Diamond Stars fails its background check

INTRODUCTION

I’m not shy about proclaiming National Chicle’s 1934-36 Diamond Stars as one of my favorite sets ever. The set’s bright colors and period backgrounds seem to hint at the Golden Age of comics just on the horizon (1938-1956), and the set is loaded with action in contrast to the more austere (mostly) portrait-centered design of its 1934 Goudey competition.

Much of the action was posed and, stylistic backgrounds aside, would fit right in with the Topps sets of 1957, 1967, or even 1977: baseball players pretending to do baseball things on baseball fields.

Other cards, however, took the action a step further and put the players right into the game.

Other cards fell short of in-game action but still managed to have interesting things going on in the background. (Click here for a fun Twitter thread on the Medwick card in particular.)

Perhaps inspired by the recent discovery of a Joe Jackson cameo in the T202 set, I liked to imagine that the batter in the distance behind Rick Ferrell wasn’t just anybody holding a bat!

And who says there’s no Lou Gehrig in the Diamond Stars set? Who’s that handsome fellow holding a bat behind the Crow?

And come to think of it, even the guy in the dugout looks familiar!😊

Unfortunately, a funny thing happens when you submit the Diamond Star cameos to a full background check. You come up empty!

SOURCE PHOTOS

Some readers may remember an earlier post that matched the 1933-34 Goudey cards with Charles Conlon source images. Such a massive undertaking was too ambitious for the couple hours I had today, but I did manage to compare 1934-36 Diamond Stars against the 65 premiums that make up the 1934 Butterfinger (R310) set.

I chose the Butterfinger set for three reasons:

  • The premiums used photographs, including authentic backgrounds.
  • The set was contemporary with Diamond Stars, hence included many of the same players.
  • The Butterfinger photos had known overlap with other card sets of the era. Here are other uses of the Dizzy Dean photo, for example.

Overall, the 108-card Diamond Stars set (of 96 different players) had 31 players in common with 1934 Butterfinger. Of these 31, there were 9 positive image matches and one other I’ll put in the “maybe but probably not” category.

positive matches

The Diamond Stars Blondy Ryan features what I imagine to be a hustling outfielder, charging in to back up the play. However, “imagine” is the key word here because really there’s noboby there!

Next up is Gus Suhr, who makes the grab at first base several steps ahead of the…wait a minute…I swear there was a runner there!

Next up is Jim Bottomley, throwing a ball around while imaginary teammates check out the bat selection.

The good news on this one is that Joe Vosmik didn’t really take such a half-hearted hack at a real pitch. He’s just smiling (okay, maybe not) for the camera.

Our next batter is Master Melvin, whose Diamond Stars card is actually quite faithful to the photo. (The same Ott image makes an appearance 0n one of his two 1933 Goudey cards as well.)

Ditto for Oscar Melillo, whose card transforms rather drab stadium scene into a vibrant cityscape but otherwise introduces no false action.

While many collectors prefer the purity of black and white photography over bright cartoons, the Butterfinger card of Paul Waner may pose a challenge to their orthodoxy. I can almost picture the scene on the field: “Hurry, take his picture before the elevator doors close!”

It’s fair to say Diamond Stars really made the most of what they had to work with here. (I’m not suggesting Diamond Stars used the Butterfingers as their source, but I am assuming the source photo for Waner is the tightly cropped image we see in the Butterfinger.) As a side note, I believe Waner’s is the only Diamond Stars card to show a uniform number for a cameo player, offering us the rare chance to see who it is! Let’s see, let’s see…#28 on the Pirates in the early 1930s was…nobody!

One of the more exciting matches in the sets is Yankees ace, Red Ruffing, who appears to be joined by Hall of Fame second baseman Tony Lazzeri. As you might have guessed though, it’s nobody at all.

At first glance you may wonder why I am calling this one a match. In truth, I almost missed it myself.

But take a look. All I did was adjust the size–not even any rotation required.

CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR…

The images of General Crowder from Diamond Stars and Butterfinger bear a strong resemblance, but there are hints that the Diamond Stars comes from a different photo. I’ll leave the clues for you to find unless anyone asks me in the Comments.

CONCLUSION

Upon review it is evident that the Diamond Stars artists simply improvised backgrounds, either to make cards more interesting or to give the illusion of game action. That said, this gimmick was hardly invented at National Chicle, as demonstrated by this 1933 Goudey card of Jimmy Dykes where the action is magically transported from outside the dugout to the batter’s box.

