BRJ 46-2: Andres Galarraga Blast – Topps vs Upper Deck

The latest issue of the Baseball Research Journal has an interesting (and….complex) article concerning on a May 31 1997 Grand Slam hit by Andres Galarraga during an 8-4 Rockies victory over the Florida Marlins .

Left: 1998 UD Tape Measure Titans #2 Andres Galarraga

Right: 2015 Topps Update Tape Measure Blasts #TMB2 Andres Galarraga

The Home Run was initially estimated to be 529 feet by the Florida Marlins. However, later Greg Rybarczyk of ESPN’s Home Run Tracker posted an updated estimated distance of “only” 468 feet.

In the BRJ article a panel of authors (Jose L Lopez PhD, Oscar A Lopez PhD, Elizabeth Raven, and Adrian Lopez) set out to determine which of these estimates was correct. They put together a thorough analysis which of course included significant math and physics, and less expectedly factors such as weather, wind and humidity. The Lopez Lopez Raven Lopez team concluded Galarraga’s Home Run travelled approximately 524 feet. The article is a SIGNIFICANTLY more involved – Go Read It!!

Topps vs UD

The length of the blast makes the Home Run one of the longest in MLB history and I have found the event was captured on cardboard at least twice.

UD Tape Measure Titans

The first time was in the 30 card 1998 Upper Deck Tape Measure Titans insert set which included sluggers McGwire, Bonds, Bagwell, Frank Thomas, Sosa, Junior, Manny, Thome, Piazza, A-Rod, Chipper and others.

Upper Deck went with a retro feel for this subset. I like the Tape Measure graphic at the bottom of the screen. UD went with the 529 foot calculation provided by the Marlins and we can see the gauge dropped at the proper point.

Now on to my dislikes, Andres Galarraga hit this Home Run as a member of the Colorado Rockies, during the following off-season he went to Atlanta via free agency. Unfortunately that leaves us with a player in a uni that does not represent the accomplishment. UD Also elected, on a hitting related card, to use a fielding pose.  However for me the most egregious violation is that the “Upper Deck” logo absolutely dwarfs Galarraga’s name.

Topps Tape Measure Blasts

Tape Measure Blasts was a 15 card insert set in 2015 Topps update. Notables in this set include Reggie, Clemente, Ted Williams, Josh Gibson, David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, Giancarlo, and a Ryan Howard card that should really be in my collection.

The Topps card has the benefit of being produced 17 years after the UD original. By 2015 Galarraga was a retired player. At this point Topps could put the Big Cat in whatever threads they wanted and fortunately he is with the Rockies here. Topps gets bonus points for getting the Marlins stadium of the era, Pro Player, on the card.

Of course the big difference in the cards is that Topps went with ESPN’s figure for the distance.

Flip

The Retro theme carries through to the back of the Upper Deck card (Top) and they did a nice job. This is as solid as some Heritage designs.

The text on the Topps card gives us some good copy on the Home Run including name dropping Hall of Very Good pitcher Kevin Brown.

Phungo Verdict

Despite the Topps card using the discredited distance I prefer their card. Too many things annoy me with the Tape Measure Titans – and I didn’t even mention that I really don’t like that name.

Sources & Links

SABR Baseball Research Journal Fall 2017

Bob Lemke – Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards

Game Dated Cards Index

Baseball-Ref

eBay

MLB

Old Judge (N172) and the Union Association

I’ve spent the past few months obsessed with the Union Association, baseball’s bastard major league. 

134 years after the Union Association’s single season, the league remains mysterious and enigmatic. Compared to baseball’s other former major league’s, the Union Association’s influence is scant at best.

After all, the National Association of 1871 to 1875 is baseball’s first attempt at a major league and is directly responsible for the creation of the National League. The American Association was formed in 1882. It’s legacy includes marketing baseball to the working class with beer and 25 cent tickets. The AA also gave birth to four of baseball’s greatest franchises: the Cincinnati Reds, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the St. Louis Cardinals. The Players League of 1890 attempted to usurp baseball’s power structure and give players control of their careers. The Federal League of 1914-1915 directly led to the establishment of baseball’s anti-trust exemption.

Meanwhile the Union Association has no significant legacy. Esteemed thinkers such as Bill James have suggested that calling the Union Association a major league is a significant mistake.

