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 However, any record of it seems to have gone unpublished.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.

Miami Vices and Rocky Mountain Highs

Although most of you have been greatly relieved by the respite from the “first card for new teams” series, I am back to shatter your peace of mind.  This time, I am examining the first cards for the 1993 expansion Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies.

The birth of the two new National League franchises coincided with the era of explosive card production. (The editor doesn’t like the term “junk wax.) (Ed.: In this context, it would have been fine.)  I found 17 different sets-counting updates-containing first cards for the Marlins and Rockies.  It is entirely possible that I missed a set or two.  (Ed: Or ten.) So, if I failed to mention “Lower Deck’s Super-Extreme-Virtuoso-Uber-Isotope of Titanium” set produced by Goudey in an exclusive run of 500,000, I apologize.

 

Donruss and Fleer must have been the first card series issued, since their expansion teams’ cards have photos of the players with their previous clubs.  Sadly, no airbrushing of logos was employed to provide memorable images. Matt Harvey (FL) and Eric Young (CO) are the first cards for their respective new teams. Donruss’ “Diamond Kings” features painted portraits of David Nied (CO) and Nigel Wilson (FL) in their new liveries.

David Nied (CO) and Jack Armstrong (FL) are Fleer’s first offerings.  Nied is pictured on the Braves with a ribbon identifying him as having been “signed by Rockies.” This is considered a variation, since most of the cards have him exclusively on the Braves.  The first card with Rockies on the name plate is Andy Ashby. Jack Armstrong is the first Marlin.  Fleer “Final Edition” has Andy Ashby as the first card of a player in a Rockies’ uniform.  Likewise, Luis Acquino shows up first for Florida.

Probably as a result of a later production date, Bowman provides shots of players in their new uniforms in the base sets.  Rich Renteria (FL) and Mark Thompson (CO) are the first Bowman issues.

 

Topps’ base set and their premium issue, “Stadium Club,” produced inaugural cards of players in new uniforms as well.  Jamie McAndrew (FL) and Mark Thompson (CO) show up first in the base set while Benito Santiago (FL) and Butch Henry (CO) are first in the “snooty” set.

Nigel Wilson (FL) and David Nied (CO) are Upper Deck’s first cards for the infant clubs. Upper Deck also issued cards in the “SP” set.

In order to save your sanity, I will not delve into all the brands.  However, here is a non-exclusive list of other companies that issued Rockies and Marlins:  Pinnacle, Leaf, Score, O-Pee-Chee (base and Premier), Pacific (Spanish), Ultra and Triple Play.

If only first-round expansion picks David Nied and Nigel Wilson had become superstars, I would be rich beyond measure.  Alas, the 2000 cards I have of each now languish in storage.  Another sure bet investment gone wrong.

Erstwhile committee member, Nick Vossbrink, pointed out that both Upper Deck and Bowman produced rookie cards for minor league players Ryan Turner (CO) and Clemente Nunez (FL) in the ’92 sets.  Thus, my shoddy research is laid bare!

Of Myths and Men (pt 1)

I have really enjoyed perusing SABR’s Eight Myths Out Series. Jacob Pomrenke and the rest of the many historians involved have done terrific work and it is a tribute to what a bright and meticulous team can accomplish.

The title of the project is a nod to the book and subsequent film “Eight Men Out”. As a promotion for the movie a trading card set was produced. It is a fun 110 card set that I enjoy because it falls at the intersection of two of my hobbies, baseball and film.

1988 Orion Pictures Eight Men Out #5 The Black Sox Scandal

Since the eight myths are responses to ideas introduced in “Eight Men Out” the book and further propagated by the film several of the cards are also connected to these myths.

Today we will look at some of the myth cards. I envision this as a three column series covering four myths in each of the first two postings followed by a  non-myth set summary/highlights closer.

