Die Cuts (or, as German card collectors call them, The Cuts)

Die cut cards have been around for a long time, 19th century style long time. I’m not going to write about the history of die cuts; that’s not my style. You want to know more about them, go for it. You’re not gonna get that here.

In the mid-‘80’s, Donruss put out Pop-ups in conjunction with their set of All-Stars. Here’s a Wade Boggs card:

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Here’s the eye-popping special effect:

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The worst Kellogg’s set did a better job of 3-D. Most die cuts don’t even try that hard. You just pop out the player and stick him in a little paper stand. Not very believable, if you ask me.

Every once in a while a die cut set catches my eye.  The 1973 Johnny Pro Orioles set is all kinds of awesome. Great players, good pictures, and even a couple of harder to come by cards – Brooks Robinson, Bobby Grich and Jim Palmer got two poses each! I’m still on the trail of Brooks batting and Palmer in his windup. The supply seems very scarce, but, fortunately for me, the demand is low. If I ever track them down they shouldn’t set me back too much. Orlando Pena’s card, oddly, is not die cut. Pena probably wasn’t worth the price of the labor!

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The next year Johnny Pro put out a Phillies set. While the O’s got 28 cards, the Phils got only 12. The Orioles deserved more cards, they were good. The Phillies were lousy, but, and it’s a big Kardashian-sized but, the Johnny Pro set had a Mike Schmidt card. Though both sets have a solid color background, there’s something unfinished about the Phillies set, all in white. The green of the Orioles cards seems somehow more polished. I have no idea what Johnny Pro Enterprises did, but their corporate filing was forfeited in 1979. The significance of that also something I have no idea about.

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The only other die cut set I went gaga over was a Dodgers team issued pinup set from 1963. A most incredible set of actual head shots on cartoony hand drawn bodies; it seems likely that this set, in its super cool envelope, was sold at the ballpark. They look a lot like the 1938 Goudey Heads-up cards, but so much better. They’re really big, 7 ¼” X 8 ½”.

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People are probably most familiar with the 1964 Topps Stand-ups. Weird that I never dug those; I can’t figure out why. They seem right in my wheelhouse and I probably could’ve gotten them relatively cheaply in the ‘70’s, when cards like that were easy to find and inexpensive.  I should at least have a Wayne Causey in my collection.

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The Game’s The Thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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You were expecting someone else?

 

Is It the Cards, or Is It the Baseball?

“Beatle cards, Beatle cards!”

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I was a late talker, but somewhere between two- and three-years old, I got it. My Great Aunt used to tell me that I would howl about Beatles’ cards from my crib (Are two-year olds still in cribs?). The love of cards was strong with this one from early on.

Yes, this is a baseball card blog and, partially, this is a baseball card post, but it’s clear from what I gather of my own personal history that my love of cards began with Topps’ Fab Four, not ’64 baseball, cards.

Baseball cards are absolutely the vast majority of my cards. The sets are bigger, I’ve been buying them longer and continuously and, when I became the recipient of the card collections of friends, their shoeboxes were always dominated by baseball cards.

So what came first, the baseball or the card? That I’ve always bought lots of cards, of all sports and some non-sports, means that, for me, it’s always been the cards first, the baseball second.  Cards are talismans, direct memories of the past, but they can also be indirectly evocative. When Munsters’ cards came out in 1996 and 1998, I bought them. When Twilight Zone cards came out from 1999-2002, I bought those sets too. Same for the 2001 Planet of the Apes cards. Though not the original issues ( the 1964 Leaf Munsters and the 1967 Topps Planet of the Apes cards are a tad pricey), the recent sets were good fun, brought back great TV and movie memories, not so much from the time like a 1972 Gary Gentry would, but looking backward. They were definitely as much fun as those year’s baseball cards. The ’96 Grandpa Munster cards were as good, if not better, than the ’96 Derek Jeters.

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Is this off topic? Kinda, but I’d like to know what is at the core of the card collector. How many readers of this blog only collect baseball cards? How many collect other sports? How many collect non-sports? I want to know who’s harboring a secret Partridge Family set.

These days I am fully immersed in baseball cards, but that doesn’t mean I’m averse to picking up the occasional 1959 Fleer Three Stooges card, if the price is right.

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Momma Took Topps’ Kodachrome Away

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Anyone who collected cards in 1969 remembers opening a pack and finding a glossy, black and white card that resembled a photograph. Topps “Deckle Edge” inserts were designed to mimic the photo print style of snapshots. This type of print goes back as far as 1930 but was most popular for a 20 year period starting in the ‘40s and concluding in the late ‘60s.*

I distinctly remember a shoe box full of decal edge photos that my grandma kept in cupboard. My brother won a camera as a prize in ’67. The first set of blurry photos it produced were printed on decal edge paper. I mention this background information to demonstrate that most kids in 1969 would have been familiar with this type of photo print.

