The Game’s The Thing

The late 1960s and early 1970s were a golden age for kids who liked Topps inserts and separately packaged oddball sets.  You could dabble in coins, deckle-edged cards, posters, cartoon booklets, giants-sized cards, stamps, decals, and more.  All Topps.  Unlike the inserts of today, many of which are homages to this period, they were not used as “chase cards” or “short prints” — they were just more things to collect, and for the most part readily available.

The best Topps insert set — I will brook no argument here — were the “Game Cards” found in packs of 1968 Topps cards, specifically the 3rd series.  I was seven at the time, and a rabid collector.  As I have written before, I did not start collecting baseball cards because I loved baseball — it was quite the reverse.  I fell in love with cards first, and then thought, “Hey, these same guys are on TV playing too?  I think I’ll watch, and use my cards to follow along.”

With the 1968 Game Cards, I could not only play a game — with a friend, or even by myself — but I also could learn who the good players actually were.  The Topps base set was basically democratic — Paul Popovich and Roberto Clemente each got a card — but with this insert Topps was elevating 33 players to special status. Moreover, within those 33 players there was a method to Topps’ madness.  When it came to time to dole out the game events, Topps took the process seriously.

KChanceKLonborgKHarganKMcCormickKPetersHBPOsteen

I admit that there was a brief period when I thought Topps was insulting these six players.  Eventually I figured out these were PITCHERS, and being on these cards was a complement.  Strikeouts and double plays were, my TV announcers helpfully told me, pitchers’ best friends. As I pulled this Lonborg card, my region was praying for his recovery from a broken leg, which … never mind, I still can’t talk about it.

Those are the only six pitchers in the set, so happiness all around.  In the case of Peters, who allowed a stolen base on his strikeout, it was a bit of mixed bag.

FoulMcCarverPopGonzalezFoulSanto

As I worked it out, it made sense that McCarver, a catcher, would get the Foul Out card.  Again, this is a GOOD event.  Stretching things a bit, surely Santo caught a lot of pop ups in the Wrigley sun.  I am sure this card made him happy.  As for Tony Gonzalez, well, at least he got to be in the set.  Gonzalez was a fine player — which I knew, because he had earned the second slot on the NL Batting Leaders card (between Roberto Clemente and Matty Alou).  Nonetheless, he’d have to settle for a Pop Out this time around. Do it again, maybe we’ll give you a stamp next year.

GBCarewGBRoseGBTorreGBCepedaGBFregosi

These cards posed a bit of a problem for a kid learning the game.  Note that the Carew and Rose cards specify no runner advancement, while the others have the runners moving up.  How did that work?  You have runners on first and second, and a ground out advances no one? I eventually assumed Topps meant this to be a fielder’s choice with the lead runner retired.  Still, they could have made this clearer.

Carew and Rose would have many more go-rounds as Topps honorees, but in 1968 they were just establishing themselves as top-flight players.  Torre and Fregosi were stars, certainly, but there was tough competition for the big events to come.  Cepeda, the reigning MVP, wasn’t even getting respect.  Hey, the game needs outs.  This was 1968 for crying out loud. Its a wonder Topps didn’t just make them all outs.

FkyWynnFlyAlleyFlyMondayFlyKalineFlyStaub

Clearly Topps should have made Alley a ground out, and moved Rose into this group of outfielders.  The interesting cards here are Monday — because Topps always insisted on having at least one person from every team in all of their oddball sets — and Wynn/Staub, who are hatless because of the shenanigans with the Astros. This is one of best cards of Staub’s red hair.

Kaline and Staub, you will notice, get the RBI if there is a runner on third.

LineScottLineHowardLineAllen

When I played, I always loved turning one of these cards over.  Sure I just stranded runners on second and third in a one run game, but that ball was a ROCKET.  And Topps knew what they were doing, choosing three muscle-bound sluggers for these wonderful cards.

