Positions, Positions, Positions

Name, Team, Position. Those are the three most standard pieces of information conveyed on the obverse of a baseball card. Of the three, position is the one that is most often left out. While it is certainly isn’t hard to find examples of cards not bearing the name or team on the frontside, position is the only piece of this trio that feels kind of optional. Player positions were included on many of the earliest cards sets ever issued and remained a staple of card design until the fabled T206 set – which listed a player’s name and team home city only – seemed to put the designation out of style. Over the next few decades, many of the most iconic sets – Goudey, Cracker Jack, Leaf – ignored the position as an element of design. Bowman hit the scene in 1948 and went even more minimalist, rarely going so far as to even include the player’s name on the front of the card.

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1972, the only Topps set between 1953 and 1986 not to indicate a position on the front.

But then Topps took over, aside from their 1951 and 1952 issues, included a position on the front of each of their sets until 1972, and again for each set between 1973 and 1986. The indicator vanished between 1987 and 1990 and was an on-and-off feature until 2014, when it returned for seven straight sets (including 2020) – Topps’ longest run of position-indicating since the 1980s. Donruss included a position on every one of its designs until 1998 and Fleer did the same, using the indicator on every flagship set the brand issued. Upper Deck ignored the position on just two of its flagship sets (1992 and 2004).

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This is not information that most collectors would have at the ready. Most collectors probably take the position bug for granted. I know I usually do. But being so ubiquitous (even in its absence), an unusual position indicator can make for a pretty memorable card. Herb Washington’s 1975 “Pinch Run.” is probably the most famous of these. But there are others that I recall standing out to me as a kid – Pete Rose cards where he was listed an “MGR-1B” seemed other-worldly, the 1990 Score John Olerud listed him as an “OF-P” (all while shown playing first base) made him seem like some kind of top-secret government project, and the 1989 Topps Kirk Gibson All Star that listed him as a “PH” was as jarring as it was confusing (this was done, I assume to give the NL team a DH player without using the league-inappropriate term).

A particular player’s position listing can also convey some emotion. Robin Yount listed as a shortstop or George Brett as a third baseman make them seem as though they’ll be young forever. But finding Reggie Jackson or Henry Aaron or Dave Winfield listed as a DH will bring a note of sadness that the end is near.

But of all the weird positional quirks that have happened over the years, there is nothing so fascinating to me as what happened with Paul Molitor in 1991. That was the year the versatile Brewer was listed at FIVE different positions on various cards and appeared with SEVEN different position indicators. This is, I believe, the greatest positional variety for a player in a single year ever (ignoring THIS, of course). So what happened here?

Well, Paul Molitor had historically been a trick player to pin down position-wise. He came up as a shortstop, getting his first change in the bigs when Robin Yount left the Brewers during Spring Training 1978. He only played 33 games at short that season, but it was enough to have him listed as a pure SS on his 1979 card. He played 10 games at short in 1979 and 12 in 1980, but maintained a dual listed as an “SS-2B” on Topps 1980 and 1981 issues. After spending all of 1981 in the outfield, Topps gave him the rare “2B-SS-OF” listing on his 1982 card. Molly moved to third base in 1982, and played there primarily for most of the next five years. Topps reacted in kind and listed his as either a 3B or 3B/DH through the end of the decade.

Donruss and Fleer, entering the market in 1981, both listed him as a 2B in their debut sets. Fleer gave him a pure (and accurate) OF tag in 1982, whereas Donruss went with the very broad “OF/IF” brand. Both brands followed suit with Topps and used 3B and DH marks exclusively through 1990. Upper Deck and Score did the same.

But Molitor had returned to his utility player roots by the late 1980s. He appeared in 19 games at second base in 1987 and 16 in 1989. Late in 1989, regular second-sacker Jim Gantner suffered a devastating knee injury on a wipe-out slide by the Yankees Marcus Lawton and Molitor took over regular duty at the position until Gantner was able to return mid-way through the 1990 season. Molitor, who suffered a number of injuries of his own that season, ended up playing 60 games at second base in ‘90, 37 at first base (the first time he’d manned that spot), and a handful at third and as a DH. Gantner ended the season as the regular second baseman and Molitor at prime man at first. After the season, the Brewers traded Dave Parker, who had been an All Star for them in 1990, opening the door for the now-34 year old Molitor to become the team’s regular  DH for the first time.

So, the long-time third baseman who had been playing second but was also being used at first, where he was now expected to see more time when he wasn’t DHing. Got all that? Card makers sure did.

