Héroes de Cartón: When is a Card not a Card?

A few months ago I attended the Frederick Ivor-Campbell 19th Century Conference at the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Fred is my favorite of all of the SABR conferences because of the intimacy, the subject, the location and the camaraderie. One of the presentations that weekend was entitled “The Birth of Baseball Cards.” The panel was moderated by MLB historian John Thorn and featured the SABR Baseball Card blog’s very own Jeff Katz, Hall of Fame curator Tom Shieber and author Peter Devereuax. Devereaux’s book, Game Faces, is an inside look at many of the early baseball cards that constitute the Benjamin K. Edwards Collection at the Library of Congress and served as a jumping off point for the panel. Game Faces should be on the reading list of everyone in this group.

Over the course of the panel the question was brought up of just what it is that defines a “card.” It is a question that is often addressed in the hobby; has, in fact, been addressed in this blog by Mr. Katz. It is also a question with no definitive answers, although Shieber, who was one of the driving forces behind the Hall’s new permanent baseball card exhibit entitled “Shoebox Treasures,” listed a few personal criteria. To be clear, Tom does not espouse to be the final voice on this subject, but much of what he said rang true to me. To him, the item in question should be: intended as a collectible, part of a set, directly related to baseball, and there should be a “cardyness” about it. That last one is admittedly vague, though for most of the folks reading this, the idea is likely akin to the old adage coined by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart about pornography. We know it when we see it.

My paper-thin 1946/47 Propagandas Montiel Los Reyes del Deporte card for Nap Reyes, purchased on a visit to Cuba. Reyes has an earlier card, a 1945/46 Caramelo Deportivo, but it was only issued to collectors who had completed the rest of the set, thus making it rare and one of the most expensive cards of a Cuban ever issued.

This panel was the highlight of the weekend for me, not just because it was dedicated to one of my favorite subjects, but more so because I have wrestled recently with this very question. As I mentioned in my last post, in my quest to complete a collection of the rookie cards of every Cuban who has appeared in a major league game, I have had to stretch certain standardly-accepted definitions, beginning with the idea of a what constitutes a “rookie card.” In the interest of finding at least one card for every player, I have had to not only step outside of some of the accepted definitions within the hobby, but I have been confronted numerous times with the issue of whether or not an item I am looking at even counts as a “card.”

Such is the case with the 1943 set issued by the Havana-based, cracker, candy and chocolate manufacturer, La Ambrosia. As with major league baseball, the arrival of World War II created a vacuum of talent in the Cuban professional league. The league had already been struggling financially since the political upheaval of the overthrow of President Gerardo Machado, in the early 1930s. When the war began, it stemmed the flow of top-tier American talent, the quality of play suffered, and the league found itself at a low point. The silver lining of this nadir was the maturation of the Cuban amateur leagues.

The La Ambrosia card for Rogelio “Roy” Valdés. He had a single plate appearance with the Senators in 1944, although Valdés stuck around in the Washington minor league system for another four years after that.

With no minor league system in place, Cuban clubs would find their promising young talent on the sugarmill teams that dotted the countryside. Similar to the American company teams that would produce exciting local baseball that filled the void before the advent of radio and television broadcasts, the sugarmill teams were a loose collection of business-based semi-pro clubs. One of those clubs was sponsored by La Ambrosia, and would feature the likes of such luminaries as future Cuban batting champ Claro Duany and Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso.

The candy giant capitalized on their sponsorship of the club by publishing a set of 240 images that were released as “stamps.” Collectors were encouraged to get all of the stamps and then stick them inside an album, similar to the more ubiquitous Cuban release issued by Caramelo Deportivo during the 1945/46 and 1946/47 seasons. Printed on thin paper that most closely resembles magazine stock, the La Ambrosia stamps featured the largest single published collection of Cuban amateurs that I have found.

The album that La Ambrosia issued, with the intention of the stamps being pasted inside. The cross promotion with the Wilson sporting goods company is an interesting insight into how intrinsically American business was intertwined with Cuban interests at the time.

Unlike the Deportivos, in which the images are black and white and often grainy, the La Ambrosias are in color. They have the distinctive look of the tones being both vibrant and muted, as though the photos had been tinted with watercolors. The images look especially bright when mounted on the yellowed pages of their original album. It is those albums which resulted in the Deportivos and the La Ambrosias sharing another unfortunate trait. There are few remaining of either issue that do not have serious flaws, including backs that were damaged by adhesives.

For many, including the auction houses that sell these sets, the descriptions of these issues have evolved from “stamps” to “cards.” They certainly fit with Shieber’s first three criteria. But what about “cardyness?” They are not published on what we think of as a card stock. But does that matter? What is that quintessential piece that makes a card a card? Does an item need ALL of Shieber’s (self-proclaimed arbitrary) criteria? Are three sufficient? What about two? Or one?

The La Ambrosia cards feature a large number of pencil-thin mustaches, a popular fashion choice in Cuba at the time. Rogelio Martinez, who would not make his lone appearance with the Senators until 1950, sports a rather thick example of the style.

The “cards” I have included in the collection for the Aragóns, Ángel and his son Jack, are a perfect example of this latter question. Their short major league careers, as well as the fact that they played during war years (Ángel appeared in 32 games with the Yankees during World War I and Jack’s lone major league appearance was in 1941), led to neither of them having what would be thought of, traditionally, as a card. I have not even had any luck by expanding my search to include cards that portray them in foreign leagues, although Jack’s extensive minor league career gives me hope that I may discover him in an obscure set someday. At the moment, though, they just don’t seem to exist.

