On cropping and layers

For most of baseball card history there have been two basic types of card designs. Either the photo is placed in a box* or the player is silhouetted onto a background.** Both of these designs are pretty straightforward with their image requirements in that designers only have to think about what is and isn’t shown in the photos.

*Straightforward but none more pure of an example than 1953 Bowman.

**1914 Cracker Jacks, 1949 Bowman, 1958 Topps, and many of the inserts from the 1980s to today.

There’s a third design though which took over cards in the 1990s and has made photo cropping difficult ever since. Rather than putting photos in boxes the trend toward full-bleed cards has created design after design that layers text and other graphic elements on top of the photo itself.

While it’s true that this design took over in the 1990s and was made extremely easy to do by foil stamping, it’s important to realize that its ancestry has been in cards for decades and in fact tended to surface every decade. So let’s go back to one of the first such designs.

Yup. 1957. I sometimes jokingly refer to this as proto-Stadium Club except that the photos themselves are pretty standard Topps photos that you’d expect to see until about 1991 or so. Posed shots showing a player’s upper body, headshots, and a few full-body “action” (at this point still posed) images.

The first thing to point out here is that Topps likes to put the players’ heads as high in the frame that it can. The next thing to look at—specifically in the Kluszewski and Thompson cards—is how Topps deals with the text overlapping the image. Topps likes to crop at players’ waists and at their necklines. In 1957 this is frequently where the top of the text starts but there’s another half inch of image visible under the text.

On the upper-body portraits this extra half inch can give us a little more information about the location of the photo and allow us to see the field and stadiums.

Photographically, these photos were also composed somewhat loose since the image area of the film is huge* and the photographer knew things would be cropped later. This is why in the Gomez card there’s so much grass in the foreground.

*at least 2 and a quarter inches square and quite likely more like 4 inches by 5 inches.

Now we flash forward a decade. On a lot of other sets* before this the image frame is knocking off a corner of the photo. This isn’t the same kind of design/photography issue since most of the photos are somewhat centered so there’s rarely something of import in the corners.

*eg. 1962, 1963, and 1965. Plus in 1966 there’s a layering effect in the corner.

1967 though is exactly like 1957 only there’s text at both the top and the bottom of the card now. Topps is doing the same thing as it did in 1957 too except that the players’ heads are now a little lower in the frame so that the names and positions can fit. The waist and neckline croppings though are pretty close to the 1957 croppings.

The net result here is that we get to see a lot more stadium details in many of the cards—giving the set a photographic character which differs from the other 1960s Topps offerings.

The Fuentes card though shows the dangers of this kind of design. Unlike the 1957 Gomez, Fuentes’s feet—and even his glove—are covered by the team name. This isn’t a big problem with a posed “action” photo but becomes much more of an issue when we move into the age of action photography.

I’ll jump to Japan for the 1970s since the Calbee sets of that decade deserve a mention. It’s obviously doing something very similar with extending the photo under the text. At the same time the simplicity of the text almost makes it an absence of design. In a good way.

It might be because I can’t read the text but the way it’s handled encourages me to not see it. Not because it’s not readable. Quite the opposite in fact. The way the text changes from black to white on the Sadaharu Oh card is handled masterfully in how my brain barely notices it. It’s there as information but manages to not take anything away from the photos.

It is worth noting though that the cropping on Oh and Davey Johnson is pretty similar to Topps’s standard cropping. And that third card of Hisao Niura tying his shoes has enough foreground space to give the text plenty of room to be legible.

Toppswise I skipped 1969 since it’s such a photographic nightmare that I don’t feel like it’s a fair to look at the photos. (Offhand though it’s interesting to note that it tends to crop the photos tighter at the bottom than 1967’s or 1957’s designs do.) 1980 is close, super close, to being included but it still feels like more of a corner-based design. Which brings us to 1988.

Not much to note with 1988 except for the layering of the player on top of the team name which is on top of the background. This is a wonderfully subtle bit of design that allows the photos to feel like they’re cropped similarly to the rest of Topps’s cards. Instead of getting more image area the layering doesn’t affect the image too much.

1991 brought us Stadium Club and the beginning of the full-bleed era of cards. Looking at this first set shows both that Topps was being pretty considerate with its cropping and how things would start to break.

Where earlier sets had the benefit of posed photos which could be cropped, as action photography began to be the priority for card companies the room for cropping started to decrease. For every card like Kent Anderson where there’s enough room for the graphics there’s a card like Damon Berryhill where the graphic is starting to intrude into the image.

1992 Stadium Club shows an alternative to just slapping a graphic on the bottom of the card. That Topps moves the graphic depending on where it best fits the photo is fantastic.

It’s also a lot of work since it requires each card to be designed individually. Instead of positioning an image into a template, this design requires the image and graphic to be adjusted until they work together. Find the best cropping, then adjust the graphic. This extra amount of work is probably why this approach hasn’t really been revisited since 1992.

By 1993 the standard operating procedure had been set. This design captures the way most sets ever since have been designed. A basic template, drop the picture in. Don’t worry if the graphic obscures an important part of the photo.

One of my pet peeves in the full-bleed era is when there’s a photo of a play at a base and the graphic obscures the actual play. The Bip Roberts is a textbook example of this. Great play at the plate except the focus of the play is obscured by the Stadium Club logo.

This is a shame since in 1993 Upper Deck showed how to do it right. The layering effect like 1988 Topps at the top allows the image to be cropped nice and tight at the top of the frame. Upper Deck though selected photos and cropped them to have empty space at the bottom.

You wouldn’t crop photos in general this way but as a background for the graphics it works perfectly. It forces the photos to be zoomed out enough that you can see the entire player and get a sense of what he’s doing within the game.

Most of the 1990s and 2000s however look like these. I could’ve pulled a bunch more sets—especially from Pacific and Upper Deck—here but they’re all kind of the same. Big foil graphics that cover up important parts of the photo. Some sort of foil stamping or transparency effect that cuts off the players’ feet.

Instead of cropping loosely like 1993 Upper Deck most of the cards in these decades feel like the photos were cropped before being placed in the graphics.

It’s easy to blame the card companies here but this is also a photography thing. Portrait photographers often find the crop after they take the photo. They use larger-format film and understand that the publication might need to crop to fit a yet-to-be-determined layout. Action photographers though get in tight and capture the best moment. This is great for the photos but not so great with baseball cards.

Baseball is a horizontal sport and there’s no reason to include dead foreground space. The only reason to include that space if you know that you’re shooting for a baseball card design that’s going to need it.

We’ll make a brief stop at 2008 though. This isn’t a transparency or overlay design but it’s doing something similar. Rather than the usual cropping at a corner of the image box, Topps placed its logo in a uvula at the top of the image box. Right where it would normally place the players’ heads.

The result? Very similar to 1967’s effect where the photos get zoomed out  a little and you see more background. The problem? These photos are already somewhat small and the change to mostly-action means that in most of them you’re just seeing more blurry crowds.

Fred Lewis is emblematic of the standard cropping. Small player image with lots of wasted space in the upper corners. That the posed photos like the Matt Cain are often bare skies at spring training locations instead of in Major League stadiums makes the added “information” there generally uninteresting.

All of this is a shame since the Tim Lincecum shows that when a selected photo is not impacted by the uvula, not only is the photo area not that small but the design can actually look pretty nice.

Okay. To contemporary cards and Topps’s recent dalliance with full bleed designs in flagship. I’m looking at 2017 here since it’s kind of the worst but 2016 to 2018 all do this. The transparency at the bottom of the cards is huge now. Yes it gets blurred out a bit but the photo information still needs to be there and as a result the cropping has to be even tighter.

As much as Topps was drifting toward in-your-face all-action shots, the actual designs of these cards sot of prevents any other kind of action. They also prioritize action that focuses in the top half of the frame. Any plays at a base gate stomped on by the design and even photos like the Chase Headley which don’t focus low in the frame are pretty much ruined too.

It’s easy to blame the TV graphics in Flagship but even Stadium Club—a set I love—has this same problem. On action photos the name/type often gets in the way of the image (compare Tim Anderson to the 1993 Upper Deck Lou Whitaker) but it’s the otherwise-wonderful wide-angle photos which fare the worst.

As the angle gets wider and the players get smaller, the odds that the text becomes intrusive increase tremendously. On Dexter Fowler’s card he’s the same size as the text and, as great as the photo is, the design of the card ruins it. Same goes with the Jose Berrios where the text is covering the entire mound and the ground fog Topps adds for contrast covers the whole playing field.

Which brings us to 2020 and a design that gets a lot of flak because it features sideways names.* What isn’t mentioned very frequently is how moving the transparency effect to the side of the card results in tremendously better photos and photo cropping.

*I don’t mind the sideways names except that I think they should’ve been rotated 180° so that when paged the horizontal cards don’t end up upside down.

All of a sudden we can see players’ feet again. Images aren’t all as in-your-face. We can have action images at second base where you can actually figure out what’s going on. Instead of cropping out the bottom of an image which a photographer has already framed, this design uses the space the photographers already provide for players to “move into.”*

*In action photography you’re generally trying to give the subject some room to move into the frame.

More importantly, it opens up the possibility for great photos that would never have worked in the previous full-bleed designs. For example, Omar Narvaez’s image is impossible to use in any design that puts transparency at the bottom of the card. Even Stadium Club. But 2020 Topps is flexible enough that it can use a wider variety of images.

I hope Topps learns some lessons from 2020 and that if we’re to see further full-bleed designs that they’ll be done in such a way so as to not get in the way of the images or to take advantage of the Transparency to give us more interesting photos.

Simulacra

Dave

Central among my beliefs is that the 1987 Topps set is the finest collection of baseball cards ever produced. There are no hard facts to support this claim, only my personal zealotry, and though I understand that my love is highly subjective, and the product of timing and circumstance as much as it is of accomplishment in design, I’m unshakable: this is the set, this is the year.

Arguments can and frequently are made for the 1952 Topps set, with its bold primary colours, its painterly portraits, and its Mickey Mantle rookie card, and had I been born a generation earlier I’d likely agree. If I’d been alive to see it first, I’d have been aware that the ‘87s owed much to the 1962 Topps, and so might’ve fallen in love with that set to the exclusion of all others. On the other hand the 1915 Cracker Jack set is iconic for good reason, and our impressions of the white border tobacco card set issued from 1909 to 1911 are necessarily favorable both for the design’s simplicity as well as for its inclusion of the famed Honus Wagner card.

But give me ’87.

Each card presents a photo, either action or posed, with the player’s team’s logo in a roundel in the upper-left corner, and the player’s name in a colored rectangular box with a black border in the lower right, the name rendered in an all-caps font that appears to be a kissing cousin to comic sans. But the background is what distinguishes: faux wood, the unstained grain of a Louisville Slugger running top to bottom, with enough subtle variance from card to card to suggest that real wood was used, or at least consulted, at some point during the design process. The overall effect places the cards adjacent to something real, something natural: wood bats swung through thick summer air, connecting with genuine horsehide balls, which are sent skidding across dirt and grass before settling into the soft, worn pockets of leather mitts.

Career stats—often including minor league numbers, if the player in question has only a year or two of big league experience, and so speaking offhandedly of Kinston, North Carolina, or Syracuse, New York, or Visalia, California—listed on the reverse in blue against a highlighter-yellow background, overtop an unbleached cardboard stock.

Beautiful.

In Canada they were branded O-Pee-Chee, and featured what felt like a token effort toward bilingualism, the player’s position in both French and English, as well as the small biographic fun facts, and yet with statistical categories listed only in English. They were otherwise virtually identical to the American originals.

