hit fewer homers in 1922 (career stats).

Two of Sisler’s sons, Dick and Dave, went on to their own baseball careers. The former intersected with Ichiro’s future home as 1960 manager of the Pacific Coast League’s Seattle Rainiers.

While we’re visiting the past, let’s pretend we’re 12 years old again and snicker at how Dick Sisler appears on a Skinless Wiener trading card. (Players came one to a package.) Cross your legs and fire up the grill!

When Ichiro’s torrid pace projected to break the hits record in 2004, he also connected with still-living Dave Sisler, who enjoyed renewed interest in George’s past achievements and some of the Sisler family traveled to Seattle to see Ichiro break the record in person. (Topps mentioned that moment on Ichiro’s Season Highlights card.)

As noted in that 2013 New York Times article, Ichiro spent a Cooperstown trip examining Sisler’s bats, comparing their construction and “sound” to his own modern models. Five years later, he brought flowers to George’s St. Louis grave during the All-Star Break.

While I’m not surprised a guy with 3089 hits proved a student of hitting, it stands out that he’s a student of Sisler. Should this whole Internet thing burn to the ground, echoing the fiery urban chaos of Fahrenheit 451, I bet Ichiro can teach us plenty about George’s tools and talent.

A Ted Williams mini-mystery…solved?

The hobby is full of secrets, mysteries, and a lore often built on hearsay, self-interest, imperfect memory, and conjecture. Of course sometimes there is actual evidence.

Today’s baseball card mystery is the mythical “Ted Signs for 1959” card #68 that has prompted many a collector to declare 79/80 good enough on the 1959 Fleer Ted Williams set.

About the card

Before plunging into the unknown, here is what’s known.

  • The card is significantly rarer than the other 79 cards in the set.
  • The card was pulled from production due to the exclusive contract Topps held with Bucky Harris. (Random aside: The first ever Topps card of Bucky Harris was in 1952 1953 1954 1955 1956 1991!)
  • The card was sent to collectors who contacted Fleer about its absence from the set.
  • And of course the card was and still is frequently counterfeited.

What remains a mystery, or at least lacking consensus, some 60 years later is just how early the card was pulled from production. Specifically, did card 68 ever make it into packs?

Ask the experts

Here is a fairly extensive literature review on the subject. While all sources agree the card was pulled early, none offer any specificity as to just how early “early” really was.

  • According to the Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards (5th Ed.), “card #68 was withdrawn from the set early in production and is scarce.”
  • The PSA Card Facts for the set note only that “The set’s most scarce and therefore prized piece is Card #68 (“Ted Signs for 1959”), which Fleer withdrew from the collection early in production.”
  • A more detailed PSA write-up on the card itself notes only that the “card was pulled from production early due to an alleged contract dispute with Buck [sic] Harris (the other man depicted on the card), resulting in a higher degree of scarcity.”
  • An article on Cardboard Connection is equally mum: “As a result, the card had to be pulled from production, pushing values up.”
  • A listing at Dean’s cards indicates that “Fleer was forced to remove the #68 card from distribution, due to the legal issues of using Harris’ image without his permission.”
  • An article on the set from Sports Collectors Digest refers to card 68 as “a single card that ended up being pulled off the presses…”. 
  • From Sports Collectors Daily (2012): “During the production process, the card was yanked from the set, creating a rarity that has driven set builders crazy for years.”
  • From Sports Collectors Daily (2016): “Fewer copies exist of that one compared to the other cards in the set because printing of it ceased early when the set was being created. It seems Red Sox GM Bucky Harris was under contract to Topps and thus, couldn’t appear in a Fleer set.  Fleer stopped the presses and pulled #68 but not before some of them had already been printed.”
  • From Tuff Stuff: “Fleer was forced to pull the card early from production.”
  • From Robert Edward Auctions: “This card was withdrawn from production due to legal issues relating to Fleer’s unauthorized use of Harris’ image.”
  • From Heritage Auctions: “[The card] is known for being difficult due to being pulled from circulation since Bucky Harris (who appears on this card) was under contract with Topps.”
  • From Leland’s: “The key to the 1959 Fleer Ted Williams Set. The Ted Signs for 1959 card #68 was pulled from production early making it a bit scarcer than the rest of the set. “
  • From KeyMan Collectibles: “Topps had Bucky Harris under exclusive contract and Fleer had to stop production of card 68 ‘Ted Signs for 1959’ making it a rare short print. Only a few made it out to the public.”