Myth #1 Comiskey as Scrooge

1988 Orion Pictures Eight Men Out #80 Charles A Comiskey

Myth #1 is covered on card #80 – if this was a Topps set it would be a Hero Number! OK, maybe a low-level star number. While this is a nice era appropriate profile picture of Comiskey when we flip the card over we start talking Scrooge…

1988 Orion Pictures Eight Men Out #80 Charles A Comiskey (back)

The text opens discussing Comiskey’s Hall of Fame credentials but things turn in paragraph 3. “Tightfisted” and “Dollar-Pinching” are the two adjectives used to describer Comiskey. The card also mentions Dickey Kerr who is discussed in one of the further reading bullets for Myth 8.

Myth #2 The Cicotte “Bonus”

1988 Orion Pictures Eight Men Out #6 Eddie Cicotte 29-7 in 1919

I love the statistical reference which is given as the sub-line on this card. The 29-7 record of Cicotte is a subtle / not-so-subtle nod to the 30 wins that the pitcher did not achieve in 1919.  There are 110 cards in this set and this is the ONLY one that has stats on the front.

Interestingly…

1988 Orion Pictures Eight Men Out #6 Eddie Cicotte 29-7 in 1919 (b-side)

The back of the card does not mention the benching of Cicotte at all.

Myth #3 Gamblers Initiated the Fix

1988 Orion Pictures Eight Men Out #19 The Key is Cicotte

Cicotte is mentioned by name on our myth #3 card as well, but it features gamblers “Sleepy” Bill Burns and Billy Maharg. Turns out the card (book and film) has the facts reversed. It was Eddie Cicotte along with Chick Gandil that approached the gamblers.

Myth #4 The Hitman: “Harry F.”

1988 Orion Pictures Eight Men Out #60 Lefty is Threatened

For legal reasons Eliot Asinof created a fictional character, Hitman “Harry F.”. According to “Eight Men Out” the hitman threatened Lefty Williams. The mythical threat is mentioned on card #60 above.

Once again I urge you to check out “Eight Myths Out” to further understand the facts/myths involved, I have only touched upon each bullet here as a connection with the related card.

This concludes part one of our series dedicated to Eight Men/Myths Out. Hopefully in the next week or so we will cover the bottom half of the myths.

Sources and Links

SABR: Eight Myths Out

Baseball-Ref

Imdb

Eight Men Out set index (Phungo)

Cardboard Crosswalk: 1954 Topps and 1954 Bowman

Author’s note: The “Cardboard Crosswalk” series aims to compare and contrast different baseball card sets. Earlier installments can be found here and here. Also note that SABR author Don Zminda compares these same two 1954 sets as part of his “Back Story” series.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities”

In short, it was 1954, and Brooklyn and Philadelphia were at war—not for the National League pennant but rather for the hearts and pocket change of the young gum chewers and cardboard flippers who would spend their pennies and nickels with one or the other.

1954 Topps

Brooklyn was the home of Topps, whose third major baseball release featured 250 cards, a terrific new dual-image design, and not one but two cards of the Greatest %&*$@ Hitter Who Ever Lived.

Williams

1954 Bowman

Philadelphia was the home of Bowman, whose penultimate vintage release would feature 224 cards, lackluster player images, and—just barely—a single card of the Greatest %&*$@ Hitter Who Ever Lived.

ted bowman

A war on two fronts

The story of the Bowman Ted Williams card is the story of a second war, the war for player contracts. While the Splendid Splinter had appeared in the 1950 and 1951 Bowman issues and even launched his cardboard career in Warren Bowman’s 1939 “Play Ball” set, history and loyalty didn’t pay the rent.

Image result for 1954 topps baseball cards box

Teddy Ballgame was a Topps man now, and Bowman was forced to replace his card with that of teammate Jimmy Piersall early in the release of its first series. Of course, Bowman had its own stable of enviable exclusives, including Mickey Mantle and some other pretty good players.

bowman exclusives

While it’s the Hall of Famers in the sets who attract most of the collector interest, the competition for players went well beyond the top stars of the game. For this Cardboard Crosswalk, we’ll take a much broader look at who went where and hopefully learn some new things along the way.

