A Little Treasure Chest

Brace, Conlon, McWilliams, McCarthy. McCarthy? Most card collectors and hardcore baseball fans have heard of, or encountered, the photography of George Brace, Charles Conlon and Doug McWilliams. For some reason, J.D. McCarthy has slipped through the cracks.

He shouldn’t have. McCarthy, from near Detroit, was a top level photographer, clicking away product that players used as postcards to answer fan mail or promote their bowling alleys and pizza parlors (McCarthy entries are scattered throughout the Standard Catalog), and that Topps used on a freelance basis. McCarthy archives had made it through various hands, and the bottom of the collection ended up with Bob Lemke, formerly of Krause Publications and one-time editor of the Standard Catalog. He wrote about it here.

Bob makes the point that the collection went through multiple owners, and, by the time it got to him, had been picked over, the Hall of Famers and big stars had disappeared. Which leads me to this post.

Back in 1986, I was visiting Cooperstown and, of course, Baseball Nostalgia. The shop, co-owned by inaugural Burdick Award Winner Mike Aronstein, was in its old location, at what is now the batting range. I picked up my usual odds and ends, like the current San Francisco Giants yearbook, and this little gem. (I’d always been under the impression that Sports Design Products was an Aronstein company, but Andrew Aronstein assured me it was not.)

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I had never heard of McCarthy, and had no idea of what would be contained within this plastic box, but, man, what’s inside was a marvel then, and still is now. It’s a 24-card set, matte-finish (if not matte, non-glossy), with brilliant photos and a simple, 1969 Topps design. SDP clearly had some big plans for the superstar portraits of McCarthy, hoping to get on board the card boom. Seemingly those dreams were never realized.

Here’s the entirety of the set:

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An up close look at these two beauts:

(The backs have little to offer, but I know you “card back” guys care.)

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While still cheap in price, the McCarthy set is high in aesthetic value. Track one down.

A Brief Analysis of Baseball Card Prose and How It Makes Us Better Writers (1952-1955)

If I had a time machine, I would zip around the fourth dimension to all of the expected places. I’d love to see Hamlet at the Globe. Maybe I’d drop in on the Constitutional Convention or the Cavern Club in 1961. I suspect that many of us might set our personal flux capacitors to 1951 so we could see Sy Berger design the 1952 Topps set on his kitchen table. There were baseball cards before that set, of course, but Berger and his team set the standard that still guides the industry. 

Two of the great constants in my life are baseball and writing. I could never hit a curveball. Or a fastball. Or a softball in a batting cage. I can, however, tell a decent story and put together decent sentences. It’s no surprise, then, that baseball cards were among the first literary works I read. It was Frog and Toad are Friends, Encyclopedia Brown, and the (primarily) Topps cards that my father would let me pick up in the supermarket candy aisle. 

These modes of “non-traditional” literacy formation are well-studied in the fields of education and rhetoric and composition. (How many immigrants learned to speak English by watching popular television shows?) Often overlooked, however, is the way that baseball cards served as a form of reading instruction, particularly during the time when the industry’s target demographic consisted almost solely of little kids. 

In this series of articles, I will engage in an admittedly surface analysis of baseball card prose, looking at the writing on the reverse of random base Detroit Tiger cards from each of Topps’ nearly seventy years of flagship releases. Other writers for this blog have chronicled how the prose on the backs of 1954 Topps cards offers valuable lessons.  Don Zminda had the great idea to compare how Topps and Bowman handled the prose in their 1954 sets.  I am curious to see how the prose changed over the decades, and how Berger and his successors used a few sentences to reinforce the construction of the ballplayer’s identity. Of course, I am also interested in isolating what writers of all kinds can learn from these works. 

A few notes on methodology. Topps has printed many tens of thousands of base cards since 1952. Unfortunately, I don’t have a fleet of researchers at my beck and call, so I can’t accumulate data on each of them. There are variations between base cards in sets, of course; a card released at the end of Alan Trammell’s career, for example, may feature only statistics because there was no room for prose. During some years, Topps included cartoons on the backs of the cards. I have typed up the prose and included a bracketed description of the image. Further, I have tried to preserve the baseball card prose as printed, mistakes and all. 

It just so happens that I have what I call my “Tiger Stadium Collection.” During a visit to Cooperstown, an ex-girlfriend purchased me a small, square tin decorated to look like the exterior of the best ballpark in the history of baseball. (I’m biased.) I keep a base flagship Tiger from (almost) each year of Topps in the tin: a fortuitous coincidence. 

With all of that blather out of the way…let’s look at some cards!

groth

1952 Johnny Groth #25

Design of the reverse: prose and reduced stats

Text (81 words): Johnny was the best fielding outfielder in the American League in 1951 winning the title by 2 ten-thousandths of a point. At the plate, he started the ’51 season slowly, but hit .325 during the last half of the season to bring his average up. He had trials with the Tigers in 1946 and 1947, but didn’t make the grade until 1949 after hitting .340 at Buffalo in 1948. His first year up, John batted .293 and hit .306 in 1950.

In its inaugural effort, Topps begins providing kids with the information that they couldn’t easily get elsewhere. There was no Baseball Reference in 1952, so it makes sense to include a stat-heavy summary of Groth’s career.

The formation of the ballplayer as a relatable hero also seems present. Imagine a second-string Little Leaguer opening up a one-cent pack and learning about how Groth succeeded after years of work dedicated to “making the grade.” It’s also interesting that the person who composed the prose alternated between “Johnny” and “John.” A mistake, or something else?

While the first sentence is missing a comma between the clauses, the second and fourth reinforce one of the basic uses of the comma: it joins a dependent clause to an independent clause. “His first year up” is not a sentence; it doesn’t have a subject, object, AND a verb. “John batted .293 and hit .306 in 1950” does have all of those elements. Therefore, you glue the not-a-sentence to a sentence with a comma. 

hatfield

1953 Fred Hatfield #163

Design of the reverse: Unrelated trivia question, reduced stats, prose

Text (76 words): “Hattie” was the top-fielding third sacker in the American League in ’52. The Red Sox spotted him playing American Legion Ball and he signed his first pro contract in ’42. After hitting .300 for Birmingham of the Southern Association in ’50, “Hattie” was brought up to the AL. The Sox used him in a utility role in ’51 and traded him to the Tigers early in ’52. Fred was [a] paratrooper during World War II.