So no, Diamond Stars hardly invented the illusion of game action. However, seeing as the Goudey image has neither catcher nor umpire, I do think Diamond Stars improved considerably on the work of their main competitor, if not perfected the mirage. (Just don’t ask yourself how Lopez had time to toss his mask off in the tenth of a second it took the ball to spring off the bat.)

And besides, who hasn’t failed the occasional background check? It’s not like our national security is at stake here. Or is it? 😉

Want more?

Check out our earlier article here.

A wholly needless analysis of the 1987 Kraft “Home Plate Heroes” numbering scheme

Introduction

In a recent post Tim Jenkins covered the 1987 Kraft “Home Plate Heroes” baseball card set. One detail of the set he addressed was the multiple player combo variations. Specifically, each of the 48 players in the set was paired with five other players. The ex-mathematician in me found this aspect of the set intriguing enough to (depending on your taste) promise or threaten to make it the subject of my next post, in hopes that some elegant mathematical structure would underlie the 120-panel master set.

A quick look at some of tim’s cards

Borrowing an example and some graphics from Tim’s original post, here is Don Mattingly paired with Fernando Valenzuela and Steve Garvey. Other Mattingly panels include Hubie Brooks, Mike Scott, and Mike Schmidt.

Since my analysis is more about numbering than the players themselves, here are the card numbers of Mattingly’s five partners.

  • #4 – Mike Scott
  • #20 – Steve Garvey
  • #30 – Mike Schmidt
  • #32 – Fernando Valenzuela
  • #42 – Hubie Brooks

Were you to look for a single rule or relationship behind these numbers, you’d probably come up empty, even as you might jot down a handful of properties.

  • All the Mattingly partners have even numbers
  • There are two instances where the numbers are 10 apart (20/30 and 32/42). Furthermore, because the set ends at 48, even the 42 and 4 can be considered 10 apart, modulo the size of the set. (Don’t panic if that last bit means nothing to you.)
  • Finally, as Tim already noted in his article, one of the numbers (30) is one greater than the Mattingly card (29).

A fair question at this point is whether these properties are unique to the Mattingly panels or hold more generally across the set.

Are they steady, eddie?

The first card in the Kraft set is this Eddie Murray card.

Without too much trouble, I was able to find the five players paired with Murray on uncut panels:

  • #2 – Dale Murphy
  • #4 – Mike Scott
  • #22 – John Tudor
  • #24 – Von Hayes
  • #48 – Nolan Ryan

Returning to our Mattingly observations we see the first and third still hold, but the “10 apart” property no longer applies to any of the card numbers. Were we to quit now, we might conclude the logic to the set was simply this:

  • Odd numbers on the left, even numbers on the right
  • For any player on the left, one of five panels should include the next number in the set
  • The other four panels should include (perhaps) randomly chosen even numbered cards

For most sets of baseball cards, it would not surprise me at all (even if it would disappoint me) to learn that little thought went into a set’s checklist or numbering. After all, chaos is usually easier than order. However, in the case of the Kraft set, I found such an outcome difficult to accept, simply because it is actually a hard and time-consuming exercise to arrive at five panels per player through randomness or luck.

What would Albert Einstein do?

This quote, probably never uttered by Albert Einstein, comes to mind.

Image result for albert einstein quote hour to save the world

At least in theory, developing a rule to generate a 120-panel master set with five pairings per player should take far less time than throwing darts and attempting a checklist willy-nilly.

Building a checklist

If I were to make it any farther with this set I knew I would need a complete checklist of all 120 panels. Failing to find one anywhere online, I was able to build my own, which (drum roll please…) I’ll be sharing for your research or collecting pleasure at the end of this article. (And yes, I did see that the PSA Card Facts page for this set lists panels; however, it had numerous problems that made it unreliable as a sole source. For instance, it lists 129 panels, frequently swaps the left/right pairings, picks a bad year to not tell us which Davis, and fails to number any of the cards.)

Once my checklist was built and sorted appropriately, new patterns were evident just from looking at the first three entries. It turns out the key to finding patterns wasn’t to look across but look down.

Where panel pairings looked nearly random previously, there were now simple patterns like 2, 4, 6, … and 48, 46, 44, … that were clearly intentional and seemed to decode the entire master set checklist.