However, while trolling through ebay, I came across a seller who was offering images of both Ángel and Jack. He had come into possession of a number of old periodicals, including a 1914 Spalding Guide and a 1949 publication called, “Historia del Base Ball Profesional de Cuba,” written by Raul Diez Muro. The seller, scissors in hand, cut up both periodicals into a series of head shots for the players that appeared in the two collections. The Spalding Guide offered a number of publicity photos of minor league players, including Ángel. Jack appeared in the book by Muro.

Ángel played for the minor league Long Branch Cubans in 1913 and 1914 before being called up to the Yankees. Unlike some other teams named “Cuban,” the Long Branch squad was made up almost entirely of actual island-born ballplayers.

I have decided to include these hand cut bits of newsprint in lieu of “cards” because there aren’t any other options for these players and they do have the advantage of originally being printed concurrent with the player’s career. They pass virtually none of Shieber’s criteria. While the publications themselves could be considered collectible, they certainly became less desirable after the scissors were taken to them. The subjects are definitely baseball related, but they are not part of an intended set, nor do they feel very “cardy” to me. I have blurred the line considerably in the interest of completing my checklist.

I am now at the point where I need to decide if, since I have expanded my definitions for the Aragóns, do I do the same with the remaining Cubans who were never issued a card? Are pictures cut from newspapers enough to check that box, especially if I hold true to the criteria of the images being published during their careers? I know it’s my set, and I can do with it as I damn well please, but I’m not a fan of cheating. I suppose the best answer would be for me to wait to make a similar discovery of a player who is cardless, and decide when I see the actual item. Because, like Stewart’s porn, I believe I’ll know it when I see it.

Author’s note: I thought some of you might be interested in seeing the collection as it develops. I have created a flickr album that you can access here. The cards appear in the album not by the year in which they were issued, but rather in the order in which the player made their major league debut. Thus, even though the card for Esteban Bellán wasn’t produced until 2014, he is the first one in the set.

Héroes de Cartón: A Cuban Collection

When I first traveled to Cuba in 2015, I had hoped to bring home some cards of the stars I would be seeing while I was on my baseball tour. Still naive about the differences between Cuban baseball and the major leagues, I believed that there would be such a thing. I knew the stadium amenities weren’t going to be luxurious (they weren’t) and the food at the park was bound to be lousy (it often was, though the pulled pork sliders I bought outside of Estadio 26 de Julio in Aretmisa remain vividly delicious in my memory). Still, surely an enterprising soul, or the government, had managed to publish a few sets of baseball cards. I was quickly corrected by none other than fellow traveler and Cuban baseball expert Peter Bjarkman. He informed me there were no modern cards in Cuba. There was one set published in 1994 which included pre-MLB cards for the Hernández brothers, Liván and Orlando. The one before that was sold in the 1950s.

I had never given much thought of what it would be like to be a youthful fan who could not regularly experience baseball cards. I loved the cards long before I truly loved the game. In the days before the internet and daily airings on team-owned networks, they were my most direct connection. I thrilled with each new pack and the treasures I found inside.

That same passion, this time on the faces of a gaggle of Cuban children, was on display whenever a member of our group pulled out a pack of Topps at one of the five Serie Nacional contests I attended. They would swarm, a collective that would consume any gleaming picture of a hero-in-action they could get their hands on. Bonus points if it was Yasiel Puig or Aroldis Chapman. At one point I pulled out a business card to give to a local sportswriter and a child’s eager hands immediately reached out to me. Just the image of a baseball on my card was enough to ignite their imaginations.

Jorge Soler’s rookie card appears in the Topps 2015 set, the year I began the collection.

All of this got me thinking about the Cuban stars of the past, and whether they had baseball cards. I had learned that generations of Serie Nacional heroes have never had one. But, what about the hundreds of Cubans who played in the major leagues? Surely many of them must have cards. I first considered starting a collection of all of the cards featuring Cuban-born players. I quickly realized that a complete collection of Cubans was going to necessitate far too much energy and money pursuing just José Canseco. There are roughly 3000 distinct cards of the tainted slugger. I decided that maybe the best way to approach this new whim would be to just get the rookie cards. The set would become relatively finite and definitely more achievable.

Many of them have rookie cards, but certainly not all. Some never had a card issued at all, at least none that my current research has revealed. Others have cards, but not ones that modern collectors consider “rookies.” Cards from a player’s minor league days do not qualify. Neither do cards from foreign leagues, such as the pre-revolution Cuban Winter League.

Tony Taylor’s 1958 Topps rookie card. Taylor is tied with Bert Campaneris for career triples by a Cuban-born player.

Such is the case of the Acosta brothers, José and Merito. The two appeared on Clark Griffith’s Cuban-laden Washington Senators of the 1910s and 20s. However, neither made enough of a mark to appear on a card during World War I and the lean years of the hobby that followed. Cards were produced in smaller sets, thus players like Merito, who appeared in 180 games in the outfield over five seasons, and José, who pitched in 55 games over three years, often fell through the cracks.

However, while playing for the 1923/24 Marianao squad of the Cuban League, they both appeared in a set that was issued in their homeland by Billiken. Like their American counterpart, these cards could be found in packs of cigarettes. In addition to Cubans, they also featured American Negro League legends like Oscar Charleston and Andy Cooper. Per the definitions set by modern collectors, these do not qualify as “rookie cards.” I decided that because so many of the pre-revolution members of the fraternity fell into this category, I was expanding my criteria to include first-known cards, as well.