You might be wondering what all this has to do with baseball cards. Well, one of the fascinating and frustrating aspects of researching the Union Association is the lack of visual documentation of the league’s existence. I’ve found a team photo of the Boston Unions and a few scorecards and advertisements, but otherwise photos or illustrations of Union Association players and uniforms are virtually non-existent.

There are no Union Association baseball cards.

But there is the Old Judge (N172) set. Of the 500+ players featured in the mammoth N172 set, 60 are Union Association alumni. Approximately 277 players appeared in the Union Association in 1884, spread across 13 different franchises that appeared in 14 different cities. So that means roughly 20% or the league’s players were pictured in the Old Judge set and it provides the most comprehensive visual account of the men who played in the UA.

Of those 60 Union Association alumni in the Old Judge set, only a handful were or would become star major league players. I’ll focus on what I deem the top 5 players to appear in the Union Association in this post. In future posts, I will do a team by team breakdown of Old Judge cards featuring UA alums.

1. Fred “Sure Shot” Dunlap

Virtually forgotten now, Fred “Sure Shot” Dunlap was arguably the best second baseman in baseball in the 1880’s. Hall of Fame second baseman Frank Grant was nicknamed “The Black Dunlap” as a tribute to the strength of his play. Dunlap was a legitimate star and one of the few great players to jump from the National League the Union Association. In each of his first four previous seasons with the Cleveland Blues, he finished in the top ten in position player WAR. As the crown jewel of the UA champion St. Louis Maroons, he led the UA in virtually every offensive category, including a .412/.448/.621 slash line and a 256 OPS+, which is the best non-Barry Bonds OPS+ in major league history. He quickly declined upon his return to the National League due to injuries, but his peak is Hall of Fame worthy and in just 965 career games he totalled 36.8 WAR (I am using baseball-reference for WAR totals).

Dunlap is pictured as captain of the Pittsburg Alleghenys, longingly remembering the 1884 season when he had the whole baseball world in his hands. ca. 1888

2. “Pebbly” Jack Glasscock

“Pebbly” Jack Glasscock was a promising shortstop for the Cleveland Blues and Dunlap’s double play partner. He famously defected from the Blues along with pitcher Jim McCormick and catcher “Fatty” Briody to join the Cincinnati Unions in August 1884. Glasscock hit .419 in 38 games for Cincinnati, as he helped the club to a second place finish. He would enjoy a long career amassing 2041 hits and establishing himself as the game’s premier defensive shortstop. With 61.5 career WAR, he has a strong case for the Hall of Fame and was named by SABR as an Overlooked 19th Century Legend in 2016.

Glasscock is pictured with the now defunct Indianapolis Hoosiers ca. 1887 to 1889, though at least one variation has him in an Indianapolis uni with a hastily added “New York” on his chest, covering his move to the New York Giants in 1890 after the John T. Brush owned Indianapolis Hoosiers folded. Brush purchased the Giants and brought former Hoosiers like Glasscock and Amos Rusie over to the Big Apple.

3. Jim McCormick

Pitcher Jim McCormick was one baseball’s best pitchers in the 1880’s. As the workhorse of the Cleveland Blues from 1879 to 1884, he led the National League in victories and innings pitched twice, while also leading the league in ERA+ and ERA in 1883. Frustrated by a heavy workload and low pay, he joined the aforementioned Glasscock and Briody in defecting from the Blues to the Cincinnati Unions. He would post a sparkling 21-3 record with a UA leading 1.54 ERA in two months of work down the stretch. He joined Cap Anson’s Chicago White Stockings after the UA folded and had a couple more strong seasons before retiring after the 1887 season. His 265 career wins and 75.2 career WAR are the most of any UA alum and had he pitched for better known club in his peak, he would probably be in the Hall of Fame.

The stout McCormick is pictured in his Chicago White Stockings uniform ca. 1886. This means that the photos for the Old Judge set were taken as early as 1886, though generally were not released until 1887. (He spent 1887 with the Pittsburgh Alleghenys, but his Old Judge cards list him without a team, and none of his Old Judge variations capture him in an Alleghenys uni.)

4. Jack Clements

Baseball’s last full-time left-handed catcher and one of the first to adopt a chest protector, Jack Clements was just 19 years old when he made his debut for the Keystones, Philadelphia’s Union Association entry. Despite his youth, he hit .275/.318/.401 with a 146 OPS+ in 41 games for the dismal Keystones. When the Keystones were on the verge of folding in early August, he was sold for $500 to the rival Philadelphia Phillies. The proceeds of the sale settled an outstanding debt for the lumber used to build the Keystones ballpark. Clements would become a key contributor for the strong Phillies clubs of the 1890’s. His .394 average in 1895 remains the all-time record for a catcher. He totalled 32.1 career WAR in 17 seasons and is one of the top catchers of the 19th century.