I bought them from convenience stores—Becker’s on Youville Drive, or Mac’s on St. Joseph Boulevard—for thirty-five cents for a wax pack of 17 cards. If my father was sent out in the evening for a liter of milk, sometimes he’d come home with one in hand. My friends collected them, too, and we traded, with an eye toward amassing our favorites. We were not yet victims of the belief that these rectangles of paper would make us rich. This was a couple of years before the hobby became an industry, at least in my part of the world, characterized by conventions and trade shows where children were elbowed aside by grown men with dollar signs where their eyes ought to have been. The card and comic shop down the hill on St. Joseph hadn’t yet opened.

Joe Posnanski has said that baseball is never as beautiful as it is when you’re ten years old. I guess I’m testifying to that—or anyway, to that general time in my life between about eight and twelve. I watched the NBC Game of the Week, scattered Blue Jays games on CBC, TSN, and CTV, and a weekly digest show on CTV called Blue Jays Banter. When a Jays game wasn’t on TV, which was the norm, I listened to the broadcast on AM radio, CFRA or W-1310, on a transistor unit next to my bed.

Around the time that the Blue Jays reported to Dunedin for Spring Training, 1987, I would have started collecting the cards in question, noticing with great interest when the display box appeared on store counters. This was mere months after Boston’s historic Game 6 collapse (“It gets through Buckner!”) and the Mets’ subsequent title; it was two seasons after 1985’s painful memories, which saw Toronto enter the postseason for the first time in their existence, only to lose the ALCS in heartbreaking fashion to the Royals (I have yet to forgive George Brett). Kansas City then defeated their cross-state rivals, the Cardinals, in seven games to earn their first title. Stacked together, along with what would eventually transpire at the end of the ’87 season—Frank Viola and the Twins besting the Cardinals to win their first Series—that might represent the most thrilling three-year run in the game’s history, with three consecutive seven-gamers that’d be hard to imagine if they hadn’t actually happened. It was, I mean to say, a wonderful time to be a baseball-loving kid, and a great time to collect cards.

Darrell

We’d lived on Rivermill Crescent in suburban Ottawa since the late summer of 1984, when we’d arrived to find our newly built house surrounded by mounds of dirt, open foundations, and unpaved driveways. Across the street, behind the houses under construction, was a great thick forest, a ravine treed with mostly deciduous species—beech and birch and maple—and hatched with trails. In the middle of it wended a silty creek cut deep into banks of mud.

As the neighborhood rose around us, the houses filled with families who presented a tribute to the nascent diversity of Canada’s capital. My new friends’ families came from Hong Kong and Pakistan, the boys my age first generation kids who loved Michael Jordan and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. My friend Wil lived across the street. He was a Giants fan—Will Clark, Kevin Mitchell—though what it meant to be a fan of a team on the West Coast, or really of a team from anywhere other than the nearest major market, was not what it means today. Before the internet the scarcity of information, the lack of regular televised games, and the lag between when a thing happened and when it appeared in the newspaper’s sports section, all conspired to illustrate how far away everything was on this enormous continent. Chicago was the moon; San Francisco, and all the West Coast, was Mars. You saw those players in color on rare Game of the Week appearances and then during the playoffs, if you were lucky; otherwise you contented yourself with deciphering box scores, cutting their photos out of glossy magazines, and collecting their cards.

As I preoccupied myself with all this, my older brother and sister wandered the thickets of adolescence, almost completely obscured from my view. Peter is six years older than I am; Robyn seven. For a long time the differences in our ages meant we had very little to do with one another. I sat alone in the backseat on family road trips while Robyn and Peter stayed home and hung out with friends, threw parties, waded neck-deep into teenage dramas.

Robyn had a boyfriend from across the Ottawa River named Yvon. He was dark-haired, stubbly, smoked cigarettes, and spoke with a Quebecois accent. He was always kind to me. Took me fishing once. Yvon drove a 1976 Dodge Colt in a swampy shade of green that had originally been my grandmother’s, but which came into my parents’ possession, which they then sold to Yvon for a few hundred dollars. I remember him paying my father cash, handing over what was to that point the largest sum of money I’d ever seen in my life, thinking that this was the adult world; this was what it was to transact business, to be connected to commerce.

Yvon didn’t know baseball, but he treated me like something other than a child, and he listened to me with patience. On a night in late summer or early fall, he parked the Colt between the street lights on Rivermill, across from the forest, and we lay atop the hood watching the Aurora play across the face of the night. It was astonishing, but what should have made the heavens feel proximate instead made me aware of the terrifying size of the sky under which we huddled.

Juan

I had thought, until quite recently, that I had a complete set of the 1987 O-Pee-Chees, but if I ever did I don’t now. The whole set comprises almost 800 cards; I might have a third of that. My stack seemed so large to my young eyes, but now it looks almost pathetically small. This, I take it, is an example of how things from that point in our lives come to assume outsize proportions. We build our own legends and then accept them as facts.

There are complete sets kicking around on eBay, on Amazon, and it’s tempting to go all in, to fork over a relatively small sum in order to capture in adulthood what tantalized and inspired wonder in childhood. But I guess it wouldn’t be the same. Something about this set tells me I could never actually complete it, not in the most important sense. Maybe the trick, or the lesson, is to be happy with what I already have.

There are cards in this set that I can sketch with my eyes closed, so iconic are they for me, so emblematic of that time. For some, they are in fact what flashes into my mind when a name is mentioned.

Texas catcher Darrell Porter in a pair of ridiculously large eyeglasses that may or may not be back in style now, depending on when you’re reading this.

Jack Morris, in Detroit’s home whites, having just released a pitch, his limbs in unnatural degrees of torque, his face a grimace of effort.

Fernando Valenzuela, fresh off a 21-win campaign, in Dodger roads, his plant leg rigid as while he lunges forward to send a screwball toward whatever unfortunate National Leaguer has dug in sixty and one-half feet away.

The Giants’ Juan Berenguer, a workhorse righty, looking imperiously over his left shoulder, above the camera, beyond the photographer, toward the horizon.

The luxuriously mustachioed Keith Hernandez, recent World Series champion, looking light and pleased with life, on a practice field somewhere in Florida.

Sturdy Floyd Bannister in the White Sox’ beach blanket home uniforms, his shoulders wide, his right leg just slightly recessed at the beginning of his motion.

Marty Barrett, the Boston second baseman, whose name in Vin Scully’s mouth during that ’86 Series is a sound indelibly linked to my childhood—Mah-ahty Bawrhit, Scully sang/spoke, inserting diphthongs and pauses where most of us wouldn’t dream of putting them—and whose ’87 card depicts him in bright sunshine acting as the pivot in a double play in what can only be Spring Training, for why else would there be a basketball hoop immediately beyond the wall just barely visible over Barrett’s shoulder?

A trio of A’s captured by a photographer during the same road game, in Tiger Stadium, I think, wearing Oakland’s ’86 green tops, and bathed in similar light: glowering Dave Stewart, in his windup, staring holes through a hitter, who is out of frame; reliever, and possessor of an all-time great baseball name, Moose Haas, warming up along the first base side, the rows of seats beyond him out of focus, receding into the darkness of the ballpark’s overhang; and still-skinny Mark McGwire, depicted during his ’86 cup of coffee, with no way of knowing all that lay before him.

Dave Stieb looking so uncannily like an old gym teacher of mine—same winged haircut, same mustache—who used to lead us in laps around the gym, playing Beach Boys records on a portable turntable perched on the gym’s stage, and who would reward us at the end of class by walking on his hands around the middle of the floor, finally flopping back down, his face red and bulging.

Ernie Whitt, the avuncular and soft-seeming catcher, whose name still causes my father to reminisce over one of Whitt’s late-career stolen bases, an event so implausible that it warranted a headline in the next day’s write-up, or so recalls my father.

Willie Upshaw who, with apologies to Fred McGriff and, even later, John Olerud, and even Carlos Delgado, remains my favorite Jays first-sacker, for reasons that are spongy and unscientific, but which owe much to this very card, with Upshaw’s pose of readiness, crouched, that huge trapper open and waiting near his right knee, and the lingering scent of bubblegum still borne by the cardboard.

A shoebox full of these, many more forming untidy stacks on my desk, and on the bookshelf to my right as I type this. Still others used as bookmarks. The Marty Barrett card pinned to the wall above my workspace.

Looking over them all now, deep in the pre-Opening Day trough of winter, interspersed with other baseball cards that span a forty-year period, what first strikes me is how unique the ’87s are. Shuffle together a deck of assorted cards—O-Pee-Chees or Topps from 1979, or 1983, with some from 2003, or 2013, and some Bowman cards from any given year, a handful of Upper Decks from the early nineties, a few Donruss, a Leaf or two—and then rifle through the stack.

Most every card is bordered in white, but the ’87s stand out immediately. They’re so unlike virtually any other issue. The second thing which occurs to me about them has to do with that wood grain. I notice not how evocative of natural materials it is; rather what I see is how the wood grain is perfectly in tune with the era’s penchant for simulacra. That faux-wood border, veneered furniture, wood panelling, canned sitcom laughter, drum machines, artificial turf—all suggestive of something real but in their deficiencies creating further space between the manufactured and the real. I see not the proximity to realness, but the distance between the actual and the representational. I see the desire to simulate, to contain, to miniaturize. I see the need to recreate something random and unruly using something inexpensive, convenient, safe.

Fernando

When we weren’t collecting, trading, or memorizing baseball cards, or playing road hockey, G.I. Joe, or DOS-based video games in Wil’s unfinished basement, we were in the forest. We played war there, hiding behind trunks, laying down amid the ferns, using sticks as machine guns. We rode our bikes on some of the trails. We caught frogs and threw rocks into the creek. Gradually, we pushed at the borders of what we knew of the forest, pressing further and further into it, adding clearings and swales to our mental maps, wondering what still lay beyond.

We’d heard of some kids who’d found cattle bones in our woods, and others who’d pushed all the way through to Orleans Boulevard; the edge of the known world. There was a sandpit, somebody told us, where teenagers rode dirtbikes and held bush parties.

Wil and I found a fence one day, or the remains of one. A farmer’s partition, toppled, regularly spaced logs slumping out of their ancient post holes, and strung with rusted barbed wire. I had trouble incorporating this into my understanding of time and space, this echo of a time removed from 1987, the suggestion of a world beyond my own.

Above, nailed to a tree, a sign: NO TRESPASSING, it beckoned.

Floyd

Editor’s Note: For more of Andrew’s award-winning writing, visit his website. Of particular note is his book of baseball essays, “The Utility of Boredom.”

Venezuelan Topps and the Pirates of the Caribbean

When novice collectors hear the phrase “Venezuelan baseball cards,” they may picture something like this.

More seasoned collectors are more likely to identify Venezuelans as those hard to find, harder to afford, condition-sensitive cards that keep their player collections from the upper echelons of the PSA registries.

Hey, at least the shipping is free!

Other collectors, like this author, simply ignore such gaps in their collection based on most Venezuelan cards being so similar to their U.S. counterparts that there is not enough “there” there to pay through the roof for something you (mostly) already have.

In this post we will look very quickly at the years from 1959-1968 when the Venezuelan cards were nearly identical to their North American brethren and then spend my traditional very long time on the single year when they most certainly weren’t.

But first…1952-1958

My understanding is that Topps was selling cards in Latin America as far back as 1952. From 1952-1958, the cards were produced in the United States and then shipped to other countries to be sold. It was not until 1959 that Topps was not just selling but actually producing cards in Latin America.