Once again, the author begins with the player’s name, but does so in an even more intimate fashion, twice using Hatfield’s nickname. And once again, the reader gets a fairly rote (but necessary) description of Hatfield’s career to that point. Remember: both 1952 and 1953 only included “last year” and “lifetime” stat lines.

There are a couple mistakes in the prose. Was it convention to capitalize the generic “ball” in “American Legion Ball?” The author drops a word in that final sentence, too. With regard to that final sentence, I imagine how relevant the information would seem to the Topps target audience: little kids, mostly boys, whose fathers stood a great chance of having served during World War II themselves. 

As in 1952, the author begins with a fulsome description of the player’s fielding capabilities and then engages in prolepsis, flashing back to where the man began his career and how he got to the point at which he was so useful with a glove. Writers can engage in flashback while leaving the reader blind about the eventual outcome, or he or she can do so after informing the reader about the protagonist’s present conditions. In this case, the author of the card has no choice; the reader knows that Hatfield eventually made the majors…if he hadn’t, there would be no baseball card to trade with friends!

7.10.2020lund

1954 Don Lund #167

Design of the reverse: Two cartoons, reduced stats, prose

Text (94 words total, 68 without cartoon captions): Don began his career with Brooklyn in 1945, pinch hitting in 4 games. A University of Michigan graduate, he was sent down and recalled by the Dodgers in ’47. In 1948, he went to the Browns and was bought by the Tigers in 1949. Don was with Toledo in 1949-50-51 and in 1952 at Buffalo, he hit .302 and returned to Detroit to bat .304 in 8 games.

At Michigan U. Don was a Big Ten football star! [Lund, in Michigan green(?), carries the football.]

But, after graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree, Don decided to make baseball his career! [Lund makes a nice grab at the right field fence.]

Once again, the reader learns about Lund’s path to the big leagues. Once again, the main piece of prose begins with the player’s first name. I don’t believe the latter is an accident. These cards, of course, were made primarily for children, some of whom would be at the beginning of their journey as readers. Sentences that begin with the subject are very simple and clear. (“Matt Nokes hit a home run.” “Al Stump mischaracterized Ty Cobb.” “Alan Trammell wore number 3.”)

The author is clear to make education a part of Lund’s identity. The reader (again, a child), learns that being a sports star can go hand-in-hand with being a scholar. I also wonder if Topps included such information to give parents more reasons to allow their children to use their hard-earned pennies and nickels to purchase cards. The cultural storm that resulted in the 1954 adoption of the Comics Code Authority put a spotlight on comic books: a competitor for the same disposable income. Perhaps Berger and his team were reinforcing the relative wholesomeness of their product.

One of my dear, departed Creative Writing MFA professors joked that writers are allowed a single exclamation point in their careers. After all, feelings are better evoked with the other tools that a writer has in his or her toolbox. The author (or perhaps authors) of this card use two. Notably, both exclamation points occur in the cartoon captions. This makes sense; cartoons must be very punchy, and the exclamation point is a compact representation of emotion. 

miller
Yes, it’s autographed. Isn’t it amazing how his handwriting stayed so consistent?

7.10.2020miller

1955 Bob Miller #9

Design of the reverse: Unrelated trivia question, reduced stats, prose

Text (64 words): The huge bonus paid to Bob for signing a Detroit contract in ’53 looked like a good investment to Tiger fans last year. Used mostly as a relief pitcher, Bob’s wide-breaking curve and flashing fastball placed him 4th in E.R.A.’s among American League Hurlers. Before deciding on Baseball as a career, he won a Yale scholarship for his straight “A” average in High School.

The author was presented with a challenge when writing about Bob Miller. At the time, clubs had no choice but to keep “bonus babies” on the major league roster for two years. The author, therefore, couldn’t chronicle Miller’s pro journey to The Show.

The reader learns about the Yale scholarship offer that Miller received, but there is more to the story. Page 10 of the July 1, 1953 issue of The Sporting News features a wonderful article about the Bengals’ two new bonus babies. Seventeen-year-old Miller received $60,000, and Detroit offered $35,000 to an eighteen-year-old named Albert Kaline. Writer Watson Spoelstra helpfully informs us that the latter’s name is “(pronounced Kay-line).” Good to know!

Again, the author of the baseball card capitalizes the generic nouns “Hurlers” and “Baseball.” (Though goodness knows that “Base-Ball” has been called many things in print.)

From a writing craft perspective, I get the sense that the person who wrote this card wasn’t feeling maximum enthusiasm for Bob Miller. Look at the structure of the three sentences and how they all feel similar. I suppose the paragraphs in the 1952 and 1953 cards are similar, but I suppose this could just be an indication that tone is inherently about perception to some extent.


There are an awful lot of cards left before we get to 2020. I hope you’ll join me to consider how the prose changed along with the times and its audience. If nothing else, perhaps this project will help me learn how to make my writing more compact!

Next time: Robert Kennedy (the baseball player, not the former Attorney General) and a left-hander who once struck out all 27 batters he faced in an American Legion game!

Misery Loves Company

Now that Beckett has published a short post about this I’m sort of obliged to write a longer version detailing the Al Kaline debacle.

I don’t chase shortprints but I enjoy looking through them every new release. Very often the photographs there are more interesting and remind me of the variety that we saw in the 1990s. Plus the old players are always an interesting reflection of the kinds of players who still resonate today.

When Series 2 dropped, I did my usual look through. The Andrew McCutchen is awesome but what stopped me was the Al Kaline. I’m looking for good/interesting photos in the short prints. I’m not expecting to see a photo showing the wrong player.

Yup. That’s not Kaline in the photo. How do I know? Because I made this exact mistake with this exact photo only nine months earlier.

I enjoy writing Through the Mail autograph requests but I also refuse to send things through the mail which I don’t want to risk losing—say, for example, a vintage card of Al Kaline. Even though he was such a great signer (typically turning things around under 20 days and often closer to 10) I just refuse to tempt fate with the USPS like that. Instead I created a custom card by searching around around the web for photos I liked and dropping them into a template I had created.

Last November I sent a couple custom cards off to Al with a note asking him to keep the extras and hoping he enjoyed them. A week and a half later they came back to me. I was not expecting the result.

Gulp.

At first I was mortified. This is the most embarrassing kind of mistake to make when autograph hunting. Then I double-checked Getty* and confirmed that I’d done my homework. Did I make a mistake. Yes. But it wasn’t through either lack of caring or lack of effort on my part. I hadn’t just grabbed a photo, I’d made sure that multiple places including a somewhat authoritative source had identified the player.