Analyzing the sets

Using the term “subjects” generically to include players, managers, coaches, and the O’Brien twins, there were 389 different subjects represented in the two sets. The Venn diagram below shows their distribution. (Figures don’t sum to total cards in set due to two Williams cards in the Topps set and two Piersall cards in the Bowman set.)Venn.JPG

We should be careful not to assume that the 165 “Topps only” subjects and the 140 “Bowman only” subjects were all under exclusive contracts. After all, there certainly would have been marginal players who either company may have omitted by choice. As for the 84 subjects in the “both” section of the diagram, it is probably a fair assumption that Ted Williams was the only one under an exclusive contract.

This next figure shows the distribution of players common to both sets within the Bowman set. Though there are some streaks and gaps evident, the distribution of players toward the beginning of the set largely matches the distribution toward the end. Series One more or less looks like Series Two. (If you are reading on your mobile device, you may need to go landscape mode here.)

BOWMAN DOT GRAPH

When we generate a similar plot for Topps, the result is a very different one, and the differences will form the basis for most of this article.

TOPPS DOT GRAPH.jpg

In the first half of the Topps set, 55 of 125 cards are “Topps only.” In the second half, 110 of the 125 cards— almost 90% of them—are “Topps only.” This is too big a difference to be explained by randomness alone. Absent any deeper look, the data suggest one of two possibilities:

  1. Either the Topps exclusive contracts were secured so late in the process that cards of the players were not ready until Series Three, or
  2. Bowman locked so many players up that Topps was forced to cobble together the second half of its set largely from Bowman’s unwanted scraps

Under scrutiny, the second hypothesis appears to hold up much better than the first. Two quick clues come from an examination of coach cards and rookie cards. A less quick but equally telling clue will come from an examination of star players in the set.

Coaches

While the Bowman set included a limited number of managers, it did not include any cards of coaches. That left coaches ripe for the picking by Topps. In the first half of its set Topps included cards of three coaches: Bob Swift (Tigers), Bob Scheffing (Cubs), and Billy Herman (Dodgers). The second half included 19!

Rookies

As for rookies, the Bowman set featured only 14 of them, leaving a lot of rookies up for grabs. In the first half of its set, Topps included 15 rookies, two of whom were also in the Bowman set: Harvey Kuenn and Dick Cole. Meanwhile, the second half of the Topps set featured 52 rookies, none of whom were in the Bowman set!

Star power, part one

The first and second halves of the Topps set are also quite different when it comes to star power. However, I need to emphasize that I don’t mean Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Al Kaline, or other Hall of Famers who are huge today but would have been near unknowns when the 1954 season kicked off. Rather, I’m referring to the players viewed as top stars at the time.

We’ll start with a look at the the Top 10 MVP vote-getters from each league in 1953. I won’t pretend these were THE 20 biggest stars in baseball at the time, but they at least provide us with a reasonable starting point. This Venn diagram shows how these 20 players fell across the sets. Interestingly, NONE of these 20 players were in the second half of the Topps set.

Top 20 MVP.JPG

 

Star power, part two

A similar analysis can be done using the Top 5 MVP finishers each of the previous five seasons (1949-1953). This smooths out our previous results to be more representative of the era rather than just a single year. It also adds heavyweights like Mickey Mantle, Bob Feller, Ted Williams, and Jackie Robinson who were missing previously. And still, the result is exactly the same!

Top 5 MVP.JPG

The data examined thus far seem to support several conclusions that make perfect sense in light of Topps being newer to the gum card business than Bowman—

  • Bowman had the inside track on the game’s biggest stars.
  • The stars Topps was able to sign were always placed in the first half of the set.
  • The second half of the set was cobbled together mainly with rookies, coaches, end-of-rotation pitchers, bench warmers, and one lone repeat (Ted Williams).

Regarding the second bullet, the front-loading of star players was even more extreme than merely the first half of the set, as illustrated by this plot of the 20 Topps stars from the prior Venn diagrams.