1959

The 1959 U.S. and Venezuelan cards appear nearly identical, though in hand you would quickly detect two differences: a flimsier card stock and a less glossy finish. The backs of some of the cards would also replace the standard copyright line along the right edge with “IMPRESO EN VENEZUELA POR BENCO C.A.,” roughly translated as “Printed in Venezuela by Benco, Inc.”

As for the checklist itself, the 198-card Venezuelan issue simply followed the first 198 cards on the 1959 Topps U.S. checklist.

1960

There was even less differentiation in 1960. Again, the 198-card Venezuelan set mimicked the first 198 cards on the U.S. checklist, but this time there was not even a different copyright line. From a design perspective there was no difference between the North American (top) and South American (bottom) cards. From a production perspective, there is still a flimsier feel to the Venezuelan cards.

1962

More significant changes came to Caracas in 1962. The first is easy enough to spot: multiple elements of the card back are now in Spanish!

The second is one perhaps best known to collectors of a certain Latin American infielder. While the Venezuelan and U.S. checklists mirror each other for the first 196 cards, the Venezuelan issue skips U.S. cards 197 (Daryl Spencer) and 198 (Johnny Keane) and instead jumps to cards 199 and 200.

However, the Venezuelan issue didn’t simply jump to U.S. cards 199 and 200, both of which we recognize today as among the key cards in the U.S. set.

Rather, Venezuelan card 199 went to Venezuela-born second baseman Elio Chacon of the Mets, who would not be seen until card 256 in the U.S. set. (Side note: Frank Robinson sighting!)

Finally, card 200 went to an even more prominent Venezuelan infielder, whose card was number 325 in the U.S. set.

As a final note, the 1962 Topps U.S. set is famous for its variations. For example, all five (!) of these cards are number 139 in the U.S. set.

From what I can tell, “Babe on dirt” is the only one of the five variations present in the Venezuelan set, though (as in the U.S.) “Reniff portrait” can be found at slot 159 on the Venezuelan checklist.

Okay, I lied. I’ll say one last thing about the set. It involves a feature that would become commonplace across many Venezuelan and Canadian (O-Pee-Chee) sets during the decade.

As it came straight over from the much larger U.S. set, Venezuelan “3rd Series” checklist must have disappointed or at least baffled young collectors such as the one who this card belonged to. More than half the cards it listed were not in the set!

“¿Dónde está Daryl Spencer (197)? ¿Dónde está M. Mantle (200)? ¿Cuántos paquetes tengo que comprar?”

We know about sets with “chase cards,” but (counting the back of the checklist too) here was a set with 68 of them!

1964

Following the more significant changes of 1962, the 1964 release represented a return to the original formula, only with more cards. The set included 370 cards that mimicked the first 370 cards on the U.S. checklist. Moreover, the card backs reverted to English once again.

From a design standpoint, the most evident difference across continents was the black background color used on the Venezuelan backs as compared to a salmon color used on the U.S. card backs. (I am also speculating that the trivia answers came already revealed rather than requiring scratch-off, but I would love it if a reader can provide definitive information.)

1966

The next release was an awful lot like the one before it but with even less variation. The 370-card Venezuelan offering again matched cards 1-370 on the U.S. checklist and featured English-only card backs.

Flimsier stock and some subtle color differences provide the main means of recognizing these cards, and I have encountered quite a few tales of collectors thinking they bought a stack of ordinary Topps cards only to discover some number were Venezuelans.

1967

We’ll skip this one for now as it’s actually the main focus of the article!

1968

We have now reached the final year that Topps produced a parallel set for the Venezuelan market. The formula followed that of 1964 and 1966, a 370-card set matching up card for card with the first 370 cards of the U.S. issue. From a design perspective, about the only distinguishing feature was the nearly invisible (at my age) minuscule white lettering at the bottom of the card backs that read, “Hecho en Venezuela – C.A. Litoven.”

And finally…1967!

Hobby consensus, if not established fact, on every one of the sets from 1959-1968 is that Topps produced the cards expressly for the Venezuelan market to take advantage of baseball’s popularity and hopefully make a few extra bucks. As has been shown, the cards were essentially flimsier versions of the U.S. issues with the only interesting differences coming in 1962.

All this stood in stark contrast with what the kids of Caracas lined their pockets (or more likely their albums) with in 1967. Rather than a low-grade imitation of some early portion of the U.S. checklist, one could argue that Venezuelan collectors ended up with a better set of cards than their North American neighbors. Let’s take a closer look at the set, and you can decide for yourself!

While numbered consecutively from 1-338, there are three very distinct groupings of cards. In fact, the Standard Catalog lists them as three different sets, though most collectors I’ve talked to think of them as a single set in three parts.

Winter Leaguers

Cards 1-138 feature the players and managers of the six-team Venezuelan Winter League. This averages to 23 cards per team, which means this was less a “best of” and more an “almost everyone” sort of checklist.

Though they present at least some visual similarity to the 1967 Topps set, the Venezuelan Winter League cards are immediately identified as distinct by their distinctly non-U.S. team identifiers and their lack of facsimile signatures. (Or you can just flip the card over and see what number it is!)

Two particularly notable cards in this subset are those of nine-time National League all-star Dave Concepcion and Hall of Fame manager (then third baseman) Bobby Cox, whose Venezuelan cards beat their U.S. rookie cards by four and two years respectively.

RETIRED GREATS

Cards 139-188 featured retired (“retirado” in Spanish) greats of the game. Believe it or not, at 50 cards, this was actually one of the larger sets of retired greats produced to this point. While most of the players would have been at home in a U.S. issue, this subset also included a number of Latin American legends such as Alex Carrasquel, Alfonso Carrasquel (more on these two later), and Connie Marrero. There is also one of the more unusual Ted Kluszewski cards you’ll ever see!

ACTIVE MLB PLAYERS

Cards 189-338, a block of 150 cards comprising almost half the set, feature near replicas of 1967 Topps (U.S.) cards, at least as far as the fronts of the cards go, but these cards for once do not simply mirror the first 150 cards of the U.S. set. If that were the case, the top stars would have been limited to the following players:

  • Whitey Ford
  • Orlando Cepeda
  • Al Kaline
  • Roger Maris
  • Tony Oliva
  • Don Drysdale
  • Luis Aparicio
  • Ron Santo
  • Frank Robinson
  • Willie Stargell
  • Mickey Mantle

In fact, the 150-card subset included every one of these players except Ford (more on him later) AND also included Carl Yastrzemski, Harmon Killebrew, Brooks Robinson, Willie Mays, Eddie Mathews, Bob Gibson, Pete Rose, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron, Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, Lou Brock, Billy Williams, and many, many other top stars of the day.

To my eyes, the player selection represents a hand-picked “best of” that not only fully encompassed every major star from the Topps set but sprinkled in a disproportionate number of Latin American players to boot. (It’s important to note here that I’m placing us back in 1967 where Seaver, Carew, and the like were not yet established superstars.)

A quick aside to quantify the “best of” nature of this subset a bit more. In at least an approximate manner we can associate the best players in the original Topps set as the ones with “hero numbering,” card numbers that ended in 0 or 5. I’ve highlighted in green the “hero numbers” from the Topps set that have cards in the Venezuelan MLB subset. Cells in red (e.g., Whitey Ford, #5) reflect cards not selected for the subset.

The chart shows at least three interesting things about the MLB subset–

  • A very high proportion (89/121, or 74%) of hero numbers were selected vs the 20% that either random selection or any consecutive block of 150 cards would have yielded.
  • All multiples of 50, generally associated with the superstars in a set, were selected.
  • And finally, it shows that more than half the cards in the MLB subset (89/150, or 59%) were chosen from the Topps hero numbers.

“How very unlike Topps to build a set around the players kids actually want!” you say. And don’t worry, we’ll get to that soon enough. For now, just recognize that the full Venezuelan set now includes just about the entire Venezuelan Professional Baseball League, a huge selection of all-time greats, and all the best active players from MLB. How do you beat that!

1967 Card Backs

Diverging from the other years we examined, the 1967 card backs look nothing like Topps. This Mathews card is typical for the entire set, with the note that its blue background is (almost always) red for the Winter Leaguers and green for the Retirado subset.

What are these anyway?

For a variety of reasons including the similarity of the final 150 cards to the U.S. issue, the full 1967 release has frequently been referred to as “1967 Topps Venezuelan” or “1967 Venezuela Topps,” the name suggesting (as truly was the case in 1959, 1960, 1962, 1964, 1966, and 1968) that Topps was the company behind the set’s issue.

However, conventional Hobby wisdom seems to be that the 1967 Venezuelan set (or sets if you prefer) were produced completely apart from and without the blessing of Topps. The cards were bootlegs, “pirates of the Caribbean” if you will.

More than likely the cards were produced by Sport Grafico, essentially the Venezuelan equivalent of Sports Illustrated or Sport magazines in terms of content and equal to Life or Ebony in terms of size.

From the author’s Hank Aaron collection

Before proceeding I’ll offer that the pirated nature of these cards is great news for all the collectors out there who avoid anything unlicensed. That said, I’d have a hard time imagining too many collectors who couldn’t find even one spot in their binders for beauties like these. (And feel free to click here for the most amazing 1967 Venezuelan collection I’m aware of, online or otherwise. Or click here for another amazing collection covering even more years.)

One of the best pages for learning more about the 1967 Venezuelan cards is here, though you will either need to remember your high school Spanish or use a translation feature on your browser. Among the fantastic information shared on that site is the actual album designed to hold all 338 cards. If you go to the site you can even see what the pages inside looked like.

Among other things, the album seems to all but confirm that the cards were produced by Sport Grafico. After all, their logo is prominent in the upper left corner. Though one might be tempted to regard the cartoon parrot as a nod to the pirated nature of the set, each cartoon character actually represents one of the six teams in the league:

  • Leones del Caracas (lions)
  • Tigres de Aragua (tigers)
  • Cardenales de Lara (cardinal)
  • Tiburones de la Guaira (shark)
  • Navegantes del Magallanes (sailors/mariner)
  • Pericos de Valencia (parrot parakeet)

Most online sources on the Venezuelan league refer to the name of the Valencia team as “Industriales” or the Industrialists! Fortunately, we have baseball cards to set the record straight.

You can even make out the parakeet logo on the Luis Rodriguez card!

When did the 1967 set come out?

On one hand this probably reads like the joke about who’s buried in Grant’s tomb. On the other hand, the Hobby has more than a few sets that came out later than their name would seem to suggest (e.g., “1948” Leaf).

Looking at the album cover again, we see the years 1967-1968 in the bottom right corner. This is no surprise given that the typical Venezuelan Winter League schedule ran from mid-October through early January. This alone makes me think a designation like 1967-1968 would make more sense for the cards than simply 1967. (Collectors of basketball and hockey are already quite used to this convention for dating their sets.)

One card that quickly tells us the Venezuelan cards could not have come out until (at best) very late in 1967 is the Brooks Robinson (pictured earlier) from the MLB portion of the set. In the U.S. set, this was card 600, part of the seventh and final series (cards 534-609), presumably released around September 1967. (This same series also produced 11 other players for the MLB portion of the Venezuelan set.)

I don’t claim to know all the steps and turnaround times involved to go from a stack of Topps cards to a full-fledged Venezuelan set (or even just the final third of one), but I would imagine at least the following things would all need to occur:

  • Select the players
  • Capture images from the Topps card fronts
  • Write bios and other info for the backs
  • Print, cut, and pack the cards
  • Get the cards to the stores

I’m sure I’m leaving out some important steps, but I’ll still say all of the above feels like at least two months of work. I’d be surprised if at least this final third of the Venezuelan set was out in time for Winter League Opening Day, and it definitely wouldn’t shock me to learn this final subset might not have hit the shelves until early 1968.

