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!”

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.

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?”