The most respected Cuban-born player in his homeland is Martín Dihigo, whose 1945/6 Caramelo Deportivo is not a part of the collection because the color line kept him out of the majors.

As of this writing, there have been 208 Cuban-born men who have played or managed in the majors. So far, and research is ongoing, there appear to be 194 cards in the set I have designed. I had four at the outset, just by culling from my own collection: a 1990 issue of Tony Fossas, a 1989 Orestes Destrade, a 1987 Rafael Palmeiro and, from a pack bought in the interest of the project, a 2015 Jorge Soler. All of them happened to be Topps. There are numerous other publishers in this set, including Bowman, Upper Deck and Fleer. Going back before World War II, there are Zeenuts, T207s, an E135, and multiple cards from the candy manufacturer Caramelo Deportivo.

Palmeiro holds most of the offensive records for Cuban-born players, even outshining Hall of Famer Tony Perez. If not for his involvement with PEDs, he’d likely be a Hall of Famer, himself.

The day after I finished the first draft of the checklist for the set, I paid a visit to a comic book store in New Paltz, New York. My ex-wife and I meet there sometimes when we exchange our daughter. B is a fan of comics and I like to encourage my kid to become a nerd, just like her old man. While not a large shop, the collection is extensive and a fan of the genre is certain to leave satisfied.

What it does not have, however, is very many baseball cards for sale. The two collectibles will often appear together at small retail shops like this, though such stores usually lean more heavily in one direction. No one would ever think of this place as a local card shop. But, it does sell packs of the current sets and that day had about 50 individual cards up for grabs. Of those singles, the inventory was split between medium value cards of current players, a sprinkling of stars from 1970s, 80s and 90s, and a few lesser known players from the 60s.

One of those latter cards was from the Topps 1965 set, number 201. Minnesota Twins rookie stars César Tovar and Sandy Valdespino share the honors. Tovar, a native of Venezuela, had a fine twelve-year career with the Twins, Phillies, Rangers, A’s and Yankees. He finished in the top twenty-five in MVP voting every year from 1967-1971 and led the league in doubles and triples in 1970. The Trading Card Database has identified 56 unique cards manufactured for Tovar.

Hilario “Sandy” Valdespino lasted for seven seasons with the Twins, Braves, Astros, Pilots, Brewers and Royals. He did not share the same success as his card-mate, though he did get eleven at bats in the 1965 World Series, contributing a double and a run. Valdespino was born in San Jose de las Lajas in Mayabeque and became the 106th Cuban to appear in the majors when he made his debut on April 12, 1965. Number 201 is his official rookie card, one of only nineteen different identified cards of the outfielder ever produced.

A cardboard miracle.

The odds of finding that card, in that place, just days after I decided to pursue this quest, cannot be calculated. It was a divine intervention, a gift sent by the baseball gods in the form of a fifty-year-old piece of cardboard.

Today I have 115 of the cards from the set. The latest pickup, a W514 of Dolf Luque, is a real beauty. The corners are a little rounded and there are some minor markings on the surface, but it is crease free and remarkably sturdy for something that was printed a century ago. Luque, the first Cuban superstar, is an underappreciated name from yesteryear and a personal favorite. Finally acquiring his card inspired me to tell this story.

Among Cubans, only Luis Tiant put up better career pitching numbers than Dolf Luque. The W514s began production in 1919, the year Luque’s Cincinnati Reds defeated the Black Stockings in the World Series.

As always, the final cards of this set are the most challenging and, of course, the most expensive. It is also a set that is always expanding. Despite the recent short-sighted pronouncements of the current presidential administration, Cubans will continue to find a way to travel those ninety miles to American shores to play the game. Last year, six more made their major league debut. Three of them have rookie cards, so far, and the recent call up by the Yankees of Nestor Cortes, Jr., who had a less-than-impressive debut with Baltimore last March, increases the chances of him getting one at some point this season. When he does, I’ll be there.

Cardboard Crosswalk: 1936 World Wide Gum and 1955 Bowman

Author’s note: The “Cardboard Crosswalk” series focuses on the commonalities of different sets many years apart. The first installment of Cardboard Crosswalk can be found here.

On the surface, these are two sets that would appear to have little in common, as these cards of Connie Mack and Hank Aaron will serve to illustrate.

Mack and Aaron
Among the main differences between these two sets–

  • 1936 WWG cards measure 2-1/2 × 2-7/8 inches, in the ballpark of the 1933 and 1934 Goudey issues. Meanwhile, the 1955 Bowman cards measure 2-1/2 × 3-3/4 inches, much closer to today’s baseball cards.
  • The 1936 cards are of course black and white (player selection aside!) while the 1955 Bowman cards have so much color they’re like watching a game on your brand new television set!
  • And finally, the 1936 cards were issued in Canada while the Bowman cards were issued in the United States.

Of course the main purpose of a Cardboard Crosswalk is to identify similarities, not differences. We’ll get there soon, but first I’ll share some irresistible odds and ends at least obliquely related.

The Mack and Aaron cards I selected were of course 19 years apart. I find it incredible that these two gentlemen have cards as players that are EIGHTY-NINE years apart!