“Okay, but that’s the final portion of the set,” you say. Might the other portions have come out much earlier?

I’ll start with the Winter Leaguers since at least their numbering suggests they would have been the first out the door. We can gather some clues about timing from some of the players who made their Venezuelan Winter League debut during the 1967-68 campaign. One example is Paul Schaal, shown here with the Leones del Caracas team.

As 1967-68 was Schaal’s first year playing in Venezuela (also noted by the last line of his card bio), it stands to reason that the photo on the card could not have been taken before October 1967. Ditto for Jim Campanis (yes, the son of Al), who also made his Venezuelan debut in the 1967-68 campaign but is already shown in his Cardenales de Lara cap.

As these two players were still with their Major League teams (the Angels and Dodgers respectively) through the end of September, their cards would be a good month or so behind Brooks Robinson in how soon they could hit the shelves. I don’t want to underestimate the production team at Sport Grafico, but Christmas actually feels optimistic to me here.

Another interesting example here is Jose Tartabull, who remained stateside with the Red Sox all the way through the seventh game (October 12) of the 1967 World Series. However, as a returning player to the Leones del Caracas, it’s certainly possible his photo could have been a holdover from an earlier year.

We have now looked at cards in both the MLB and Winter League portions of the Venezuelan set that suggest either an extremely fast production process or at best a very late 1967 (e.g., December) release. What you probably wouldn’t expect is that even a card in the Retirado subset tells us something about the release window. His card also puts a bow on a minor mystery you might be hanging onto from a previous section.

Recall that Whitey Ford was the one big star from the 1967 Topps set not present in the MLB portion of the Venezuelan set. Given Ford’s retirement on May 30, 1967, it actually makes perfect sense that he would A) be excluded from the set of active MLB stars and B) find himself included in the set of retired greats. Perhaps the only thing that doesn’t make sense is why he’s posing with what I assume is Joe Pepitone’s jersey! (UPDATE: A reader provided an excellent explanation in the comments section.)

Ford’s retirement was early enough in 1967 that it wouldn’t have exerted any real pressure on releasing the Retirado cards by the opening of Winter League. Nonetheless, it takes the one subset that at least theoretically could have come out the soonest and probably pushes it back to August/September at the earliest.

Yes, one certainly could argue that the team at Sport Grafico simply had a feeling in advance that Ford would retire. However, the back of the card shows that he had in fact already retired.

Translated into English the last sentence of the card reads, “The lefthander’s career was shortened by muscular pains and although he underwent surgery he could not recover his effectiveness, so he voluntarily retired in 1967.”

Ultimately, the question of when these cards came out, if not established by the distinct memories of contemporary collectors, might be settled by a thorough enough review of Sport Grafico magazines from late 1967 and early 1968. Assuming the cards genuinely were the work of the magazine, then perhaps there would be an ad dedicated to their release.

That said, the bulk of the ads in the issues I have (early 1970s) are primarily targeted to adults who would not have been the target market for cards, at least not back then! Still, I’d enjoy the search if I ever found the right issues, and depending on what I found I might annoy my fellow collectors by referring to the set as 1968 Sport Grafico rather than any of the various names it goes by today.

“VEN” diagrams

Everything I’ve offered thus far is simply a curation (but with less accuracy or authority) than what you’d find on the Web if you spent a dozen or so hours trying to learn everything you could about these sets. Of course the reason I’m the highest paid blogger at SABR Baseball Cards (okay, fine, tied for highest with all the other guys making $0.00) is because I try to bring something new to the table whenever I can.

In this case I’m talking about my trademark needlessly detailed analysis of the set’s checklist. Since we’re talking about a VENEZUELAN issue, it stands to reason that I will be employing VEN diagrams. (And yes, I know I spelled it wrong. Work with me, please, work with me.)

This first VEN diagram looks at the 338 subjects in the set, organized by which group(s) they appear in. The main thing to notice is that five of the subjects have cards in multiple groups.

Since the numbers are small, I’ll show each of the cards that land in the overlapping sections of the VEN diagram.

First here are the three players represented in both the Winter League (1-138) and the MLB (189-338) portions of the checklist. Probably not coincidentally, the three players are all Venezuelan-born and were assigned to the first three cards in the MLB subset (i.e., 189-191).

Next up are an uncle and nephew who are both Winter Leaguers (coaches, anyways) and retired greats.

Collectors in Peoria, Illinois, may wonder how either Carrasquel managed to join the hallowed list of retired greats otherwise populated by the likes of Babe Ruth and Satchel Paige. In fact, Alejandro was the first Venezuelan to play MLB, and Alfonso was the first Venezuelan MLB all-star.

Now that we’ve made it through the VEN diagram of the full Venezuelan set, we can now compare each part of that set to the (real) 1967 Topps set. The first VEN diagram I’ll look at compares the Retirado portion of the Venezuelan issue with the full U.S. set.

If you were paying attention just a few minutes ago, you already know the player in the overlap is Whitey Ford, so I won’t rehash any old explanations. I’ll just note that another good candidate would have been Gil Hodges, who had a manager card in the 1967 Topps set and at least in my book would have fit every definition of a retired great.

The next VEN diagram compares the Winter League portion of the Venezuelan issue with the full U.S. set. From previous work, we already expect to see Davalillo, Tovar, and Aparicio within the overlap, but these three players represent just one-seventh of the total number.

Here is a complete list of all 21 overlappers. As you can see, nearly half were confined to multi-player rookie cards in the Topps set but now had solo cards they could show off to their families and friends.

And while the money wasn’t as good in Winter Ball, at least you got to wear your hat on your baseball card and have your uniform match your team!

The final Venezuelan subset to compare against the 1967 Topps (U.S.) set is the collection of 150 pirated Topps cards at the very end. A VEN diagram here would be dull since all 150 of the cards are drawn from the U.S. set. Therefore, what I’ll do instead is show how the U.S. versions of these 150 cards match up with the U.S. checklist.

As the barely readable plot shows, the 150 cards came from all areas of the Topps checklist, including the dozen already noted from the final series.

Postscript: North of the border

As a guy who gets paid by the word, even if my rate is $0.00 per word, I’ll do anything to make my articles longer. (Editor’s note: Even adding superfluous editor’s notes when he’s not even the editor!) In this case that means the one last comparison nobody would have presumed relevant (and probably still won’t even once I’ve presented it).

While Topps most likely had no hand at all in the 1967 Venezuelan set, aside from having their images ripped off, it’s not like Topps was ignoring the rest of the world. As had been the tradition for the previous two years, Topps once again issued an O-Pee-Chee set up in Canada.

Much in line with how the (true) Topps Venezuelan sets went, this 196-card set simply mimicked cards 1-196 from the U.S. set and would be indistinguishable (at least to me) from their American neighbors if not for the “Printed in Canada” line at the bottom of each card’s reverse.

What this means is that multiple players had cards from not one or two but THREE different countries in 1967, even if for most players the variation from card to card to card was fairly uninteresting. (And yes, this was true in 1966 and 1968 as well, bu my focus here is on 1967.)

To support your internationally diverse collecting interests I now bring you my final VEN diagram, one that will allow you to triple up on the cards of some of your favorite players. Among the 49 three-country sensations are these star players.

  • Orlando Cepeda
  • Al Kaline
  • Roger Maris
  • Tony Oliva
  • Don Drysdale
  • Luis Aparicio
  • Ron Santo
  • Frank Robinson
  • Willie Stargell
  • Steve Carlton
  • Mickey Mantle
  • Eddie Mathews

Aparicio collectors, it should be noted, can score the four-point play by adding his Winter League card to their binders also. (Ditto, Vic Davalillo.) And of course Ford collectors just miss the cut but can still rep all three countries by “settling for” his Retirado card as the Venezuelan piece of the trio.

Of course I know some of you will not be satisfied even with a three-country collection and are demanding four! Well, good news! I’ve also crosswalked the 1967 U.S., Venezuelan, and Canadian sets with the 1967 Kabaya-Leaf cards out of Japan, and I did manage to find a single hit…as long as you’re okay with the “Japanese Mickey Mantle!”

DiMaggio’s really long streak

I ended my previous post with the teaser that neither the 1961 Topps “Baseball Thrills” subset nor its 2010 reboot, much less its 1959 precursor, included what I had grown up understanding to be the most incredible baseball feat of them all.

Rather than imagine the Topps intern assigned to building the checklist simply whiffed on Joltin’ Joe (or that there even was a Topps intern with such a job!), I have to believe Topps simply lacked the rights to feature DiMaggio’s likeness on cardboard. A look at other postwar sets during and after DiMaggio’s career show his absence in 1961 was definitely the rule and not the exception.

1933-1941 (AKA “Prewar,” depending where you lived!)

During the early part of the Clipper’s career, while he was not in EVERY set, one can say he tended to appear in every major set you’d expect to see him in, and then some, including these two gems from the 1933-36 Zeenut set.

Knowing DiMaggio didn’t make his Yankee debut until 1936, it’s not a big surprise that he didn’t appear in the three major gum card releases of the mid-1930s: 1933 Goudey, 1934 Goudey, and 1934-36 Diamond Stars. That said, his appearance in 1933 Goudey wouldn’t have been completely out of the question since that set did include 15 minor leaguers, including a fellow Pacific Coast Leaguer, Pete Scott.

Meanwhile, the 1934 Goudey and 1934-36 Diamond Stars checklists did not include any minor leaguers, so there’s no reason DiMaggio would have even been up for consideration.

Now some of you may know about the 1937 Diamond Stars extension set and surmise that Joltin’ Joe might have cracked that checklist. Unfortunately, all that seems to have survived is a single sheet of 12 cards, which of course DiMaggio is not on. All we can say for sure then is that if National Chicle did have a Diamond Stars card planned it would have been a gem!

The two-year stretch from 1936-37 did see DiMaggio appear on several cards, now as a Yankee, though there is room for debate among the collecting orthodoxy as to which constitute his true rookie card. (Don’t ask me, I’d vote for his San Francisco Seals cards!)

These four from 1936 have the benefit of being a year earlier than the 1937 cards, hence score a few more rookie points for their date of issue. On the other hand, all are of the oversized premium variety, which not all collectors put in the same category as the smaller cardboard offerings that come from packs of gum or cigarettes.

In fact, DiMaggio did crack one (cataloged as) 1936 (but really 1936-37) set of gum cards, but the fact that the World Wide Gum were only issued in Canada gives pause to a good many of the Hobby’s arbiters of rookiehood. If nothing else, though, note the nickname on the back of the card. A bit harder to read but the bio would not pass muster today in its reference to Joe as “a giant Italian.”

One of DiMaggio’s most sought after cards, rookie or not, was another Canada-only release and came out the following year under the later-on-much-more-famous O-Pee-Chee name.

Back in the U.S., DiMaggio made it onto two cards in 1937, but as with the preceding year they were both of the larger premium variety. The Goudey offering (left) is not much (any?) different from its 1936 counterpart, while the Exhibits 4-in-1 is particularly notable in its pairing of the Yankee Clipper with Lou Gehrig. (Oh, and the other two guys are pretty good also.)

It is finally in 1938 that Joltin’ Joe receives his first ever, God honest American gum card as a Yankee, thanks to the 1938 Goudey “Heads Up” set. Like the other 23 players on the checklist, he in fact appears twice, once with a plain background (card #250) and once with a cartoon background (card #274).

Finally, DiMaggio and Gehrig make it onto another 4-in-1 of Yankee legends, this time swapping out Tony Lazzeri for Bill Dickey.