*Note: As of July 17, 2020 Getty has corrected its database to reflect that the photo is actually of Don Demeter.

At this point I became much more comfortable with the humor of the situation. Did I trust Kaline over Getty? Absolutely. So I tossed it onto Twitter so people could laugh at both me and Getty while also hoping that the hive mind could identify who the mystery player was.

Many people—including many Tigers fans—confirmed that they’d always thought this was Kaline as well. Only after realizing that it wasn’t him did the hive mind quickly nominate Don Demeter. Similar build and swing. Same time period. He certainly seemed like the most-likely suspect.

Thankfully, Demeter is great responding to autograph requests as well. I acquired a card of him, wrote a letter explaining the screw up, included one of the customs, and asked him if he could confirm that the photo was indeed him.

While getting the card signed was fun, this was one of the rare autograph returns where the autograph request was always going to be less important than the response to my question. Much to my pleasure and satisfaction, Demeter answered my question and confirmed that it was him.

His response was actually this sketch. It’s pretty conclusive to me and makes a fantastic companion piece to the Kaline and Demeter cards in my autograph binder. I just wish there were a way to submit this to Getty so they can update their database.

As a custom card maker, it’s always somewhat flattering to see Topps select a photo that I’ve already used on a custom. In this case though, as soon as I saw the Kaline short print I started laughing. I recognized the photo instantly and knew exactly what had happened. While I’ve already made peace with my mistake, seeing someone else fall for the same thing just makes me feel even better about it.

While I’m sad that this is sort of a RIP Kaline card for Topps, I’m glad that he didn’t have to deal with being asked to sign it. I would however be thrilled to see someone ask Don Demeter to sign it. That would be awesome.

Topps 1968 Die Cut Dandies!

Early in 1968 two things of great importance to my later life were just in the early stages of creation.  In London Jimmy Page was using all of his upper and lower world powers to fashion what would trample underfoot the Rock n’ Roll world like a thundering herd of invading maraudersZep early – the mighty Led Zeppelin.  Across the pond in Brooklyn Woody Gelman and his team were sending to the printer the similarly fabulous Topps Action All-Stars. 1968tas-12 While I could wax poetic of “years ago and days of old when magic filled the air”[1] from those eight Zeppelin studio releases, instead I’d like to reveal some of the wizardry of how the Action All-Stars ended up in 10 cent packs.  I mean look at that rascal!  Roberto looking ready to make a point with his Louisville Slugger, four Hall of Fame members and Richie Allen in those plastic warm up sleeves – utter brilliance in my mind.

As a bit of background these were one of the early attempts by Topps to produce die cut stickers that became big sellers in the 1970’s with the wildly successful Wacky Packages wackyand as a central part of the popularity of the original 1977 Star Wars series and those Charlie’s Angels stickers of FarrahFarrah, Jacklyn and Kate you put inside your school locker. Some links for additional info on this set[2] and other die cut stickers are at the end of the article[3].

I have to say I’m jealous of those kids living up in the Northeast back in the day who received the benefits of being close to Topps’ corporate and production facilities by getting test issues like these in their local candy, drug and grocery stores.  The only oddball baseball issues we saw in Louisville were the 1977 Cloth Stickers and the 1980 Superstar White Backed Photo cards.

Sixteen different groupings made up this set, a group was three 3.25” x 5.25” panels totaling 3.25” x 15.75” and perforated so as to be separated into those individual panels.  The center panel had high profile players as all but Joe Horlen ended up being enshrined at Cooperstown.  The top and bottom panels had three players in various baseball moves with some repeats of the larger players but in different action poses.  For some reason the first four (Carl Yastremski, Harmon Killebrew, Frank Robinson and Ron Santo) are repeated as the last four in the center panels.  I can’t answer as to why four 20 game winners, four .333 and above batting average hitters and Jim “The Toy Cannon” Winn with his 37 dingers and 109 RBI’s in 1967 didn’t receive the honor.  This layout would have provided a print sheet of approximately 27” x 31.5”.  Based on this uncut half sheet1968tas-sheet

I believe a full sheet would have appeared very close to this68TAS Print Sheet

Reviewing the Pre-Finishing samples I’ve seen and have in my collection standard Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black with a second hit for the heavy outline which would fall just inside the die cut.  Some adjustments were made though as the Ron Swoboda shows in the name plate.  Black was originally used for “Ron” and “New York” and the crossed bats logo IMG_6317but the purple background didn’t give enough contrast for the text and logo to be viewed leading to the corrected version with those aspects just knocked out of the Magenta and Cyan plates that created the purple background.  Also note that the early version was a bit hot in the Magenta which pushed the purple towards a red shade and made Ron’s face a bit sunburned

as opposed to actual production. The printing was the most straight forward part of this project which may explain why it was not released to the national market.  After printing the sheets were die cut and had the perforation applied and then trimmed, cut into individual lanes and folded to be inserted in their packs.  The die cut was accomplished by the use of a steel rule die, check this link to see the modern day process with snazzy background music.  Nowadays this is done with fancy laser engravers but back in the day this was quite a manual process as the die line would have been traced over the player images and then that outline would have been cut with a jigsaw for the steel rule pattern.  The printed sheet would have been die cut in a clam shell press either in full sheet form or they could have been cut in half requiring two separate dies as each half sheet is unique in layout.  The die would only cut through the first paper layer and not through the backing liner allowing each individual player to be removed and then placed on folders, lockers, etc.  When the perforation was applied is a bit up the air to me as normally it would be done in press in my world but based on the placement of the print tone scales the perforation was added in Finishing, where the final step of individually cutting the half print sheets into single lanes was completed and the fold down happened so the three in one could be inserted into their individual packs.  Please comment if you have additional or corrected information to add as my press experience doesn’t exactly fall into this realm of Finishing.  These are quite rare in their original unseparated state so if they were folded in a Z pattern or each end over the center is a mystery to me as I’ve never been able to inspect one personally.  I do wish Topps had given this design more opportunity in wider distribution but us 70’s kids did reap the benefits of die cut stickers which by 1977 were designed in a much more Press and Finishing friendly setupstar warsready for mass production.  

Even the box

and wrapper

were top notch in design ensuring that Gelman’s Team produced a final product that was greater than all of its parts, just like Mr. Page’s work back in London!Zep later

[1]

[2]

[3]

Rethinking the Hobby’s most iconic cards

If you came here to read about the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle or 1989 Fleer Billy Ripken, you came to the wrong place. I’m here to talk about true baseball card icons…these!