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By my count, Molitor appeared on 21 different base cards in 1991 (I’m ignoring sets like Topps Micro and OPC here that merely reproduce other sets). All but Classic listed a position on their cards. He was most commonly listed at 3B, a dubious claim considering he’d only played two games there in 1990. But strong is the power of tradition. Topps listed him there, using that mark on the Bowman, Stadium Club, and OPC Premium sets as well. Fleer also considered him a 3B, as they had at least in part since 1983. Even Score listed him at the position, despite taking the rather bold stance of being the only card maker to declare him a pure DH on a 1980s issue (1988). Those two games in ’90 got a lot of mileage, I guess.

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Five cards listed him at 1B, a nice compromise between his audition there in 1990 and his projected role in 1991. Magazine cards were fond of this mark, as Baseball Cards Magazine, Sports Collectors Digest, and Sports Illustrated for Kids all used it on their in-mag cards, as did Donruss and (curiously) Fleer Ultra, which ran against the flagship’s opinion that Molitor was still a 3B.

Three cards gave him a generic IF designation: two Brewers-issued sets (which used the frustrating device of considering anyone who played in the infield an IF) and the Score Superstars stand-alone set, which also broke with its parent brand and made its own positional distinction.

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A pair of sets were forward-looking enough to list Molitor as a pure DH, Leaf and Studio. I recall these as later-year issues and were probably a reaction to Molitor’s role early on the 1991 season, in which he only appeared in the field once before late May.

Then, we have some true outliers. Upper Deck, showing that rebel streak that remade the hobby, boldly listed Molitor as a 2B in their set, and even used a photo of him playing the position. The semi-obscure Petro Canada Standup set also listed him as a 2B, but you had to actually stand the card up to discover this fact. Panini, in its sticker set, was the only brand to use a hybrid mark, listing Molitor was a “1B-2B,” his only 1991 card to accurately reflect upon his 1990 season.

And then there is 1991 US Playing Card set. In here, Molitor (as the Eight of Hearts) is listed as a centerfielder.

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Hmm.

At this time, Molitor hadn’t played the outfield since a handful of games in 1986 and hadn’t been in center since 1981. Were they boldly expecting Molitor to take over in center for Robin Yount in 1991? My guess is that this is probably just an outright error. None of the other outfielder cards in the deck are given a specific OF spot (LF, CF, RF), and I can’t find anything that indicated they were acting on some of weird rumor of an unexpected position change. But nonetheless, the card exists and only adds to the positional confusion.

Oddly enough, all this positioning and repositioning for Molitor quickly became a moot point. Following the end of the 1990 season, Molitor would play first base and DH exclusively. His cards reflected this. For the most part. For 1992, Topps again branded him at a 3B across most of its sets despite his not having played there regularly since 1989. And, not to be outdone by their 1991 goof, the US Playing Card company issued two decks with Molitor cards in 1992 – one listing him at 2B and the other at SS – where Molitor hadn’t appeared since 1982 (his 1993 USPC card has him mercifully listed as an IF). At least it’s a consistent decade-long lag time, right? For 1993, only the Post Cereal Company still listed him at 3B. Card makers had finally accepted him for what had become – a DH and part-time 1B.

For his career, Molitor was listed on cards as a 1B, 2B, SS, 3B, IF, OF, CF, DH, 1B/DH, 2B/SS/OF, 2B/SS, SS/2B, 3B/DH, OF/IF, DH/1B, and DH/3B – not to mention post-career cards as a coach and manager. That’s 18 different listings (and perhaps more that I have missed) to describe a single remarkable career.

Junk Wax for the win!

Okay, I admit it. I’m kind of a collecting snob. As a vintage collector I tend to thumb my nose at modern and recoil instantly at anything that shines, refracts, redeems, rainbows, or retails for more than 30 cents a pack. So what was I doing this past weekend up to my ears in junk wax?!

Card collecting at its best…REALLY!

The plan hatched innocently enough. Following my baseball card presentation at our last SABR Chicago meeting, a few of the attendees and I were in the parking lot chatting about cards. One of the members, Rich, mentioned that he had a lot of unopened 1989 Fleer from the early (uncensored F*Face) print runs and would happy donate a cello box to the right occasion.

Meanwhile, one of my best buddies from high school, a guy I opened thousands of packs with back in the day, was up from Los Angeles on a work assignment. Abe no longer collected cards, but I knew there would be plenty of room for at least one evening of waxing nostalgic.