Good players in Topps.JPG

In fact, every one of the star players except Ray Boone (#77), Joe Black (#98), and the second Ted Williams (#250) was placed within the first 50 cards of the set, i.e., Series One.

It’s fair to wonder if the front loading of stars was simply the way things were done back then, but a quick look at the Bowman checklist shows a more even distribution. Among the second half cards in 1954 Bowman are Feller (132), Hodges (138), Newcombe (154), Berra (161), Wynn (164), Snider (170), Ford (177), and Lemon (196).

Twists of fate

When collectors think of the 1954 Topps set today, three cards immediately come to mind: the rookie cards of Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, and Al Kaline. (Throw in Tommy Lasorda too if you like.) I suspect most collectors simply assume Topps got lucky in choosing these future Hall of Famers for its set while Bowman whiffed on all of them. What I believe the data show is that Topps “lucked into” these HOF rookie cards through the misfortune of having no better players available.

Meanwhile, when collectors think of the 1954 Bowman set, the Mantle card of course comes to mind. However, the key card in the set is definitely the Ted Williams who wasn’t supposed to be there. As such, just as the best cards in the Topps set are the result of Bowman exclusives, the best card in the Bowman set is the result of a Topps exclusive. I’m pretty sure this is the exact opposite of how things are supposed to work.

Epilogue

I thought it would be interesting to track the players mentioned in this post into 1955 to see if there was any discernible shift of talent away from Bowman in what would be the Philly card makers last hurrah.

What follows is an alphabetical listing of the 46 star players mentioned in this post (and Willie Mays as a bonus), along with their Topps vs Bowman status in 1954 and 1955. Players whose status changed from 1954 to 1955 are shown in bold.

1955.JPG

The main takeaway from the chart is that most players stayed put. The greatest movement involved players who had been in both sets in 1954 but went to a single set in 1955. Of the seven instances of this, four went to Bowman and three—counting Ted Williams, who wasn’t supposed to be with Bowman in the first place—went to Topps.

There was also one player, Jim Konstanty, who went from neither set in 1954 to Bowman in 1955. Finally, Eddie Stanky went from Topps-only to both sets. Other than that, the remaining 38 players stayed the same.

While Bowman would ultimately and utterly lose the war with Topps, any advantage in the battle for talent would only come over Bowman’s dead body—just the way Topps wanted it!

Don’t think Trice, it’s alright (Part Two)

Author’s note: A previous post here examined the largely dismissive portrayal of the Negro Leagues by Topps in the early 1950s. This sequel simply expands the focus to other card makers of the era.

1949 Leaf

For hobbyists who regard the Leaf issue as 1948 or 1948-1949, this set would unequivocally be the first major U.S. release to feature ex-Negro Leaguers. For my part, I regard it as tied with 1949 Bowman. Either way, the Leaf issue included cards of three black players with Negro League resumes.

Card 8 in the set featured the legendary Satchel Paige. The card back, which among other things notes Satchel’s prior team as the Kansas City Monarchs, is pretty amazing.

17-8Bk

First we’ll note that Satchel is assigned an age, 40 years old, which should make just about everything else in the bio seem like fiction. Second, the praise for Satchel is through the roof! Though it’s possible one could assign a negative connotation to “most picturesque player in baseball,” the words that follow cast doubt on such a reading. Satchel is billed as a “high-powered talent” with “fabulous gate-appeal” who is expected to “sizzle into his old stride” in 1949. The folks at Leaf seemed to get it that Satchel was the real deal.

The next black player in the set was Jackie Robinson, and his card bio leads off with the historic line, “First Negro player in modern organized baseball.”

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As was the case with early Topps cards, the direct implication here is that the Kansas City Monarchs and the Negro Leagues were not “organized baseball.” On the flip side, the phrase “modern organized baseball” pays homage to 19th century black players whose histories were often erased in telling the Jackie Robinson story. This 1980 Laughlin card serves to illustrate the point, as do Robinson’s 1960 and 1961 Nu-Card releases.

