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!

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.

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!

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!

Back Story: 1954 Topps and Bowman Baseball

Part III of my series about a neglected feature of baseball cards—the material on the back of the cards—continues with the two major baseball card sets from 1954: Topps and Bowman. (For review: Part 1, and Part 2)

By 1954 the companies had been competing in the trading-card market for several years, and in most years a number of ballplayers were featured in both card sets—an issue that became the subject of litigation, with Bowman claiming that they had exclusive contracts for use of the players’ images. (The courts ultimately upheld exclusivity on some of the Bowman contracts, but not all.) With the benefit of that quirk, this article will compare the material featured on the card backs of several players who had card images in both 1954 sets.

 

Prior to 1954, neither Topps nor Bowman had done much innovation with the material that appeared on the backs of their cards. Here are the card backs for Mickey Mantle’s Topps and Bowman offerings from 1953. (A confession: for the 1953 Topps and Bowman sets and the 1954 Topps set, the images I’m using are from the reprints of these sets that were produced several decades later. Maybe someday I’ll be able to afford the originals…)

(Ed: in all cases, the Bowman card is shown first, followed by the Topps card).

Mantle 53B  Mantle 53T

Apart from the “Dugout Quiz” that appeared on the Topps cards, the material on these card backs was fairly identical. Both sets presented biographical data, past year and lifetime statistics (what, no WAR or Defensive Runs Saved?), and a few sentences of prose about the player that could have been swapped between Topps and Bowman without anyone noticing.

Under the leadership of the great Sy Berger, Topps went in a completely new direction in 1954—one that put Bowman to shame. Both the fronts and backs of the 1954 Topps cards were much more innovative and colorful than their Bowman counterparts. I’m primarily focusing on the backs, of course, but here’s a quick peek at the 1954 Topps and Bowman card fronts for one of baseball’s top stars of that era, Eddie Mathews of the Braves.

In its 1953 set, the Bowman card fronts had featured beautiful full-color portraits of its players for the majority of its cards (the final 64 cards had featured black-and-white photos). The result was a set that would be prized by collectors in the years to come… but one which was outsold in the marketplace by Topps in 1953. To save money in 1954, Bowman opted for a cheaper method of photography on its card fronts… basically black-and-white photos that were colored over. The result was a dull, washed-out image that compared unfavorably to the vibrant Topps card fronts.

The backs of these cards were another big win for Topps. Both sets featured the usual stats and biographical info. But the Topps cards added a two, sometimes three-panel “Inside Baseball” story told in cartoon fashion. I ask you, what sticks with you more: reading about how Mathews lost the 1953 slugging percentage crown to Duke Snider by two-tenths of a point, or a cartoon showing how he once landed in the lap of baseball commissioner Ford Frick?

Mathews 54B  Mathews 54T

Moving onto another future Hall of Famer, Larry Doby, while the back of the Bowman card was asking for the real first name of Grasshopper Whitney (I’m guessing that young Dick Cramer knew the answer without batting an eye), Topps was presenting a fun cartoon showing how Doby improved his speed by working with track legend Harrison Dillard.

Doby 54B  Doby 54T

 Jim Greengrass of the Cincinnati Redlegs (no “Reds” during the McCarthy era!) was hardly a major star, but I loved reading on his Topps card about how his wife Cathy had talked him out of quitting baseball. Over in Bowman-land, you could try to guess how many night games the Cleveland Indians had won in 1952.

Greengrass 54B  Greengrass 54T

Both Topps and Bowman noted that Don Mueller of the New York Giants was nicknamed “Mandrake the Magician,” with different explanations for the source of the nickname. According to Mueller’s SABR bio, neither explanation is correct, but never mind… as a child and as an adult, I enjoyed the cartoon on the Topps card more than Bowman’s dull prose.

Mueller 54B   Mueller 54T

I’m being a little rough on good old Bowman here, so I’ll point out that the back of Richie Ashburn’s Bowman card included a nifty story about how Ashburn improved his timing by swinging at the pitcher’s offerings while in the on-deck circle. That’s probably a better story than one in the Topps cartoon about how Ashburn moved from catching to the outfield, but cards are marketed with kids in mind… and kids love cartoons.