Abe on a more typical evening

Also joining the fun were Bill, whose chapter newsletters must be the best in all of SABR, and John, who writes on here as Baseball Law Reporter and is also the man behind the incredibly ambitious and useful Baseball Sites Project.

After some pizza and a few innings of Astros-Yankees on the main floor, we headed down to the basement, and Rich brought out the 1989 Fleer. How he had resisted opening the packs all this time was a mystery to me, but it worked out well for us. Or more specifically, it worked out VERY well for Abe, who managed to land all three of these gems!

Inside joke but Abe himself was the “Luckmaster” this past weekend!

As for my own stack of 1989 Fleer, it’s possible not a single card is worth more than a quarter (if even!), but it didn’t stop me from being excited any time I pulled a good player. Eddie Murray, Kirk Gibson, Dave Parker…the hits just piled up. As much as I love cards of the 1930s, the truth is it was THESE cards where I knew all the players, saw many of them play, and remembered the feeling of finding them in packs. Junk or not, nostalgia is in the memories, never the value.

From there we went on to 1981 Fleer, which brought back my age 11 memory of pulling the “C” Nettles at a card show and literally fainting! Riding his earlier hot streak, Abe (of course!) was the one to pull a Nettles, but it was the corrected Graig Nettles version. Of course he still managed the best hit of the box, the Fernand [sic] Valenzuela rookie card. Yes, I know the card is available on eBay for $1, but I still couldn’t help being insanely jealous of the pull.

You had ONE job, 1981 Fleer typesetter!

One thing that caught our eye with the 1981 Fleer box to retailers informing them of the two free packs (hence 60 cents extra profit!) contained in each box. And sure enough, there were those two extra packs, crammed sideways between the main stacks of wax. As card-obsessed as I was as a kid, this was wholly uninteresting to me back in 1981 but today reveals an important marketing strategy Fleer used to establish a foothold in the newly competitive baseball card retail space.

We also had some fun opening my 20 or so assorted 1988 Score packs and a box of 1988 Donruss. Every 20 minutes or so, one of us would run up to see if my 1981 Donruss box had been delivered, but sadly it never did arrive on time. Still, opening packs was only half the fun we had planned for the night.

At least partly to troll John for his recent article on the worst baseball card set ever, I brought out my never-been-played, had-to-empty-my-TV-remotes-for-batteries 1989 Main Street Baseball game. Of course there was no way we were using the ugly cards that came with the game, not when we had heaps and heaps of 1980s wax sitting right in front of us!

John, I hope it’s cool I stole your photo!

For what must have been the next 90 minutes, we proceeded to dig through our stacks of freshly opened cards, trying to find actual baseball cards of each of the players on our team. One fantastic attribute of junk wax became immediately apparent as readily handed off our Nolan Ryan, Tony Gwynn, and George Brett cards to whichever guy had the adhesive stat strip for the player. WE COULD GIVE THESE CARDS AWAY FOR FREE AND NOT CARE AT ALL!

This would have been unthinkable back in the 1980s!

Yes, the fact that many cards in our collections are worth money can feel like a positive sometimes, and the fact that we can probably flip a $80 card for at least $75 down the road makes us feel a little less crazy spending nice-dinner-out-with-the-family money on a little square of cardboard.

But let’s face it; the value of our cards is also the single greatest barrier to enjoyment. When your cards are worth money, it’s hard to give them away, it’s hard to even make trades, you’re not going to flip them, they won’t go near a bicycle tire, and you might not even want to touch them! What kind of hobby is this?!

Meanwhile, here we were with our junk wax not only sharing them freely (except Billy Ripken!) but even…YES!…putting stickers on them! (Side note: Did Puckett’s 1988 Score bio really say, “Sporting a shaved head and a chunky body shaved like a bowling ball…?” YES!)

Hoping my son can crack the code and build me a secret weapon player who homers every at-bat!

I’d say the game was anti-climactic after all the fun we had finding the cards we needed and affixing bar codes, but would that really do justice to a 4-3 thriller featuring a lead-off homer from Rickey, 8 strong innings from Orel Hershiser, and an oh-so-close ninth inning rally that left the tying run on third and winning run on second?

Sure the graphics were little red blips and the game seemed to skip an inning on us randomly, but the truth was this 1989 electronic baseball technology was far superior to anything I actually played as a kid!