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The final Negro Leagues alum in the set was Larry Doby, identified as the “first Negro player to enter the American League.” The last line of the bio is notable in that Doby is not simply described as a speedy base-stealer but a smart one as well. This strikes me as enlightened writing for its time.

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For legal reasons, if not financial ones as well, Leaf would not offer another baseball set until 1960. We will see shortly how the set handled the Negro League origins of pitcher Sam Jones.

1949 Bowman

The 1949 Bowman set featured the same three black players from the Leaf set plus one more, Roy Campanella. The Robinson card notes that “he became the first Negro to enter the ranks of pro ball.” At once this phrase dismisses the Negro Leagues as less than professional while ignoring nineteenth century pioneers like Moses Fleetwood Walker.

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The Roy Campanella card in the set describes “an exhibition game with Negro All-Stars at Ebbets Field.” This game, part of a five-game series against Major Leaguers, took place in 1945 and prompted Charlie Dressen to recommend Campy to Branch Rickey.

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To my knowledge, the Bowman card of Satchel contains the earliest use of the phrase “Negro Leagues” on a baseball card.

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The idea that Satchel “traveled around” the Negro Leagues may be taken one of two ways. On one hand, he did play for several teams. On the other hand, it may suggest a lack of seriousness and organization to the Negro Leagues themselves.

As with the Leaf card, we see the word “fabulous” used to describe Paige. New to the Bowman card is the treatment of Satchel’s age. While a precise birthday is offered (September 11, 1908), the bio makes it clear that “his exact age is not known!”

Larry Doby is the final Negro Leaguer featured in the set, and his card describes him as “one of the few Negroes in the American League.” Depending when in 1949 the card was produced, in addition to Doby and Paige, the description might have been referring to Minnie Minoso (April 19, 1949) and/or Luke Easter (August 11, 1949).

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1950 Bowman

Four cards in the next Bowman release referred to the Negro Leagues tenure of its players. Card 22 of Jackie Robinson is similar to its 1949 predecessor in referring to Jackie as the “first Negro to enter organized baseball.”

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The Larry Doby card similarly draws on its previous bio, again recognizing Doby as “one of the few Negroes in the American League.”

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Ditto for Roy Campanella whose role with the “all-star Negro team” first brought him to the attention of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

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The Hank Thompson (SABR bio) card highlights his role in a famous first of the integration era, “the first time in major league history that a Negro batter was up before a Negro pitcher.” The card also identifies Thompson’s pre-MLB tenure with the Kansas City Monarchs.

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1951 Bowman

Three cards in the next Bowman offering are relevant to the topic of the Negro Leagues and the integration of MLB.

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The Campanella card recycles Campy’s exhibition game origin story for a third time, though this time there is no reference to the makeup of his team. Meanwhile, the Easter card follows a familiar tradition of discounting Negro League service in its statement that Easter “entered organized baseball in 1949.” Finally, the Ray Noble card, which does an awesome job teaching kids the right way to say his name, makes reference to his time with the “New York Cubans of the Negro National League.”

1952 Bowman

An interesting evolution in the 1952 Bowman set occurs with the Luke Easter card.

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Having previously “entered organized baseball in 1949,” we learn now that Easter “began in baseball in 1949.” What an odd statement if we take it literally! (By the way, the use of terms like “professional baseball,” “organized baseball,” and “baseball” to refer specifically to MLB/MiLB is still commonplace today. I would love to see baseball writers move away from this practice.)

1952 Num Num Foods

This potato chips set is one I only learned of in doing research for this article. The regional food issue features 20 players, all Cleveland Indians, including four black players: Luke Easter, Harry Simpson, Larry Doby, and Sam Jones. Apart from single-player sets such as the 1947 Bond Bread Jackie Robinson issue, this set has the largest proportion of African American players of any I’ve seen from the era.

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The Easter card notes that he “played softball for several years before entering [the] Negro National League” and even referenced Luke’s support role with the Harlem Globetrotters. A couple funny stories are shared as well before ending on the down note of a fractured knee cap.