 

Ashburn 54B   Ashburn 54T

In his excellent book The Bubble Gum Card War: The Great Bowman & Topps Sets from 1948 to 1955, author (and major card dealer) Dean Hanley noted that due to its exclusive contracts, “Bowman was clearly winning the battle to get most of the stars of the game onto their cards.” However, he added that “it is a shame that Bowman did not design a better product on which to display the images of these marquee players.” The Topps cards simply were more attractive and more fun, both front and back. After one more year of competition in which Bowman finally tried to do something different with its card backs (and fronts), Bowman was sold to Connelly Containers, Inc., a company which had little interest in trading cards. In January of 1956, Connelly sold all of Bowman’s assets—including its contracts with the players—to Topps for a measly $200,000. The Topps-Bowman card war over, and Topps had won. Sy Berger’s creativity—including innovations such as the cartoons on the backs of the 1954 Topps baseball set—played a major part in the Topps victory.

 

Bowman v. Topps: Winning the Battle and Losing the War

In my first contribution to this outstanding blog, I want to offer this summary of the litigation between Bowman and Topps that ultimately led to Bowman’s departure from the marketplace despite winning a federal circuit court decision over Topps. As an emeritus law professor, I hope to cover legal aspects of the industry as well as my own personal feelings as a collector for sixty years.

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1953 Bowman

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1953 Topps

For many of us, the “golden age of baseball cards” started in the decade following the end of World War II with the two primary companies of the era – the Bowman Gum Company and the Topps Chewing Gum Company emerging in the late 1940s to compete head-to-head in the early 1950s. As the fight for sales heated up in drug and candy stores, the two companies squabble over the contractual rights to the use of players’ pictures landed the two in federal court in New York.

The litigation that initially began with Haelen Laboratories, Inc., who acquired Bowman in 1952, suing Topps claiming unfair competition, trademark infringement, and a breach of exclusive contractual rights ultimately established the foundation for a newly named legal right – the right of publicity. Topps won the first round in the Eastern District of New York in a decision rendered by Judge Clarence G. Galston on May 25, 1953, involving a very technical aspect of whether or not Haelen had a “property interest” allowing it to proceed against Topps instead of pursuing a breach of contract actions against individual players for breaching their exclusive contracts.

On appeal to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Jerome Frank noted that Topps was guilty of the tort of causing certain players to breach their exclusive contracts. More importantly for the development of the law, however, Frank went further determining that “We think that, in addition to and independent of that right of privacy . . . a man has a right in the publicity value of his photograph … i.e., the right to grant the exclusive privilege of publishing his picture … This right might be called a “right of publicity.”

Topps filed an appeal with the United States Supreme Court. On October 13, 1953, the Court refused to accept the appeal. While legal wrangling continued between the two parties, Haelen was acquired by Connelly Containers, Inc. They had little interest in card and gum business and settled with Topps in early 1956. So, despite their rival gaining the stronger legal claim, Topps ultimately emerged as the business victor in the fight between the two parties.

One of my favorite sets turned out to be Bowman’s last – the 1955 “color television set” cards.

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For a detailed discussion of the litigation, I strongly encourage you to read an article by my good friend Gordon Hylton titled “Baseball Cards and the Birth of the Right of Publicity: The Curious Case of Haelen Laboratories v. Topps Chewing Gum” published in volume 12 of the Marquette Sports Law Review available at this link.

 

Editor’s note:  Ed is a law professor at Notre Dame has written extensively on the intersection of baseball an the law, including in this book.  Follow him at @epedmondsNDLS.

The 1967-68 Player Boycott of Topps

I have written about this subject before, but have not done so here. This remains an area of study for me, and hopefully this post will catch some of you up.

From 1956 to 1980 Topps had a virtual monopoly in the baseball card world. There were exceptions along the way, mainly small specialty or regional sets, but for a quarter century the Topps base set dominated the field.

Topps maintained its monopoly by signing players when they were still in the low minors. They gave prospects five dollars as a binder to lock in exclusive baseball card rights for five years. Topps renewed these binders regularly and then paid players $125 per year if they were used on a card or if they appeared in the big leagues for 31 days. Topps even provided the players with a catalog of items they could choose from in lieu of the cash, like a set of luggage or a television. Topps continually renewed players prior to the expiration of their deals, keeping almost everyone in the fold.

In early 1966 the MLBPA hired Marvin Miller, an economist from United Steelworkers, as their first executive director. Over the next several years, Miller and the players engaged in true collective bargaining, earning increased benefits, larger salaries, an impartial grievance procedure, and, ultimately, limited free agency. What has been mostly lost to history is the role that baseball cards played to solidify the union.