But…

At first glance, such a numbering scheme appears to be a slick and elegant way to generate the master set. There is only one problem. Because the numbering in the columns goes both forward (Var 1, Var 2, Var 4) and backward (Var 3, Var 5), there is risk of the different columns ultimately “crashing” into each other and landing on the same number at the same time. (Crashing is not actually guaranteed but also depends on the starting point of each pattern. In a simpler non-card example, the patterns 1, 2, 3, … and 3, 2, 1, … both have the same middle number, but the patterns 1, 2, 3, 4, … and 4, 3, 2, 1, … have no terms in common.)

For better or worse, we indeed encounter a collision when we hit Ozzie Guillen’s card #11. Without further adjustment, this would translate into only four distinct Guillen variations, with panel 11/12 (Guillen/Pena) double-printed.

Continuing each pattern down the rest of the checklist, a total of five collisions result.

One option for Kraft would have been to declare “good enough” and apply this scheme unaltered for the master set. The result would be 115 different panels instead of 120, with five of them double-printed. In the grand scheme of things I think most collectors would have either not noticed or not complained. After all, how many collectors were really looking to buy 120 boxes of macaroni in the first place?

Of course that’s not what happened. Kraft did in fact issue 120 distinct panels. To do so, Kraft had to resolve each of the five collisions without creating new ones. Their primary strategy for addressing collisions was a clever one: simply to swap unwanted duplicates with the next number in the sequence. This is exactly what was done in the first instance, where Guillen’s second Pena (12) was traded for the Eric Davis (10) that would have gone with Harold Baines.

Such a strategy, if exploited fully, could have been used to resolve all but one conflict on the checklist. The lone exception would have been the #23 Yount (23) row, where flipping either 26 would cause duplication in the Hrbek (25) row.

Still, why let perfect get in the way of good? Perhaps a 119-panel master set would have set off a macaroni buying frenzy among collectors determined to find the modern day equivalent of a 1933 Goudey Nap Lajoie! (Yes, I’m kidding. Based on the set’s packaging, shoppers could easily tell what cards were on the boxes just by flipping them over.)

Yet another solution available, largely in the spirit of prior interventions, would have been to swap Yount’s second 26 (var 5) with the number immediately above it. Ultimately, however, Kraft took a different path with Yount as well as a couple of the earlier checklist crashes.

Unleash the cheese!

Rather than fully exploit down-flip or up-flip strategies to resolve all five conflicts on the checklist, Kraft applied such flips only three times (rows 11/13, 35/37, 37/29). For the #13 Baines and #23 Yount rows, the adjustments seemed more oddball. As the yellow cells in the table show, Kraft replaced Baines’ extra 36 with a 22 and Yount’s extra 26 with a 2! Huh?!

In reality the mysterious choices of 22 and 2 aren’t so mysterious. Take a look at the very end of the checklist, and you’ll see that the final two entries should have been…you guessed it…22 and 2! It’s not terribly elegant, but neither is it random. And of course it worked!

The result, for the dining and collecting pleasure, of many of us was a fun 48-card set that included five different ways to collect each player (my favorite: Kirk Gibson/Steve Garvey), based on a handful of simple rules for checklist design and two resolution techniques for the conflicts these rules produced.

Extra for experts

As a final note, perhaps for someone else to tackle, I mentioned a few times that crashes in the checklist would have led to double-printing of some panels and the absence of others. In fact, it’s still possible that double-printing did occur and that the fixes were added as extras rather than replacements. Population counts for panels are currently too low to get much of a sense of things, but then again this was 1987. What does double-printing even mean when you print a billion of everything? 😄

Appendix: Master set checklist

I have posted a complete checklist of panels as a Google Sheet. Here is the link. And if you have an extra Kirk Gibson/Steve Garvey panel somewhere, give me a holler!

Chrome, Finest, Reversed Printing, and Opaque Whites

Last December fellow print geek @robbyt86 tweeted an astute observation about someone else’s printing plate rainbow when he noticed that the rainbow consisted of both regular and Chrome cards and that the Chrome cards were printed in reverse. The top two printing plate cards in the image are regular paper printed right-reading (as can be seen in the jersey logo and number). The bottom two are Chrome printed wrong-reading.

This got me thinking and I hypothesized that Chrome was printed in reverse on clear plastic and then fused to the foilboard. This would explain the difference in the printing plates as well as the mix of foil and non-foil finishes. Opaque white ink isn’t usually the best thing to print on top of but this technique would lay it down last, on top of the other inks, which is a perfect use for it.

