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:

Of Life, Death and Dave Ricketts

I began collecting cards in 1968, which was the year Topps featured the 33-card, game insert set.  Our “Founding Father,” Mark Armour, detailed this wonderful set in a past post.  My older brother and I played the game using our regular issue cards to represent the lineup.  We would position the cards in the proper positions on defense and have the card of the batter next to the catcher.  If the player registered a hit when the game card was turned over, his card was moved to the correct base.  Of course, this movement damaged the cards, which is why I have replaced most of them over the years.

For my brother’s 30th birthday in 1987, I had a photo mat cut to represent the nine positions.  I had the frame shop insert the Cardinals’ starting line up using 1968 cards. This set up was like the card arrangement we used as kids. I even included manager Red Schoendienst, as if he were in the dugout directing his charges.

In side note, my brother could never get Tim McCarver in a pack, and Lou Brock was in the seventh series-which never made it to our small town.  Thus, his lineup always featured Dave Ricketts at catcher and Bobby Tolan in left field.

My brother was a lifelong Cardinals fan, probably the result of my family hailing from Missouri.  Of course, St. Louis beat Boston in the World Series in ’67 and won the NL pennant in ’68, losing to the Tigers in the fall classic.  The card collection represented two of my brother’s favorite Cardinals teams.

68 Celebrate

Honestly, I have always been disappointed in the appearance of the framed cards.  There is too much green space and the shortstop would have looked better not angled.  In any event, my brother liked and appreciated the gift.  Over the years, he added a team picture and the World Series celebration cards by taping them to the glass in hard sleeves.  (Pilot sighting! Joe Schultz’s bald head and smiling face is clearly visible on the “Cardinals Celebrate!” card.)

Picture 1

After my brother’s death in 2015, I inherited his vast memorabilia collection-including the framed ’68 Cardinals cards. Unfortunately, the glass broke during shipping, but the rest remained intact.  Since I have a curator’s soul and a hoarder’s mindset, I was compelled to fill in the unused green space.  Using mostly the original cards from ’68 and ’69, I added most the players who appeared on the ’67 World Championship team.  A $0.79 Larry Jaster card was the only one I had to acquire.

Picture 2

Also, note that the two Cardinals from the game insert are included as well.  Orlando Cepeda is from the deck we used to play the game, back in the day.

Picture 3

Since I have maxed out the available wall space in my memorabilia room, I do not have a place for this piece. It sits in the card closet and serves as a frequent reminder of my brother.  We didn’t connect on many levels, but we could always find common ground with sports, memorabilia and most importantly, cards.

The Rogers Hornsby hiding in your 1978 Topps set

The year of hitting dangerously

If you’re my age you remember the season well. It seemed like everywhere you looked there was a 12-10 score, balls were flying out of the park, and entire teams were flirting with .400. No, this wasn’t the steroid era, the early 1930s, or 1894, though it could have been. It was 1978, I was eight years old, and the game was Play Ball, Played by Two—just as often “played by one” in my house.

Well start with the right way to play, even if it wasn’t the way most kids wanted it to work. The rules of the game were printed on 30 of the 726 card backs in the set.

1978 Topps #173 Robin Yount Back

PLAY BALL.” Played by two. PLAYER HAS 50 PLAYER CARDS. TOSS COIN FOR WHO GOES FIRST. FIRST PLAYERS TURNS CARDS OVER ONE AT A TIME, ATTEMPTING TO SCORE RUNS UNTIL 3 OUTS HAVE BEEN MADE. AFTER 3 OUTS, SECOND PLAYER BEGINS GAME. GAME IS PLAYED WITH 9 INNINGS. IN CASE OF TIE, PLAY EXTRA INNINGS.”

As much as my friends and I would have preferred a Dodgers-Yankees World Series rematch, there was of course a problem in abandoning the Topps rules to play the match-up of your choice. It wasn’t just that Steve Garvey would come to bat in the first inning with two on, two out, and end the inning with a ground out. It was Steve Garvey could do nothing but ground out all season long.

1978 Topps #350 Steve Garvey Back

Sure, Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Dusty Baker, and Reggie Smith had just made history in 1977 by all hitting 30+ home runs. When it came to Play Ball, they would go a combined 0 for 2400 on the year. Topps either hated the Dodgers, or they really wanted you to play the game right.

But what the heck does any of this have to do with Rogers Hornsby?