ErrorAlou

My first reaction, like yours, was “What did poor Matty do to deserve this?”  But I soon realized the, err, error of my thinking.  Obviously Alou got this card because his speed made the other team commit errors.  They didn’t throw the ball into the stands (note that the card specifies only one base of advancement).  It was more like the infielder got so anxious he bobbled the ball and likely burst out crying.  Safe at first!

9503-11FrHBPBRobinsonWalkDavis

Even as a child I was excited to get these cards because I knew that on base percentage was much more important than batting average and that the most important thing was not making hard contact, but avoiding making outs.

LOL, not really, I probably thought, “swing the bat Freehan, I have better things to do than waste time watching your weak crap.”

SingleMantleSingleYazSingleAaron

OK, now things are getting serious.  Mickey Mantle was no longer MICKEY MANTLE when I started watching the game, but I had plenty of people around me that let me in on what I had missed.  As a Red Sox fan, Yastrzemski was becoming my hero, and was coming off of one of the greatest seasons of all-time.  Aaron was, well, everything.  How is Topps gonna beat these guys?

9503-6FrDoubleKillebrew9503-7Fr

OK, not bad.  I would have put Clemente on the triple — he tripled more than twice as often as Robinson — but these were three top-flight stars at the heights of their powers.  You will note that Killebrew’s double cleared the bases; I assume that he and Robinson both hit the ball over the centerfielder’s head, perhaps in Tiger Stadium, but Killer had to lumber into second while Robby hustled around second with nary a glance to his right, and slid into third ahead of the throw.

And if you think I didn’t literally provide play-by-play to that effect while playing the game, we obviously have not met.

 

HRMays

 

You were expecting someone else?

 

Dead Imitates Art: The Cultural Imagery of Fernando Valenzuela and his 1984 Topps Card

A number of years ago, my father gave me an 8”x 10” painting of Fernando Valenzuela’s 1984 Topps card.  The subject of the painting, however, was depicted as a calavera, a Mexican iconography image celebrating Dia de los Muertos, playing for the “Deaders.”  At the time he presented me with the painting, I was thrilled, of course, but also overwhelmed with other things going on around me.  I placed the painting on one of my shelves housing numerous baseball books and artifacts, and never paid much attention to it over the years.

Recently, among my random baseball card buying sprees, I came across the ’84 Fernando card and remembered, “Oh yeah, the painting.”  So, I went back to the piece and really started to look at it in a new light.  I found a new appreciation for the work not only in the sentiment that this was a gift from my father, who would pass away two years later, but in thinking about the painting as a reflection of my own culture and its place in the history of Chicano pop culture.

What we find is the intersectionality of baseball as art in the form of a baseball card, and the traditional and celebratory imagery of one of the greatest baseball heroes in the Mexican and Chicano community.

In Mexican culture, “calaveras” or skeletons, are ubiquitously depicted in “Dia de los Muertos” or Day of the Dead celebrations, in usually fun and happy scenes.  Dia de los Muertos, celebrated on November 2nd, is a time when we remember our friends and family who has passed on.  We build little altars, and make bits of food and desserts as an offering.  It’s a sacred time in our communities.  Calavera scenes in art portray normal life and everyday activities, just in skeleton form.  It might seem weird, but it’s home to me.

By the time the 1984 season rolled around, Fernando was having a pretty good start to his career.  He was 49-30 with an ERA of 2.55 in 97 starts over three years as a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers.  No one had ever quite seen a pitcher like Valenzuela before.  He was a baby-faced, pudgy kid with a wide smile, who could light up a room and galvanize a community.  As he looked to the heavens before releasing a killer screwball or a commanding curveball you wondered how in the hell he did that.  He just did.  He was Fernando!

In 1981, his first full season, the 20-year-old led the National League in games pitched (25), complete games (11), innings pitched (192.1) and strikeouts (180).  Remarkably, he won Rookie of the Year, the Cy Young Award, the Silver Slugger Award (.250 batting average with 16 hits), and was 5th in MVP voting.  Not to mention, he was an All-Star.  Over the next two years, the Mexican native’s star would continue to rise, as did his popularity.