The more I thought about this the more I realized that this was also probably how Finest was made in the mid-1990s* and that I wanted to do some digging to confirm whether or not this was indeed the case.

*and that there was a decent chance that the protective coating on Finest is still on the clear layer of these Chrome/Finest cards today only it’s getting peeled off after printing but before packing.

So I decided to soak one of my excess Chrome cards to see what I could find out. I selected a 2015 Topps Chrome Hunter Strickland for this since I had gotten tired of him after the 2018 broken hand debacle. 2015 is a good design for this since the colored border meant there was, presumably, some opaque white right there on the edge.

Soaking went well. Card came apart as expected except for the surprise Tide Pod marks inside the card stock. After cleaning everything up I was left with just the front of the card and a literal foil backing.

The next step for me was to start sanding each side to confirm what side the ink was on and see if I could find a way to remove just the foil. This didn’t work super well but I did confirm that the ink is indeed printed on the inside layer of the plastic. You can make out the scuff marks on Strickland’s face and how they stay on the surface of the card rather than removing any ink. Compare this to where I sanded on the back by the Giants logo. The foil and image both start to disappear—especially along the edge.

So I was stuck both because Chrome is impossible to scan and because I hadn’t really produced anything interesting. And then Artiezillante commented on my previous post where I dove into the patent archive. I’ll just reproduce it in full here as well.

So in addition to cards I have a fairly extensive collection of wrappers from the 1980s-today because you never know when you’re going to need to go to the wrapper to answer a question. On the 1997 Finest Series 1 and 2 wrappers they have the following language:

Topps Finest is a registered trademark of The Topps Company, Inc.
SGW US Patent #4933218, #5082703, #5106126, Chromium (R), Holochrome (R), #5223357, Skin Protector TM, ClearChrome (R), Pat. Pending

I don’t have a 1996 Finest wrapper, but I do have one from 1995 and none of that language is there. The 1998 Finest wrapper is nearly impossible to read (the wrapper is clear so the print on the back gets jumbled with the design on the front) but it also mentions US & Foreign patents for Chromium, Holochrome, Skin Protector, and ClearChrome, though there are no patent numbers. The earliest Topps Chrome wrapper I have is from 2002 and it has the same language as the 1998 Finest wrapper.

This was fantastic and turned out to be exactly what I was looking for. Patents 5082703, 5106126, and 5223357 in particular describe exactly what’s going on with Finest and Chrome.

Patent 5082703 describes the clear layer,* how it’s printed on the back side, and how the thickness of the ink printed can be changed so as to create textural effects. The pictures in the patent show a generic image in Figure 1 with Figures 2, 3, 4, and 7 representing different cross sections with the clear layer always being labelled 12 and the different ink layers on the back being shown in profile.

*Patent 4933218 that Topps also mentions is an earlier version of 5082703.

Patent 5106126 meanwhile covers the opaque masking of portions of the printed image so that multiple finishes are available after a metallic layer is added to the piece. More specifically it builds on printing on a clear substrate (what the previous patent covers) by depositing an opaque layer behind select portions of the image before layering reflective/metallic material on the back of the entire piece. This results in some portions of the printed piece having a metallic sheen and other pieces being dull and paper-like.

One key point here is that metallic layer is laminated or sprayed on to the substrate. This is not how cards are produced so the key takeaway here is the custom opaque ink sections.*

*Compare this to the custom foil stamping detailed in Upper Deck’s hologram card patent I mention in my previous post

The last patent, number 5223357, covers the assembly of the cards. The patent specifies holographic film but the key takeaway for me is that it discusses adhering together two distinct sheets—the clear layer (labelled 12) and the metallic/holographic layer (labelled 14)—rather than the single sheet that the other two patents discuss.

The cross-sectional drawings in this patent also distinctly show how the ink is located between the two layers and confirms that my hypothesis about how these cards are assembled is correct.

It also explains why the Chrome printing plates are wrong-reading since, once they’re printed on the the clear substrate, they become right-reading when viewed through the plastic.

When you look at a Chrome card you’re looking at the back of the printing through the clear plastic sheet that it’s been printed on. The non-shiny sections have opaque white ink printed on top of the colored inks (remember you’re looking at the back of the printing). The shiny sections are from a foil sheet that has been glued to the plastic sheet. The rest of the card is regular paper card stock* on which the card backs are printed just like traditional paper cards.