If you did play the game right, it was a completely different story. Of the 726 cards in the 1978 Topps set, 610 had Play Ball outcomes:

  • 134 SINGLES
  • 29 DOUBLES
  • 13 TRIPLES
  • 39 HOME RUNS
  • 68 BASES ON BALLS
  • 102 GROUND OUTS
  • 135 FLY OUTS
  • 40 FOUL OUTS
  • 49 STRIKEOUTS
  • 1 STRIKE UT 😉

1978 Topps #298 Tony Armas Back

Provided each player’s Play Ball stack is randomly chosen from the Topps set, the result is a lineup where the average hitter’s stat line was quite remarkable. (Phone readers, consider landscape for these stat lines.)

Stat Line

Believe it or not, the typical Play Ball player saw even better offense than this! After all, how many Play Ballers drew their lineups from complete sets of 726? More often, Play Ballers simply grabbed unsorted stacks from their collections or the cards from their last 3-4 packs. As such, the 51 double-printed cards in the 1978 set with Play Ball outcomes exerted twice the normal impact on the Play Ball probability space, leading to this DP-adjusted set of outcomes.

Stat Line with DP

If that .398 average with 43 home runs looks crazy, it should. MLB’s .390/40 club doesn’t have a lot of members. The most recent member is Babe Ruth, whose 1923 season (.393 average, 41 HR) earned him a spot. Of course, the Bambino drew nearly 100 more walks than our Play Ball composite. The .390/40 club has another member though, and he joined the club the year before.

Rogers Hornsby won the National League Triple Crown in 1922 with an eye-popping .401 batting average, 42 home runs, and 152 runs batted in. The Rajah had 148 singles that year. Play Ball had 146. The Rajah had 14 triples that year. So did Play Ball. The home runs of course differed by 1, and none of the four elements of the Rajah’s .401/.459/.722/1.181 slash line differed from Play Ball by more than half a percent. Within just a smidgen of round-off error, Play Ball was 1922 Rogers Hornsby.

Hornsby sketchpad

So yes, Topps really wanted you to follow the rules. Break the rules, and your four best hitters go 0 for 2400. Follow the rules, and your lineup is nine Rajahs!

Hornsby would crack the 1979 Topps checklist in earnest, just as he had in 1961 and 1976, and each of these cards no doubt gave kids a thrill out of the pack. However, 1978 is without a doubt the season that the Rajah most made his presence felt. Even without a card in the set, his 1922 season haunted every living room, bedroom, classroom, and school bus ride where Play Ball was played.

Hornsby cards.jpg

More on Play Ball

As the Garvey example illustrates, there was no effort on the part of Topps to associate the best outcomes with the best hitters. Of the 39 “Home Run” cards, the most prolific slugger in the bunch was Rick Monday, though Bombo Rivera at least possessed a great slugger name. Other notable home run Play Ballers included Nolan Ryan, Jim Palmer, and a man who caught baseball’s most famous home run.

1978 Topps #643 Tom House Back

Now I know most readers of this site like to play things fair and square, but let’s just say you really, really needed to win at Play Ball. Don’t say I told you, but yes, there are ways to make it happen.

Untitled.jpg

  • STEP ONE: Grab the Topps Super Sports Card Locker where I know you keep your set.
  • STEP TWO: Say to your friend, “Hey, I know you love the Big Red Machine. How about if you take the Reds and Braves, and I’ll take the Angels and Rangers. (This should be enough to net around 50 cards each, but if your set is short add the Giants or Twins to your friend’s stack, and add the Orioles or Jays to yours.)
  • STEP THREE: Play Ball!

The key to this approach is how unbalanced the Play Ball outcomes are by team. Here is a comparison of the Reds/Braves and Angels/Rangers.

Stats by Team.JPG

A variant on this strategy that’s perhaps less suspicious but still effective is to take American Leaguers over National Leaguers whenever you have a choice. Or you could just play fair and square. That’s fun too.

I could spend all day providing insights and analysis on the Play Ball card backs of 1978 Topps. However, knowing I am in the company of a number of fellow researchers I thought I’d do something different here.

For the first time in the history of the internet, I am publishing full Play Ball data and making it available to all readers of this blog—no paywall or anything. Enjoy, and I look forward to the varied and interesting research that will come from this treasure trove of data.

CLICK HERE FOR COMPLETE 1978 TOPPS PLAY BALL DATA

 

Dimensional Baseball Cards

PSST! WANNA SEE MY DIMENSIONAL BASEBALL CARDS?

Challenge

He stood on the dresser over my sock drawer, coiled, ready to strike.

His crisp white uniform was pierced by stabs of red streaking up his leg.

Stan “The Man” Musial stood before me, immortalized in plastic by Hartland, and I was in awe.