Clements is pictured with the Phillies, eternally waiting for the pitch to arrive ca. 1887 to 1890.

5. Tommy McCarthy

Tommy McCarthy is also the only Union Association player elected to the Hall of Fame. As a 20 year rookie, he debuted with his hometown Boston Unions as a pitcher and outfielder. He did not enjoy much success at either position, going 0-7 with a 4.82 ERA on the mound and hitting just .215 in 53 games. He has a reasonable case for being the worst regular in the Union Association. He bounced around several major league clubs before establishing himself as a star with the St. Louis Browns. He enjoyed his greatest success alongside Hugh Duffy on the Boston Beaneaters, where the duo was nicknamed “The Heavenly Twins.” McCarthy was credited with inventing the “hit and run” and was acknowledged as one of the most strategic players in the game. His 14.6 WAR is the lowest of any Hall of Famer, though it seems he was elected more his pioneering influence than his on field credentials.

A pre-stardom McCarthy is pictured with the Phillies ca. 1887 committing homicide via tag. He also appears in other variations from his time with the Brown Stockings.

 

That Championship Season (Sort of)

program

It may seem odd to commemorate the one decent season of a dismal franchise with a card set. But Washington Senators (1961-1971 version) fans, of a certain age, fondly remember 1969; the only winning season in the expansion team’s history.

Joe D 38 Goudey

In 1998, a Senators reunion was held to celebrate the storied season. Attendees at the reunion breakfast received uncut sheets of cards featuring caricatures of the players. The individual cards were reminiscent of the 1938 Goudey “Heads-Up” (like the DiMaggio above).

The 1998 cards were produced by legendary card dealer Larry Fritsch. He cut card stock into 2 ½ x 2 7/8 inch cards and packaged them as a set of 28. In addition to statistics and trivia on the backs, there is a commentary by radio personality Phil Wood. I purchased a set in the early 2000s.

The second incarnation of the Washington Senators began in 1961 in conjunction with Calvin Griffith moving the first Senators team (1901-1960) to Minnesota. Pressure from Congress to keep the “national pastime” in the nation’s capital compelled the American League to create the expansion Senators with nothing but an off-season separating the tenures of the two teams.

The existing AL teams provided a poor-quality player pool for the expansion draft, resulting in four straight 100 loss seasons. Over the span of eight years, the Nats averaged 96 losses never finishing higher than 6th in the 10-team league.

Williams

Before the 1969 season the sports gods smiled on the downtrodden Washington fans by providing a savior so legendary that his nickname evokes the sport itself: “Teddy Ballgame.” Senators owner Bob Short needed a big name to get the fans excited, so he convinced Ted Williams to put down his rod-and-reel and manage the club.

Bosman

Epstein

Brinkman

Ted did inherit a few good pieces. In addition to hulking, super-slugger Frank Howard, the Senators had two good starting pitchers in Dick Bosman and Joe Coleman as well as bullpen stalwarts Darrell Knowles and Casey Cox. Del Unser and Mike Epstein were promising youngsters, while Eddie Brinkman and Ken McMullen anchored the left side of the infield.

Howard

The enthusiasm surrounding Williams’ dugout presence rubbed off on the players. The club overachieved by posting a winning season with 86 victories. They still finished 23 games behind the division champion Orioles; nevertheless, fans were hopeful for the future.

Of course, the success was not sustainable. The club resumed its losing ways and followed the same script as the original Senators by moving to Texas in 1972.

Valentine

French

So, if you are dying to relive the glory year of Jim French, Bernie Allen, Tim Cullen, Fred Valentine and Dick Billings, the set is still available. http://www.fritschcards.com

Sources:

Baseball-Reference

Larry Fritsch Cards: 1969 Heads-Up Senators product page

Trading Card Data Base

The ’51 Roberto Avila Bowman Card

I know it’s not the prettiest thing in the world, but when I saw on the table I had to have it!  It was the 1951 Bowman Roberto Avila card, number 188.  A number of years ago, I think at the Long Beach SABR convention, there was a guy at a table selling cards.  I made note of the Avila card, sitting there with prominent colors of red, white and blue.  Not being a Cleveland Indians fan, but more a fan of the Latino pioneer, who I have studied for quite some time.