In September 1966, the MLBPA created a group-licensing program—allowing companies to make deals to use any or all players’ names and pictures to sell their products. The union soon had very important and beneficial deals with Coca-Cola and others, but the contract that Miller most wanted remained elusive. Topps had binding agreements with virtually every player in professional baseball, making a group license seemingly impossible.

The player deals seemed inadequate to Miller, who set up a meeting with Topps, whose president, Joel Shorin, told him: “There will be no changes because, honestly, I don’t see the muscle in your position.” This response did not surprise Miller – he knew that he was not going to get a better deal from Topps by appealing to Shorin’s sense of fairness. That is not how labor battles were won. He needed muscle.

In early 1967 Miller suggested to the players that they stop renewing their individual Topps contracts and boycott Topps photographers. This was the only way, Miller advised, that they could get Topps to deal with them. Although the action was voluntary, Topps was able to take no more than a handful of photos during the 1967 season, and, with the dispute unresolved, none at all in 1968. This had an effect on the 1968 Topps set, which was not able to show as many properly attired photos as usual, and a much more dramatic effect on the 1969 set.

Let’s start with 1968.

Most Topps photographs in this era were taken either at spring training, or at one of the New York ballparks during the season, and almost always during the previous calendar year. For their 1968 set, Topps would want photos of the player taken sometime in 1967, in the uniform of their current (1968) team. Topps faced a challenge when a player was traded during the season, as a look at the 1968 Red Sox cards can illustrate.

The Red Sox acquired Elston Howard from the Yankees on August 3, 1967. In order to get a photo of Howard in his new uniform for his 1968 card, Topps sent a photographer to Fenway Park in late August (note the home uniform). Norm Siebern, acquired on July 15, was likely shot the same day.

On the other hand, Gary Bell and Jerry Adair joined the club in June 1967 but Topps used older photos of them in 1968 — both wearing uniforms from previous teams and photographed without a hat (the usual Topps trick in these situations). Why didn’t Topps take these photos in August when they got Howard and Siebern? A plausible explanation is that Bell and Adair were observing the boycott while Siebern and Howard were not. We can’t know for certain — maybe the players were in the bathroom at the time — but we know that by August Topps was having trouble getting players to pose.

More problematically than using an old photo was having no photo at all. Sparky Lyle made his big league debut for the Red Sox on July 4, 1967, and pitched in 27 games for the club in the pennant race. But Topps did not photograph Lyle either, so he did not get his first card with Topps until 1969.

Another interesting artifact of the 1968 Topps set is that the company made “team cards” for only 13 of the 20 teams. If you were a set collector, at some point you would have noticed that the team card you were waiting all summer for, the Red Sox for example, did not exist.

By the spring of 1968 the boycott was universally observed, and there is no evidence that any photos were taken that year. Topps and the MLBPA reached an agreement in November 1968, but Topps still had to put out a 1969 set without having any photos from the previous 18 months.

Making things even worse, Topps had to deal with four new expansion teams (whose players would appear hatless), the Oakland A’s (whose move from Kansas City caused them to be hatless), and the Houston Astros (who were hatless because of a logo dispute). That covers 6 teams, or 1/4 of the players.

Topps skipped the team cards, a staple since 1956, altogether.

If that weren’t enough, Topps used old photos, many of them recycled from previous years. Tom Seaver, Joe Morgan, Hank Aaron, well over 100 in all, used identical images from 1968.

In some cases Topps recropped the image, as they did with Carl Yastrzemski and Ernie Banks. Willie Mays used a recropping of his 1966 card.

On one occasion Topps (presumably accidentally) flipped a negative, confusing school kids everywhere.

(More details from David Sosidka here.)

The Reggie Jackson card, his very first Topps card, stands out because it presumably was taken during the boycott — the A’s moved to Oakland in 1968 and Reggie is shown in an Oakland uniform. I recently learned from Keith Olbermann that Topps purchased this photo, and a few others, from another photographer.

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The Johnny Bench card, his first all to himself, used a photo from a few years earlier. Many Topps photos — Reggie Smith is another example — show much younger versions of their subjects.

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In November 1968 Topps caved, agreeing to double its annual player stipend (to $250 per year) and to pay a royalty to the MLBPA of 8 percent on revenue up to $4 million, and 10 percent thereafter. In the first year of this deal the Association collected $320,000 from their Topps license, which came out to $500 per player on top of their individual deals. By the early 1980s, the union collected more than 10 times that from the licensing of baseball cards.