The Harry “Suitcase” Simpson card picks up where Easter’s leaves off, recognizing Simpson’s daunting role of having to fill in for an injured Luke Easter. Then again it’s hard to imagine anyone more qualified to fill large shoes than Simpson, who according to at least some stories got his nickname “Suitcase” from the size of his feet!

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The back of Larry Doby’s card is injury-themed as well. However, rather than add insult to injury, the writer actually defends Doby against any insult that he was a disappointment. The paragraph ending almost reads as a (very dated) math story problem and left me ready to set up an equation.

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The Sam Jones card closes with a phrase that posed a road block to the careers of at least three very talented black pitchers: Dave Hoskins, Mudcat Grant, and Sam Jones himself. The “Tribe’s already formidable big 4” were of course Hall of Fame hurlers Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, and Early Wynn, along with all-star Mike Garcia. Even as Cleveland brought up tremendous black hurlers, two of whom would eventually become “Black Aces,” there was simply nowhere in the starting rotation to put them.

Sam Jones Num Num

1954 Bowman

I didn’t run across any interesting cards in my review of the 1953 Bowman sets, so I’ll skip ahead to 1954. Card number 118 of Bob Boyd (SABR bio) references his start in the Negro National League while (as usual) recognizing his start in “organized ball” coming afterward. As a side note, Boyd’s Negro League team, the Memphis Red Sox, played in the Negro American League. As another side note, the trivia question matches that of Hank Aaron’s Topps card, again recalling (and ingoring/discounting) a famous Negro League feat attributed to Josh Gibson.

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Hank Thompson’s bio is a funny one for reasons unrelated to his Negro League lineage. For whatever reason, the Bowman folks felt the need to clarify what was meant by “a quiet fellow.” It’s also a rare thing to see a baseball card bio so critical of a player’s weight! In a less humorous vein, as was the case four years earlier, Thompson’s card identifies his tenure with the Kansas City Monarchs.

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1954 Dan Dee

A notable card in the 1954 Dan Dee (potato chips) baseball set is that of Pittsburgh Pirates infielder and one-time Kansas City Monarch Curt Roberts (SABR bio needed).

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The first line of his bio identifies Roberts as the “first Negro player ever to be placed on Pittsburgh club’s roster.” This contention has received scrutiny over the years since it overlooks Carlos Bernier (SABR bio), a black Puerto Rican player who preceded Roberts by a year.

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1954 Red Man

While the 50-card set also includes cards of Negro League vets Roy Campanella, Jim Gilliam, and Willie Mays, the Monte Irvin card is the only one whose bio can be considered relevant to his Negro League service.

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As usual, we see that he “began in organized baseball” once he started playing on white teams. Something new I did learn from the card was that—at least here—the AAA Jersey City Giants were known as the “Little Giants.” How’s that for an oxymoron!

1954 Red Heart

Whether a gum chewer, chip cruncher, dip wadder, or dog feeder, it’s hard to imagine a better year to be a card collector than 1954. Packaged with Red Heart, “The Big League Dog Food,” that year was this card of Dodgers infielder Jim Gilliam.

 

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A quaint aspect of the card is the blank entries for all of Gilliam’s career numbers. The bio area of the card explains why this is so. “As a rookie in 1953, he has no life record…”

Regarding his Negro League lineage and role in MLB integration, the opening of the bio tells us that Gilliam “was the youngest member of the Baltimore Elite Giants” and that “he is one of the fine negro ballplayers that have been taken into organized baseball during the past decade.”

1955 Bowman

In what must by now feel like a tired theme, here is Hank Aaron’s 1955 Bowman card citing 1954 as Aaron’s “third season in organized baseball,” omitting his season with the Indianapolis Clowns.

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1955 Red Man

The sequel to Red Man’s 1954 issue included five black stars: Larry Doby, Minnie Minoso, Brooks Lawrence, Willie Mays, and Hank Thompson. The Thompson card as usual notes that he “began in organized baseball in 1947, which was the year he jumped straight from the Kansas City Monarchs to the St. Louis Browns.