Equivocating on the issue one final time is this Heritage listing for an unopened box, which suggests the card shouldn’t be in the packs but might be.

“We can only speculate if card #68 ‘Jan 23, 1959 – Ted Signs for 1959’ can be found within. History says it should not as the card was not supposed to be sold.”

Heritage Auctions listing #80171

If it were well known or provable that card 68 did in fact make it into at least some packs, I have to imagine the Heritage catalog would have played up that fact in its listing. As it is, my read of the listing is much more a “probably not” than a “maybe.”

Primary sources

Of course, if I learned anything at all from my History teacher, primary sources are always best. As such, let’s see what the Frank H. Fleer Corporation had to say about the card back in August 1959.

A full transcript of the letter is here, but the key lines are these:

Due to the possibility of legal overtones, card #68 of the Ted Williams series was not put on the market for sale.  However, it was made and we have been able to send several to people such as you who have inquired.

So there you have it, right? Straight from Art Wolfe at Fleer, we see that card 68 was not put on the market for sale, i.e., did not make it into packs.

The ultimate primary source

However, where baseball cards are concerned, there are sources even more reliable than the Assistant Promotion Managers of the companies that make them. The best authority on card 68 and the only source truly worthy of the label “primary” is of course card 68 itself!

As luck would have it, I finally picked one of after all these years. I think you’ll agree it’s not a bad looking “2.”

I have to imagine the grade was based more on the card’s reverse, which has a prominent wax stain and a crease that shows up the right lighting makes evident.

Wait a minute! Did somebody say wax stain?!?! Let’s crack that card out of its plastic prison and get a better look.

Sure enough, it’s a wax stain. MYSTERY SOLVED! And lest you think this one card managed to sneak through quality control, here’s another…

And another…

This is also a good spot to thank reader “athomeatfenway” for the tip to check out page 212 of the Ted Williams bio “In Pursuit of Perfection” by Bill Nowlin and Jim Prime. Here, dealer Irv Lerner recounts an incredible story of the 1959 Fleer set along with his recollection of card 68 specifically.

“The initial run did have the number 68s in it. Two or three months afterward, they damaged that part of the plate so they could pull it out.”

Estimating rarity

Incidentally, the wax stains do more than confirm that card 68 made it into wax packs, albeit very early ones. The stains may also provide a rough means of estimating how many of these cards were issued in packs versus through direct correspondence with Fleer.

Imagine that one had access to front/back scans of a large sample of the card, for example, all 1200 or so PSA/SGC graded examples of card 68. Now assume 30 of the cards exhibited wax stains. Since the cards were issued in packs of 6 or 8 cards apiece, we might infer from the 30 stained cards that between 30 x 6 = 180 and 30 x 8 = 240 of the 1200 cards (about 15-20%) came from packs.

Postscript

One of our readers, Derek, provided this information via email.

Most sure these [wax-stained “Ted Signs” cards] came from 8-card packs as those were the first production line. They did not make 8-card packs after they pulled #68. That is another reason they are extremely rare to find.

Bonus info

In doing my research for this piece, I ran across some information outside the main storyline that nonetheless felt worth sharing.

First up, here is a 1958 photograph of Art Wolfe, the Fleer employee who signed letters to collectors in 1959. Source: October 12, 1958, Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, NY).