*The plastic/paper dual composition is why Chrome cards tend to curl so much. Paper responds to humidity much more than plastic and so depending on conditions in the Topps plant vs conditions in your home it will expand or contract a little and result in curling.

Patent dive

When I wrote my post about Collect A Books, I stuck my nose into Google Patents because it was the easiest way for me to produce a citation for Bouton actually being the inventor. Once inside though I couldn’t help myself and started looking around at other patents related to baseball cards.

I should’ve realized the danger here. As someone with a mechanical engineering background, patents and patent drawings are always something I enjoy looking through. So without further ado, a handful of patents which correspond to cards that we’re somewhat familiar with. Since this blog doesn’t keep a patent attorney on retainer I’m merely going to note the patents and what cards the correspond to.

US Patent 5517336 is held by Upper Deck and involves mixing printing with holograms. While the patent is dated 1995, that the initial filings date to 1993 feels about right to me. 1993 is when the Denny’s Holograms switched from being all-hologram to a combination of hologram and print. It’s also when Upper Deck released the Then and Now insert set which did the exact same thing.

Patent number 5328207 dates to 1991 and describes sticker autographs. I don’t remember these existing at all in the early 1990s so it’s interesting for me to see this showing up so long ago. I do like that the patent application is clearly a baseball player rather being a more-generic person.

Patent number 7413128B2 is another one owned by Upper Deck and concerns relic cards. There are a bunch of relic card patents out there, each with different methods of enclosing the pieces. I like this one since it’s held by Upper Deck and because it’s got the best images about how the relic cards are assembled and how they can accommodate different kinds of enclosures.

That this patent dates to 2004—a decade after relics had been out in the wild—shows how companies have been trying to improve and update the relic card to be more than just a small swatch of material. This patent isn’t just relics, it’s any insert from cut autographs to manufactured non-card materials and it doesn’t even have to be flat.

The last patent from this dive is number 20080202947, held by Topps. Yup, this is the Allen and Ginter Rip Card patent. The patent text references prior art from Pinnacle but there doesn’t appear to be a patent for that in the citations.

It’s interesting to me how so much of the patent application concerns the gambling aspect of the rip card and emphasizes how the outer card is intended to be destroyed.

I plan to continue digging through the archive and seeing what else I find. I’ve found some cool-looking stuff that doesn’t look like it was ever turned into a product. There are also a few products which I’d love to find patents for (Topps Chrome I’m looking for you) since I’ve been reverse engineering their production for a while as part of future posts. And if anyone else wants to start digging (even just starting with the related patents in the citations here), the more the merrier.

Collect-A-Books

As Mark noted in his post about Jim Bouton, his cards are collectable because of his position in the history of the game. For me and my generation of card collectors,* this influence extends beyond just Ball Four as Bouton is a big part of a few other products we remember fondly.

*Junk wax aficionados who came of age in the late 80s and early 90s.

Big League Chew of course is the big name here but I also grew up with Collect-A-Books and owned them before I’d even had a chance to read Ball Four. It was cool to read the book, learn about his life as an inventor in Ball Six, and realize that all those Collect-A-Books I owned were in fact a product that Bouton actually invented and owns the patent for.*

*Bouton has one other patent for something which he calls “Collect-A-Bats” in his book but which were actually produced by Good Humor under a different name and which you can come across on occasion on Ebay if you feel like buying something that a random seller may have sucked on thirty years ago.

While I liked them as a kid for being different, I found myself really appreciating them as objects once I revisited my collection as an adult. As a print and design geek these are super nifty.

Bouton’s patent is for a method of creating booklets through just folding and gluing. No staples or traditional binding, instead the sheets are printed, folded, glued and then you have a strip of booklets that just needs to be trimmed on the tops and bottoms. The covers are double-thick compared to the inside pages and the end result is just about perfect.

It feels like a baseball-card sized book without any of the worry about staples keeping the pages together. Nor do they feel any worse for wear after three decades in storage. Slides out of the pocket easily and even the glue is still holding.

Many of my magazines have rusty staples and pages that are pulling out even though I haven’t abused them. No such worries here. It handles like a card and flips through like a book and I don’t have to treat it with kid gloves.