To this point, just about every card I’ve shown, save the 1938 Goudey pair, has some level of oddball status attached. This was not the case from 1939-41 when Gum, Inc., hit the scene with its three year run of major bubble gum releases under the Play Ball name. Though the term is perhaps overused, I’ll throw DiMaggio’s 1941 card out there as one of the truly iconic cards of the Hobby.

The Play Ball cards weren’t DiMaggio’s only cards from that three-year stretch. He could also be found in the 1939-46 Exhibits “Salutations” set, yet another oversized offering…

And the 1941 Double Play set, where he was paired with his outfield neighbor, Charley Keller.

If there’s a theme to all of this, beyond just the opportunity to post a lot of incredible cards, it’s that Joe DiMaggio was no stranger to cardboard during the prewar portion of his career. On the contrary, he was in just about every major set there was, and then some!

1942-1951

These next ten years take us to the end of the Yankee Clipper’s career while also leading us through the wartime era where not a lot of card sets were being produced. DiMaggio cards didn’t simply follow the dip in overall card production but practically disappeared altogether.

Joe’s first card, post-1941, comes from the 1943 M.P. & Company card, a somewhat “off the radar” almost certainly unlicensed set, something we’ll see quite a bit more of as we proceed through this section of the article. (Side note: This set is screaming out for one of you to solve the remaining 21% of a mystery.)

Two notable aspects of the card are Joe’s position, right field (!), and the fact that his recent hitting streak is not mentioned.

The latter of these notables is addressed five years later in the 1948 Swell “Sport Thrills” set, which also happens to be the first gum card set of baseball highlights and a possible inspiration for the 1959 and 1961 cards Topps put out under a similar name.

First off, I’ll show the back of the card, which is everything you might expect to see in a card featuring The Streak.

However, the front of the card is more than a bit disappointing to DiMaggio collectors for obvious reasons. “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” indeed!

What I read into this card is that Sport Thrills did not have permission from DiMaggio to use his likeness on the card. Yes, it’s possible the folks at Swell truly considered “stopping the streak” a greater achievement than the streak itself, but I kind of doubt it.

But then again, look who made it onto the set’s Ted Williams card, so who knows!

1948 was also the year that Gum, Inc., reappeared on the scene, beginning an eight-year stretch (1948-55) of baseball card sets under the Bowman name. the Bowman sets managed to include pretty much every big name of the era but one: Joe DiMaggio.

Personally I would have loved to see the Yankee Clipper in one of these early Bowman sets, but a “what if” we can consider as collectors is whether the rights to Joe D. would have left another Yankee centerfielder off the checklist in 1951.

You might not have expected any mention of Topps so soon, but it’s worth noting that Topps made its baseball debut not in 1952 or even 1951 but in 1948 with 19 of the 252 cards in its Magic Photos release featuring baseball players.

The first five cards pictured could lead you to believe the players were all retired greats, but in fact six of the cards in the set featured images of the 1948 World Champion Cleveland Indians. Well shoot, this was the one year from 1947-53 that the Yankee’s didn’t win the World Series! Crazy to think it, but perhaps if the Yankees and not the Indians had signed Paige and Doby, there would be a playing career Topps card of Joe DiMaggio!

One of the least known (in terms of origin, not familiarity) releases of the era was the 1948 Blue Tint set. DiMaggio has a card in the set but in what’s emerging as a common theme the card (and entire set!) are believed to be unlicensed.

Similar to the 1938 Goudey cards a decade earlier, the 1948 1949 Leaf set finally presents us with an unambiguously mainstream, all-American, picture-on-the-front, New York Yankees card of the Clipper. It even boasts #1 in what is one of the earliest examples of “hero numbering” in a baseball card set.

Astute collectors may now say, “A-ha! That’s why he wasn’t in Bowman. Leaf signed him first.” However, my own belief is that Leaf not only didn’t sign DiMaggio but didn’t sign anyone, making this card as well as the rest of the set unlicensed. (As always, I would love it if a reader with more information is able to confirm or correct this in the comments.)

The next same year M.P. & Company was back with what I wrote about last year as the laziest set ever, adding to our tally of unlicensed Clipper cards. I rather like the blue added to Joe’s uniform since the 1943 release, but I don’t love the bio remaining unchanged even six years later.

In 1951 Topps hit the shelves in earnest with five different baseball offerings, a number that now feels small but was huge for its time. Though DiMaggio had already achieved all-time great status, there was no reason to expect him in the Connie Mack’s All-Stars set, in which the most modern player was Lou Gehrig.

However, there was reason to expect DiMaggio in the Current All-Stars set, which featured 11 participants from the 1950 All-Star Game. While DiMaggio wouldn’t consider the contest among his career highlights, having gone 0-3 and grounded into a double play, his presence at Comiskey that day at least qualified him for this tough Topps release.

Two other closely related Topps issues from 1951 were the Red Backs and Blue Backs. Though nobody would confuse their checklists for the top 104 stars of the era, it seems reasonable to think Topps would have gone with DiMaggio if they could have.

The final Topps offering of 1951 is one that seemed almost assured to include DiMaggio but didn’t. Topps Teams featured complete team photos of every team on the checklist, but there was only one problem. The checklist did not include the Yankees!

We close out the 1942-1951 stretch with the 1951 Berk Ross set, one that did in fact include a Joe DiMaggio card. In fact, there were two cards if we count his two-player panel with Granny Hamner as separate.

While not a lot is known about these Berk Ross cards, the one thing most collectors believe is that these cards, much like the other DiMaggio cards of the era, were unlicensed.

1952-1961

As much as some collectors, then and now, would have loved to see a 1952 Topps card of the Yankee Clipper, we of course know he did not crack the set’s 407-card checklist, nor should he have been expected to. While “career capper” cards are the norm today, the tradition at Topps for many years was to focus its flagship set on the players expected to play in the current season.

DiMaggio did find himself with an unlicensed career capper in the 1952 follow-up from Berk Ross

Beyond 1952 we are clearly in post-career territory, meaning DiMaggio cards would mainly rely on three types of issues: all-time greats, highlights, and reprints.

Of course that’s if we’re talking about the cards themselves. Joltin’ Joe was in fact the frontman for the 1953 Bowman set, his likeness and endorsement appearing on the boxes and the wrappers.

Side note: Topps liked the idea enough to try their own version of this in 1954.

The first opportunity for a post-career DiMaggio card came from Topps in 1954. If you’re confused, the set I’m talking about isn’t the 1954 Topps baseball set of Hank Aaron RC fame but a 1954 Topps set that mainly consisted of cards like this.

The 1954 Topps Scoop set captured 156 notable moments in our history, and four of them came from the world of baseball.

DiMaggio and his famous Streak would have been right at home in the set, but their absence was hardly conspicuous either given the primarily non-sports focus of the set.

The next opportunity for a DiMaggio card came in 1959 when Topps issued a ten-card Baseball Thrills subset as part of its main release. However, Topps focused all ten of the cards on current players.

The same year, Fleer issued its 80-card Ted Williams set. As the set’s name indicated, all the cards were of Ted Williams. At the same time, many of the cards included cameos of other players and personalities. As linked as the careers of Williams and DiMaggio were, a card of the pair would have fit the set perfectly.

The very next year, Fleer issued the first of its two “Baseball Greats” sets. The checklist boasted 78 retired greats and one active player (an eyesore of a Ted Williams card) but no Joe DiMaggio.

The checklist nearly doubled to 154 cards in 1961, leaving plenty of room for Joltin’ Joe. Of course, he was nowhere to be found.

Another player highlighting the history of the game in 1960 and 1961 was Nu-Cards. Their 1960 “Hi-Lites” set of 72 postcard sized cards was at the time the largest set of its kind ever issued. Two of the set’s cards featured DiMaggio, ending his decade-long exile from cardboard.

The 1961 Nu-Card “Scoops” set, one of my favorites, added 80 cards, now standard sized, but numbered as if the set were much larger. Again, DiMaggio makes the set twice.

As already mentioned, Topps was also back in 1961 with “Baseball Thrills,” but this time they departed from the 1959 version by including mostly retired stars. Still no Joe.

Nostalgia was evidently in the air in 1961 as yet another player entered the scene with an all-time greats offering. Golden Press produced a booklet of 33 cards that I rate among the best looking ever made.

I don’t know enough about the Nu-cards and Golden Press sets to know if DiMaggio’s image was used with his permission or if perhaps different rules might have applied when cards were issued in book form, as was the case with Golden Press. What I will say is that his absence from the biggies (Topps, Fleer), particularly on the 20th anniversary of the Streak, was more than just accidental.

1962-1971

This next ten-year stretch is one that was fairly thin on tribute cards, so there were few sets produced were a DiMaggio would have made sense.

The 1962 Topps set included its ten-card “Babe Ruth Special” subset, no doubt timed with the falling of Babe’s single-season home run record the year before. It was a fun set but not one that Joe DiMaggio would have belonged in.

DiMaggio did make an appearance in a 1967 set that might cause some collectors to say, “Hey, he finally got a Topps card!” The card came in the “Retirado” subset of the 1967 Venezuelan issue often referred to as Topps Venezuelan. However, the set was almost certainly not produced by Topps, and was more than likely a…you guessed it…unlicensed issue. (A future SABR Baseball Cards article will cover this topic in more detail.)

Bazooka issued an all-time greats set in 1969-70 that included small cards of baseball’s immortals and larger cards of baseball’s greatest achievements. In this case, DiMaggio might have fit either but ended up in neither.

Topps again featured amazing achievements in its 1971 “Greatest Moments” set. However, with all moments coming from current players, there would have been no place for Joe D.

As in the previous ten years it would be up to the smaller players to keep Joe DiMaggio’s cardboard legacy alive. One such player was Robert Laughlin, later affiliated with various Fleer sets of the 1970s. His cult classic World Series set (original version) from 1967 featured DiMaggio as the broom swinger of the 1939 Fall Classic.

With production of these Laughlin cards limited to 300 sets, collectors were forced to head to Oakland area Jack in the Box restaurants to feed their appetite for the Clipper, though it’s possible the younger burger eaters would have been even happier to land a different Yankee slugger.

1972-1979

The birth of TCMA in 1972 almost single-handedly accounted for the rapid spike in DiMaggio cards over the next decade, with Robert Laughlin and Shakey’s Pizza doing their part as well.

Two Robert Laughlin offerings that included DiMaggio were the 1972 “Great Feats” set and the 1974 “All-Star Games” set.

The “Great Feats” set, with mostly minor changes, became Fleer’s 1973 “Baseball’s Greatest Feats” set. One major change, however, was that DiMaggio’s card was dropped, almost certainly out of legal fears by Fleer.

TCMA’s first DiMaggio card was part of a beautiful set dedicated to the All-Time New York Yankee Team.

As were the Laughlin cards, TCMA cards were unlicensed and sold direct to hobbyists by mail order. Lawsuits would eventually hit TCMA, but at least for the time being they were able to issue cards of the Clipper with impunity. I can certainly see their “1930s League Leaders” card (left) from 1973 escaping the notice of Joe and his legal team, though was sufficiently under the radar, but I wonder if their 1973-74 “Autograph Series,” designed for signature by the players, might have been pushing things just a bit.

Among TCMA’s other DiMaggio offerings around this time were these postcards pairing the Yankee Clipper with other top-shelf Hall of Famers.

TCMA’s 1936-39 Yankees Dynasty set, issued in 1974, produced another two cards of Joe DiMaggio.

And if you couldn’t get enough DiMaggio/Williams cards, TCMA had your back in 1974 with its “1940s League Leaders” set.