The simple, intuitive interface inspired Steve Jobs as he was creating the iPod

Back to the cards, though, here is what the evening brought home to my snobby collecting self. There is a place in EVERY collection for worthless cards, the kind you can trade, give away, keep in your wallet, put stickers on, or—as Rich did at one point in the evening—use as a beverage coaster. There really is a certain kind of fun you can only have with worthless cards.

Junk wax connects us to the purity of the hobby in a way that no other cards can. It allows us to know the feeling of opening a pack of 1933 Goudey or 1952 Topps. Yes, the players are different, but more importantly the experience is the same. Like our hobby ancestors, here we are opening packs of cards for no other reason than a love for little pieces of cardboard with baseball players on them. That, my friends, is winning!

Worst Baseball Card Set Ever

Main Street Toy Company was a 10-person outfit that was formed in the wake of Coleco’s demise. Main Street’s founder, Gene Murtha, was a former vice president of marketing for Coleco.  He assembled a small team of executives to run a new toy company poised to “learn[] lessons from Coleco’s mistakes.”

Main Street found quick success with Slap Wraps, a plastic-coated steel strip that would automatically curl around the wrist when slapped on one’s arm. The company sold upwards of $4 million worth of Slap Wraps in 1990. Unfortunately, this was the only successful product in its lineup and by 1991, Main Street had been gobbled up by a competitor and dissolved.

But, what does all of this have to do with baseball cards you ask?

Well, Main Street Toy Company marketed the worst baseball card set ever in 1989. Patented by video game stalwart Eric Bromley and assigned to the fledgling company, Main Street Baseball was an electronic game that used statistics for individual MLB players to help determine game play outcomes. According to the box, you could “Steal a base like Vince Coleman” or “Pinch hit like Kirk Gibson.” Wow!

Player information was embedded in bar codes that were printed onto small stickers designed to be affixed to the back of that player’s baseball card. In theory, this was not a bad idea at all. In practice, however, the kids who wanted to play Main Street Baseball were encouraged to deface baseball cards of their favorite players and then slide them through a slot to scan the bar code. Oh, the humanity!

Main street bar codes

The game included bar codes that contained the 1988 statistics for over 100 players, along with an offer to purchase bar code stickers for each of the 26 teams in MLB at the time. And have I mentioned that the Main Street Baseball game was packaged with the worst baseball card set ever?

Officially licensed by the MLBPA, Main Street was authorized to use the names and statistics for the superstars of the day and produced a 24-card set that featured standard-sized cards. The complete set includes:

NL players: Bobby Bonilla, Will Clark, Andre Dawson, Kirk Gibson, Dwight Gooden, Orel Hershiser, Tim Raines, Nolan Ryan, Ryne Sandberg, Benny Santiago, Ozzie Smith and Darryl Strawberry.

AL players: Wade Boggs, George Brett, Jose Canseco, Roger Clemens, Dennis Eckersley, Carlton Fisk, Don Mattingly, Paul Molitor, Kirby Puckett, Alan Trammell, Frank Viola and Dave Winfield.

The backs of the cards are unnumbered and list only biographical information and rudimentary statistics from each player’s 1988 campaign— batting average, home runs and stolen bases for position player and won-loss record, ERA and strikeouts for pitchers. And, of course, a spot was designated for the bar code sticker.

Main street back

Although the production run is unknown, these cards can be difficult to find. So why would a difficult-to-find set comprised of half Hall of Famers be so brutal, you may be asking?

Well, the cards do not include photos or illustrations of the players.

Main street al front

What? Wait a second. A set of cards that was licensed by the MLBPA does not include any player photos? Not even pictures with the team logos airbrushed out?

Nope.

Main street nl card fronts

Strictly for completionists, the Main Street Baseball cards are the worst ever—unless you have a thing for wholly generic baseball art and a dearth of statistical information. As for the game—who knows. I was never willing to destroy my cards to play it.

Sources:

Anthony Ramirez, “Turning Profits Hand Over Wrist,” New York Times, October 27, 1990.

Pamela Klein, “Fad Wanes, But Marketers, Creators Still Feud,” Hartford Courant, September 2, 1991.

“Canadian Firm Gets Main Street Toy Lines,” Hartford Courant, November 27, 1991.