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As impossible as that ought to be, we were only two years away from something much crazier. Imagine if Frank Robinson (RIP) had made his debut just two years earlier and had a card in the 1955 Bowman set. Then couple the Mack card with this one and we’d have cards 119 years apart!

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Okay, next detour. Fans and collectors are accustomed to seeing Mr. Mack in a suit. That was pretty much his trademark as manager of the Athletics for half a century. However, the idea of players wearing suits seems like the territory of NBA/NHL draft pick cards and baseball sets like Stadium Club and Studio. (Note to self: Definitely do a post on the Prehistory of Leaf Studio.)

Sure, collectors might scratch their heads and recall Babe Ruth all dressed up on some of his 1962 Topps Babe Ruth Special cards, but those cards, issued more than a quarter century after his retirement, aren’t exactly on his master set checklist. Meanwhile, just look at these two dapper fellows out of the 1936 set. (As an aside, you could caption the image with Appling saying, “Mirror, show me what I would look like buff” or Zeke saying, “Mirror, show me what I would look like trim.”)

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On the other end of the spectrum, the 1936 WWG set included some top-notch images of Hall of Famers.

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And if you squint a bit, you may even see some resemblance between the 1936 cards and some Topps Hall of Famer cards of the 1970s.

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Sorry, I’m back now. The Lord just struck me down for comparing any card to the 1976 Bench. Lesson learned.

Finally, it would be impossible not to be impressed by the incredible checklist for the 1936 set. Where else are you going to find Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio in the same set, not to mention Hank Greenberg, Jimmie Foxx, and Dizzy Dean? And the set is definitely your go-to for Montreal Royals, with 14 of them on the checklist! (Depending if Trading Card DB makes my correction, you may only see 13. However, Rabbit Maranville should be included as well.)

And now, onto the crosswalk!

The reason I chose these two sets was that despite their being “only” 19 years apart, they feel so much more distant to me. Perhaps it’s because one of the sets rightly could have included Babe Ruth as a player while the other genuinely did include Henry Aaron, or perhaps it’s because two absolutely cataclysmic events, World War Two and the integration of Major League Baseball, happened between their issues.

Of course, 19 years isn’t exactly forever in baseball terms, so it should not be surprising that the two sets had some overlap across their respective checklists. For the crosswalk portion of the post, I’ll put the spotlight on the five subjects common to both sets, who remarkably enough entered the 1955 Bowman set for four different reasons! We’ll proceed alphabetically.

Dick Bartell

Entering the 1936 season Dick Bartell was a 28-year-old shortstop for the New York Giants with arguably his two best seasons still ahead of him. In the 1955 set he was a coach under Birdie Tebbetts with the Cincinnati Redlegs. (If you’re keeping score, put a check in the coach column.)

Bartell

Phil Cavarretta

Entering the 1936 season Phil Cavarretta (two Rs, two Ts, the WWG card has it wrong) was a promising 19-year old first baseman for the Cubs, having joined the club at 17. His 1945 season, albeit with many players off to war, won him the 1945 NL MVP award. While he would join the managerial ranks in 1951, he continued to play for several more years. As such, the back of his 1955 Bowman card lists him as “First Base, Chicago White Sox.” Put a checkmark in the player column (or player-manager if you prefer).

Cavarretta

Charlie Grimm

Having made his playing debut in 1916, also at the age of 17, the 1936 season would be Grimm’s last as a player. It would also be his fifth as Cubs skipper en route to a 19-year managerial career. It is as the manager of the Milwaukee Braves that he is included in the 1955 Bowman set in a reaching-right-out-of-the-set pose that might have scared kids away from television for years. (Kids, it’s okay, he’s actually a very nice man. His nickname is Jolly Cholly, and he plays the banjo! Wait, what? That didn’t help?)

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All joking aside, I love Charlie Grimm, who happens to be related to a friend of mine. If you are unaware of Grimm’s role in launching Hank Aaron’s career, Howard Bryant tells the story here.

Al Lopez

Entering the 1936 season, this Hall of Famer was a 27-year-old catcher with the Boston Bees, still in the first half of what would be a 19-year playing career featuring MVP votes in seven  of his seasons. He would succeed Lou Boudreau as manager of the Tribe in 1951 and preside over the 111-win juggernaut that would go to the 1954 World Series and fall victim to Willie Mays and “The Catch.”

Overall, Lopez would finish above .500 in all 15 of his seasons as full-time manager of the Indians and later White Sox and finish up with two pennants and a .584 lifetime win-loss percentage, good even today for tenth all-time.

Lopez

So that’s another manager, which puts us at a coach, a player, and two managers. What on Earth could be left? Owner? GM? Scout? Commissioner?

Lon Warneke

Entering the 1936 season, the Arkansas Hummingbird was a 27-year-old right-hander coming off consecutive seasons of 22, 18, 22, and 20 wins. He would have certainly won the Cy Young Award had there been on in 1932, as he led the National League in both wins and ERA while taking the Cubs to the famous “Called Shot” World Series.

Before turning to 1955, let’s pause to admire a nice trio of 1930s cardboard, from which one could make a very expensive flipbook on pitching follow-through.

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Those of you who know the 1955 Bowman set or Warneke’s biography well have long known what’s coming. For the rest of you, I’ll remind you of the first half of this post, in which I briefly detoured to suits on baseball cards. The suits I showed you then belonged to subjects of the 1936 set, but the 1955 set had some suits of its own!