Flipping through the booklets is a lot of fun. Not the best design but an interesting thought experiment about what you could include on a baseball card if you had seven times as much back space. So we’ve got a page of stats, a page of biography, a page of career highlights, an inspiration quote and facsimile signature, a cartoon caricature, a page of vital information, and four additional photos.

In some ways this is almost too much space and after putting literally everything that’s usually on the backs of cards things still feel nowhere nearly as information dense as they should be.

I had three sets of twelve booklets from 1990* and very much enjoyed them. Looking at the checklist now is a wonderful who’s who of the big names of the day—both stars and hot rookies—as well as a nice sample of nine all-time greats. The most-interesting thing about these 36 cards though is how few of the players were notable for multiple teams since this suggests something that would’ve been very fun for the insides.

*I never saw the 1991 ones.

All that space and all those photos offer a great way to show guys playing for different teams and at various stages in their careers. Unfortunately there’s precious little of this. There’s one photo of Nolan Ryan as a Met and Warren Spahn’s card depicts him in a Boston uniform as well as a Mets uniform. No Rickey Henderson as a Yankee. No Hank Aaron with Milwaukee. Bob Feller and Ted Williams are old in all their photos.

But that’s all minor stuff. The real issue for me is that I want to display these better moving forward. 9-pocket pages are obviously insufficient. Instead I’m going to switch to 4-pockets and pick which inside spread I want to show on the other side. These deserve better than to be encased all closed up with only 25% of their content visible.

Back Story: Bowman Bows Out (on Color Television!)

Note: This is Part IV oa series focusing primarily on the material featured on the backs of baseball cards (previous articles featured the 1956 Topps1960 Topps, and 1954 Topps/Bowman sets). 

By 1955, the battle for baseball-card supremacy between Bowman and Topps had been going on for several years. And though Topps was making some inroads, Bowman still had the edge when it came to established stars signed to exclusive contracts. Frankly, it wasn’t even close. Here’s a comparison of the number of players named to the American and National League teams for the 1954 All-Star Game who were featured in each company’s 1955 card set. 

1954 MLB All-Stars in 1955 Bowman & Topps Baseball Card Sets 

Only Bowman              32 players 

Only Topps                   16 players 

Both Sets                         4 players 

The All-Stars who appeared in both sets were Yogi Berra, Gil Hodges, Sherm Lollar and Willie Mays. (Somewhat mysteriously, three 1954 All-Stars had cards in neither 1955 set: Larry Doby, Don Mueller, and Stan Musial). Bowman also boasted four future Hall of Famers who didn’t make the 1954 All-Star teams: Richie Ashburn, Bob Feller, Ralph Kiner, and Early Wynn; Topps only had a well-past-his-prime Hal Newhouser. (Non-1954 All-Star but future Hall of Famer Phil Rizzuto had cards in both sets.)  

Yet despite Bowman’s edge in overall star power, Topps had been beating Bowman pretty handily in the marketplace. Kids just seemed to prefer the innovative, attractive design of the Topps cards, a credit to the work of Topps’ master card designer, Sy Berger. 

So in 1955, Bowman pulled out all the stops in their card design, on both the fronts and the backs. While my primary focus continues to be the material on the backs of the cards, the fronts of the 1955 Bowman and Topps sets deserve a look as well. That year, both Bowman and Topps used a horizontal (or landscape) design on their card fronts for the first time. The Topps cards featured both a head shot and a small “action pose” of each subject, set against a solid colored background. This was essentially the same design that Topps had used in 1954; the main difference was that the head shot and action pose had been in vertical (or portrait) mode in ’54. For players who had cards in both its 1954 and 1955 sets, Topps often used the same head shot in both sets (and continued to use the same head shot in 1956). 

The 1955 Bowman cards, by contrast, were completely new and daring. Color television was brand-new in 1955—the first color TV sets had only become available to the mass market in 1954, and there were next to no actual color broadcasts available—but Bowman put the new medium into the hands of card collectors by featuring each subject on the screen of a wood-grained color TV. Pretty “hep,” as we cool cats used to say back in ’55. 

But did the new design work? Before moving on to the backs of the 1955 Topps and Bowman cards, let’s compare the card fronts of a few players featured in both sets that year. Here’s Ernie Banks, a young star who would have his first big season in 1955. 

I have to say that, then and now, I preferred Ernie’s dreamy-eyed look on his Bowman card to the blank expression featured on both his Topps head shot and action pose. (He looks like he’s saying, “Let’s play none today!”) Even so, there is one problem with the Bowman design that was apparent even to a kid unconcerned with the future value of his cards: with no white border on the edge of the cards, those Bowman TV sets could often start to look pretty beat up. 