One could say that this was the first time the fledgling union used their collective power to effect change. “It was important on two levels,” said Jim Bouton. “One, it showed how powerful Marvin Miller was and how smart he was. It gave him instant credibility. But also, the player’s association became immediately self-funding.” Today’s licensing program, rebranded as Player’s Choice, nets tens of thousands of dollars per player annually, and funds charitable acts all around the globe.

As for the kids of America, in 1969 they were mainly annoyed, or at least confused. I loved the designs for both of these sets, but would have preferred fresh images of my heroes in those very formative (for me) seasons.

In 1969 Topps hustled to spring training sites and took lots of photos of cooperative players, and got many of these into their late series cards that very summer. By July of 1969, we got to feast our eyes on gorgeous cards of players wearing the uniforms of the four expansion teams, as well as the A’s and Astros.

In 1970, Topps showed off some of its best-ever photography. And kids everywhere turned away from their paths toward delinquency.

Whither the Astros?

One of the unresolved (to me, at least) mysteries from collecting baseball cards from the late 1960s was how Topps handled the Houston Astros. As you likely know, the Houston expansion team was known as the Colt .45s for its first three seasons (1962-64) before becoming the Astros in 1965, coinciding with their move into the brand new Astrodome that April. Houston tried grass for a year, before contracting with Monsanto to install artificial turf (soon known as “Astroturf”) in 1966. That much we know.

armour-part04-1966-robinsonfrankTopps made a point in this period of trying to never show a player in the “wrong” uniform; if a guy was traded from the Reds to the Orioles early enough in the off-season, Topps could correctly move him to the Orioles but would not yet have a photo of him with his new uniform. Instead they would use a headshot with no hat, or with the hat logo blackened out, or some other solution that would protect young kids from the horror seeing Frank in his old Reds togs. Of course kids could usually tell, but at least they tried. In the 1960s this was a particular problem, because there were 8 expansion teams and 5 franchise moves between 1961 and 1971. This led to a lot of blackened or missing hats.

Which brings us back to the Houston Astros.

In 1965, Topps did not react to the Houston name change right away, referring to the team as “Houston” in the early series (and showing the old .45s hats) and “Houston Astros” (with no visible old logo) thereafter.

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But for the next two years (1966 and 1967) Topps put out two great sets and treated the Astros with dignity — the correct name, the correct hats and uniforms. Problem over?

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Not so fast.

In 1968, suddenly the name Astros was not used on either the front or back of any of the cards, nor were the hats or uniforms shown. (The cards for the other 19 teams used the team nickname, not the city.) I was 7 at the time and an avid collector, but I did not really take notice of the missing Astros name until a few years ago. I spent some time tryi86d0f5e8620b13e1f37a5a5ae38ee092ng to figure out why this happened, contacting Topps, former Topps employees, the Astros historian, Rusty Staub, and several knowledgeable bloggers. The most common reaction was. “I can’t believe I never noticed that.”

The most plausible explanation I have heard is that Monsanto was in a dispute with the Astros over the use of the name — though the baseball team used the name first, it was Monsanto that actually trademarked it (says the theory). Topps, seemingly uninvolved, took the cautious approach and decided to avoid using the name.

When this was going on I was already a rabid card collector — especially the cards of my beloved Red Sox. If I had grown up in Houston following the Astros, collecting an entire team’s worth of bland hatless logoless cards like this Jim Wynn card, might I have turned to other pursuits? Maybe 166083become a productive citizen?

The Astros did not stop using the name, nor the logo, nor did they or Major League Baseball stop authorizing the use of the logo to other entities. Dexter Press came out with a beautiful set of postcard-sized cards in 1968 and had several gorgeous Astros photos (like this one of Joe Morgan). If I was a kid in Houston, I would have found these a better option.

In 1969 Topps again avoided the name Astros, and avoided the uniform in the first three series. Starting with Series Four, sometime around June, the uniform finally returned (though not the name). The dispute, whatever it was, had been resolved, but Topps likely decided to keep the team name consistent throughout the set.

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Topps finally restored the Astros to full citizenship in 1970, giving many of us our first good look at the Astros uniform, especially these gorgeous home unis, in several years. It was great for me, but for the kids of Houston, Texas, it must have been glorious.

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