These are of course the position icons Topps used on their 1976 flagship set. Now that you see where the post is headed, I’m only going to get the ball rolling and look to you, the readers, to finish it for me.

Use the comments area either to fill a vacant slot or upgrade one of the existing slots. Together I believe we can assemble a team of the most iconic baseball cards ever, and I wouldn’t even be surprised if the entire collection could be had for only a few bucks.

Catcher

I was reasonably happy with the 1988 Score Bob Boone card, but I suspect there’s something better out there. Terry Steinbach had a couple that were very close but facing the wrong way.

Right-handed pitcher

As in the 1973 set, Topps used different icons depending on whether a pitcher threw righty or lefty. Until a better match comes along, here is the iconic 1991 Topps Donn Pall card in the righty slot.

Left-Handed Pitcher

Hunting for the LHP icon proved harder than I thought and introduced me to just how much variation in follow-through there can be from pitcher to pitcher. As with all of these, feel free to upgrade.

First Base

No entry yet.

Second Base

Though not a second baseman, Walt Weiss comes close to the Topps icon with his 1991 Topps card. My guess is one of you will find something better though, and bonus points if your sliding baserunner is a match too.

An honorable mention from the vintage division is found on another shortshop card, the 1956 Topps Pee Wee Reese. (And you thought only his 1953 Bowman was iconic!)

Third Base

For some reason when I look at the third baseman icon I see George Brett in my head. He has a few near matches like this 1982 Topps In Action. Still, I suspect another player will make for an even closer match.

Shortstop

No entry yet, but I’ll use this third baseman’s card as a placeholder.

Outfield

No entry yet.

Designated hitter

Pinch-hitting for the DH until something better comes along is the 1992 Topps Jay Buhner. For some reason, even though the batter is a righty, this position icon always reminds me of Yaz.

Not satisfied?

If near matches weren’t what you had in mind, have I got the set for you. Let’s call it the Topps equivalent of participation trophies, a set where EVERY player is iconic: 2004 Topps!

P.S. I kind of like these!

Was National Chicle on the Ball or Off the Mark With its 1935 Diamond Stars Jimmie Foxx?

Though among most everyone’s candidates for the best first baseman in history, Jimmie Foxx—much like Honus Wagner two generations earlier—was a versatile player who could man various positions. (He ultimately took every position on the diamond besides second base and center field, including famously pitching—and pitching well—for the 1945 Phillies, as well as an earlier inning for the Red Sox.) Brought along gingerly by manager Connie Mack, Foxx was eased into the Philadelphia A’s lineup over several seasons. He originally reached the majors as a catcher, but with Mickey Cochrane claiming the position in his freshman season, Foxx had no future as Philly’s backstop. Tried variously in the outfield and the corner bases, Foxx did not become the Athletics regular first baseman until 1929. Not coincidentally, the A’s established themselves as the cream of baseball that season, leaving Babe Ruth’s mighty Yankees in the dust and cruising to a World Series championship.

With the arrival of Philadelphia’s quasi-dynasty of 1929–31 and Foxx’s subsequent eruption into Lou Gehrig’s near-equal as a devastating run producer, Jimmie was synonymous with first base throughout the 1930s.

Yet Foxx’s 1935 Diamond Stars card shows him as a catcher, despite the fact that he had not played an inning behind the plate since July 1928.

Having recently won back-to-back American League MVPs and now standing as one of the most famous and popular baseball players—not to mention first basemen–in the country, there seems to be no logical reason for National Chicle, the manufacturer of the Diamond Stars cards, to portray Foxx in his “long-lost” position.

Except that, for the first time in seven seasons, Jimmie donned baseball’s tools of ignorance, playing 26 of Philadelphia’s first 27 games behind the plate, before returning to first base. Mickey Cochrane had already traded in his white elephant for a tiger a season earlier and was busy player-managing Detroit to consecutive pennants, and Mack refused to put his trust in the A’s two other backstops when opening day arrived. In a strategy that could happen only in those quainter days, Mack moved Foxx back to catcher until he shelled out cash to the New York Giants for Paul Richards on May 25. (Richards was a short-term solution and did not even return to the majors until 1943; Mack ultimately solved his problem at catcher by bringing Frankie “Blimp” Hayes back to Philadelphia from the Washington organization, though Hayes was hardly a replacement for Mickey Cochrane.)

Anyway, National Chicle did not randomly or coincidentally depict Foxx as a catcher—the back of Jimmie’s card (spelled “Jimmy”) states that he had been “dividing his time between first base and catching…since Mickey Cochrane became manager of Detroit.”

This is flatly inaccurate (although to how much up-to-date and comprehensive statistics National Chicle availed itself certainly could be a factor): Cochrane had been traded to Detroit in December 1933, yet Jimmie never once played a game behind the plate in 1934 (though he unrelatedly did start nine game at the hot corner, for a total of 78 innings).

Thus, the only factual or rational reason for Foxx to be shown as a catcher on this card is because it wasn’t created until after Foxx debuted in 1935 as Philadelphia’s backstop on April 17. And he certainly would have had to have played at least several games at catcher before anyone at National Chicle either noticed or decided that enough of a pattern had been established to warrant capturing Foxx in catcher’s gear. (Considering National Chicle was based in the Boston suburb of Cambridge, it could be significant that the Red Sox and A’s did not clash until April 29, possibly delaying awareness that Foxx was currently not a first baseman.)

Exactly when in 1935 this card hit candy store shelves is unknown (at least to me). Foxx’s pose suggests—if we give National Chicle the benefit of the doubt on the facts of Jimmie’s defensive play, if not the semantics of his bio on the card—that National Chicle prepared and released its cards well after opening day. However, playing a handful of games at catcher in the early days of 1935 hardly can be considered “dividing one’s time” between the two positions when it never once occurred during the entire 1934 season. Either this was an excessively liberal take on National Chicle’s part or the writer of the card’s text assumed that Foxx had been catching in 1934—which, even in those less-enlightened days, was easily provable as false, had anyone bothered to fact check.

So perhaps National Chicle was under the erroneous impression that Foxx had been working behind the plate in 1934—which would make when the card was designed moot.

And yet, Foxx is mentioned as a first baseman even on the back of Jim Bottomley’s card, which was issued in the same series—and thus at the same time—as Foxx’s card, making Foxx’s portrayal as a catcher all the more curious.