For kids and families in East Los Angeles, Fernando had reached cult hero status.  There was an incredible sense of pride when he pitched.  It was as if he was pitching on behalf of all Mexicanos and Chicanos in southern California!  That affinity translated into repeated sold out crowds when Valenzuela took the mound at Dodger Stadium in those years.  As with most cult heroes, we must find a way to uniquely capture their essence in a visual medium.  Among the shops on Brooklyn Avenue and Whittier Boulevard in the barrio, Valenzuela’s image was everywhere!  This was pride.  Pride in him, pride in our community, and pride in the Dodgers.

Years later, the calavera representation of one of my baseball heroes came into my possession, thanks to my dad who knew what it would mean to me.  I honor his memory, and the painting created by Joaquin Newman, here in these words.  I hope to continue this discussion in a presentation at SABR47.  Mr. Newman has created similar works with several other ballplayers that I will also showcase this summer.

 

Don Mincher on the Pilots

A recent posting of Bruce Markusen’s Card Corner featured the 1968 Topps Don Mincher card and provided an excellent overview of his career. The article mentioned that Mincher was selected by the Seattle Pilots in the 1969 expansion draft. Although Mincher was not a superstar, he was a well-known, productive player and as such stood out amongst the rag-tag group assembled on the Pilots roster.

This resulted in Mincher being featured in both 1969 and 1970 by Topps, Milton Bradley, Kellogg and other manufacturers as the Pilots’ representative on specialty cards, posters, stamps and inserts.  What follows is a look at Don’s cards and related collectibles during the brief existence of the one-and-done Pilots.

Topps 1969 Regular Issue and Decal Insert

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1969 Topps
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1969 Topps Decal

As with most cards for expansion teams, Topps airbrushed out the cap insignia from the players previous team. Based on the batting cage in the background, these pictures were taken during the same photo session. Obviously, the photographer wanted one with Don’s glasses on and one without. Also note that Topps didn’t stick with the same color designations on the decals as the cards. The light green ball on the decal was the designated color on cards for the Astros and Orioles.

The decals measure 1 ¾ X 2 1/8. There are 48 stickers in the set which featured many of the superstar players of the era. My memory is of them being distributed in the later series. The cellophane like decal peeled off from the white, waxy background paper. Over time, the adhesive tends to fail and the decal will separate from the backing. I can attest to this having a backless Mantle and Clemente in my collection.

1969 Topps Super

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1969 Topps Super 

Apparently the Topps photographer believed Don photographed best while gazing into the upper deck at Yankee Stadium. The image on the Super card is exactly the same pose as the 1968 regular issue card sans hat. The Super cards are on thick stock with rounded edges and measure 2 ¼ X 3 ¼. They were sold three to a pack. The backs are the same as the deckle edge inserts found in the early series of the regular issue packs. One of Topps test issues, Supers were only distributed in Michigan, making the 66 card set extremely rare. Even non-stars are valuable. Tommy Davis is the other Pilots player found in this set.

1969 Topps Team Poster

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1969 Topps Team Poster

Once again Don is gazing skyward but in the opposite direction and without a bat on his shoulder. The team poster measures 11 ¼ X 19 ¾ and came one per pack for a dime. The dimensions are bigger than the 1968 player posters that were also sold one per pack.   The team posters had a wider distribution than the Super cards but didn’t reach all regions.

1969 Topps Stamps

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1969 Topps Stamp
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1969 Topps Stamp Album

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Topps repurposed the 1968 card picture for Don’s stamp. The stamps came 12 to a sheet and each pack contained one album. There are 240 stamps in the set and they have the same thickness as a postage stamp.