United States Patent Number 5,026,058, issued June 25, 1991.

http://electronicbaseball.blogspot.com/2014/06/main-street-toy-company-main-street.html (Note: Author’s blog with further information and photos)

The Oddest of the Oddball: 1988 Starting Lineup Talking Baseball

The best baseball cards are evocative—tangible reminders of a particular period of life, memories of rooting for a favorite player, or the circumstances in which one came to acquire a prized possession. In 1988, I was 16 years old and deep in the throes of collecting every single baseball card I could get my hands on, especially oddball releases of my favorite players. At that time, nearly every store, food manufacturer, restaurant, and dozens of other companies were anxious to cash in on the baseball card craze and contributed myriad releases to the Golden Age of Oddball.

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1988 Starting Lineup figures, Tony Gwynn and Don Mattingly

Kenner debuted its Starting Lineup figures and cards in 1988 with a set of 124 baseball players. Sister company, Parker Brothers, released Starting Lineup Talking Baseball, an electronic baseball game that was packaged with a set of 40 baseball cards featuring the biggest stars of the day. With an initial retail price between $89.99 and $99.99 (approximately $200 today) this set of cards was essentially the Holy Grail of oddball sets.

The game was amazingly sophisticated and unlike the ubiquitous Mattel, Coleco and Entex baseball games of the 1980s, the Parker Brothers version featured programmable lineups, real players, and an announcer who would offer play-by-play accounts of the action on the field. Unfortunately, it was often difficult to find willing opponents due to the complicated nature of game play.

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Sample of All-Star cards included with game

Each of the players on the American and National League All-Star teams packaged with the game contained a photo on the front and statistics on the back. The cards are an odd size (2 5/8″x 3″), however, and are almost too wide to fit in a standard baseball card album page. Licensed only by the MLBPA, none of the cards included team logos. The cards are not numbered in the traditional sense and only have a “Player Number” that corresponds to programming the lineup to include that particular player.

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Odd sized cards – with 1988 Fleer Dwight Gooden behind for scale

This alphabetical listing of the set includes the Player Number in parentheses and the * indicates that player is in the starting lineup:

  1. Bell, Buddy (15)                              21. Puckett, Kirby (21)
  2. Bell, George (22)*                           22. Quisenberry, Dan (30)
  3. Boggs, Wade (18)*                          23. Raines, Tim (23)*
  4. Brett, George (19)                           24. Randolph, Willie (15)*
  5. Carter, Gary (11)*                           25. Righetti, Dave (29)
  6. Clark, Jack (13)*                              26. Ripken, Cal (16)*
  7. Clemens, Roger (27)*                     27. Ryan, Nolan (30)
  8. Davis, Eric (20)*                              28. Saberhagen, Bret (28)
  9. Davis, Jody (26)                               29. Sandberg, Ryne (16)*
  10. Dawson, Andre (24)                       30. Sax, Steve (12)
  11. Fisk, Carlton (12)                            31. Schmidt, Mike (19)*
  12. Gooden, Dwight (29)                      32. Scott, Mike (25)*
  13. Gwynn, Tony (21)                           33. Smith, Ozzie (17)*
  14. Henderson, Rickey (23)*               34. Strawberry, Darryl (22)*
  15. Hernandez, Keith (14)                   35. Trammell, Alan (20)*
  16. Kennedy, Terry (11)*                     36. Valenzuela, Fernando (28)
  17. Mattingly, Don (14)*                      37. Whitaker, Lou (17)
  18. Morris, Jack (25)                             38. Winfield, Dave (24)*
  19. Murphy, Dale (18)*                        39. Worrell, Todd (27)
  20. Murray, Eddie (13)                        40. Yount, Robin (26)

These All-Star players were pre-programmed into the game. A cartridge was also included that featured legendary Hall of Famers, so right out of the box a game could be played pitting Don Mattingly, Wade Boggs, Kirby Puckett and the American League All-Stars against Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson and the Hall of Fame team.

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Note the copyright (L) is KPT (Kenner Parker Toys) and (R) Parker Bros.