Regardless, one must question to a degree the philosophy of so readily abandoning Foxx’s well-established reputation as an MVP first baseman based, presumptively, on a handful of games at the outset of the new season. It’s difficult to imagine the bigwigs at National Chicle thought Foxx’s move to catcher would be permanent, especially with light-hitting rookie Alex Hooks filling in for Foxx at first base, followed by powerless, though able, outfielder Lou Finney.

Still, National Chicle deserves a modicum of kudos for staying on the ball enough to reflect this recent, albeit temporary, change in Foxx’s defensive status—something of a Depression Era version of “keeping it real” (though whether it was necessary is debatable). As well, National Chicle should be commended from an aesthetic standpoint not only for providing an intrinsically interesting card but for similarly reminding the public that a baseball player is defined more by his many innings in the field than by his far shorter involvement at bat—a fact that modern fans tend to forget, especially in the era of the designated hitter and the current clamor for its adoption by the National League.

But as for whether Jimmie Foxx’s 1935 Diamond Stars card represents National Chicle being cutting edge or operating on erroneous information will likely never be known.

1997 Denny’s: The Most Ambitious Set Ever?

I was introduced to holograms by Desi Arnaz, Jr in 1983. Arnaz played Walter Nebicher, a nerdy police officer/computer whiz who craved more responsibility within the police department. In his spare time, Nebicher developed a powerful crime-fighting, helicopter-piloting, Tron-like-hologram hero he dubbed “Automan.” Unfortunately, Automan was canceled after only 12 episodes and I pretty much forgot about holograms until those marvels of dimensionality began to be incorporated into baseball card sets in the late 1980s.

On the other hand, lenticular cards had been a hobby staple since the 1970s. These plasticky “3-D” oddball issues were first introduced as a Topps test issue in 1968. Collectors most likely became aware of the 3-D technology, however when they found baseball cards in their Kellogg’s cereal boxes or discs on the bottom of 7-11 Slurpee cups. The Sportflics issue in 1986 introduced the lenticular card on a much grander scale, incorporating a headshot and a pair of action poses for individual players and cards featuring up to 12 different player photos. Regardless, the 3-D card has largely remained a novelty.

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Whether a baseball card featured a holographic or lenticular element, the creator of that card was endeavoring to capture the action and movement of the game into a static format—what else could a collector ask for in a two-dimensional card? Many of these cards are downright magical.

Famous for its Grand Slam breakfast, Denny’s began producing a branded baseball card set with Upper Deck in 1991. That set featured a full bleed holographic image on the front and narrative statistical information on the reverse, along with—cleverly—the player’s career grand slam tally. One card was issued for each of the 26 Major League teams at the time. Denny’s followed a similar format in 1992 and 1993, the latter set growing to 28 cards with the addition of players from the Rockies and Marlins. These cards were given to patrons who ordered a Grand Slam breakfast.

In 1994, Denny’s and Upper Deck changed the format a bit and for the first time, the set included pitchers. The player’s grand slam tally was discontinued, perhaps because none of Jim Abbott, Kevin Appier and Cal Eldred had never hit a home run, let alone a grand slam. This year, the issue also included a special Reggie Jackson card that was reportedly distributed one to a location and was to be given away as a prize. This remains the rarest of any Denny’s issue.

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The 1995 Denny’s set was the last for Upper Deck, the restaurant chain having partnered with Pinnacle for 1996. While the 1991-95 Upper Deck holographic issues simply added some shimmer and dimension to the card fronts, the 1996 set really brought home the bacon. Touted as “Full Motion Holograms,” these cards—when pivoted at just the right angle—actually depicted fluid action of a batter’s swing or pitcher’s windup. This issue also added a randomly inserted ten-card Grand Slam subset, with a parallel ten-card Grand Slam Artist’s Proof subset. The holographic image on the Grand Slam subset card was just a generic Grand Slam breakfast advertisement, ironically making the chase cards much less desirable than those in the base set.

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Then, in 1997, the 24-hour diner chain turned the collecting world on its collective head. Not unlike the resplendent union of eggs and toast, a concept was hatched in which a single regulation-sized baseball card would include both lenticular and holographic elements. This intrepid design produced the most technologically ambitious baseball card ever—with roughly 71%* of the card’s real estate covered by special effects. The front of the card was oriented horizontally and featured crisp effects in front of or behind each subject. The back of the card contained biographical and career highlight information, along with a large holographic image of the player’s face. These cards were wrapped individually and were available for 59 cents to anyone who purchased an entrée and non-alcoholic beverage.

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The set was comprised of 29 cards, one for each of the 28 Major League teams of the day, along with a special Jackie Robinson card in honor of 1997 having been the 50th anniversary of his having broken baseball’s color barrier. The Robinson card was based on Ernie Sisto’s depicting Robinson being tagged out at plate by the Pirates’ Clyde McCullough at Ebbets Field on May 2, 1951.

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Oddly, Denny’s also produced a separately distributed card of Larry Doby, numbered “1 of 1.”** The Doby card was given out at the All-Star Game Fan Fest and National Sports Collectors Convention, both of which were held in Cleveland that year. [Additionally, there is anecdotal evidence that the Doby card was also available at Cleveland-area Denny’s locations, but this has not necessarily been substantiated.] As you may know, Doby broke the color barrier in the AL, playing his initial game for the Indians on July 5, 1947.

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The 1997 Denny’s cards are fun to handle not only because of the movement and special effects on both sides, but also because a good number include other identifiable individuals. For example, John Jaha appears to be holding Wade Boggs on at first. The Sammy Sosa card has Jose Hernandez positioned oddly as Sosa appears to be mid home run trot. It appears that Jeff Bagwell is depicted on Tim Salmon’s card, Hal Morris appears on Derek Jeter’s card, Kirt Manwaring is seen on Andruw Jones’s card, and Jim Thome makes a baserunning appearance on Bagwell’s card, the only dual Hall of Famer entry in the lot.

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Interestingly, Cubs catcher Scott Servais appears on two cards, those of Ray Lankford and Gary Sheffield. The Sheffield card is particularly interesting because the visible Wrigley Field bunting probably dates that photograph as having been taken during the Cubs opening series against the Marlins in 1997, not long before the set would have been finalized for manufacture.

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The card fronts are also interesting to study for the differing ways in which motion was added and whether the perspective of that motion was in the foreground, background, or both. The majority of the cards depict the main subject as a solid, two-dimensional figure. Several cards, however, animate a portion of the player’s body, such as Mo Vaughn’s glove, Mike Piazza’s arm, and Frank Thomas’s left hand gripping a baseball to autograph.