I know a lot of collectors knock the unlicensed stuff, but I’m personally thrilled that TCMA was out there creating the cards that needed to be created. Topps had more than 20 years to figure out a way to pair Joe D. and Teddy Ballgame, and it never happened. This card needed to happen, and I’m glad it did.

We’ll take a quick intermission from TCMA cards to present a three-year run (1975-77) of DiMaggio cards from Shakey’s Pizza.

And now we’re back with more TCMA, this time a 1975 reboot of their All-Time Yankees set featuring all new photos.

Reprint cards and sets hit the hobby mainstream in 1977, including these two cards of DiMaggio, both originally from 1938. The first came from Bert Randolph Sugar’s book of “Dover Reprints” and the second came from Jim Rowe. (DiMaggio’s 1941 Play Ball card would come out as a Dover Reprint the following year.)

1977 was also the year that Renata Galasso began her 270-card magnum opus known alternately as “Decade Greats” and “Glossy Greats.” The first series of 45 cards, issued in 1977 in partnership with TCMA, assigned its very first card to Joe DiMaggio. (DiMaggio returned to the set in the 1984 Series 6 release.)

Evidently it was very much in vogue to lead off a set’s checklist with the Yankee Clipper as we see it happen two more times in 1979 TCMA issues, their 1953 Bowman-like “Stars of the 1950s” and their lesser known “Diamond Greats” set.

Before heading to 1980, I’ll just note that we’ve made it to 1979 with not a single Topps card of DiMaggio and possibly not a single licensed card from any company since either 1941 or 1948.

1980-present

The Me Decade kicked off with a beautiful Perez-Steele postcard of the Clipper. Dick Perez was not yet associated with Donruss, but Dick would soon lend his artwork to multiple all-time greats sets produced by Donruss over the next few years. You can probably guess whether or not those sets would include Joe DiMaggio. (Interestingly, there was no DiMaggio in the 108 “Great Moments” postcards released by Perez-Steele from 1985-1997. Ditto for the 44-card Perez-Steele “Celebration” series in 1989.)

DiMaggio was in an 30-card unlicensed set of “Baseball Legends” produced by Cramer Sports Promotions, the company that would soon become Pacific Trading Cards.

While other card makers joined the party, TCMA was still king in the early 1980s when it came to the all-time greats. Their third go-round of an All-Time Yankees set presented collectors with an early version of a “rainbow” nearly 40 years after Goudey did the same.

This same year, TCMA also included DiMaggio in its “Baseball Immortals” issued under their SSPC brand.

These 1980 “Superstars” are sometimes listed as TCMA and sometimes listed under the Seckeli name. (Andrew Aronstein, son of TCMA co-founder Mike Aronstein, believes the cards were sold by TCMA but not produced by TCMA. The Standard Catalog notes the cards were probably produced by Card Collectors Closet in Springfield, MA.) The set included 45 cards in all and five of DiMaggio.

A second series of 45 cards followed in 1982, this time with some non-baseball cards in the checklist and only a single DiMaggio.

The same year, Baseball Card News put out a set of 20 cards, including two with DiMaggio, one solo and one alongside Bob Feller.

1982 also saw three more TCMA sets with DiMaggio cards. Baseball’s Greatest Hitters and Baseball’s Greatest Sluggers featured standard sized baseball cards, and “Stars of the 50s” featured larger postcard-sized cards.

The streak of (probably) unlicensed DiMaggio cards finally met its end following the release of one last (probably) unlicensed DiMaggio card from the Big League Collectibles “Diamond Classics” set.

Before presenting the licensed DiMaggio issue, we’ll take one quick detour to highlight a set DiMaggio should have been in but wasn’t. The 1983 Donruss “Hall of Fame Heroes”set of 44 cards presented a terrific opportunity for DiMaggio to make his “big three” debut. (Donruss continued to put out all-time greats sets in 1984 and 1985 but neither included Joe D.)

Instead, DiMaggio signed on with Authentic Sports Autographs (ASA) for a twelve-card, limited edition set consisting entirely of DiMaggio cards.

I suspect “The Joe DiMaggio Story” by ASA represented the first time the Yankee Clipper got paid for his likeness on a baseball card in 42 years.

Rather than continue set by set, I’ll refer readers to an article from Night Owl Cards on DiMaggio’s more modern issues (or lack thereof) and simply close with some highlights.

DiMaggio’s next appearance with a major baseball card maker, which for now I’ll define as holding an MLB/MLBPA license, came in 1986 as part of the Sportflics “Decade Greats” set.

I can’t say for certain, but I think this was the first DiMaggio card to come out of a pack since 1961’s Nu-Card Scoops set.

I hate to bill this next one as “major card maker,” but it fits the definition I offered earlier. So here it is, 1989 Starting Lineup Baseball Greats.

The next major card maker to score a deal with Joe was, well, Score, in 1992. Several different cards, most very nice looking, were inserts either in packs or factory sets. The relationship would migrate to Score’s Pinnacle brand in 1993.

DiMaggio finally made his Fleer debut in 1998, though it was in a somewhat unusual way. The card was part of Fleer’s tribute to the Sports Collectors Digest hobby publication and showed DiMaggio signing cards for Pinnacle in 1993. How many times do you see one brand of baseball cards featured on another?

It was only a matter of time before Upper Deck got into the DiMaggio derby, though it would have to be posthumously. The relationship would continue until more or less the baseball (mostly) death of the company in 2010.

And what about Topps? The “baseball card company of record” at long last issued its first Joe DiMaggio card in 2001 as part of the “Before There Was Topps” subset. (For all those Mantle collectors who regard the 1952 Topps as Mantle’s rookie due to its being his first Topps card, I present to you your DiMaggio rookie!)

Topps would really jump into the DiMaggio game in 2007 and to this day remains your most likely source for future DiMaggio cards, even if Topps does not have an agreement in place at the moment. Overall though, Topps produced baseball cards from 1948-2000, a span of 53 years, with no Joe DiMaggio. Topps didn’t quite match 56, who who the hell ever will?

So all of this was my really long way of saying that it makes sense there was no Streak card in the 1961 Topps Baseball Thrills subset. Too bad though, it would have been a helluva card!

The tragedy of the commons

Those who have visited the memorabilia room (checks with fiancee…okay, GUEST ROOM) at our house know most of my best cards live on the wall. Though there’s some variety to my methods, I most often use top loaders to provide at least some protection of the actual cardboard. This new T205 Brooklyn display (thanks to David at Cigar Box Cards) is a good example.

While the cards are just sitting loose on the “shelves” each is in not only a tobacco size top loader but a penny sleeve as well. I took a similar approach to my Dodger team sets from 1956 and 1957, where cards were first put in sleeves and top loaders before being glued into the frame.

Sometime about a month ago I got to thinking about how even though my main collecting interest is vintage cards the Dodger fan in me really needed a card display honoring the 1988 World Series team. Not being the 1910s or the 1950s I naturally had several choices for sets to draw from: Topps, Fleer, Donruss, Upper Deck, and Score at the very least, and plenty of others if I was okay focusing mainly on stars. Mix and match approaches were possible as well.

Ultimately I decided on 24 cards from the 1989 Topps set, complemented by four cards from the under-the-radar World Series subset unique to the O-Pee-Chee release.

Unfortunately, a funny thing happened to me when I bought my frame, carefully measured to ensure enough room for four rows of 28 cards. They didn’t fit, at least not with the top loaders on them. The best I could do was six rows of three and way too much white space to look good.

Then a strange and foreign thought crossed my mind. Did I even need the top loaders? Did I even need any protection for the cards at all? After all, we were talking about $6 maximum worth of cards. The obvious solution was simply to glue the cards in directly. Besides solving the sizing problem, there would also be less glare in avoiding extra layers of plastic between cardboard and eyeball.

There was only one problem.

I couldn’t do it!

“I will not fire on innocent people!”

I couldn’t destroy perfectly good baseball cards, no matter how worthless they were. I reached out to my fellow collectors online and realized I wasn’t alone. Yes, some collectors said, “do it!” but most offered suggestions for other methods that would keep the cards intact.

Ultimately I decided that I needed to do it. I needed to not be crazy about a $6 stack of cards. I needed to realize that gluing some cheap cards to a picture frame didn’t make me a bad person or bad collector.

I was that kid standing at the end of the diving board over a cold pool, one step from doing what needed to happen but unable to budge. And then I jumped. And not just any jump. I jumped the shark.

I headed to my magazine shelf and grabbed a Sports Illustrated issue I’d been saving in plastic for more than 30 years. My stomach turned. My throat was dry. I cut off the cover and glued it down.

The process was agonizing for me, but I really liked how the final product turned out. A funny thing that hit me when it was over was that the new design probably could have fit the top loaders after all. Still, less glare, so I’ll call it a win. And really, what did I lose besides a few dollars worth of cards and my baseball card collecting soul?

One and done

While recently looking through my 1975 Topps binder, I was drawn to an “uncommon” common- the one and only Topps card of Bruce Ellingsen. His cherubic face and pompadour do not match the prevailing 1970s style of long, unkept hair, mutton chop sideburns and mustaches-though his sideburns are creeping down. Intrigued by the photo, I was compelled to find out more about Bruce and this ultimate common.

The photo was only three years old when the card was issued.  In November of 1971, the Angels plucked Bruce from the Dodgers in the Rule 5 draft.  Based on the red and navy jersey piping, he is with the Angels when the photo was taken.  In April of 1972, California returned Bruce to the Dodgers-which is required by Rule 5 if the player doesn’t make the major league roster.  So, the photo had to be taken in the spring of 1972.

Topps had at least one photo of Ellingsen on the Dodgers in case he ever made his LA debut.  

The Dodgers selected Ellingsen in the 1967 amateur draft in the 63rd round.  Though he put up some descent numbers, he was apparently blocked by the Dodgers quality, big league staff.  After the Angels sent him back to the Dodgers, he toiled for two more years in AAA Albuquerque.  For some reason, Bruce did make it to Dodger Stadium and suited up, since there is photographic evidence.  Perhaps, it was the annual exhibition series with the Angels.

Bruce’s big break come prior to the 1974 season when the Dodgers shipped him to Cleveland for a raw, untested minor leaguer named Pedro Guerrero.  Yes, this is the same Pedro Guerrero who will become an All-Star.

Ellingsen didn’t make the Indians roster out of spring training, so it was back to AAA-this time with the Oklahoma City Eighty-Niners.  However, the Tribe made his big-league dream come true with a July call up.  Bruce proceeded to post a 1-1 record in 16 games.  He was with the Cleveland long enough to get a team issued postcard.

Anticipating a possible long term stay at the “mistake by the lake,” Topps issues Ellingsen’s only card in 1975.  Alas, he never saw a big-league mound in 1975 or ever again.  Bruce returned to Oklahoma City for two seasons, retiring after the 1976 season in which he went 4-12 with a 6.43 ERA.

If Bruce had stuck with Cleveland beyond 1975, Topps had a photo ready to go for 1976-as this custom card clearly shows.

I discovered a few other things about Mr. Ellingsen.  First, his nickname was “Little Pod,” though I’m not sure why.  Too bad someone didn’t nickname him Duke, when he played for the Albuquerque Dukes.  “Duke Ellingsen” would have been a real “jazzy” nickname. Also, Bruce played winter ball for Hermosillo in the Mexican Pacific League-where he wore the cool jacket in this photo. 

Bruce Ellingsen’s card is the epitome of a common.  Yet, there is something satisfying about knowing that his dream of playing baseball came true, and he has a card to prove it.

Nine cards for #9

The great Minnie Miñoso would’ve turned 94 today. Or judging from some of his baseball cards either 95, 96 or 97.