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Rickey Henderson cards for comparison

Starting Lineup Talking Baseball was customizable with the rosters of each of the 26 Major League Baseball teams at the time, available on eight cartridges that initially retailed for about $19.99 each:

  • No. 4001 – Tigers/Blue Jays/Indians/Brewers
  • No. 4002 – Yankees/Red Sox/Orioles
  • No. 4003 – Royals/White Sox/Rangers/Twins
  • No. 4004 – Angels/A’s/Mariners
  • No. 4005 – Cubs/Expos/Cardinals
  • No. 4006 – Pirates/Phillies/Mets
  • No. 4007 – Giants/Padres/Dodgers
  • No. 4008 – Reds/Astros/Braves

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Game cartridges included team sets of cards

Each of these packages included a separate set of cards for the teams on each cartridge.  In total, there were 546 of these cards issued – 20 players and a checklist card for each team. These cards are the same odd size as those included with the game; however, the team set cards feature illustrations of the players on the front, not photographs. Here is a link to the complete checklist:

Starting Lineup Talking Baseball Teams Checklist

The cards included with the game cartridges are somewhat representative of each of the teams but the fact checkers for this game made some glaring mistakes! The first sign that the product might be prone to errors was evident on the game’s playing surface. The designer was apparently unfamiliar with the layout of the bases and (maddeningly) positioned second base parallel with the front edge of home plate.

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Playing surface of game

This massive oddball set features several players who appear on cards for two different teams. One of those players, Lee Smith, is actually included in the Cubs team set with Calvin Schiraldi – one of the players he was traded for! Elsewhere, Billy Ripken’s last name is spelled wrong, even though he was listed alphabetically right next to brother, Cal, whose name was spelled correctly.

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Some of the players who appear twice in the set

Here are players who appear on cards for two different teams:

  1. Bradley, Phil (Mariners/Phillies)
  2. Butler, Brett (Giants/Indians)
  3. Clark, Jack (Cardinals/Yankees)
  4. Davis, Chili (Giants/Angels)
  5. Davis, Mike (Dodgers/A’s)
  6. Dernier, Bob (Cubs/Phillies)
  7. Gibson, Kirk (Dodgers/Tigers)
  8. Knight, Ray (Tigers/Orioles)
  9. Moreland, Keith (Cubs/Padres)
  10. Parker, Dave (Reds/A’s)
  11. Slaught, Don (Yankees/Rangers)
  12. Smith, Lee (Cubs/Red Sox)
  13. Wilson, Glenn (Mariners/Phillies)

Taken as a whole, this is one unusual set – numbering nearly 600 – replete with oddly-sized cards, curious player selection, and a strange distribution method. Regardless, the Starting Lineup Talking Baseball cards evoke pleasant memories of playing the game with the precious few who were patient enough to play, driving all over the Chicagoland area with my card collecting buddies trying to track down missing cartridges/cards, and generally, that halcyon time of my life when I was less burdened with adult responsibilities. I still like to flip through these cards and reminisce. But if only I could find someone to play to play the game with…

Sources:

Collector’s Paradise (My Coolio Weekend in Cooperstown)

Yes, Shoebox Treasures, the new baseball card exhibit at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, is extraordinary. Yes, I had a lovely talk with Doug McWilliams, the legendary Topps photographer, at Doubleday Field during the Hall of Fame classic. Yes, I’m given special things on the plaque for Shoebox Treasures (and, being named in the Hall of Fame is, in some respects, the same as being in the Hall of Fame, which, taken a step further, is like being a Hall of Famer), but this, and the other things, are not what made this past weekend great.

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Starting on Thursday, when my friend Jimmy arrived from Chicago, the weekend was filled with gatherings of friends/collectors. In my living room, or on my front porch, and at Yastrzemski Sports and Baseball Nostalgia, Jimmy, Mark Armour (the new SABR President and co-founder of the SABR Baseball Cards Committee, Mark Hoyle (Red Sox collector extraordinaire) and Jason Schwartz (one of the new co-chairs of the committee) talked baseball, baseball cards, and our collections. It was incredibly fun, incredibly enlightening, and somewhat rare to be surrounded by so many like-minded people.

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(L to R, Mark A, Tom, Jimmy, me, Mark H. Jason took the pic.)

On Saturday night, Tom Shieber, senior curator at the Hall and key cog in the cards exhibit, joined us and tossed some 1982 Topps packs our way, resulting in a new, exclusive, club of stickered phones.

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As Jimmy and I were walking to Main Street on Sunday to meet the guys for some group baseball card buying, which was enormous fun, with everyone now knowing each other’s interests and pointing out their finds, he asked me for my Mission Statement. He loved that Mark Hoyle had a very specific mission – he collects Red Sox cards. Which kind of Red Sox cards? All of them.

I thought I had a pretty good answer. “I collect complete sets and build sets that are of interest to me.”  Jimmy wasn’t having it.

“But that doesn’t tell an outsider anything in detail about what you collect.”

“I don’t care what someone outside of me thinks about my collection,” said I.