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1958 Hires Root Beer

The Hires Root Beer card of Bob Boyd is similar to his 1954 Bowman card in recognizing him as a “product of the Negro National League” instead of the Negro American League.

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1960 Leaf

After an eleven-year hiatus, the Leaf set is back, and its card number 14 is of MLB’s second Black Ace, Sam Jones (SABR bio).

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Toward the end of the bio, we learn that Jones “started his pro career with Wilkes-Barre in 1950…” though he pitched professionally for the Cleveland Buckeyes (and possibly Homestead Grays) of the Negro Leagues as early as 1947 (or possibly 1946).

1979 TCMA Baseball History Series “The 50s”

First off, what a great set! When I first came across this Hank Thompson card I initially assumed it was a slightly undersized reprint of his 1953 Bowman card. Then I realized he had no 1953 Bowman card! Of course the back of the card provided plenty of other clues that this was in fact a more original offering.

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The card bio includes some information about Thompson’s Negro Leagues resume as well as how he became a New York Giant.

“Thompson, who spent much of his playing career in the old Negro Leagues, got his first chance in the majors with the St. Louis Browns in 1947. But for some unknown reason the Browns let him slip away to the Giants two year later…”

The reality behind the “unknown” reason is that Thompson (along with teammate Willard Brown) was signed by St. Louis to a short-term deal whose extension would require additional payment to the Kansas City Monarchs who held his rights. While Thompson was one of the better players on the Browns, he was neither Jackie Robinson nor Babe Ruth. It goes without saying that a black player needed to be a lot better than  “better than average” to find a home on a Major League roster in 1947!

End notes

Either in conjunction with the Topps article or on its own, there was of course a “beating a dead horse” element to this post. We get it; we get it…the baseball cards back then did not regard the Negro Leagues as organized, professional, or even Baseball. While modern writers and historians do recognize the Negro Leagues as all three, the stubbornness of language is such that even today these terms and their meanings persist nearly unchanged. Until we change them.

Don’t think Trice, it’s alright (Part One)

It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe
It don’t matter, anyhow
An’ it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe
If you don’t know by now

Bob Dylan, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”

While researching for another article, I came across this 1954 Topps card of Athletics pitcher Bob Trice (SABR bio), the first black player in Athletics history and one of Major League Baseball’s earliest black pitchers. Two things about the card jumped out at me.

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First, check the cartoon. Does Topps really refer to the Homestead Grays, one of the great dynasties in Negro Leagues history, as a semi-pro team? Wow. Second, perhaps a corollary to the first, the bio area recognized 1950 as Trice’s first in pro ball even though his Negro Leagues career began with the Grays in 1948.

The question this brought forth was whether Topps applied a similar treatment to all former Negro Leaguers or just Trice. There was only one way to find out!

1951

Topps featured several Negro Leagues alumni in their three 1951 issues: Blue Backs (Jethroe), Red Backs (Easter, Thompson, Irvin), and Major League All-Stars (Doby).

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In all cases, biographical information was sparse and made no mention of their Negro Leagues roots, focusing instead on their Major League achievements.

“It ain’t no use in turnin’ on your light, babe
That light I never knowed
An’ it ain’t no use in turnin’ on your light, babe
I’m on the dark side of the road”

1952

The 1952 Topps set had more to say about the pre-MLB origins of its black players. In all cases, the story more or less matched the 1954 Bob Trice card.

Card 193 of Harry Simpson (SABR bio) refers to the Philadephia Stars “of semi-pro fame.”

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Card 243 of Larry Doby (SABR bio) similarly relegates the Newark Eagles to semi-pro status.

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Despite having pitched professionally for the Baltimore Elite Giants from 1943-1950, the back of Joe Black’s (SABR bio) card 321 sets Black’s first year in “organized baseball” as 1951.

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Finally, card 360 has George Crowe (SABR bio) entering organized baseball in 1949 despite his playing for the New York Black Yankees in 1947.