By March 1959, Mr. Wolfe had joined Fleer and was in Clearwater, Florida, doing his best to sign ballplayers. Source: March 21, 1959, News Journal (Wilmington, DE).

The following week the Fort Lauderdale News (March 25, 1959) covered the signing of Ted Williams by Fleer as an early sign of the cardboard apocalypse.

And a week after that, the April 2 (subscription required) Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, NY) covered Mr. Wolfe from Fleer in the middle of his “Just say no to Topps” campaign.

You might be surprised to see all this coverage of the baseball cards wars long before the financial side of the hobby exploded. Still, this stuff really did matter to kids back then! Here is the May 22, 1961, edition of the Miami News.

Fleer took a break from the baseball card business between 1963 and 1968, so it’s not surprising that Art Wolfe would return to his sportscasting roots, eventually becoming sports director for WPEN, known today as “97.5 The Fanatic.” Here is an ad from the July 13, 1965, Philadelphia Daily News.

Following his tenure with WPEN, Wolfe went on to become a sports reporter and anchor for Philadelphia’s KYW. This letter from a young reader in June 1986 stands as proof not only that Philly sports fans are the worst but that they start young! 😄

Clare R. “Art” Wolfe passed away in 2008, having spent most of his life a radio and TV man doing sports. However unappreciated his work may have been by an eighth grade Gregory Popowski, many of us—but not quite all of us—with complete 1959 Fleer Ted Williams sets owe Mr. Wolfe a debt of gratitude for putting those cards in the mail.

Committee note: Tomorrow the SABR Baseball Cards blog will be celebrating 400 posts with a specially themed article revolving around the number 400. Any guesses? Fitting though it might have been, you can probably already rule out Ted Williams!

Super Asymmetry meets Play Ball

Author’s note: I suspect what I’m presenting here must have been obvious to the collectors of the day. However, any record of it seems to have gone unpublished. I am hopeful that I am sharing something new and interesting to our readership, but feel free to let me know in the comments if this is more “knew” than “new!”

My previous Cardboard Crosswalk examined the 1941 Play Ball set’s connections to its 1940 predecessor. As I researched and wrote the piece, it was only a passing thought that the 1939 debut offering would contribute anything essential to the story, so I was happy to save the 10+ hours of work any deeper look would provide. It certainly didn’t occur to me that the connection between the 1939 and 1940 set might be the single most unusual and interesting connection between any two baseball card sets ever produced.

Here, then, is the story of an incredible secret, perfectly hidden in the one place nobody would ever think to look: in plain sight.

Williams and DiMaggio

We’ll start the story with the two top cards in the 1939 set, shown here with their 1940 follow-ups.

Williams and Joe D.jpg

There is a nice asymmetry to the four cards. As Williams moves from an action pose to a portrait, DiMaggio does just the opposite.

For collectors undecided as to whether they prefer portraits vs action poses, it might seem fortuitous to end up with one of each. The secret of the sets, however, is that there is no happy accident here. This asymmetry is THE defining feature of the 1939-40 Play Ball sets! Let’s take a closer look.

Repeated players

The 1939 Play Ball set consists of 161 cards. (The cards are numbered to 162, but there is no card 126.) Of the 161 subjects featured in the set, 137 are repeated in the larger 240-card 1940 release.

As the graph below shows, these repeated players (red) came entirely from the first two-thirds of the set. Whereas most repeats from 1940 to 1941 reused photos, the opposite was true from 1939 to 1940. Of the 137 repeated subjects, only 11 (yellow) reused the previous year’s photos.

1940 art repeats

The other 126 (92%) used new photos. It is these 126 slots on the checklist that will be our main focus from this point forward.

Starting off 24 for 24

Here are the first six such cards on the 1940 checklist. (All are Yankees as the 1940 checklist was largely organized by team.) Beneath each card is its 1939 counterpart.

Batch 1rev

The three action poses from 1940 correspond to three portraits from 1939 and vice versa: Super Asymmetry nearly 80 years before Drs. Cooper and Fowler even proposed the idea on the Big Bang Theory!