1969 Globe Imports Playing Cards

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1969 Globe Imports
1969 Sports Illustrated poster
1968 Sports Illustrated poster

Arguable the worst card set in history, these 1-5/8 X 2 black and white cards were printed on flimsy paper stock with blank backs. Each of the 55 cards represents a standard playing card. Mincher’s card is the same image as found on a 1968 Sports Illustrated poster. The SI promotional poster catalog featured a small version of each poster (image on the right). This may have been the source for the grainy pictures. It would be interesting to know if Global Imports bought the rights or simply pirated the images. Apparently, the cards were sold or given away at gas stations in the south. I found a set in the 1970s at a liquidation store in Yakima, WA.

1969 and 1970 Milton Bradley Official Baseball

1969 Milton Bradley
1969 Milton Bradley
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1970 Milton Bradley 

The 1969 game is composed of 296 2X3 cards which came on perforated sheets requiring detachment before playing. The backs contain a list of outcomes (ground out, single etc.). Oddly, there are not enough cards to form a lineup for each team.

In 1970 Milton Bradley issued a simplified version of the 1969 game. The 24 cards in the set measure 2 3/16 X 3 ½ with rounded edges.

1970 Topps Regular Issue and Poster

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1970 Topps
1970 Topps Poster
1970 Topps Poster

Don was traded to Oakland in January of 1970 but not before Topps produced the early series cards and poster inserts. There are 24 posters, one player for each team, and measure 8 11/16 x 9 5/8. Note that the black and white “action” picture is actually Carl Yastrzemski.

1970 Kellogg’s 3-D

1970 Kelloggs
1970 Kelloggs

The 2 ¼ X 3 ½ 3-D cards were made by Xograph and issued one per box of Corn Flakes. Interestingly, Rich Mueller of Sports Collectors Daily mentions that the cards were also distributed in six card packs with an iron on transfer. Don is #75 of the 75 card set. He is depicted in his Pilots regular season home uniform. The background appears to be RFK stadium where the All-Star game was held in 1969 and Don was the Pilots representative. However, Xograph did superimpose players in front of backgrounds unrelated to the location of the photo. Furthermore, the photo appears to be identical to a publicity shot taken at Sicks’ Stadium in September of 1969.

 

Natalie Wood and Ron Swoboda

I have shared this story before, but not yet with this group. People who know me know that I love movies and I love baseball. For the most part these interests do not overlap — One day I’ll watch a movie, and the next day I’ll watch a baseball game, but rarely can I do both at the same time.

About a year ago I was watching Penelope, a delightful madcap romp from 1966 starring Natalie Wood, one of my favorite actresses from the past. I had never seen the movie before.  And then, this scene, with Wood and Peter Falk, happened.

 

You can see enough of the wrapper (time 0:45 to 0:55) and the card backs (1:33 to 1:45) to confirm that this was a pack of 1966 Topps cards. This was also the first year that Ron Swoboda got a card to himself.

The entire movie is fun, but this scene alone is priceless. This is the card that Penelope found at the top of her pack.

1966-ron-swoboda-f

 

“The Baseball Card Song”

Many of you likely know of the great band The Baseball Project.  Their members include several wonderful rock musicians who gained their fame in other bands, including Scott McCaughey, Steve Wynn, Linda Pitmon, Peter Buck and Mike Mills.  I could go and on, and I might at some point, but they write and perform songs about baseball, and they have made four great records.  I have seen them live four times.

Their most recent record (called The 3rd) came out in 2014 (guys, its time), and includes a fantastic song about collecting baseball cards that speaks to my young adult years rather pointedly.

I can’t find a video performance on-line, but here is the audio.  Have a listen, and then buy the CD/record.  Then buy the rest of them.

“It’s My Turn”

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On the subject of onscreen baseball cards, IT’S MY TURN (1980) is the story of Ben Lewin (Michael Douglas), a recently-retired ballplayer. The film may primarily be about the crisis of a modern woman (played by Jill Clayburgh) as she realizes she is no longer a child in her father’s house, etc. But if you ever wondered what Michael Douglas would look like on a baseball card, this is the movie for you… (In one of the film’s publicity stills,  Clayburgh’s right arm is around Douglas– and she is clutching a Topps Ben Lewin baseball card. It’s hard to make out the year.)