I was maybe 4 or 5 (1962-63), and I didn’t know who he was. My brother or someone of that ilk had set him there. I dare not touch him.

Musial.png

Stan the Man – a vision in plastic!

The memory of that statue is burned into my memory like a first kiss. It was one of my first introductions to the national pastime, and it punched my ticket to a lifetime of hopeless devotion.

The Musial statuette disappeared when a fog bank enveloped our house in San Francisco. When the mist cleared, boxes of baseball cards and comic books filled the room. I recalled seeing sexy ads in those comics for Aurora’s “Great Moments in Sports” models kids could build: there was my hero, Willie Mays, hauling in Vic Wertz’ blast in the ’54 World Series. Johnny Unitas. Jim Brown. Even Gene Firpo knocking Jack Dempsey out of the ring! I can’t recall why, but I never got one of those models, nor any of the baby boomers on my block (and we had a ton of ‘em). But another long-germinating seed was planted.

Mays

Aurora Glory: Willie robs Vic Wertz!

I forgot about those Hartland statues for about 50 years. Memory kicked in when I went to Cooperstown for my first visit to the Hall of Fame in 2013. The gaggle of Times-Square-on-the-Lake memorabilia shacks offered faded versions of the old Hartland statues at prices best suited for lawyers, doctors, and stockbrokers. There was Musial, trapped inside a case, but sharing time-travel secrets with Willie Mays and Yogi Berra.

Here’s current eBay prices for some of those original Hartlands, including the rarest bird of all, Dick Groat. Prices vary, as some come without the original box (shrug).

Yogi

Musial: $56

Mays: $38

Fox: $40-$115

Drysdale: $150

Banks: $120

Babe: $54-$120

Yogi: $115

Mathews: $120

Aaron: $160

Groat: $1300!

Groat

I found a Groat that sold for $780 at auction, and the selling house claimed it’s rare because Hartland was sold to Revlon Cosmetics in 1964, Groat being the last of the final edition, and they ramped down production. Also, at the time of issue, Hartland statues were experiencing a sharp decline in sales.

After my visit to Cooperstown, a switch was flipped, and a trip to eBay was scheduled.

The heavens parted, and a choir sang. I discovered that reprints of the old figures were available at prices the hoi polloi could appreciate. I did not see any Musials, but Warren Spahn caught my eye, and he was ticketed for a trip to the top shelf in my office. A second surprise discovery was that another outfit was re-producing Hartlands, and I put the snag on an Eddie Mathews. This re-pro was produced in a manner that did not harken to the days of yore as the Spahnie had. Lessons learned.

Spahnie, in residence with tiny Wade Boggs and The Creature.

Spahnie 

Ed Mathews 1988 edition. Sad face.

mathews

Then, Phase II kicked in.

Around 2002, my son had developed a fascination with the Big Unit, Randy Johnson. Strolling through Toys R Us, we ran into a dynamic figurine of him created by McFarland. Randy found a home on Matt’s shelf next to a Formula 1 racer. Then I forgot all about those McFarlanes.

Flash forward to 2011. I was making a film about the Baseball Reliquary, Not Exactly Cooperstown, and I needed a prop figure that looked like Wade Boggs. I trawled eBay and found a Yaz McFarlane that would be a fine stand-in for Boggs. My art director, Greg Jezewski, crafted a fabulous clay mustache onto Yaz and we were good to go. I also needed a catcher and an umpire to stage my scene with Boggs and found the perfect duo: Jason Varitek, in the squat, who came with an ump.

Varitek

Varitek and friend assume the position.

Aaron

Hammerin’ Hank Aaron was also needed to re-create his 714th home run, and the McFarlane not only had a fantastic pose, it looked like the man himself. A call went out to procure a Jackie Robinson figure, and there was #42, sliding into home plate, his cap lying in the dirt.

jackie

Jackie slides into the Baseball Reliquary’s “glorious attic” for my film, Not Exactly Cooperstown.

My eBay safaris had disclosed there were lots of these McFarlane baseball greats in the universe, and full-blown mania set in. Soon the mailman delivered a delightful parade of figures destined for the man-cave.

Gibson

“Hoot” Gibson in residence.

First was a spectacular (and pricey) Bob Gibson in glorious follow through. He would make a swell tandem with Yaz if I ever need to re-create moments from the 1967 World Series.

Kirkland

McFarlane was going for Mays, but we got Willie Kirkland’s face instead.