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The 1952 Topps set included numerous other former Negro Leaguers—Jackie Robinson among them—but their card bios made to reference to the Negro League tenures or professional debuts, instead focusing on their Major League or Minor League records.

1953

The 1953 Topps set seemed to acknowledge the immense impact of black players on the game by assigning cards 1, 2, and 3 in the set to former Negro Leaguers.

1953 Topps

Of all the cards in the set to feature black players—including the great Satchel Paige—only one made explicit reference to a player’s Negro Leagues past. Card 20 of Hank Thompson (SABR bio), a double barrier breaker who integrated both the St. Louis Browns and New York Giants, notes that he spent the 1948 season “playing in the Negro National League.”

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1954

Aside from the Bob Trice card, only one other card in the set referenced the Negro Leagues. It belonged to one of the three big rookie cards in the set, Ernie Banks, and identified the Negro National League and Kansas City Monarchs by name. An error, remedied the following season, is that the Monarchs actually belonged to the Negro American League while Banks played for them.

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Readers of my earlier Dave Hoskins post will remember his card’s all-too-real cartoon describing the resistance he faced integrating the Texas League.

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1955

Following the lead of his rookie card the year before, the 1955 Topps card of Mr. Cub included an explicit reference to the Negro Leagues, noting his .380 batting average in the Negro American League (correct this time!). The bio further indicates that Banks “never played a full season of organized baseball” before joining the Cubs. This is accurate since Banks played only partial seasons with the Kansas City Monarchs in 1950 and 1953 and was in the Army the two years in between. Still, based on what we’ve seen with earlier cards, it’s likely Topps would have made the same statement even if Banks had played full seasons with the Monarchs.

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The 1955 Topps card of Jim Gilliam (SABR bio) similarly includes the “Negro National League” in the bio portion.

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Another notable Negro Leagues alumnus in the 1955 Topps set is the Hammer. Though Aaron starred for the Indianapolis Clowns in 1951, Topps characteristically reports that Aaron got his start in “pro ball” in 1952 with Eau Claire.

Aaron with Josh Gibson trivia

However, the bio only tells half the story on Aaron’s card. Though contemporary research has cast doubt on the feat, one of the most famous stories from the Negro Leagues is the home run Josh Gibson hit completely out of Yankee Stadium. Given where Aaron was in his young career (i.e., nowhere near 715 home runs), it’s a rather remarkable coincidence that his card back brings together the three most legendary home run hitters in the history of American baseball: Babe Ruth, Josh Gibson, and Hank Aaron himself.

1973

I know I’ve skipped several years here, but the truth is that references to the Negro Leagues pretty much disappeared entirely from Topps cards after 1955. However, we may see evidence on a 1973 Expos manager card no less that the attitude of Topps toward the Negro Leagues had finally evolved.

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Now 1973 was hardly a random year in the history of the Negro Leagues. The National Baseball Hall of Fame had convened its Special Committee on the Negro Leagues in 1971, and there would be three Negro Leaguers (Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard) inducted by the time the 1973 Topps set was issued. Additionally, the death of Jackie Robinson in October 1972 may have also raised the profile of baseball’s early African American pioneers and their Negro Leagues origins.

So there is is, finally, under the description of coach Lawrence Eugene Doby. We see that he played 14 years in organized baseball (“O.B.”) and 13 years in the Majors. As Doby jumped straight from the Negro Leagues to the Majors, could it be that Topps was including some of Doby’s time in the Negro Leagues?

Not so fast! One of our Facebook group members, Wayne McElreavy speculated somewhat pessimistically that Topps was simply drawing on the Sporting News Baseball Register, which erroneously placed Larry Doby in the Pacific Coast League in 1960. Oh no! Could it really be?

And sure enough, the Cubs manager card from the same set tells us the answer. Take a look at the entry for Ernest Banks: “Played 19 years in O.B. 19 years in Majors.”

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Oh well.

“I ain’t sayin’ you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s all right”

Author’s note: My next piece will be a Part Two focused on how the other card makers addressed the Negro League heritage of its players. Stay tuned!