But regardless of how old he really was, he was a very important player in baseball history, worthy of the Hall of Fame for his tremendous career as well as his role as a pioneer for black Latinos. So let’s celebrate the Cuban Comet with nine of my favorite Miñoso cards.

1945-46 Caramelo Deportivo [Sporting Caramels] Cuban League

This is my baseball card Holy Grail; the one Miñoso card in this post which I do not yet own. They do pop up once in a while, though with a price tag in the $350-$500 range even for something in the 2-3 grade range. Either way, these 1-7/8″ by 2-5/8″ black & white cards were printed on a very thin stock and were intended to be pasted into a collector album. So even when you find one of these, there will likely be a chunk of the back gouged out (this won’t be the first time you read about this here).

On the front of the card, there’s a thin white border with a photo and a small circled number. That’s so you knew where to paste the card in the album. Fun fact about these: the Caramelo Deportivo sets are the only cards I’ve seen of Minnie (Miñoso was featured in the 1945-46, 1946-47 & 1947-48 sets) where he’s sporting a mustache, though a thin one at that.

1952 Topps

The first installment of its “flagship” set, Topps has what is considered Minnie’s “Rookie Card” even though he has earlier cardboard appearances (see above). The front of the card lists his name as Orestes, as does his facsimile autograph. Missing here is the trademark straight-edge under the signature, as was his custom years later.

The back of the card does refer to him as “Minnie” even here for 1952.

1952 Red Man Tobacco

From 1952-55, Red Man Tobacco issued these colorful 3-1/2″ square cards (they originally came with another half-inch tab at the bottom), bringing cards and tobacco products back together again as they were with the 19th century & early 20th century sets. Everything you want is on the front here. The back of the card is just an advertisement of the set itself with an offer to collect 50 of the tabs and send them in for a baseball cap. Apparently, that’s what the original owner of my card did.

1952 Berk Ross

At only 2″ by 3″ this qualifies as a Mini Miñoso. There’s not much to it; the back of the card boasts “Hit Parade of Champions” with a brief bio and a few statistics. These cards have a sort of primitive charm to them. The printing is a little off, the centering also not quite right, and there’s little nubs on each edge as if they were part of a perforated strip. I got this card at a good price probably because somebody’s name is stamped on the back.

1954 Dixie Lids


65 years ago, somebody enjoyed a cup of ice cream and when they removed the lid, there was “Minny” Miñoso. If there’s another card of him listed as Minny, I’m not aware of it. These lids advertise the Dixie Lid 3-D Starviewer; all you need to do is send 25 cents, this lid, name and address to the company. Personally, I’d much rather have this lid than the Starviewer, even if it looks like quite a contraption.

1962 Topps Baseball Bucks

Minnie Miñoso played only 39 games for the St. Louis Cardinals, but it was long enough to get his face on a one-dollar 4-1/8 inch by 1-3/4 inch “Baseball Buck.” Sure, Henry Aaron and Roberto Clemente were on $5 bills and Willie Mays & Mickey Mantle were on $10 bills, but there’s nothing wrong with being on a $1. George Washington is on the $1 and that’s good enough for me.

1967 Venezuelan Retirado


These are TOUGH to find, particularly in good condition, because just like the Caramelo Deportivo cards I mentioned earlier, these were glued (or stuck in some way) inside collector albums, evidenced by the chunk of the back of my card that was torn off. Other than that, this might be my favorite Minnie card.

First of all, I had never even heard of this set before stumbling upon it. It’s pretty rare and it came from another country. I love the beautiful shade of blue as a plain background for the player image, which might not be a surprise to those who read my post on the 2010 Tristar Obak cards.

Editor’s note: This subset of 49 retired baseball players and one who would still be active in 1980 😃 was part of a larger Venezuelan release popularly known as 1967 Topps Venezuelan. However, there is some reason to believe these cards were not produced by Topps at all.

1984 True Value White Sox, 1986-89 Coca-Cola White Sox

I’m counting these five team issue cards as one card, since I make the rules. The first from the 1984 True Value team set, which Jason will certainly find more appealing than the 1986 Coca-Cola card (even though it’s the same photo used) because of the large BORDER. The Blue-bordered 1987 Coca-Cola card also shows the same photo as the red-bordered 1988 Coca-Cola card. Then there’s the obnoxiously-bordered 1989 card.

What’s my point? Well, the White Sox were still including Minnie Miñoso in team-issue sets even though he last played in 1980 (even though there were attempts to get him into a game in 1990 as well as 1993). And that means something. He’s Mr. White Sox. An iconic player in franchise history, as well as baseball history.

2015 White Sox tribute

This card was given out to attendees of Minnie’s memorial service at Holy Family Church in March 2015. It’s nicely done in the 1964 Topps style with red lettering instead of the light blue used in the original set. Plus, the #9 memorial logo is shown in the upper left corner.

Nine (okay, thirteen) cards of one man, spanning over 70 years. An amazing man. An amazing life. And about one year from now, we’ll hopefully be celebrating his election to the Hall of Fame on the Golden Era ballot.

Editor’s note: Chris delivered a terrific presentation on Minnie’s Hall of Fame case at a 2019 SABR Chicago chapter meeting. His presentation begins around the 19:00 mark of this video.

Solving the border crisis

A common complaint among vintage collectors who run across newer issues is that we miss the good old days when baseball cards had borders. Looking at cards like these 2017 Astros leaves us feeling (ahem!)…cheated.

The borders we overlooked as kids have come to symbolize all that was right about baseball cards. Joni Mitchell had us pegged. You really DON’T know what you’ve got till it’s gone. No, we’d never pave Paradise to put up a parking lot, but we sure wouldn’t mind a thin cement edge around it.

The borders on our cards have taken on almost a spiritual significance with “meaning of life” level implications. We ponder koans such as, “Is a card without a border even a card?”

The sages teach us that without nothing there could be no something. Cardboardismically speaking, the border is the yin to the image’s yang. Form needs outline.

The vintage collector therefore must find “border in the chaos,” else risk serenity and sanity alike. Should he even consider collecting cards post-2015, his best, nay ONLY, option is Heritage!

Whatever you hear on TV, friends, THIS is the real border crisis, but fear not…

Tengo un plan para eso…and it won’t even raise your taxes! (Checks new eBay policy. “Okay, so maybe a little.”)

Add just THREE CARDS to your collection and you’re gonna win on borders so much you’ll be tired of winning on borders.

1960 Fleer ted williams

Let’s start with Ted Williams. Compare his 1960 Fleer card with that of Hack Wilson or any other player in the set. That’s some serious border! Where some perfectly centered cards are said to have 50-50 centering, Teddy Ballgame comes in at 150-150!

Back in the day you might have found this card an eyesore, but that was then. Now you probably look at the card and wish the borders were even bigger!

1936-37 World wide gum Lou Gehrig

The second must-have for the border hoarder is the 1936-37 World Wide Gum card of Lou Gehrig. (Note that this issue is catalogued as 1936, but Matthew Glidden makes a compelling case that 1936-37 is more correct.)

At first you may shrug away Larrupin’ Lou’s border as nothing special, no different than that of teammate Dickey. Look closer though and you’ll see that Gehrig’s image comes to a refreshing end more than a quarter inch from the card edge. After unremarkable offerings in 1933 and 1934, World Wide Gum definitely put the Border in “North of the Border!”

1934 Butterfinger Paul Waner

Finally we come to the 1934 Butterfinger card of Paul Waner, the card that I believe sets the standard when it comes to border-to-image ratio.

While the Dizzy Dean image from the same issue flirts tantalizingly close to the card edge, the Waner card has more margin than Gould selling hammers to the Pentagon. If the card had any more border we might forget it was a baseball card altogether and assume it was a Home Depot paint sample for Gotham Gray. If Big Poison were any smaller on the card he would have been Little Poison.

Teddy Ballgame, the Iron Horse, and Big Poison. Three players who made the Hall of Fame by a wide margin, but even more importantly, three cards who made the wide margin Hall of Fame. Border crisis averted, at least for now.

R.G. Knowles 1901–02 Ogden’s Tabs

Last week I received a surprise mailing of pre-war cards from Anson Whaley, the proprietor of prewarcards.com who many of us turn to whenever we have questions an anything pre-war. I treat these mailings as an opportunity to google the subjects of the cards and hopefully come across an interesting Wikipedia page that leads me down a rabbit hole.

In this case, it wasn’t a Wikipedia rabbit hole I fell in to but rather a Google Books one. Anson sent me a dozen 1901–02 Ogden’s Cigarettes General Interest cards. A couple sporting subjects but mostly non-sports miscellany—actors, politicians, ships, etc.

One of them was a Mr. R.G. Knowles. The first round of googling confirmed his short bio. He was indeed a comedian who styled himself as “The Peculiar American.” But I also learned that his full name was “Richard George Knowles” so I decided to try googling that too. The result? A link to a book called Baseball written in 1896 in England.

At first I thought this must be a different Richard George Knowles but I figured it was worth flipping through the book just to make sure. Lo and behold on page 65 I found an author photo. To my eyes it looks like the same face (no comment on the hairstyle).

This is pretty cool. My general interest card just turned into a baseball card. So I went back and downloaded the PDF from Google so I could take a deeper look at the book. It’s basically a baseball primer for an English audience more familiar with Rounders and Cricket but is also a great snapshot of the state of the game in the mid-1890s on both sides of the Atlantic.

The player lives in a world limited to three bases, a home plate, and two foul lines, and, for a couple of hours or so, finds relief from business cares, and snatches a holiday for his brain.

The first chapter is about baseball in general. It starts off building baseball up as a game of intelligence where draws are impossible, skills are required in all facets of the game, and failure can be minimized due to the number of repeated chances a batter gets. Much of this reads as an implicit comparison to Cricket which doesn’t feature baserunning and a batter only gets to bat twice a match.

It then goes into describing how to lay out a baseball field. It’s impossible for me to state how much I love this section so I’ll just paste the full text in here in case anyone wants to lay out their own baseball field.

Procure a heavy cord one hundred and eighty feet in length. Tie three knots in it, one at sixty feet five inches, one at ninety feet, and the other at one hundred and twenty-seven feet four inches.

Then, at the outer point of the home plate, drive a peg in the ground, and attach the line to it. Extend the line straight out to the third knot, and at that limit mark the second base. The knot is the centre of the base. Care must be taken that the cord be kept taut, and absolutely straight from the peg at the home plate to the centre of the second base, for the first knot, at sixty feet five inches, must now be taken to indicate the centre of the pitcher’s plate. When this has been duly marked, have one end of the hundred and eighty feet line held at the centre of second base, and keep the other end secured at the home plate as before. Then take hold of the second knot, at ninety feet, which is, of course, in the exact centre of the cord, and walk out with it to the corner of the diamond which is to mark the first base. Keep walking until the line is taut on both sides, and, at that point, mark the first base. Repeat this in the opposite direction, and mark the third base. The diamond is then complete.

That R.G. Knowles goes on to say that when he was a kid he used to carry a ball of string with the requisite knots in it just in case he needed to create a diamond for other kids is just wonderful. Do I think he’s telling the truth? Of course not. (since when have kids cared about proper dimensions when playing a game) But I love the sentiment.

The man who evinces a quick grasp and comprehension of the points of play, and who is also gifted with the capacity of being witty, is a very desirable person for the post.

The second chapter describes each position, including the “coachers” and umpire. Not much to say about the players except to note that second base is treated as the key position on the diamond. The umpire is similarly familiar in how he’s charged with being in control of the game.  The coaches though are specifically the first and third base coaches and get a lot more description than any of the fielders. Aside from coaching the baserunners one of their jobs is to distract the fielders with banter.