I liked the old-style painting presentation, versus the usual photo one would see in later years.  It was colorful with the Indian mascot pictured almost in the center of the card.  I wondered if that’s how the Vera Cruz, Mexico-native really looked at that time.  At 24 years of age in 1951, the painting on the card made him look more like a 12 year old!

According to the Official Baseball Card Price Guide – 1990 Collector’s Edition, the 1951 Bowman series was a 324-card set, the company’s largest issue up to that date. While the cards of this set had typically measured 2 1/16” by 3 1/8”, my Avila appears as only 2” by 3 1/8”.  As you can see, it’s not centered and probably cut.  But still, it’s kinda cool to me.

The back of the card, grayish in appearance with red and blue print, reading:

“The 1950 season was Roberto’s third in organized baseball.  He appeared in 80 games for the Indians, getting 60 hits and driving in 21 runs.  His batting average was .299.  Starting with Baltimore, International League, in 1948, he got into 56 games batting .220. With the Indians, 1949, he was only in 31 games.  His average fell to .214.  But in 1950, with added playing chances, he proved able to hit.”

It’s a nice narrative of his past seasons.  You might not get such commentary with the usual bland stats.  The other thing of note is that Bowman refers to him as “Roberto” versus “Bobby”.  I’ve written on the ridiculousness of Americanizing Latino player names in previous postings.  Topps has been guilty of this for years during this era.  Though, in doing a quick search of the listings in other years, Bowman calls him “Bob” 1954 and “Bobby” in 1955!  Grrr!!

Moving on, the website PSAcard.com provides a Sports Market Report (SRM) Price Guide with value and card condition.  The prices range from $12 for excellent condition to $350 for mint condition.  Since my guy here is not centered, but has sharp corners and a fairly clear picture, I’m guessing it’s in the $12 range.  Pretty much what I paid for it several years ago.  I’m not grousing, but I do find it interesting.  It’s the intrinsic value that matters most to me.  And with this card, there’s a story of a Latino pioneer to tell.

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.

55Aaron

55Berra

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.

California is the Place Topps Oughta Be

The relocation of the Dodgers and Giants to the West Coast after the ’57 season not only broke the hearts of fans but meant Topps didn’t have a NL base in New York at which to photograph players. So, Topps decided to follow the departed clubs and shoot the National League teams in sunny California. This results in several sets of cards with photos taken at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and Seals Stadium in San Francisco.

I’m sure most of you know the story of the Dodgers initial plan to use the PCL Angels facility (Wrigley Field) as their home turf. But the prospect of selling 60-70,000 seats per game instead of 20,000 caused Walter O’Malley to select the cavernous Coliseum, despite its track and inflexible football field configuration.

There is no mistaking the Coliseum cards since many clearly show the Peristyle from which burned the Olympic flame during the 1932 Olympics (1984 too). Also the arches are apparent in numerous photos. The haziness may be a result of the infamous LA “smog,” which was particularly bad in the days before auto emission control devices came along in the ‘70s.

59 hodges59 Burgess   60 Robinson

The ’59 card of Gil Hodges is a prime examples of a card with the Peristyle and arches in the distance. The ’59 Smokey Burgess and ‘60 Frank Robinson clearly show that the visitors were also photographed in the Coliseum.

60 Zim  61 Drysdale  62 Koufax

The shots continue to show up over the next three years-as attested by the ’60 Don Zimmer, ’61 Don Drysdale and ’62 Sandy Koufax.

After the move west, the Giants were content to use Seals Stadium, knowing that a new ball park (Candlestick) was scheduled to open in ’60. Additional seats were added to bring the former PCL venue’s capacity up to around 22,000. This single deck stadium in the Mission District is very distinctive with orange box railings.

Sauer   61 Antonelli Bazooka   61 Alou   59 Robbie   61 Aaron   62 White

Former NL MVP Hank Sauer in ’59, Johnny Antonelli in ’60 and Felipe Alou in ‘61 are all at Seals Stadium. The ’59 Frank Robinson,’61 Aaron and ’62 Bill White are opposition player examples.

Seals Seat

When Seals Stadium was razed after the ’59 season, the wooden seats along with the light towers made their way to the new Cheney Stadium in Tacoma, Washington. The seats remained in use until being replaced in 2005. I purchased one, which is now displayed in my memorabilia room. I have at least one piece of memorabilia from all the San Francisco and Tacoma teams displayed on the seat.