Now let’s head to the next 6 cards: 7-11 and 13. And look at that! For every portrait in 1940 an action shot in 1939 and vice versa. Super Asymmetry again!

Batch 2

We’ll pause here, having examined the first 12 repeated players in the 1940 set, to consider the odds of such an outcome having happened by chance alone. While more complicated modeling leading to even lower probabilities is possible, the simplest and best case scenario would be (1/2)^12 = 1/4096 ≈ 0.00024.

And now, onto the next 6 cards: 14-19. Perhaps you’re not even surprised at this point. The probability of asymmetry through the first 18 cards? One in 262,144!

Batch 3.jpg

Now here are cards 20-25. The probability by chance now drops to around 1 in 17 million!

Batch 4

Definitely not random!

By now I hope I’ve convinced you that the swapping between portraits and action poses for each player is no accident but a very intentional design feature of the set. I imagine there are two ways this arrangement could have come about.

  1. The photographer, George Burke, could have provided Gum Inc with two images of each player: a portrait and an action pose. Once one was chosen for the 1939 set, the other then became the default photo for the 1940 set.
  2. Alternately, Gum Inc could have been more intentional by either drawing an opposite pose from some larger collection of player photos or asking Burke to provide the opposite of whatever he’d provided the year before.

Either one of these approaches seems to require more planning, consideration, and expense than anything I would have thought possible at the time. It’s really quite remarkable. (And if you are dying to know which of these explanations is more likely, read on till the end. I have a good guess till someone debunks it in the comments!)

Before continuing through the set, I’ll also pause to comment on the connection (so far) between Super Asymmetry and the 1941 set. Granted there were not many players who made the checklists of all three Play Ball sets, but let’s consider those who did (e.g,. Williams, DiMaggio). Gum Inc had already provided both a portrait and an action pose. Were they to provide another portrait of Teddy Ballgame, they’d be copying 1940, and were they to provide an action pose, they at least broadly be copying 1939. The strategy they had employed to make 1940 as different as possible from 1939 had led them to a no-win situation for 1941.

Rather than accept defeat and go with one or the other, Gum Inc pulled the first (and perhaps only!) Kobayashi Maru of the trading card world. By moving to color, they ensured the 1941 series would look completely different from either of its predecessors regardless of whether portraits or posed action was used.

Two dozen more for good measure

Here are the next 24 repeated players, along with their 1939 counterparts.

Batch 5

Batch 6

Batch 7

Batch 8.jpg

Once again, each 1940 card shows the opposite pose of its predecessor from 1939. We are now a perfect 48 for 48. Perhaps you can predict the ending at this point.

Not so fast…

As the 1940-1941 crosswalk showed, a set can start out one way and finish another way. Indeed we will not go 126 for 126, which is why we are dealing with only Super Asymmetry rather than Perfect Asymmetry!

Before looking at the cards themselves, I’ll present an updated 1940 Play Ball checklist with nine new shaded cells corresponding to the set’s asymmetry exceptions, i.e., cards where either the 1939 and 1940 photos were both portraits or both action poses.

1940 corrected grid.gif

The seven green cells

First up is Pete Appleton, card 128, who moves from the Senators to the White Sox. (All seven green cell card will involve team changes.) As a side note useful to Appleton supercollectors, Pete Appleton began his big league career as Pete Jablonowski, the name used on his 1933 Goudey and 1934 Canadian Goudey cards.

Appleton

Lynn “Line Drive” Nelson, card 135, moves from the Athletics to the Tigers, where he certainly lived up to his nickname. Though his at bats were limited as a pitcher, he parlayed his famously low launch angle into a .348 batting average.

Nelson

Beau Bell, card 138 and French for Beautiful Beautiful, moves from the Tigers to the Indians in his two portraits poses.