Chapter three is the rules of the game. I didn’t read this one thoroughly since it appears to be mostly the same as current rules. I did notice however that things like the 18″ “pine tar” rule as well as the 3-foot running lane to first base already exist.

The next chapter though is great since it’s all about keeping score. Seeing different scoring methods is one of my favorite things and this section’s method is one of the most distinct ones I’ve come across. While it looks superficially like modern scorekeeping it’s vasty different.

To start off, shortstop is position #5 and thirdbase is #6. But everything else is different too. Instead of being a progression around the diamond each square is read left to right.

We also don’t have the now-standard abbreviations that I learned as a kid and which I’ve taught my kids. Take for example the following progression.

This represents a single, stolen base, advancing to third on an error (wild throw), and scoring on a passed ball. The only thing recognizable about this is putting an X or coloring int he diamond when someone scores.

Outs are a lot more familiar. This represents a ground out to the shortstop for the first out of the inning. Aside from the difference in position numbering this is pretty much the same thing I do today.

The rest of the chapter includes a bunch more examples of dealing with other possibilities available during a game. S–O are strikeouts. TI means advancing on a throw. S–H is a sacrifice. FF is a foul out. Very much the same kinds of things that happen in today‘s game and definitely sets baseball apart as a game which has always been obsessed with detail and replaying the events of games past.

The last four chapters of the book discuss the state of the game in 1895. Two chapters each devoted to Baseball in England and Baseball in America.

Among the people present at this christening of the game in London were: Buffalo Bill, General B. Williams (U.S. Army), Colonel Ochiltree, Mrs. Mackay, Mrs. Henry Labouchere, Mrs. T. P. O’Connor, Mrs. Alice Shaw, Dr. Maitland Coffin, Miss Blanche Rooseveldt, Mr. and Mrs. Tyars, Miss Hallett, Miss Helen Dauvray, Mrs. Conover, and Mr. W. Chapman. As a pressman summed it up, it was an audience of society folk, mummers and Mexicans, Cowboys and Cossacks, Gauchos and Indians.

The England chapter starts off listing a few exhibitions by American teams that failed to make any impressions before getting into a description of an exhibition between the Clapham Common nine—a team of Americans living in London who also appear to be members of the London Thespians—and a team of the Cowboys attached to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show at Earl’s Court. The game took place on July 13 1892 and Knowles includes an absolutely wonderful box score.

Where our author is batting third and playing second base in the scorecard, in the box score he’s batting fifth and playing second base (and pitcher) for the London Thespians Club.* This means that not only is my Ogden a card of a baseball writer, it’s of an actual nineteenth-century baseball player. Also the descriptions of the day jobs of the Wild West club players are something I could never in my wildest dreams have dreamed up.

*Especially appropriate given how Knowles is identified on his Ogden as a comedian.

Clearly fielding was not a strong suit for either team though I find it noteworthy that the concept of earned runs is prominent enough to be mentioned as a team stat. I also notice that the Wild West pitcher struck out 14 Thespians and that those putouts appear to be credited to the pitcher instead of the catcher. Oh and despite a cumulative 34 errors the game only lasted just over two hours.

The rest of the England chapters describe the growth of the league over the following years, the difficulty in finding good umpires, additional visits from American teams, hybrid baseball vs cricket exhibitions, and descriptions of a half-dozen baseball grounds.

The following chapter is all biographies of men associated with baseball in England from the President of the London Baseball Association Thomas Dewar to representative English players and representative American players in England.

The greatest interest centres in the professional teams that bear the names of such cities as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Brooklyn, St. Louis, Washington, Louisville, and Cleveland.

This takes us to the final two chapters which detail the state of baseball in America in 1895. America seems baseball mad with an insatiable appetite for the results of games in progress. The growth of the professional game from individual teams to multiple leagues is markedly different than the amateur struggles Knowles describes in England.

Instead of detailing individual games like he does with the England summary, the 1895 season is described as a pennant race where the standing for a given day are reported instead of the game results until Baltimore clinched the pennant for the second year in a row. Burkett, Delehanty, and Keeler are listed as the top batsmen with Hawley, Rusie, and Young being the best pitchers.

Then we have essentially a biography of Harry Wright, the “Father of Professional Baseball,” as written by Henry Chadwick to close out the book. There’s a glossary, some more rules, an index, and a whole bunch of great advertisements which are too good not to share.

Baseball cards that remember the past

When I got back into collecting around 2014, my first goal was to finish my Hank Aaron collection, which at that time included just over a dozen of his base cards, a few assorted all-stars and record breakers, and a handful of cards that came out after his playing career. Having been gone from the hobby for more than 20 years I assumed another 10-15 cards would finish the collection, maybe 20-30 if I really needed to have everything.

Of course the true number was in the thousands! At the time I’m typing this Trading Card Database puts the Hammer at 4,255 different cards, and by the time you read this I suspect that number will be even higher.

There’s a stat people love to quote about Hank Aaron. Take away his 755 home runs and he would still have more than 3,000 hits. My guess is you could take away every card from Aaron’s playing career and he’d still have more than four thousand cards!

Though my collector gene at least beckons me to collect them all, the “often needs to blend in as a normal adult” gene in me somehow proves dominant and forces me to restrict my collection’s personal Hammer Time to the years 1954-1976. Still, whether through overly broad eBay searches or through the generosity of fellow collectors who send me stuff I do manage to at least notice if not add at least some of Aaron’s post-career cardboard. In fact, one of my favorite mail days of the year was when fellow collector Matt Malone sent me this gorgeous 2019 Topps Heritage “box loader” card for nothing!

If I had to create a Favorites category it wouldn’t be the shiny stuff, the serial numbered stuff, the relic stuff, or the “anything else” stuff. It would 100% be the regular stuff that looks like all the other regular cards in the set. For example, here is a 2019 Topps Series 1 “Legends” card next to a base card of Clayton Kershaw…

…which finally brings me to the actual subject of this article!

While the modern and welcome tradition of mixing retired greats in with current players is new compared to the heyday of my collecting (very extended) youth (roughly 1978-1992), just as most things cardboard and in life it’s not something truly new.

“Ahem,” you say! “There were tons of retired greats in the sets of your youth, Jason,” thinking I can somehow hear you right now, so let me explain. I’m not talking about cards like this…

…even if they came in the same packs as these.

I’m talking strictly about the cards that blend right in with the rest of the set. Otherwise I’m afraid this article would practically go on forever. (Editor’s note: It already has!) What follows is hardly a comprehensive list, so as always I invite readers to add their favorites to the Comments.

The first instance of these “legends in disguise” that I became aware of as a collector was the 1949 Leaf card of the (at the time) very recently deceased Babe Ruth, even if 1) I thought of it as 1948 at the time, 2) it’s pretty hard to disguise Babe Ruth, and 3) even if many of the “current players” are legends themselves by now.

Beyond the Bambino it’s worth noting that Honus Wagner also had a card in this same set. Though you’ll see soon enough how inconsistent my criteria are, I won’t quite count Wagner since he’s in the set as a coach and not a retired great. (You could easily dispute this and probably win in that Wagner is the only coach/manager in the set, a fact that strongly suggests Wagner was in the set as Wagner vs coach.)

Of course the tradition didn’t originate with the Leaf set. Just months before a tiny entrant into the gum card market showed up with a large set of cards, not all baseball, that mixed the likes of Ruth, Hornsby, Mathewson, Wagner, and Cobb with Lou Boudreau!

By the way, these cards are known as 1948 Topps Magic Photos. While I don’t dispute the date it’s worth noting that the non-legend portion of the baseball set focuses on the 1948 World Series, hence the Boudreau, which of course didn’t occur until October. As such, it wouldn’t shock me if much like the Leaf set this particular set did not arrive on the scene until early 1949.

Speaking of 1949, readers of my earlier article on the 1949 M.P. & Company baseball issue may recall that the set included a Jimmie Foxx card, recycled from six years earlier, alongside active players like Mel Ott Alvin Dark.

Evidently nostalgia ran large in the 1948-1949 as there was yet a third issue that mixed the old with the new. The 1948 Blue Tint (R346) checklist made room for Lou Gehrig whose last game was in 1939 while mainly consisting of modern stars such as Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, and Joe DiMaggio.

One could place the R346 Hank Greenberg card in either category. On one hand he played a full season in 1947 with the Pirates so a card in 1948 wouldn’t be completely unusual (though more so back then than now). On the other hand the lack of a team designation followed the design of the Gehrig in the set as opposed to the active players. (The set also includes a Mel Ott manager card with no team noted. However, this was later corrected to indicate “N.Y. Giants.”)

Lest you imagine this kind of thing could only happen in America, I’ll highlight the Cuban 1946-1947 Propagandas Montiel issue as yet another set from the era open to all comers.

At any rate, the battle for first place involves none of these late 1940s issues. After all, the most sought after card from the start of the decade is one of many “Former Major League Stars” that Play Ball camouflaged into its 1940 set.

Did I mention my criteria were pretty inconsistent? Oh, good, because otherwise I’d have no place taking us into the 1933 Goudey set where not one, not two, but two-and-a-half retired legends make an appearance. The first of these is Shoeless Joe’s 1919 White Sox teammate, Eddie Collins, who technically cracks the set as a vice president and business manager, two categories so far fetched that it’s safe to say he simply cracks the set as Eddie Collins.

Next up is the part-owner of the Kansas City Blues because of course every set needs a card of a part-owner!

And batting third is the set’s Holy Grail, Napoleon Lajoie, who is 100% retired great, 0% owner, vice president, business manager, or otherwise.

In fact, old Larry was so far removed from the business of baseball by then as to be the Lloyd Dobler of his time. (“I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.”)

Still, while Lajoie’s status as pure “retired great” is uncontaminated there are a few reasons to assign his card only partial credit in meeting the criteria for this article.

  • One, his card couldn’t really be said to blend in with the rest of the set seeing as it wasn’t even released with the rest of the set. As is well known, Goudey didn’t issue the card until 1934 and only then to the relatively small number of collectors who sent them hate mail about their missing card 106.
  • Two, the card’s design doesn’t even match the rest of the 1933 (or 1934) set, instead reflecting a hybrid of the two designs.

While we’re on the subject, there is yet another retired baseball legend who cracks a 1933-1934 Goudey checklist, but this time it’s with the “Sports Kings” issue, where Ty Cobb slides in alongside two active players, Babe Ruth and Carl Hubbell.

My approach so far has been to start with 1949 and work my way backward. As I’m not aware of any examples (aside from coaches/managers) before 1933, I’ll close the article with a few post-1949 honorable mentions.

The 1960 Fleer Baseball Greats set technically qualifies as a set that mixed old and new. The checklist consists of 78 retired stars and exactly one active player, Ted Williams.

The 1967 Venezuelan Topps set includes a “RETIRADO” subset that doesn’t at all blend in with the set’s other cards. However, the design of the retired players reflects at least some attempt to match the base cards of active players.

The next honorable mention comes in 1982 from both Topps and Fleer.

I’m sure there was no intent to include the great J.R. Richard as a retired legend. Nonetheless, with J.R.’s final trip to the mound coming in 1980, his spot in the 1982 sets proved unusual. Naturally, Topps and Fleer were banking on a successful comeback that unfortunately never materialized.

Overall I’m a big fan of packing retired legends into modern sets. I can only imagine how much I would have loved it to open packs of 1978 or 1979 Topps and pull cards like these!

Of course, if the kids opening packs today are like the players I coached in Little League a few years ago, they may not have the same reverence for yesteryear that we once did. To quote one of kids on the squad, “Hank Aaron? Is he from the 1900s or something?”