Still, the question refined and reaffirmed where my head has been at lately. I am a collector of complete sets and I do like to build complete sets. Could be a baseball, other sports, non-sports, whatever. I like the sense and order of completion. In fact, that day I managed to put together a complete 10 card set of 1993 Kellogg’s College Greats from the cheapo bins at Yaz Sports, and bought two cards for the 1971 Kellogg’s Football set I’m working on. I was true to my mission statement. (I did buy one baseball thing – a signed index card and TCMA 1960’s card of Juan Pizarro).

Further, my toe-dipping into selling my pre-war cards has gone full blown. Why? They don’t really fit what I collect and have no emotional ties. They’re cool, some way cool, but that’s doesn’t feel like quite enough. Yesterday I began listing them.

Here are some of the ones I’m moving out:

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They’re sweet, and maybe I’ll miss them, but I know if someone wanted to trade a complete 1966 Topps set for a handful of pre-war beauties, I’d make that deal in a heartbeat. A full set that has a direct connection to my early pack buying days for a bunch of random cards?

That’s me, completely.

Reflections on “Shoebox Treasures”

Author’s note: Along with other members of the SABR Baseball Cards Research Committee, I was in Cooperstown this past weekend for the opening of the Hall of Fame’s “Shoebox Treasures” exhibit. Like a great song or poem, a successful exhibit leaves room for each visitor to develop his own meaning. Here is mine. I encourage each of you to visit and find your own.

When you’re a kid a shoebox can be a lot of things but mostly a safe. In the closet, under the bed, or in some nook a kid imagines a secret, there is a box of his best things. It might start out with some plastic army men or a G.I. Joe, some bottle caps, a few pieces of Halloween candy pilfered from his sister’s trick or treat bag, and some stamps and coins, but as the collection grows all these things give way to the consummate currency of cool: cardboard.

My favorite photograph from the exhibit

The baseball card collection, guarded more closely than eggs to a hen, was all things at once: encyclopedia of all that matters, marker of status, builder of friendships, beginning of plans and dreams, blank canvas, constant muse, and drawbridge to the bigger and better.

Not sure why “improved” is in quotes here!

The luckiest kids were born into cardboard royalty through an older brother or cousin, or–if they really hit the jackpot–their dad. I was not. Though my dad grew up during the Golden Age of Baseball and could have acquired countless cards of of Mays, Aaron, and Mantle, he had neither the interest nor the change to spare. His interests as a young boy were astronomy and dinosaurs. He told me why once. They were the things he could think of as far away as possible, in distance and in time.

Upper portion of “Collector’s Corner” area of exhibit

He had no cards for me, just a similar desire to escape. We both grew up in (and ultimately recreated) houses full of conflict: arguments, yelling, fighting, and ultimately divorce. I expected things to improve when my dad moved out, but my mom’s anger never went away. It only found the closest targets. From the outside our house looked solid. It survived earthquakes and a fire. On the inside it was fragile and falling apart, its only stronghold my growing house of cards.

More than 40 pull-out drawers, organized by era, offer a tremendous visual timeline of the Hobby.

The kids I grew up with, I think most of them collected to be closer to their heroes. Far fewer collected to be farther from everything else. As adults, however long our hiatus from the Hobby, I suspect the proportion is greater. Our cards help us start over, feel young again, and shield us from what ails us.

The exhibit included the work of Baseball Card Vandals, Gummy Arts, Tim Carroll, and other artists.

As I made the drive from Cooperstown to Albany for my 6 o’clock flight home, I reflected on the unbelievably great time I had all weekend but also how fantastic it would be to get home, to be back with my fiancee, my son, and our dog. (And yes, to add a few new cards to my binders from the local card shops!)

Getting ready to hit the card shops (L-R): Mark Armour, Harry Hoyle, and Andrew Aronstein

For most of my collecting life, I needed to collect. I don’t anymore. Life is that good finally. But here’s the kicker, brought home 100% at “Shoebox Treasures.” I still love the cards just as much. My shoeboxes are still safes, but now only the cards need protecting. Thanks to the heroes, cardboard and otherwise, who got me here.

Several players were on hand all weekend for the Hall of Fame Classic

I know some of you are a little bummed to reach the end of this post without seeing a bunch of great cards, especially if you missed the Mantle rookie in one of the pics. In fact the exhibit is loaded with great cards, including what’s probably the nicest T206 Wagner in the world. (Before you go checking some pop report, this one has never been graded!) I have too many pictures to share, and I’d rather you just go see the cards for yourself, but I will leave you with this great pairing.