Bell.jpg

Joe Vosmik, card 144, moves from the Red Sox to the Dodgers, a transfer camouflaged by the matching hats but revealed by the differing jerseys.

Vosmik.jpg

Pinky Shoffner, card 149, moves from the Braves to the Reds just in time to win the pennant.

Shoffner

Ray Hayworth, card 155, changes sides in the Big Apple’s crosstown rivalry.

Hayworth.jpg

Finally, imminent batting champ Debs Garms, card 161 and a featured player in the 1940-41 crosswalk, moves from the Bees to the Pirates.

Garms2.jpg

Our analysis of the 1940 Play Ball set would be ready to tie a bow around if not for two inconvenient cards, highlighted in blue on our checklist.

The two blue cells

Cards 150 and 151 in the 1940 set belong to Cincinnati players Whitey Moore and Eddie Joost, whose stat line upon moving to the A’s makes it look like he might have!

Blue Guys.jpg

As often happens in the research I do, I have no explanation at all for why these two players had portraits in each set. Looking back at the checklist, I suppose it’s possible that whoever was responsible for cards 143-151 simply didn’t get the memo, and I suppose it’s also possible that Gum Inc simply had no action shots available. At any rate, two is not a big number.

Final thoughts

I speculated earlier as to the two most likely explanations for this near-perfect pairing of portraits and action poses. I am ready now to narrow this down to the first of the two.

Let’s assume that the photographer, George Burke, initially took a portrait and action shot of each of the players in the 1939 set, that Gum Inc simply slotted one for 1939 and the other for 1940 as needed.

The one place this approach would fail to provide for the 1940 release would be if a player changed teams. In these cases the leftover photos would no longer be current enough to use. As we have just seen, eight of the ten exceptions to portrait-action pairs occur with players who did exactly that.

The next clue actually came at the very start of this article. (I know it’s bad form to end a Super Asymmetry article with this kind of symmetry, but sometimes it just happens.)

Williams and Joe D2.jpg

Folks I know who are good at such things tell me these photos of the Splendid Splinter and Yankee Clipper were taken in 1939. (Among the “evidence” presented: “Williams didn’t smile for the camera after 1939.”) If so then it’s easy to imagine a similar story for the other 135 repeated players in the 1940 set.

However, this is a case where the how and the why are less notable than the what. The near-perfect pairing of portraits and action poses is the main headline here as such a connection between the 1939 and 1940 Play Ball sets is something unseen before or after in the long history of the hobby. That this pairing could go unnoticed (or at least unpublished) all this time makes it that much more remarkable.

Appendix for the die-hards

Early in the article I mentioned that 11 of the repeated players in the 1940 set did not get new photos. For completeness, I wanted to at least show them. The first two, Chuck Klein and Gene Moore, appeared in the 1941 set with colorized versions (and uniform updates) of their 1939-40 photos. The other nine players were not part of the 1941 set at all, hence any variety in their cards was limited to black/white vs sepia, slight differences in zoom, and an occasional tilt.

1940  to 1941 same pics.jpg

Segui’s Sequel or Ranew’s Renewal

The 2006 SABR convention in Seattle featured Jim Bouton as part of a lively Seattle Pilots panel.  Jim told a story about meeting his old Pilots teammate, Tommy Davis, years after the infamous ’69 season.  Jim revealed that Tommy looked at him, shook his head and said, “what a bunch of mutts.” 

This is an apt description of the expansion teams prior to the free agency era.  The new clubs were an assortment of veterans past their prime, players with marginal skills or unproven rookies. I have identified eight players who had the misfortune of playing on two different first-year expansion teams.  Here are their “cardboard” stories.6

The first man to experience this dubious “double play” was pitcher Hal Woodeshick.  The new Washington Senators acquired Hal from the old Senators (Minnesota Twins) in the expansion draft prior to the ’61 campaign. His tenure in DC was short lived, as the Senators sold him to the Tigers during the ’61 season. Subsequently, “Suitcase Hal” was sold to the new Colt .45’s in the winter of ’61. All this coming and going must have induced a sense of paranoia in Hal, as these two photos clearly document.6

Any Seattle baseball fan worth his or her salt knows that Diego Segui pitched for both the Pilots and Mariners.  Diego was the most effective hurler for the ill-fated ‘69 Pilots and the opening day starter for the Mariners.  The eight-year gap between Seattle appearances saw the erosion of Segui’s skills.  He posted an 0-7 record and was released at the conclusion of the season.