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Unfortunately, all this technology came at a price. While information regarding the cost to produce each of these cards has eluded the author, these cards could not have been inexpensive to produce and Denny’s ambition may have been the reason for the demise of their baseball card promotions. Alas, the 1997 set was the last that Denny’s would distribute.

Even now, Denny’s sets and singles are readily available and relatively inexpensive. The ambitious 1997 set is the pinnacle of baseball card fun, even more so than Automan ever was.

Here is the checklist: 1997 Denny’s Checklist

Notes:

*I say that “roughly 71%” because the hologram features a slight rounded contour of a baseball, not a straight line. I am not going to do any math that requires me to calculate the area of an arc section.

**Denny’s having chosen to celebrate Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby may have been an effort to help rehabilitate their corporation reputation on the heels of paying $54.4 million to settle a class-action racial discrimination lawsuit.

Sources:

Jeff Leeds, “Denny’s Restaurants Settle Bias Suits for $54 Million: Civil rights: Blacks complained of discrimination at the chain. Case marks new push for Justice Department,” Los Angeles Times, May 25, 1994.

Dwight Chapin, Greg Smith, “Highland Mint strikes gold in memorabilia market,” The Marion Star (Marion, Ohio), August 31, 1997.

On cropping and layers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five sheets to the wind with 1981 Donruss

Not long again, fellow SABR Baseball Cards blogger Mark Del Franco posed three questions about the 1981 Donruss set he was paging in his binder.

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When the insider information Mark was hoping for didn’t arrive, I decided to make a day of delving deep into the Donruss checklist. Best case scenario, I’d have answers to all Mark’s questions. Worst case scenario, you’d get an article that at least brought back some of the nostalgia and fondness of the company’s debut baseball offering.

Apropos to Mark’s questions, let’s take a closer look at the cards that open the set.

Much like some of the early Bowman sets or even 1940 Play Ball, the set’s numerical checklist (cards 1-17 shown below, including both Duffy Dyer variations) includes small team runs. As already noted by Mark, cards 1-4 above are San Diego Padres and cards 5-10 are Detroit Tigers.

Were the pattern to continue throughout the set, no deep study or article would be warranted. However, the Mike Schmidt card is our first of many hints that the organization of the set is hardly as simple as your binder’s opening sheet might have suggested.

Was Schmidt’s presence simply a mistake? After all, like the Fleer set of the same year, the set did include several errors and variations. A look at the next two pages in the binder might shed some light.

Things start out simple enough: Astros, Astros, Astros, Astros, but then what’s this? Another lone Phil, this time Manny Trillo, appearing out of nowhere, before the run of Astros continues. Next up, a run of Rangers cards, a run of Blue Jays, and then…you guessed it! Another Phillie, this time Steve Carlton, pops in.

Were we forced to describe the structure of the set based only on what we’ve seen so far, I suppose the description would go something like this: groupings of 4-6 teammates, punctuated by the occasionally lone Phil.

This schematic of the set’s first hundred cards (excluding variations) illustrates that our description continues to hold, at least mostly, well past the cards we’ve seen so far. The only deviation comes from our lone Phils ultimately giving way to lone Braves.

The schematic also shows us that the placement of the lone Phils/Braves cards is not random. Geometrically, they form a perfect diagonal down the grid, meaning numerically they differ by exactly eleven. Specifically the cards are numbered 11, 22, 33, 44, 55, 66, 77, 88, and 99.

You might wonder if the numeric pattern extends further down the checklist. It does, at least sort of, but not for long. The next number in the pattern, 110, does correspond to a player all by himself, amidst a larger Yankees run. However, he’s an Oakland A’s player rather than a Phillie or a Brave.

Phillies? Braves? A’s? What does it matter, as long as these loners keep popping up every eleven cards. That’s the real pattern we care about, right? Well, I have bad news. Card 121 in the set, Dave Cash, is hardly a loner but instead the leader of a run of four Padres. Drat!

Are we done then? Not a chance! Inserted between a run of Tigers and Pirates is card 131, Pete Rose, another lone Phil! Then at 142, eleven cards later, Larry Bowa, another lone Phil! Card 153? Another lone Phil—

Does the pattern continue even further? As the signs used to say at Veteran’s stadium in 1980, DEL-IVERS! Card 164 is another lone Phil, Del Unser! Poppycock, you say? I think you mean Bull! Yes, Greg Luzinski does keep the Phillies solo parade going with card 175.

The loners continue every eleven cards like clockwork (if clocks had eleven numbers), just not with Phillies. As before, the team run interrupter baton is passed to Atlanta before (again!) having an Oakland player crash the party.

  • 186 – Brian Asselstine (Braves)
  • 197 – Rick Camp (Braves)
  • 208 – Bruce Benedict (Braves)
  • 219 – Chris Chambliss (Braves)
  • 230 – Jeff Cox (A’s)

I wish I could say card 241 was another lone Phil or Brave or even Athletic, but I can’t—as before, the Oakland A’s player proved a harbinger of discontinuity. All we get at card 241 is Gene Tenace (first sheet, second card) initiating a run of four Padres.

Well talk about deja vu all over again! Again, Pete Rose restarts the pattern of lone Phils, this time with his second card in the set, number 251. (Recall Donruss included multiple cards of many top stars in 1981.)

Do a host of lone Phillies again follow the Hit King at intervals of eleven? You bet!

  • 262 – Bob Boone (Phillies)
  • 273 – Tug McGraw (Phillies)
  • 284 – Sparky Lyle (Phillies)
  • 295 – Lonnie Smith (Phillies)

And if you guessed some Braves would come after that, you are on a roll!

  • 306 – Gary Matthews (Braves)
  • 317 – Rick Matula (Braves)
  • 328 – Phil Niekro (Braves)
  • 339 – Jerry Royster (Braves)

And if you’ve really been paying attention, you can probably guess the next two things that will happen. (Bonus points if you can guess the next three!)

  1. Yes, an Oakland A’s player shows up at 350.
  2. Yes, nothing special happens at 361. We just get Bill Fahey kicking off a four-card run of Padres (first sheet, third card below).

“But what’s number three,” you ask!