Willie Mays, my hometown hero, was next, and a bit of a disappointment. He looks more like Carl Mays than Willie. The M&M boys followed as a duet; the poses were great, the resemblance passable. Nolan Ryan’s pose is marvelous: the Express scrunched in wind-up, about to give birth to a heat-seeking missile. I scored a bit of a dinged up Tom Seaver with part of the brim of his cap nicked.

Posey

Buster has gone up in price: now $50!

I don’t go in for many contemporary players, but Buster Posey made the cut with a dynamic pose. I also ended up with a Barry Bonds figure that was acquired before the real mania kicked in.

yazClemente

Roberto shares a locker with Yaz, swapping batting tips and recipes.

Then there are the jewels in the crown. Roberto Clemente (the priciest of the bunch), which bore a great resemblance to El Magnifico, resplendent in his 1971 double knit Pirates uni. #44, Willie McCovey of my Giants, looks fantastic in his orange jersey and killer sideburns, ready to annihilate a fastball with his whuppin’ stick (a version of Big Mac in his SD Padre uni is also available).

McCovey

Beware of Willie McCovey and his fantastic sideburns!

MickBabe

Mickey, Hank & the Babe play bridge on Thursdays, BYOB.

Seaver

Tom Seaver hangs out with BB King’s custom Gibson 335 ES.

Some of the squad ended up being sold to recoup production costs: adios to Jackie, Varitek and the umpire.

A deeper dive was now required to see who else existed in the McFarlane baseball figure universe (they do other sports as well) and how much it would cost to indulge.

McFarlane got into the figure biz in the early ‘90s, producing figures of their own intellectual properties after a deal with Mattel fell through. Their first baseball set came out in 2002:

  • Pedro Martinez
  • Ichiro
  • Randy Johnson
  • Shawn Green
  • Ivan Rodriquez
  • Sammy Sosa
  • Albert Pujols
  • Mike Piazza

Gehrig

A total of 33 (!) series have been produced. There’s a sub-set, “The Cooperstown Collection,” featuring legendary players like Ruth, Cobb and Lou Gehrig (there’s even a figure of Gehrig giving his “Luckiest Man” speech). Here’s the gang from the 1st Cooperstown Collection series (2004):

A number of players have multiple versions (or “variants,” which has the player in a different jersey or uniform, e.g., Ruth with the Red Sox and the Yankees). Here’s the priciest, acc. to eBay:

Cobb

Ty Cobb variant ($80)

Christian Yelich ($60)

Roberto Clemente ($60)

Bob Gibson ($50)

Buster Posey ($50)

John Smoltz ($40)

Anthony Rizzo ($38)

Jeff Bagwell ($38)

Rickey Henderson ($35)

Hank Aaron ($35)

It’s irritating to see contemporary players like Yelich commanding more dough than guys like Clemente!

Bargain Basement:

Babe Ruth (!) $1

Scott Kazmir ($1)

Chipper Jones ($6)

Greg Maddux ($8)

I’d like to present my wish list of players, managers, and mascots for the next series:

  • John McGraw
  • Norm Cash (with table leg as bat)
  • Don Mossi (with ears you can size to your liking)
  • Leon “Daddy Wags” Wagner
  • Jimmy Piersall (perhaps one of him in mid-breakdown, climbing the backstop   at Fenway)
  • Jim Bouton (Seattle Pilots edition)
  • Seattle Pilots manager Joe Schultz (pounding the ol’ Budweiser)
  • The San Diego Chicken (aka “The Laurence Olivier of Mascots”)
  • Al Schact
  • Max Patkin
  • Connie Mack

How about an All-Miscreants Team?

  • Hal Chase (infamous scoundrel)
  • Denny McLain (recently referred to as “a bull that carries his own china shop with him”)
  • Cap Anson (virulent racist)
  • Billy Martin (beating up a marshmallow salesman, please)
  • Joe Pepitone (complete with hairdryer and toupee accessories)
  • The Chicago Black Sox
  • Albert Belle

The possibilities are endless! I’d love to see a collection of baseball writers (Grantland Rice, Jim Murray), fans (Hilda Chester), Negro Leaguers (Oscar Charleston, Satchel and Josh Gibson), maverick owners (Bill Veeck, Sr., Bill Veeck, Jr., & Mike Veeck would be a sweet power trio) and lovable oddballs (Eddie Gaedel, Moe Drabowsky, Frank Robinson in Kangaroo Court get-up).

 

Who knew playing with dolls would be so much fun?

 

Links to Hartland and McFarlane goodies!

 

McFarlane Cooperstown Collection:

 

https://www.cardboardconnection.com/mcfarlane-cooperstown-collection-figures-guide

 

Video of the Hartland collection from 1958-1962: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_t5XHcNY-p8