Like Banks, Al Kaline had his breakthrough season in 1955, and I like the fronts of both his Bowman and Topps cards: relaxed and confident on the Bowman, determined kid on the Topps. Two nice cards. 

Steve Bilko’s Bowman card shows him staring off in the distance… maybe toward the Pacfic Coast League, where he was about to become a legend as a slugger with the minor league Los Angeles Angels. Bilko’s Topps card isn’t exactly beautiful, but the head shot gives you a better glimpse of him, and the corkscrew swing and Cubbie logo are nice touches.  

Give Bowman points for innovation; its 320-card set featured not only the TV-set design, but 31 cards devoted to major-league umpires (including one for American League umpire supervisor Cal Hubbard, a future member of both the baseball and pro football Halls of Fame)—certainly a unique touch. 

Bowman continued the innovations on its card backs: about one-fourth of the Bowman cards had articles supposedly written by the player on subjects such as “My Biggest Thrill in Baseball,” “My Childhood Hero,” “The Best Hitter I’ve Ever Seen,” and “My Advice to Youngsters.” I’m sure that seemed like a promising idea to Bowman, but the result was usually pedestrian and sometimes outright comical. Let’s look at a few examples. 

Typical of the genre were “The Most Important Part of Baseball” by Don Hoak and “My Advice to Youngsters” by Rip Repulski.  “As far as I’m concerned, ‘Hustle’ is the most important part of baseball,” writes Don. “Never give up,” says Rip. Good advice, to be sure, but it makes for pretty dull reading. Heck, when Don Hoak was in the minors, he was one of four members of the Fort Worth Cats who were married at home plate (by four different ministers) before the start of the game. Wouldn’t that have made a good “Greatest Thrill” article? 

The afore-mentioned Steve Bilko’s card has an article entitled “My Favorite Memories in Baseball.” His biggest thrill was the day he hit four home runs in one game, but he doesn’t mention when or where it happened; it definitely was not in the major leagues, and I’ve yet to track down a four-home game by Bilko in his minor-league career, either. When and where it happened would have been pretty nice to know. Bilko picks Willie Mays’ great catch in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series as the best catch he’s ever seen, but as he was neither a member of the Giants nor the Indians, he likely only saw the catch on film or on (black and white) television. He picks picks Stan Musial as baseball’s best hitter and Robin Roberts as the best pitcher. Not exactly scintillating stuff. 

“The Most Exciting Game in Which I’ve Played” by White Sox catcher Sherm Lollar recounts a 1953 game in which the Sox—trailing 3-1 with the bases loaded and two outs in the top of the ninth—beat the Yankees with a pinch-hit, grand-slam home run by Tommy Byrne. But Lollar gets some of the details wrong, and doesn’t mention the fact that Byrne was a pitcher, the main reason why the homer was so memorable. Even more strangely, Byrne had a card in the ’55 Bowman set, but the Bow-men did not select Tommy for one of those “Greatest Thrill” first-person articles, opting instead for a boilerplate rundown of his career. 

Then there is “My Biggest Thrill in Baseball,” by Eddie Waitkus. “In 1949, I was shot by a deranged girl,” it begins, recounting the bizarre incident in which a female fan who was obsessed with Waitkus invited him to her hotel room and then shot him in the chest. (The incident was later fictionalized in The Natural by Bernard Malamud.) The article recounts Waitkus’s recovery, with the help of the woman who became his wife, and it’s a heck of a story, but… getting shot… that’s your “greatest thrill”? 

The backs of the 1955 Topps cards avoided such histrionics, instead opting for a prose rundown of the player’s career, his 1954 and lifetime stats, and a cartoon Q&A that was very similar to the “Dugout Quiz” featured on the backs of the Topps 1953 set. Here are three examples, using players who also had Bowman cards that year. 