 

This subset contains 33 cards with two variations and measures 2 ¼” x 2 ¼”. The backs are white with a rectangular box containing the name and card number in blue ink. The cards are ordered alphabetically starting with the American League. The set features 11 future Hall-of-Famers and players representing the ’69 expansion teams. The two variations are result of trades. Card 11b, Jim, “The Toy Cannon” Wynn, was added because the Houston card featured Rusty Staub, who was dealt to Montreal. Joy Foy is card number 22b and was included to represent the Royals after Hoyt Wilhelm was sent to the Angels.

The deckle edge is unique and we should give Topps kudos for originality, but the photos are mostly retreads. As Mark Armour recently detailed, the player boycott of Topps resulted in old photos being used in ’68 and ‘69. Several cards simply had shots from previous regular issue cards. For example, the Juan Marichal picture was used on his ’65, while Rod Carew and Maury Wills are reprised from ‘68.

The insert set depicts several players wearing their previous team’s uniform with the current club’s cap insignia airbrushed on.  Ken “Hawk” Harrelson has a Boston “B” drawn on his cap though he is clearly wearing a KC A’s vest uniform. Tom Haller’s Giants lettering is airbrushed off his chest and an “LA” added to his lid. Frank Howard has the Senators curly cue “W” on a Dodgers helmet. Also Topps put “Sox” on Luis Aparicio’s two-toned Orioles helmet. Since Luis was with the White Sox originally, why not use an early ‘60s photo?

There are a few interesting poses. The Bill Freehan card shows him in a classic catchers crouch with coach, Wally Moses, hitting “fungos” in the background. The Boog Powell shot has bunting in the background indicating opening day or an All-Star game. The hat style precludes it from being the ’66 World Series.

Black and white photography can be used artistically to great effect, but there is very little artistry demonstrated in these inserts. Dull as they are, the cards are memorable. The images have been etched in my mind for close to 50 years. Then again, I’ve been told I’m not playing with a full deck(le).

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Topps resurrected the deckle edge design with a “test issue” in 1974. The 72 cards are 2 7/8” X 5.” The set had limited distribution and featured 21 Hall-of-Famers to be. On the back, in script intended to imitate hand lettering on old photos, is the date and location of the photo session. Here is a link to Rich Mueller’s post on “Sports Collector’s Daily” that provides all the particulars of this rare set.

*Krentz, Anna (2014). A Study of the Deckle Edge in the North American Snapshot (master’s thesis).   www.digital.library.ryerson.ca

Amazing Stuff

In the wake of the Mets winning the World Series in 1969, a flood of cool items hit the market -buttons, records, Daily News portraits (“A Portfolio of Stars,” drawn by cartoonist Bruce Stark), ugly Transogram action figures, even an IHOP placemat (which I have, which is remarkable considering I’ve eaten at an IHOP maybe three times in my life).

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The one that grabbed my interest the most was a gas station giveaway that came out during that championship season.

Nostradamus-like, Citgo put out an 8 card set BEFORE the Mets won the World Series. Way to get on the bandwagon before the bandwagon even existed! At 8” X 10”, are they cards? I don’t know. They’re card-y enough to make it into the Standard Catalog. The fronts of the cards have both portrait and action shots, the eight lucky Mets featured were Tommie Agee, Ken Boswell, Gary Gentry, Jerry Grote, Cleon Jones, Jerry Koosman, Ed Kranepool and Tom Seaver. No Jack DiLauro? No Bobby Pfeil? For God’s sake, where the hell is Nolan Ryan?

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The backs have brief bios of the players (Cleon Jones, football star), some statistics, and a longer bio of the artist, John Wheeldon. Wheeldon gets some pretty heavy duty coverage here. Clearly he was a big deal – he painted Gene Kelly! There’s solid PR for him on the back, as well as for Citgo. “A nice place to visit” – really? I can’t think of a place more dirty and sad than a 1969 era Citgo gas station. Only your local porno theater was more gross.

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I didn’t collect these when they came out. I was six- years old, going on seven, in the summer of ’69, and didn’t have my card collecting and gas station promo game down. By 1972, when Sunoco issued NFL stamps, I was all over it.

Years after the Citgo Mets were issued, I found a nice set at a Chicago National and, having completely forgotten about them, was consumed by a flush of warm nostalgia when I saw them. I was instantly brought back to the Canarsie of my youth and the pure heaven of the Mets World Series win. I stopped being a Mets fan years ago (mid-1977 to be exact), but 1969-70 has a special place in my heart, as does this set, which was yours for $0.35 per gallon.

What’s in the box? *

Long before the advent of storage boxes, boxes created solely to hold cards–properly–sized and designed to keep corners crisp–collectors of a certain age relied on shoeboxes. (Collectors of a much older age relied on cigar boxes. I am not that old.) I still have a few odd shaped cards in 1970’s era shoeboxes. I don’t really care to put them in sheets. The old boxes have done yeoman service over time.