It’s Pete Rose once again, with his third card in the set (371), serving as Grand Marshal of the solo parade:

  • 382 – Keith Moreland (Phillies)
  • 393 – Bob Walk (Phillies)
  • 404 – Bake McBride (Phillies)
  • 415 – Dallas Green (Phillies)
  • 426 – Bobby Cox (Braves)
  • 437 – Dale Murphy (Braves)
  • 448 – Doyle Alexander (Braves)
  • 459 – Glenn Hubbard (Braves)
  • 480 – Mike Davis (A’s)

We’ve now made it through 80% of the set, ignoring the five unnumbered checklists, and we have seen a remarkably consistent if not perfect pattern all the way through. You may think you know the ending then: more of the same. Unfortunately (unless you like chaos), things get much more complicated in our final 20%, so much so that I’ll pause here and “solve the riddle” before unleashing the cacophony of the set’s final 100+ cards.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In our case, that picture is an uncut sheet of the first 121 cards (sort of) in the set. (Like Topps at that time, the Donruss set used 11 x 11 printing sheets.)

Read from left to right and the sequencing appears random, but read top to bottom and you see that the sheet in fact runs in numerical order. Head down the first column and we have cards 1-11: our four Padres, six Tigers, and Mike Schmidt. Head down the next column and we see the run of Pirates and the start of an Astros run, interrupted briefly by Manny Trillo of the Phillies.

As for those darn Phils and Braves, we now see that they too are part of consecutive team runs, only horizontally rather than vertically down the sheet. But what about Mickey Klutts, or for that matter any of the A’s streak-breakers who seemingly crashed the parties solo? Mickey isn’t so much alone but simply nudged aside one slot by the first unnumbered checklist in the set. (That checklist is why I said the sheet “sort of” showed the set’s first 121 cards. From a numbering perspective, you are really seeing 1-120 plus an unnumbered card.) Swap Mickey with the checklist, and he’d fit right in with a nice vertical strip of A’s teammates.

The second uncut sheet in the set (cards 121-240 plus another unnumbered checklist) follows EXACTLY the same pattern, right down to the A’s player nudged by the sheet’s checklist.

Ditto for the third sheet, featuring cards 241-360 and the third unnumbered checklist.

And finally, sheet four, featuring cards 361-480 and the fourth unnumbered checklist.

While these sheets don’t answer every question about the set’s quirky checklist, they do provide a nice visual context for not only the patterns but the breaks in the patterns previously noted.

  • The “every eleven” patterns of lone Phils, Braves, and sometimes A’s corresponded exactly to the bottom rows of each sheet.
  • The breaks in our “every eleven” patterns (cards 121, 241, 361) were caused by the insertion of an unnumbered checklist at the end of each sheet.
  • As for Pete and Re-Pete (sorry, wrong brand!) and Re-Re-Pete re-starting the pattern each time, his (honorific?) spot in the bottom left corner of sheets 2, 3, and 4 are what make it work. (For what it’s worth, the first sheet also had a Phils great, Mike Schmidt, in the lower left corner.)

With the sheets in front of us, we can add two more observations to our list.

  1. The order of the teams on each sheet is identical: Padres, Tigers, Pirates, Astros, Rangers, Blue Jays, Mets, White Sox, Mariners, Angels, Dodgers, Reds, Cardinals, Giants, Indians, Brewers, Expos, Red Sox, Royals, Yankees, Orioles, and A’s (with Phils and Braves along the bottom).
  2. Two teams are nowhere to be found: Cubs and Twins.

Now that you know just about everything about the set’s first 480 (or 484 counting checklists) cards, we are ready for the final sheet. Just be sure you’re sitting down…or standing on your head.

Again, we have a Phillies great, Mike Schmidt, in the lower left hand corner and a checklist in the lower right. Next, notice…oh gosh, you’re not gonna let me do this to you, are you? Okay, fine, let’s try this again.

As promised, chaos. But not total chaos. I’ll illustrate the order by using thick red borders to identify contiguous team groupings (horizontal or vertical) and use big black “T” markings to identify cards like these.

A hallmark of the 1981 Donruss set is the subset of cards where player uniforms mismatch their team names. While Topps would have gotten out the airbrushes, Donruss left player photos intact, using only the team designation to reflect updates. If we include these players with their former (uniform) teams, we end up with twelve mini-team runs. Not surprisingly, half are Cubs and half are Twins.

The fact that Donruss placed all 17 of the “T” cards on the final sheet surprised me at first but perhaps isn’t surprising at all. I’ll illustrate this with two examples.

Ron LeFlore, photographed as an Expo, was granted free agency on October 28, 1980, but not signed by the White Sox until November 26. If we assume Donruss was in the homestretch of card-making for most players come November, then it makes sense that LeFlore would be moved to the back of the line while his team status was in limbo. (Note LeFlore’s bio opens with his signing by the Sox.)

On the other hand, what about Larry Milbourne, who was traded from the Mariners to the Yankees on November 18? While his team status changed, there was no prolonged limbo period attached. I can’t say what happened for sure, but there are a couple possibilities that seem viable.

  1. Donruss had already completed Milbourne’s Mariners card prior to the trade and then bumped him to the back of the line for correction once the trade took place.
  2. Donruss was aware of the trade when Milbourne’s card was being worked on, but they had not yet reached a decision on how to handle team changes. Would they ignore them? Would they go the airbrushing route? Would they race to Spring Training for a new photo? Or would they simply update the team name while leaving everything else the same? Again, back of the line makes sense pending a design decision.

You’ll notice the sheet has several other special cards not yet mentioned: a “Best Hitters” card featuring George Brett and Rod Carew, two MVP cards (Brett/Schmidt), and two Cy Young Award cards (Stone/Carlton).

We can add all of these cards to the “seems logical to have them here” pile, and we end up with 63 cards on the final sheet making sense. There may be a story to the remaining 58 (e.g., other pending free agents who stayed with their prior teams, rookies identified late in the process), but most are probably players who simply didn’t fit on the first four sheets.

To illustrate that there really are cards in this last category, consider Steve Howe (card 511). He was the reigning National League Rookie of the Year and had completely unambiguous team status as a Dodger. As such, Howe would have been an absolute lock for the set from the beginning but was nonetheless part of this final sheet.

UPDATE: From Keith Olbermann…

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I’m not sure my work here directly answers any of Mark’s original questions. At best I can say Ozzie Smith has card #1 because he is a Padre and the Padres lead off every sheet. Still, why Ozzie as opposed to other Padres, including bigger stars like Dave Winfield and Rollie Fingers? And why are the Padres with their last place finish in the top spot at all?

About all I can do is (maybe) add some rationale for the organization of the set into mini-team runs as opposed to complete team runs such as Fleer used that same year. I’ll start with a wrong answer but one that in some small way may inform a right answer.