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Behind the plate is a man who ought to know quite a bit about balls and strikes…

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So there you have it, the five men featured in the 1936 World Wide Gum and 1955 Bowman sets: a coach, a player, two managers, and an umpire. It would be easy to find checklists with more subjects in common, but I can’t imagine a more interesting variety than this one!

Extra! Extra! Read all about the prehistory of 1981 Donruss!

If you bought packs in 1981 try to remember the first thing about 1981 Donruss that jumped out at you. The paper thin stock? The occasional typo? The cards sticking together? This mismatched uniforms and team names?

Okay, come to think of it those were all salient features of the debut baseball set from Donruss. Still, the one I was hoping you’d say is the multiple cards of can’t-miss Hall of Famers like Pete Rose!

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As a young collector I’d certainly seen multiple cards of the same player before. The Topps Record Breakers  and 1972 Topps “In Action” cards were prime examples. However, what distinguished the Donruss cards was that nearly all of the extras looked just like the base cards, at least from the front.

As I learned more about collecting, thanks to some local shows and my first Sport Americana price guide, I began to realize the Donruss extras had ancestors in the hobby. What follows here are the sets I learned about in the order I learned about them.

1933-1934 Goudey

There are numerous examples in the 1933 set, particularly given the 18 repeated players on the set’s final “World Series” sheet. However, the first one I encountered was the most famous of them all: cards 53, 144, 149, and 181 of the Sultan of Swat.

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It would have been around that same time that I also learned of the two Lou Gehrig cards (37, 61) in Goudey’s 1934 follow-up release.

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My eleven-year-old self resolved almost immediately to eventually owning each of these Ruth and Gehrig cards. (Spoiler alert: 38 years later I’m still at zero.) In the meantime, the multiple cards of Rose, Yaz, Stargell, and others from my 1981 Donruss shoebox would have to do.

1954 Topps

Ever since I got my 1976 Topps “All-Time All-Star” Ted Williams, I decided he was my favorite retired player. As I flipped through my price guide looking for older Ted Williams cards I might be able to afford, I at first thought I found a typo. How could the Splendid Splinter be the first card and the last card in the 1954 Topps set?

There was no internet, and I certainly had no friends with either of these cards. I was simply left to wonder. Were there really two cards? Did they look the same or different? It took visiting a card show to finally learn the answer. Cardboard gold.

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It was much later that I learned Topps had been unable to make cards of the Kid in their 1951-1953 offerings. As such, his Topps debut in 1954 was long overdue and something to be celebrated. Perhaps that’s how he ended up bookending the set on both sides. Or maybe it’s just that he was Ted Freaking Williams.

1909-1911 T206

The tobacco areas of the Sport Americana were a bit intimidating to me as a kid. I recall parenthetical notes next to some of the names (e.g., “bat on shoulder”), but the checklist was dizzying enough that the notes went in one eye and out the other. Again it took a card show for me to see that these cards were my great-grandfather’s Donruss.

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1887 Old Judge

Fast forward about ten years, and I received a gigantic book for my birthday with pictures of thousands of really old cards. It was here that I first learned about “Old Judge” cards, including the fact that some players had more than one card.

Old Judge

As an aside, that second Radbourn card looks more like a crime scene from Clue than an action pose, but okay.

1971 O-Pee-Chee

“1971 OPC? That was unexpected,” you may be saying to yourself. Wouldn’t the OPC cards match the 1971 Topps set, which had no duplicate players at all? I thought the same thing too until I ran across this pair.

Staub

The card on the left, number 289 in the set, is known to high-end collectors as “Staub, bat on shoulder” while the card on the right, number 560, is known as “Staub, bat off shoulder.”

Exhibit postcards

More for convenience than accuracy, I’ll lump various “Exhibits” issues under a single umbrella. Perhaps because these cards were issued across more than four decades and seemingly included zillions of players, it seemed unremarkable to me initially that the same player might have multiple cards in these sets. I’d known this fact for years, but it wasn’t until I reached the “gosh, what am I missing” part of this post that I made the connection between these cards and their Donruss descendants.

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As an aside, I just love that second one of the Splinter. As Anson Whaley notes on his Pre-War Cards site, these sets provide some of the most affordable vintage cards of top-shelf Hall of Famers. On my office wall side-by-side right now are Exhibit cards of Williams and DiMaggio that I paid about $25 apiece for. Along with these Life magazines from 1939 and 1941, the cards really hold the room together.

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1952 Wheaties

It’s at this point in the post when I have nothing left in my own head and have to rev up the research engines. Time thumbing through the cards “gallery” of great players is never a waste of time, whether or not I find what I’m looking for, but here is a great pair I ran across in my review of Stan the Man.

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A quick look at the set checklist indicates that not just Musial but all thirty subjects in the series had both a portrait and an action shot. Can you imagine if Donruss had done the same in 1981? Consider the boldness of crashing the baseball card world as an utter newcomer and not just competing with Topps but unleashing a 1,100+ card behemoth of a set with multiple cards of every single player!

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No joke! Many was the day I pulled two Cliff Johnson cards from the same pack, but unfortunately they were the same Cliff Johnson cards. This portrait-action pair, on the other hand, would have taking the situation from blown penny to blown mind!

1922 American Caramel (E121)

Similar to 1952 Wheaties this is another set that features multiple cards of numerous players, such as this Max Carey pair.