As I do every week, I got to thinking about what to write for the blog. Last week’s post on oddball sets got some nice traction, so I didn’t really want to write another post about that. There’s no glory in becoming the “oddball king,” but I started thinking about the old shoeboxes and thought a layer by layer reveal might be fun to write, and read, about. You be the judge.

There’s the box top, with a little note telling me what is inside. Or was inside. Most of those were relocated to an undisclosed site. I have no idea which of my mother’s old shoes were originally in here, but the red and gray of this box has been part of my card world for 40 years.

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Cover off, much to be explored.

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1978 Twins Postcard Set

Why? I have no idea. I think I ordered it from the team, but I’m really at a loss to explain why this is in my possession.  Sure, I love Hosken Powell as much as the next guy, but…

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1977 Pepsi-Cola Baseball Stars

In the mid-late ‘70’s, discs were everywhere. First, they seemed cool. Instantly, they were boring as hell, but not these, oh no, not these. The Pepsi cards were discs, inside a glove on a long rectangle! That’s something that caught my eye big time.

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It’s an Ohio regional set, which explains why they’re pushing a Rico Carty shirt as one of the top shirt options.  Get a look at the “save these capliners” tag at the top. Explain what those are to your kids.

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I don’t know if there’s a sheet around that would work for these cards. In the shoebox they remain.

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1976 Towne Club

I guess Towne Club was a soda maker in and around Detroit. I have no idea really. I just read that it was a competitor of Faygo, which I’m also unsure of.  The Pop Center was a store where people would take a wooden crate and walk around a warehouse to choose their pop. Seems like an idea doomed to fail, which it did.

This was the first disc set I saw and I bought it. Nothing to note; it’s pretty dull.

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1980 Topps Superstar 5” X 7” Photos

I’ve written about the 1981 version of this set in my Split Season post. The 1980 version came in two types – white back and gray back. Like the following year’s set, these cards are beautiful in every way – photos, gloss, size. Perfection!

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1986 Orioles Health and 1981 Dodgers Police

Nice sets, worth the inexpensive cost of admission.  The most important part about the Orioles set is that it proved that a Cal Ripken autograph I got in the mail was real. Cal sent me the Health card signed. Having an unsigned version was all I needed to know that he delivered a real signature.

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1986 Kay-Bee Young Superstars

Rob Neyer recently wrote a post about the Circle K set. These small boxed sets were the locusts of the card world. All through the ‘80’s, some company had a small deck of baseball cards to sell. These two boxes (why two?) have mostly served as a base for the Orioles and Dodgers sets, but I cracked one open and they’re fine, especially the 1971 Topps style backs.

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You can see beneath all the cards is a four decade old piece of paper towel, serving as a cushion between cards and box. No detail regarding proper care was lost on me.

 

*Congrats to those who picked up the Se7en reference.

Those Damned Slabs!

I love the feel of cards. Not modern glossy cards and definitely not those uber-glossy, oily mid-‘90’s cards that stick together when stacked! I hate those.

In 1998 I started working on the 1963 Fleer set. It seemed easy to put together from scratch, a 66 card set with one harder to find checklist. I lucked out with a few reasonably priced lots, then, since I was already hooked on eBay, started hunting down stars. I did well, finding EX-MT or better cards for reasonable prices. Soon enough, I’d have the whole set and sock it away in a box, my preferred method of storage.

Then I started winning auctions for graded cards. Not because I preferred them (see tactile thoughts above), but because the price was right. Now I had a dilemma. How to store the set? I couldn’t put nearly all of a complete set in a box and put what would end up as four graded cards somewhere separate. I thought about cracking the holders, but I’m pretty feeble when it comes to the most basic skills and, for sure, that would have resulted in ruined cards and me bleeding. So I ended up putting 63 cards in top loaders and finding a box to hold those and the oversized graded cards. Now, when I look at that set, I don’t get the enjoyment of having a stack of 50+ year old cardboard in my hands.

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The rise of the graded card ruined the hobby for me (until recently). I get it – it provides a certain consistency of grading, better than the old days when you had to take the seller’s word for how a card looked (though putting up actual scans goes a long way in accurately portraying raw cards). It definitely made it easier to buy online with confidence and, in the beginning, it made sense to grade stars and superstars, but when commons started getting graded, it killed the joy of completing sets for me (again, until recently). Every card in remotely nice shape was slabbed.

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I came up with a solution to knock me out of my card doldrums and the problems of slabbing. Starting last year, I completed a 1971 Topps baseball set in a condition only a fool would grade. Many many are EX-MT, some pretty sharp for a set notorious for chipping and bad centering. A lot are VG at best and some look like they were run over by a car, repeatedly. Still, now I can pull out the box and flip through them all, getting that smooth sensation from the fronts and that rough feel of the backs.

Still, as I work to complete multiple older sets, I’m running into the problem of key cards in slabs. I’m not sure what to do – pass them up and wait for a raw card, or suck it up and end up with a card or two in slabs? I know what I’d prefer – raw cards only – but I know that price will dictate results, exactly like it did almost 20 years ago.