 

 

 

The Jack Hamilton Photo

 

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Half a century later it remains one of the most infamous dates in Boston baseball history.

Friday, August 18, 1967: the night Tony Conigliaro, who by late in his age 22 season had already hit 104 home runs and recorded four seasons with an OPS of .817 or higher, was hit in the face by a fastball from Jack Hamilton of the California Angels. Conigliaro would miss the rest of Boston’s “Impossible Dream” season with a fractured cheekbone. He would sit out 1968 with blurred vision and while briefly trying to convert to pitching. He would make two ultimately unsuccessful comebacks, play on a second Red Sox team that reached the World Series but never himself appear in the post-season, slip into a life of substance abuse, and die at the age of just 45.

And the pitcher who hit him, Hamilton?

68-193Fr

All the evidence suggests that just hours earlier he had posed, with the hint of a smile on his face, for his 1968 baseball card photo.

This macabre coincidence may have dawned on collectors when those ’68 cards came out; it didn’t hit me until about a decade ago when I had a chance to review the vast archive of used and unused Topps negatives (the Hamilton ’68 image was auctioned off on eBay just last year). Barring the most unusual and unlikely of coincidences, Hamilton and a bunch of other Angels and Red Sox players shown in the ’68 and ’69 sets must have been photographed during California’s visit to Fenway that began on that awful Friday in August and continued through the weekend.

Understand the context here. I haven’t done an exhaustive search, but I believe the photos of Hamilton and the other Angels and Red Sox were the first Topps ever shot in Fenway. Through the ‘60s their photography was largely limited to the New York parks, the Bay Area, Chicago, Philadelphia, Spring Training, and a couple of cameos in other cities. Topps had published at least four colorized black and white Red Sox publicity handout photos shot in Boston, but had never sent its own man (probably George Heier, who was their regular New York photographer) until 1967.

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1968 Norm Siebern (f)   68-331Fr

The familiar landmarks of Fenway – the Green Monster, the vast bleachers, some of the billboards outside the ballpark – appear in the backgrounds of at least six Angels’ cards in the 1968 Topps set (Jimmie Hall, Hamilton, Woodie Held, Roger Repoz, Hawk Taylor, and Jim Weaver). Images of two other ’67 Angels shot in Boston, Curt Simmons and Bill Skowron, were also hidden in that unused photo archive. And there are three ’68 cards showing Red Sox players at home: Elston Howard, Dan Osinski, and Norm Siebern.

With the exception of Osinski, the players share one thing in common: they all joined either Boston or California in 1967. And the photographs share one other thing in common besides the venue: they all look like they were taken in the late afternoon or early evening.

The only Angels-Red Sox night game during that series was the Friday, when Hamilton hit Conigliaro. The teams played a day game on Saturday and a doubleheader on Sunday. While newspaper archives suggest each day carried a risk of thunderstorms and thus cloudy conditions that might give a similar look to photos snapped near dusk, there’s clearly batting practice going on in the background as nearly all of the Angel and Red Sox were photographed and B.P. would not have been likely if the weather was threatening enough to darken the skies.

There’s one other slight variable. The Angels also visited Boston on July 25, 26, and 27, and played only night games. Hamilton had joined the team from the Mets by then, and indeed Skowron (May 6), Held and Repoz (June 15), Siebern (July 15), Taylor (July 24), and Hall and Osinski (who had both opened the season with their new teams) would all have been on the field had the Topps photographer been shooting at Fenway for that series.

But Elston Howard (August 3), Curt Simmons (August 7), and Jim Weaver (August 13) hadn’t traded uniforms yet. And unless the Topps man went twice to Fenway inside of a month to shoot the same two teams and just happened to get the exact same lighting, there’s no other plausible conclusion: Jack Hamilton posed somewhere between the visitors’ dugout and the mound at Fenway Park literally just hours before he in essence ended Tony Conigliaro’s career.

1967 Jack Hamilton Pitcher CaliforniaAngels WATERMARK++

Like a Broken Record

Of all the junk wax era subsets, I’ve always thought that the Topps ‘Record Breakers’ series was underrated. They don’t carry the prestige of the All-Star Rookies or Diamond Kings, or have the kitsch of Turn Back the Clock, or inspire the misguided investment allure of Rated Rookies, but I love how they represent real events from the previous season – some historic, others not so much.