To summarize, the Bowman 1955 cards were very creative on both sides of the card, while the Topps cards recycled formats they had used previously, down to even using the same head shots from 1954. Bowman also had a bigger set—320 cards versus 206 for Topps (the Topps set was supposed to have 210 cards, but they had to pull four players who turned out to have exclusive contracts with Bowman)—along with more star players. Yet Topps dominated the marketplace once again.  Why was that? Here are a few reasons: 

  • As card dealer and author Dean Hanley has pointed out, Topps countered Bowman’s edge in overall star power with a stronger first series. That included baseball’s biggest star of the day—Ted Williams (who had shifted from Bowman to Topps in 1954), along with Jackie Robinson and Warren Spahn. Additionally, the Topps first series included rising stars Banks, Kaline, and Hank Aaron; all three players appeared in the Bowman set as well, but only Kaline was part of Bowman’s first series. Topps was faster out of the gate. (Topps did similar in 1954 as well.)
  • Hanley also notes that Topps’ last series included the likes of Yogi Berra, Gil Hodges, Willie Mays, and Duke Snider, while Bowman was countering with a series full of lesser lights and umpires. Topps had Bowman coming and going. 
  • The Bowman set included some quality control issues, like blurry photos; mixing up the card fronts and backs for Milt and Frank Bolling and Ernie and Don Johnson; and misspelling Harvey Kuenn’s last name. Bowman issued corrected cards for the Bolling, Johnson and Kuenn gaffes, but the damage was done. 
  • With the TV-set design taking up a large part of the borders of the Bowman cards, the player photos were smaller by necessity. That was a major contrast to the large head shots on the Topps cards, and an obvious disadvantage. Here’s Hanley again, from his excellent book The Bubble Gum Card War: The Great Bowman & Topps Sets from 1948 to 1955: “There is too much wasted canvas space [in the Bowman set]. Most of the pictures of the players are standing upright, resulting in smaller pictures and a lot of empty background. The design of the 1955 Topps set did a much better job of filling the canvas and creating a more attractive product.” Amen to that!

Ultimately Topps outsold Bowman again in 1955, as it had for the previous few years; kids just liked the Topps cards better. As a Chicago-area youngster who was just beginning to collect baseball cards in the spring and summer of 1955, I can attest to that: I and most of my friends preferred the look and feel of the Topps cards, with their large head shots and team logos on the card front, and the clever cartoons on a clear white background on the back.  

By the time the 1956 baseball season rolled around, Bowman was out of the trading card business (the final nail in Bowman’s coffin came when Topps issued its first football card set in the fall of 1955, an all-time college All-American set that logged better sales than Bowman’s NFL cards). This was a major loss for collectors: whether or not they sold as well as Topps, the Bowman cards were always great, and continue to be a worthy part of anyone’s collection. 

Barajitas estadounidenses: Copa de Diversión

My eighth post featuring Spanish-language baseball cards released in the United States. Previous posts are:

  1. Introduction and 1978 Topps Zest
  2. 1993–2000 Pacific and Pacific Crown
  3. Other assorted Pacific cards and oddballs
  4. 1991 Kellogg’s Leyendas
  5. 1994 Topps and beyond
  6. Donruss Super Estrellas
  7. Bowman International

The past couple of seasons Minor League Baseball has been running a Copa de Diversión promotion which involves rebranding teams with Spanish nicknames and uniforms. My kids really wanted to go to a Trenton Trueno game and due to a rainout at one of the Kids Club games we were able to go while only having to pay for parking.

Anyway, while we went for the Trueno experience, it turned out that it was also a baseball card giveaway night. We each got perforated strips  of four cards (plus an advertisement) featuring four current Yankees who’d played for Trenton and who were also Latino—Andújar, Severino, and Sánchez are from the Dominican Republic while Torres is from Venezuela.

The cards are manufactured by Choice—the same company that makes Trenton’s Minor League team sets—and, aside from the perforations are legitimate cards rather than something that feels like a cheap digitally-printed sheet. The only problem is that the cards were designed with bleeds but whoever laid them out for perfing didn’t take that into account so the three center cards in the panel are closer to 2.625 inches wide.

Still it’s a fun little set with photos of the guys while they were at Trenton, nice Trueno logos, and some #PonleAcento action. I’m a bit confused at how Andújar got the accent and Sánchez did not though.

The back design is also nicely bilingual. The positions and vitals information are still English-only but the biographies allocate equal space to both languages. It does kind of feel like they were written in English and then translated semi-literally to Spanish but it’s a solid effort.

Since this set isn’t entered to Trading Card DB yet I have no idea how many other Minor League teams released cards as part of the Copa de Diversión. But it’s pretty cool and is a great recognition that not only is the game-day experience something that should be inclusive to Spanish-speaking fans, the merchandise and giveaways should also accessible to as many fans as possible.