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I got a bit of a laugh from Trading Card Database when I saw the names given to each of the variations. The first card, not surprisingly, is referred to to “batting.” The second card is referred to as…so okay, back in high school I was getting ready to take the SAT. I wasn’t much of a reader back then, and I knew the test would include a lot of words I didn’t know. A few evenings before my testing date, I set out to memorize the entire dictionary. Naturally, this proved to be a bigger job than I could really tackle so I finally gave up after the word “akimbo.”

I only once in my life after that–and definitely not on my SAT–encountered the word in print, and I took pride in not having to look it up. And then this morning, more than 30 years after memorizing the dictionary from aardvark to akimbo, here is is again.

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If you don’t know the word perhaps you can guess it from the card: it simply means hands on hips. And for any young readers preparing for their own SATs, nothing helps you remember a word more than having a mnemonic, so here you go: Mutombo akimbo.

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But back to our main topic…

1941 Double Play

A tip of the hat from Red Sox collector extraordinaire Mark Hoyle for sharing this one with me. The 1941 Double Play set includes 150 cards (or 75 if you didn’t rip the pairs apart). Most of the images are portraits, but the set includes 10 (or 20) action shots that provide extra cards in the set for many of the game’s top stars such as Burgess Whitehead–okay, Mel Ott.

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But yes, Whitehead does have two cards as well.

1934-1936 Batter-Up

Thanks again to Mark Hoyle for this one! As this 192-card set was issued over three years, I suspect but don’t know for certain that the repeated players in the set were released at different times. As the two Gehringer cards below show, there are also small differences between the earlier and later cards including where the card number is located and how wide the cards are.

Batter Up

1934-1936 Diamond Stars

I’ll close with one of my favorite sets ever. Perhaps because I never managed to own more than 6-7 cards from this set, I never paid any attention to an oddity of its checklist. The last dozen cards, numbered 97-108, are all repeats of earlier cards in the set. Here is a listing of the players and their card numbers.

Diamond Stars

And here is an example of the cards themselves.

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The card fronts appear to be identical, while the backs differ in not only the card numbering but also the ink color and the stat line. In particular, the first Dickey card provides his batting average for 1934 and the second provides his average from 1935. (Read this post if you’re interested in more significant variations.)

Wrap-up

Aside from my Dwight Gooden collection, my collection tops out at 1993. However, as I see other collectors show off the more modern stuff, it’s clear that extra cards of star players are practically a fixture in today’s hobby.

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As the examples in this post illustrate, 1981 Donruss was by no means the first set to include extra base cards of star players. However, we can definitely credit Donruss with being the first major modern set to re-introduce this great feature into the hobby. And you thought the only thing that stuck from that set was its cards to each other!

Author’s note: I’d love it if you used the Comments area to plug other pre-1981 sets with extra base cards of the big stars. Some categories I’m intentionally ignoring are errors/variations/updates, single player sets (e.g., 1959 Fleer Ted Williams), team issues, and sets focused more on events than players (e.g., 1961 Nu-Card Baseball Scoops). Thanks, Jason

Waxing elegiac: a century of cards in memoriam

Author’s note: I really enjoyed two posts from fellow SABR Baseball Cards Committee writer Jon Leonoudakis (jongree). His “Death Comes for Active Baseball Players” and “Death & Baseball Cards” inspired me to attempt a catalog of all 20th century baseball cards honoring the fallen. As the boundaries can sometimes be blurry in this work, I limited my scope to cards that came out within a year or two of the player’s death.

Okay, friends, here come the cards that really put the “rip” in ripping wax, the cards that turn requiescat in pace into requiescat in pack, and the cards you should never buy autographed on eBay. Among their numbers you’ll see Hall of Famers and guys you might not have ever heard of. You’ll see some familiar sets, and you’ll see some obscure ones. And you’ll even see some hockey guys. There really is no greater equalizer than death.

1994 Conlon Collection

These cards don’t count in the same way as the others featured in this post as the players honored had retired many decades earlier. Still, I thought they warranted inclusion, if for no other reason than to show how blessed we were to have these great players still among us not that long ago. Plus, when’s the last time a Charles Conlon photo ruined a page?

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1992-1993 Conlon Collection

Similar to the above, the 1993 Conlon set included In Memoriam cards for Joe Sewell and Billy Herman. The 1992 set included an In Memoriam card for Luke Appling, though they got the Latin a bit wrong.

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1990 Bart Giamatti cards – various

Topps, Donruss, Score, and O-Pee-Chee all paid tribute to baseball’s poet-commissioner, A. Bartlett Giamatti, who passed away on October 1, 1989. The card fronts make no mention of his passing, though his very inclusion in these sets would have been unusual otherwise. Card backs include his date of death.

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1978 Frisz Minnesota Twins Danny Thompson

Danny Thompson died from leukemia on December 10, 1976. While he did not appear in any 1977 sets, he was given card 46 in a regional Twins release. The card back includes his date of death and changes “bats and throws righthanded” to the past tense.

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1977 Topps Danny Thompson

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Hat tip to fellow SABR Baseball Cards blogger Keith Olbermann (you may know him from other stuff too) for this one, including the image.

As the Reggie card probably alerted you, these are Topps proof cards. The Thompson card is particularly unique in that he had no card at all when the 1977 set was finalized. Topps essentially acknowledged his passing by erasing him from the set. I’m not sure what stage of grief this suggests Topps was in. Denial?