I have always been intrigued by Diego’s ’77 card.  Why is he wearing a Red Sox batting helmet-since the AL used the DH and Diego was a relief pitcher?6

Merritt Ranew is another Pilot with a resume that included two first-year expansion team stints.  The ’62 Houston Colt ‘45’s drafted the young receiver from the Braves.  His ’62 rookie card is an airbrushed gem. Despite Topps’ assertion on the back that Merritt “can’t miss,” most of his career was spent in the minors.  Topps didn’t produce a card for him in ’69, his last season in the majors.  The ‘83 Renata Galasso Pilots retrospective set does include Merritt.  The back of the card states that Ranew was the only Pilot who played on two first year expansion clubs.  This is incorrect.6

Ranew had a teammate that played on both the ’62 Colt ‘45s and the Pilots: George Brunet.  The “flaky” lefthander was drafted from the Braves by Houston.  Topps didn’t produce a ’62 card for George, but he does have a ’63.  Brunet joined the Pilots in July after his release from the Angels. No Pilots card was ever produced.  Very few images exist of George as a Pilot.  Here is a custom card-using a poorly colorized publicity still-of the happy-go-lucky, “underwear-averse” journeyman. 6

The beloved and inept ’62 Mets picked up catcher Chris Cannizzaro from St. Louis in the expansion draft.  He shuttled between AAA and the majors for most of the ‘60s before resurfacing with he infant San Diego Padres in ’69, after a trade with Pittsburgh. Cannizzaro became the starting catcher and was Padres’ lone All-Star representative.  Topps issued a card of Chris on the Pirates in 69, thus ’70 is his first on the San Diego.6

Chris’ ’62 Mets teammate, Galen Cisco, found himself on the roster of the ‘newbie” Royals in ‘69.  Galen’s ’62 card has him on the Red Sox, since he was purchased by the Mets late in the season.  However, he does get a New York card in ’63.

Perhaps the best player of this unique group is Ron Fairly.  The steady-if not spectacular-Fairly was dealt by the Dodgers to Montreal for Maury Wills in June of ’69.  Expos’ fans had to wait until ’70 to collect his card on Montreal.  Ron continued a successful career in the ‘70s, eventually ending up in ’76 with the A’s.  In the off season, Fairly was traded to the Blue Jays, but not before Topps issued a ’77 card depicting him on Oakland.  With the ’77 expansion Blue Jays, Ron had an excellent season as the DH.  He served as Toronto’s first all-star selection and got a Blue Jays’ card in ‘78.  9

The only duel expansionist I can identify for the last wave of expansion in the ‘90s is Scott Aldred.  The lefty pitched in five games for the ’93 Rockies and made 48 appearances for the ’98 Devil Rays.  Apparently, Scott didn’t receive a ’98 or ’99 card.  So, this team generated photo serves as proof that he did toil in the “Trop.”

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a player who almost joined this group of vagabonds. Jeff Katz’s (@SplitSeason1981) old insurance man, Marv Staehle, was in spring training with the Pilots.  He was sent to AAA Vancouver and later traded to the Expos. Marv played in six games for Montreal in ’69.

20 years have past since the last expansion.  It is safe to say that this exclusive club will remain as is, until MLB once again expands at least twice within a ten-year span.

If you unearth another player who saw action for two first-year expansion clubs, let me know.  It is entirely possible I missed some unfortunate soul.