At the very beginning of this article I mentioned the use of mini-team runs in 1940 Play Ball. For example, the New York Giants cards in this set occur at numbers 83-93, 154-159, 209-215. (There are also some “retired greats” cards at other checklist locations, but I’ll keep my focus on the active roster.) The Play Ball set was released in series, meaning had all 24 Giants cards been together on the checklist (e.g., cards 1-24), one series would have been jam-packed with Giants while the remaining series would have had none at all.

Of course 1981 Donruss was not released in series. All 605 cards came out all at once. As such, nothing terrible would have happened if the Padres simply opened the set with cards 1-18 rather than 1-4, 121-124, 241-244, 361-364, 525, and 595. On the other hand, let’s say that Donruss lacked whatever machinery Topps had in place for randomizing and collating cards into packs and boxes, something their past experience with non-baseball sets might have made clear to them going into the enterprise. If we assume that cards from the same sheet would have had a much higher than chance probability of going into the same packs, it’s easy to see that sheets with complete rosters would lead to collation issues more evident to consumers than sheets covering 24 different teams.

Personally, my own pack opening experience with 1981 Donruss (some as recently as last year) was that I still managed to open a great many packs with runs of 10-12 of the 18 cards spread across only two teams (e.g., Expos/Red Sox only). While this undoubtedly reflects poor collation, the fact is it could have been even worse. Had Donruss grouped entire team rosters together, those same packs might have yielded all Expos or all Red Sox.

Perhaps to address collation issues, the next year Donruss not only moved away from team runs entirely but also made several updates to their uncut sheets.

Among the other changes identifiable on this 1982 Donruss sheet are—

  • New size of 11 x 12 (132 cards), with five sheets again building the complete set, this time of 5 x 132 = 660 cards.
  • Change from vertical to horizontal sequencing of cards. For example, the top row run of Cal Ripken to Ray Burris covers cards 407-417 consecutively.
  • Insertion of Diamond Kings every 26th card.
  • Sheets covering a more complicated range of numbers. For example, the first six rows of the sheet shown (excluding Diamond Kings) cover cards 405-467 consecutively while the next six rows cover cards 279-341. (If you must know, the six Diamond Kings on the sheet are 16-18 followed by 11-13.)

Rather than go down the rabbit hole of 1982 any deeper, I’ll just close with some fond recollections of the 1981 set, some foggy and some vivid. I was 11 when the set came out, a perfect age for believing cardboard was magic while also being old enough to have more than a few cents in my pocket. We won’t talk about where the money came from, but I somehow “found” enough to ride my bike to 7-Eleven just about every day from March to October, often more than once.

I didn’t think in terms of monopolies and competition back then. In my world, more cards was a good thing, case closed. There was a lot for a kid to like about 1981 Donruss. More cards per pack, for one thing, and super colorful cards for another. Yes, there were plenty of errors, but boy were they fun to discover.

We had no internet back then to look this stuff up. (There were hobby mags, but I didn’t have subscribe yet.) It was just kids comparing notes at school: Steve Rodgers with a “d,” that’s not right! And then imagine the thrill of pulling a Rogers (no d) later that same year! Of course, some of the errors were funny too, like Bobby Bonds and his 986 home runs (giving father and son 1748 homers combined, by the way)!

Most of all though, I loved that some of my favorite players had extra cards in the set for no reason. Sure Topps might give a guy two cards if he was a Record Breaker, but here was Donruss with two Steve Garvey cards just because. Ditto Yaz. Tritto Pete Rose.

How about you? If you were a kid in 1981 what memories do you have of the set? And as you look back on it today, do you love it any more or any less?

Through a glass, darkly

Last year, I purchased the 1981 and 1982 Fleer sets for essentially the shipping cost.  Both sets were in binders, but the pocket pages were the old PVC type with the cards inserted two to a pocket.  I “freed” the 1981 set last year and finally did the same for 1982 recently.  This re-paging task allowed me to closely examine the 1982 cards-which left me astonished at the poor quality of photos, bad lighting and odd poses.  There are a few positive aspects, but one must dig deeply.

Since 1982 was Fleer’s second go-round, one would assume that they would strive to produce a quality product to make up for the mistake-laden inaugural 1981 set.  Instead, consistently murky images make season two a step back in quality.

1982 National League MVP Dale Murphy is an example of badly blurred image.  You would think that an in focus shot of a player posing with a bat could be executed properly.  Of course, the fuzzy images may have been the result printing issues.  But if this were the case, why didn’t Fleer fix the issue once they saw the proofs?

Both Cal Ripken and teammate Lynn Sakata are typical examples of the “Fleer fuzz,” and Jack Clark shows blurred action.

“Big Daddy” Rick Reuschel is viewed through a camera darkly.  Most of his card is black.  The low light for Gary Allenson is a typical shot of a stationary figure in the daytime that still comes out dark and out of focus.

If poor photo quality wasn’t enough, many of poses are head scratchers.  Brian Kingman is a good example of the fixation on photographing left-handed pitchers from behind.  There are way too many shots of players’ backs.

Another overused pose is to have players seated alone in the dugout. It was as if Fleer was anticipating social distancing requirements 38 years ago.

Photos taken around the batting cage were common for decades.  But Fleer takes it to a new level by photographing players in the cage.  A few players taking batting practice might work as a fresh angle, but they took this idea and ran it into the ground.

And, what is with the pose used for Jack Morris?  He is barely in the frame. Also, there may be a UFO in the background.

Now that I have ranted and raved, let’s look at some of the good aspects of the set. I like the Fernando Valenzuela shot showing him looking to the sky.  Also, you must appreciate Manny Trillo’s World Champions jacket. Steve Stone in front of the helmet rack is another excellent shot.

Two players with same name are found in this set: former Seattle Pilot Mike Marshall and the Dodger outfielder with the identical moniker.  I didn’t include this in a previous post on players with the same name, since I only looked at Topps. 

Speaking of ex-Seattle Pilots, you will find Fred “Chicken” Stanley on the A’s.  He is the last Pilot to be in a base set as a player (1983).

There are several great “hair” cards.  John Lowenstein sheds his cap to show off an impressive perm.  Danny Darwin offers up an excellent example of “helmet” hair.

Finally, Fleer provides Carlton Fisk fans with three different cards.  He is shown with the Red Sox on Rich Dauer’s card, with the White Sox on his regular card and with his namesake, Steve Carlton, on a multi-player card.

Fleer saw through a glass, darkly. The result was a most ungodly, photographic apocalypse.