1972 O-Pee-Chee Gil Hodges

At first glance the 1972 Topps and OPC issues for Gil Hodges look pretty much alike, at least until you read the fine print. “Deceased April 2, 1972.” I have to imagine the card prompted a number of Canadian youngsters to ask their parents what “deceased” meant. Overall a classy move by O-Pee-Chee and one I wish they repeated the following year for Mr. Clemente.

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1964 Topps

Ken Hubbs died so young that this card’s almost hard to look at. Still, Topps really went the extra mile in modifying their card design to honor the Cubs infielder.

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As noted by jongree in both of his posts, Hubbs was not the only baseball death in 1964. Houston pitcher Jim Ulbricht died on April 8 from a malignant melanoma at the age of 33. Topps noted his passing on the bottom of his card back.

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1956 Gum Inc. Adventure (R749) Harry Agganis

I type this one with a lump in my throat as I nearly died in 2016 from the same thing that killed Harry Agganis. The 26-year-old Red Sox first baseman died suddenly from a pulmonary embolism on June 27, 1955. A rather oddball trading card set whose subjects ranged from porcupines to sunburns included Agganis, Boston’s Golden Greek, as card 55.

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Honorable Mention: 1955 Bowman and 1952 Topps

While there is fortunately no death to report, hence the mere honorable mention status, the 1955 Bowman Eddie Waitkus card back must be one of the most unique in the history of the hobby, right down to his story’s final sentence. His 1952 Topps also makes mention of his near-death experience, which inspired the Bernard Malamud novel “The Natural.”

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1949 Leaf Babe Ruth

First off, yeah, I’m one of those annoying guys that refuses to say 1948 Leaf or even 1948-1949 Leaf. The Ruth card in this set makes no mention of his August 16, 1948, death. However, there are reasons to at least view this card as Leaf paying their respects.

  • Ruth is the only retired player in the set.
  • The set would have been planned right around the time of his passing.
  • Leaf even gave him card number 3, his famous uniform number with the Yankees.

Now read the back. It’s hard not to read it as an epitaph. RIP Sultan.

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1941 Harry Hartman set

Following a late season slump, Reds backstop Willard Hershberger took his own life on August 3, 1940 and to this day remains the last active player to have committed suicide. His card back is rather unique in that it relays to us the emotional impact of his death on his Cincinnati teammates. (Thank you to Chuck Ailsworth for alerting me to this card that was 100% off my radar!)

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1937-1938 World Wide Gum V356 Hockey

I know, I know…this is the BASEBALL card blog. But shoot, this one was too good to not include. And the card design is a complete clone of the V355 baseball release so what the heck. The first thing to know is that a Montreal Canadiens player named Howie Morenz died on March 8, 1937. His card back acknowledges as much.

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If that was all the World Wide Gum set did, I wouldn’t have included it. However, the set took a particularly unique move that I think gives it an important place in any write-up of in memoriam cards.

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The first time I saw this card while digging through a mixed baseball/hockey stack at a card show I assumed it was just a baby-faced player from back in the day. I had no idea it was a nine-year-old kid until I flipped it over. If I wrote blog posts back then I would have written about it, so here you go!

1911 T205 Gold Border Addie Joss

Addie Joss had the shortest life of any MLB Hall of Famer, dying from meningitis at the age of 31. Though he pitched in a very different era, his 1.89 ERA is nothing to shake a stick at. And if you did try that, you’d probably miss anyhow.

All the cards in the Gold Border set are works of art, but Addie’s takes on a special poignancy given the tragedy of his recent passing, noted in the lead sentence of the card’s reverse. The final paragraph of the bio is worth a read as well.

“He was a faithful player, liked by the team mates and respected by the public, many thousands of whom attended his funeral.”

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1910 Doc Powers Day postcard

From the “Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards…”

“To announce to fans the forthcoming Doc Powers Day benefit game, the Philadelphia A’s produced this standard sized (5-1/2″ x 3-1/2″) black-and-white postcard. Front has a photo of the late A’s catcher and information about the special events to be held June 30. On back is a message over the facsimile autograph of Connie Mack asking fans to remember the widow and children of their fallen star.”

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Quick aside: The great-granddaughter of Doc Powers is hoping to nab this card on the extremely slim chance you have doubles.

Dedication

This article is dedicated to young Simon Tocher. Cause of death: Collecting. Source: Boston Globe, August 25, 1910. RIP, young lad. You’re among friends here. I promise.

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Still can’t get enough?

If the real cards profiled in this post leave you wanting more, the “When Topps Had (Base) Balls blog has you covered. Click here to visit its “In Memoriam” gallery, which features a mix of custom cards in the style of the ones here along with other tributes to baseball personalities who have passed away over the years.

A tip of the hat to you, Gio, for all the great work you do keeping this hobby fun and filling in the essential holes in our collections!

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Baseball Americana

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Over Thanksgiving I took a trip to go see the Baseball Americana exhibition at the Library of Congress. It’s a single gallery, doable in an hour, and I highly recommend visiting if you’re in DC before it closes. While I’ve already written about the general show on my own blog, for the purposes of this committee I feel like it’s worth highlighting the specific role baseball cards play in the exhibition.

Being part of the Library of Congress means that ephemera like cards are emphasized a lot more than equipment and artifacts. One of the key points this show makes is not only has baseball existed for 150 years years, it’s been recognizable that entire time; the existence of baseball cards—the earliest being a carte de visite from 1865 — is a key feature of this consistency. As long as we’ve had a game, we’ve been making pieces of cardboard featuring players’ pictures and trading and collecting the results.