Topps All-Star Rookie trophy supplied by the great Johnny Bench himself!

UNCOMMON COMMON: Ernie Barnes

Author’s note: This is the second post in a series highlighting “common players” with stories far richer than the value of their trading cards. The first post in the series profiled Dave Hoskins and can be found here.

The common understanding of the term “Renaissance Man” is of someone with many talents or areas of knowledge. Ernie Barnes fits this description. Less correct but truer to the origin of the word renaissance would be a man reborn. Ernie Barnes fits this description too.

“Song of Myself”

Raised in segregated Durham, North Carolina, Barnes was chubby, nonathletic, and bullied by his Hillside High School classmates. He mainly kept to himself and drew in his sketchbook to pass the time. Tommy Tucker, a teacher at the school, noticed the drawings and took an interest in Barnes. A bodybuilder, Tucker sold Barnes on the positive impact weightlifting could have on his life. By the time he graduated, Barnes was state champion in the shotput and captain of the football team. He also had scholarship offers to 26 colleges.

“Sunday’s Hero”

At North Carolina College, Ernie Barnes played tackle and center on the football team while majoring in art. As a kid, despite his interest, Barnes was never able to visit the North Carolina Museum of Art. Blacks were not allowed. In college, however, Barnes made a trip to the recently desegregated museum with one of his art classes. The answer when Barnes asked where he could find paintings by Negro artists? “Your people don’t express themselves that way.”

“Friendly Friendship Baptist Church”

Twenty-three years the work of Ernie Barnes would fill this same museum, and today his work hangs in Halls of Fame, top galleries, art museums, and the homes of the art world’s top collectors. If you love Motown and grew before everything was digital, there’s a good chance you even have an Ernie Barnes sitting in your music collection.

“Sugar Shack” painting used for Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” album cover

You might even have several!

That’s great, Jason, but what does all this have to do with baseball cards? Well, let me at least bring it back to sports.

“Fast Break”

Barnes was selected in the 8th round of the NFL draft by the Washington Redskins, but his Redskins career lasted only a few minutes. Then the team found out Barnes was black. Two rounds later, the Baltimore Colts called his name but ultimately cut Barnes at the end of training camp. In 1960 Barnes played five games with the Titans of New York, who later became the Jets.

“Football Pileup”

Barnes spent the 1961 and 1962 seasons as a San Diego Charger and the following two seasons with the Denver Broncos. Barnes never approached All-Pro status or even started a game, though he picked up the nickname “Big Rembrandt” for the sketches he did during games, including in huddles.

I suspect when you think of football players turned actors, Barnes is not the first to come to mind.

“O.J. Simpson” (1984)

Nonetheless, Barnes acted in numerous television shows and movies, highlighted by his portrayal of Josh Gibson in the 1981 Satchel Paige biopic “Don’t Look Back.”

There is another connection Ernie Barnes has to baseball, one shared with me by Lawrence “Dan” D’Antignan, owner of Chicago’s historic Woodshop, longtime institution and early commercial epicenter of African American art.

As Dan tells it, his wife had made a trip to Los Angeles to meet with Ernie Barnes and discuss the selling of his work when the meeting was interrupted by a woman hoping to show off the work of her teenage son who 100% lived up to the hype.

Perhaps you’ve tasted the back of some of his artwork…

Or been greeted by it at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City…

“Safe at Home” (2005)

There’s also a very good chance you’ve run across his book.

Of course, you didn’t come here to read about Kadir Nelson or even art! You want CARDS! Well, luckily I aim to please.

While an Ernie Barnes painting would easily set you back five figures if not six, it turns out any motivated collector can add an Ernie Barnes to his or her collection for the price of a bad ham sandwich.

As the title to this post suggests, Ernie Barnes, one of the great artists of the 20th century and an absolute icon in the African American art world, is a mere “common player, starting at around $2 on COMC and eBay.

1964 Topps Football card #48

Common though he is in the price guides, Ernie Barnes is the only man on the set’s 176-card checklist certain to remain relevant not just decades but centuries from now. Somewhere in a museum a young visitor will ask the docent where the works by African Americans are kept. And then, long, long after all 11 Hall of Famers in the 1964 Topps set have faded from memory, the visitor will happen upon an Ernie Barnes and neglect the rest of the day’s plans for a brush with greatness.

“Hook Shot” (1971)