Topps issued a kind-of precursor to the Record Breakers set in 1961 with “Baseball Thrills,” a subset that honored various baseball highlights – many involving record-setting feats – from the previous 40 years or so. In 1974, Topps issued a special base card for Hank Aaron, proclaiming him as the “New All-Time Home Run King,” even though he hadn’t actually broken the record yet. 1975 saw the debut of the “Season Highlights” set, that honored the homer record, along with Lou Brock’s single season SB record, the first time records from the previous season were so honored.

In 1976, the first Record Breakers set appeared. The series opened up the set, number-wise, and featured Hank Aaron’s breaking of the all-time RBI record on card #1 (the fourth straight year Aaron appeared on card #1). Record Breakers appeared about every-other year through the 1985 set, alternating with the Season Highlights set, which usually contained a few record-breaking moments itself. In 1979 and 1981, the set started with card #200, but otherwise opened with card #1. This led to one of the less-distinguished “first cards” in Topps history, the 1983 opener featuring Oakland’s Tony Armas, the brand new holder of the esteemed mark for most putouts by a right fielder in a single game. Card #2 that year was Rickey Henderson, who had just broken the single-season stolen base record, obviously a much bigger deal. However, the numbering of these sets was (mostly) done by alphabetical order. The lone exception was Reggie Jackson’s 1978 RB, which honored his 5-homer World Series. The card appears at the end of the RB set, card #7, although by the letter, it should have been card #3. One can assume that the card was a late addition to the checklist and Topps chose to bump a base card from the #7 spot rather than reorder the RBs.

The 1983 Aramas #1 card is hardly the only RB to feature a less-than-historic achievement. In 1979, Topps paid tribute to Mike Edwards of the A’s for recording two unassisted double plays in a single game – tying a mark for AL second baseman. They also honored Mets backstop John Stearns that year. Stearns stole 25 bases (against 13 times caught) in 1978, hardly an earth-shattering total, but a new record for NL catchers. The 1981 set paid tribute to a couple of at-bat kings – Willie Wilson for a new single-season mark and Pete Rose for totaling the most consecutive 600 AB seasons.

In 1985, the Record Breaker set became an annual feature. That year saw 10 RB cards, the most ever in a single set (that feat alone could have garnered its own card), and featured five future Hall of Famers (Fisk, Morgan, Ryan, Sutter, and Sutton). In 1986, aside from the card honoring Pete Rose’s new career hit record, the pickings were a bit thin, prompting Topps to begin considering being the youngest or most elderly player to achieve a feat as a broken record. The ’86 RBs thus included Doc Gooden (youngest Cy Young winner), Phil Niekro (oldest to toss a shutout), and Tony Perez (oldest to hit a grand slam).

Rose’s 1986 RB card was his fifth, extending his own record for most RB appearances. That mark would be tied in 1992 by Nolan Ryan. Other players with multiple RB appearances include Cal Ripken (2), Carlton Fisk (2), Davey Lopes (2 ), Dwight Gooden (2), Rickey Henderson (3), and Vince Coleman (3). Of the 26 MLB teams that were around during the RB era, only the Mariners and Braves did not appear in the set. The New York Yankees were featured eight times, the most of any team.

The fact that Henderson, Lopes, and Coleman all made multiple appearances speaks to the high-speed era in which most of the RBs came from. Of the 85 Record Breaker cards Topps issued between 1976 and 1992, 13 dealt with stolen base records, more than all but strikeouts (15) and home runs (16). Surprising, Hank Aaron’s ’76 RBI Record Breaker was the only card to ever honor an RBI record.

In 1989, Topps went with a NNOF (no name on front) design for the Record Breakers – the rare occasion in which they issued player-specific cards without IDing them on the front (perhaps the only time they’ve done this, now that I think about it). The 1990 and 1991 sets would be NNOF as well. In 1990, the RBs were bumped back to accommodate Nolan Ryan’s #1 base card and a 5-card Ryan retrospective set honoring his 5,000th strikeout. Ryan also took the top spot in ’91 and ’92, followed immediately by the RBs – which each featured a Ryan card, making him the rare player with multiple “first page” (cards 1-9) appearances in a single year.

In 1993, with an expanded set and a new dual-series format, Topps dumped the Record Breaker subset.

Matthew Prigge has just launched a new card blog detailing his quest to complete a signed 1974 Topps set and his other collecting adventures. Check out Summer of ’74!

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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