Does a modern card (well, 1994 Bowman) with 4-color offset lithography, gloss UV, and foilstamping compare at all to a 130-year-old Goodwin & Co single-color uncoated photographic print? Not at all from a production point of view but seeing them next to each other in the same case and even my 6-year-old recognizes them as part and parcel of the same concept. Heck, even some of the poses are exactly the same.

The show continues with a display of a number of cards of stars of the pre-integration period. These are wonderful to see (and lust over) but the emphasis of this part of the exhibition is in who’s playing baseball and the cards are contrasted with photos of African-American ballplayers.

The clear takeaway to me is that while cards have always existed, their role in defining who real ballplayers are cannot be ignored. Seeing who we’ve chosen to make cards of is a powerful statement about who counts and who doesn’t in the sport.* I half-jokingly refer to Topps Flagship as the “card of record” but there’s a kernel of truth in there. Cards chronicle the history of the game and collecting them connects us to that history.

*Note, my takeaway isn’t just a race thing. When we see collectors express concerns about companies only focusing on rookies or stars or large-market teams it’s because of the way that cards function as a record of who matters.

Cards were my entrée into baseball history. They served a similar function for my kids. As much as my eldest hits Wikipedia, Baseball-Reference, and Retrosheet on the iPad, cards are why he knows who he knows and what sustain his interest and connection to the sport.

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Later on, a sample of Japanese cards shows how the sport has transcended the United States and become more global. This is exactly right and, while I haven’t gotten into international cards,* I can’t deny that it’s really interesting to see how an American thing goes global and how baseball cards end up fitting into other country’s card-collecting traditions.

*My forays into Spanish-language issues are more of a language-based interest.

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The only miss card-wise for me is that in the section that shows the increase of statistics in both scouting and the appreciation of the game. There’s a comparison of card backs and the nature of the statistical information that we’ve felt is appropriate over the years. Unfortunately we don’t actually get to see the backs and they’re merely described to us.

Plus there’s so much more that could be here. I would’ve loved to see a comparison of backs drawing a line from T205’s slashline of G/AVG/Fielding to the traditional slash lines of the 1960s, the whole range of proto-SABRmetric backs in the 1990s, and finally today’s inclusion of stats like WAR that I can’t even explain to my kids how to calculate. It’s not just that stats exist, it’s what stats we care about and how that impacts our understanding of the game.

A Hinton Price Discovery (or, Causey effect)

One of the nice things about pursuing sets that are out of the mainstream is that there’s a real chance for bargains. I need an ungraded 1956 Topps Mantle in VGEX. It’s going to cost me $350-450; maybe more, unlikely less.

The cards I tend to go for have relatively little demand and, even when there’s somewhat less supply, the paucity of interest works in my favor.

I just nailed down the final coin I needed for the 1964 Topps set. If you read my last post, you know what it is.

Fine, I’ll tell you again; it’s the Wayne Causey All-Star coin, NL back variation. I’ve seen them go for $20 and up, but was holding out for $20. I picked it up for $13.50, plus postage.

The reason I was holding out was because of the other “NL” variation, Chuck Hinton. Both errors (they were corrected to AL backs, but not before some NLs got out) are harder to find than the other coins (even the Mantle variations, which were purposeful), but neither is more or less scarce than the other. So why did I get Hinton for $6, and have to wait awhile to get Causey for less than $15?

Patience helps, but lack of interest helps more. People are not really running after these variations, so, in time, they settle to a price I can be happy with. My goal was to get them both for a total of $20. I came close.

It’s easy to assume sellers/dealers are very knowledgeable, but many aren’t. The guy I bought my coin from knew he had an error, and listed as such. Last month someone listed three Causey All Star coins and two of them were of the NL kind. He had no idea. I tried to swoop in cheaply, but someone else in the know grabbed them in the final seconds. At the recent Boston show, I talked to a guy selling coins and a guy looking to buy them. Neither knew about the variations! I told them all about them (after I had looked through the dealer’s stock), but I was shocked at their ignorance.

Here’s some good background on the whole set (and other coins), but I’m still puzzled. The Causey and Hinton All-Stars, #161 and #162, are at the end of the set, with all the other NL stars. Why are the fronts blue, like all the AL All-Stars? If Topps (wrongly) assumed they were NL players, they should have had red fronts. If Topps knew they were actually AL stars (or what a KC A and Washington Senator came close to in 1964), why were they numbered with the NL guys? The linked post has a guess, but I’m not so sure there was a reason. I can’t figure it out.

Lack of consistent price discovery can bite as well. When I was finishing up my 1952 Parkhurst set, I tired to get a seller to pull a Bob Betz card from his lot. He wanted to charge me $100 for it and I was in disbelief (and told him so). He went through a whole rigmarole about how Betz was moved off the Ottawa Athletics quickly and, as a short print, it was tough to come by. I argued that there were other players in the same boat and they cost me between $5-15. I came away from that exchange knowing that guy was a dope.

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Then a Betz card came up on eBay. I figured, OK, I’m getting down to the end of the set so I’ll pay $20. I ended up paying $80-something. I was bugged that, 1) someone else was forcing me to pay more and, 2) that other guy was right!

So it works both ways, but usually I get the best of the deal. I’m waiting for delivery of a 1963 Bazooka All Time Great Babe Ruth card. I fully expected to pay $35 if I was lucky, $50 if I wasn’t. I got it for $19. It helped that the guy listed it as “Bazooke.”