Cardboard Crosswalk: 1981 Fleer cards and stickers

Virtually all collectors around my age have vivid (or at least blurry) recollections of 1981 as a watershed year in Hobby history. This was of course the year that Fleer and Donruss crashed the Topps monopoly with full-size baseball card sets featuring active players.

Of the multiple offerings, the Fleer cards were hottest initially, largely due to a ridiculously high number of errors in early print runs. While the cards have cooled off considerably in the time since, I will say Fleer’s Tom Seaver photo is among my favorite and a George Foster card captioned “Slugger” is always welcome in my collection.

Building off their prior success with team stickers, Fleer complemented its baseball card set with a 128-card “Star Stickers” set, which I recall as coming out at least a month or two after the cards.

Even at age 11 I was smart enough to know the dumbest thing in the world would be to peel and stick the stickers as directed. That was for suckers. I had reached the age (thankfully only temporarily) where “protecting my investment” took priority over enjoying my collection.

Kids lucky enough to assemble collections of both the cards and the stickers, whether stuck onto notebooks or preserved for posterity in shoeboxes, likely noticed that some of the photographs used on the stickers matched those of the cards, subject only to minor differences in cropping, brightness, or background clean-up. Cobra presented one such example.

Other times, the Star Sticker offered a genuinely new shot of the player, as was the case with this Don Baylor pair.

Somewhere between these two possibilities were 30 or so stickers that might have been confused for their cardboard counterparts until placed side by side.

In this Cardboard Crosswalk, I’ll do my best to showcase all “near pairs” across the two sets. As you’ll see, some close calls will prevent me from declaring my work definitive.

HEAD TURNERS

The first grouping of near-pairs are these 19 players, whose images are nearly identical other than the direction the player is facing (and less interesting differences such as zooming or cropping). Generally, one image will show the player looking directly at the camera while the other will show a three-quarters angle.

POSERS

This next group of six players trades one pose in for another and includes some of my favorite pairings across the two sets, particularly Dave Kingman and his subtle shift from batter to fielder.

SMILE!

We already saw Bobby Grich go from stoic to smiling. The reverse occurs with Rick Burleson.

HIGHLIGHTS

This next collection could come straight out of the “Highlights for Children” magazine where the child awaiting dentistry staves off total boredom by attempting to spot all differences between two nearly identical images. In each case, I believe I have found at least one feature that distinguishes source photos across the pair, but you may want to check my work.

LEFTOVERS

Here are three other near pairs that I didn’t think fit neatly into any of the earlier categories.

NOT SURE

And finally, here is Richie Zisk. When pulled from the pack, I doubt any collector looked at the sticker and thought, “Hey, this looks familiar.” However, putting the card and sticker side by side suggests photographs taken in close succession.

The 28 pairs shown thus far reflect about 20 percent of the sticker set, which includes 125 numbered cards and three unnumbered checklists. What about the remainder of the set?

Similar to the Don Baylor shown early in the article, about 70 of the stickers offer a completely different look at the player, while about 30 draw from the same source image as the standard baseball card. Part of the reason I say “about” is that I can’t always tell.

Take Rod Carew for example. His card and sticker appear to use the same source photo (though clearly the background has been altered). However, his head may be tilted more on the card than the sticker, meaning we may be looking at neighboring images on the roll. Carew is not unique in this regard as there are numerous card-sticker pairs where I just can’t be certain.

A puzzle of the sticker set, at least to me, is why Fleer introduced new photos for some but not all players. At least to my eye, the sticker photo is neither consistently better nor worse than the card photo, so it doesn’t appear to reflect any desire to improve upon the photo quality of what had been a hastily produced set.

One thought is that whoever was working on the sticker set paid little attention to the card set and simply chose the sticker photo independently from among the options available. That the same photo was chosen about half the time suggests a fairly small pool of photos (or at least photos that someone might choose), which to me works against the overall theory.

Lacking any compelling theory on the above, I’ll simply close out the crosswalk with a few random tidbits about the sticker set.

  • While the card set is famous for its many errors and variations, the sticker set has no known variations and only one recognized uncorrected error (UER): the misspelling of Davey (or Dave) Lopes as Davy. (The same UER occurs in the card set.)
  • While a wonderful innovation of the Fleer card sets, not just in 1981 but in subsequent years, was to sequence the cards by team, the numbering of the stickers appears completely random.
  • Sadly for Jays fans, the sticker set includes no Toronto players despite all 25 other teams being represented.

Revisiting the 1973 Set – The Ugliest Topps Baseball Set Ever

In my last blog post about the 1973 set I stated that I was 50 cards shy of a complete set. Over the past two years I have picked up all but one of the cards needed to complete my set.

With the recent release of the 2022 Topps Heritage cards that are patterned after the 1973 set, I felt it would be a good time to share some additional thoughts about the set.

The Good

With the election of Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat earlier this year the total number of Hall of Famers pictured on base cards and manger cards is an impressive 40. Hall of Fame coaches with chopped off ears are not included in my total.

The Terry Crowley card was one of the missing 50 that I purchased. I feel that the photo would have been a much better choice than the one Topps used on the 1973 card of Thurman Munson.

One of the major problems that I have with this set – the lack brightness and pop with regards to the photos of the players – is actually a benefit for Through The Mail (TTM) autograph collectors like myself – since just about every card is a good one to send to players to sign if you are a fan of nice, visible signatures.

The Bad

In this section I am going to just focus on some of the 50 cards that I acquired to complete my set.

For the Jim Fregosi card we have another photo of a player popping up. It is a bad photo – but not as bad as the memories it brings back of how bad the Nolan Ryan for Jim Fregosi trade really was.

Picked up a few more “could be anyone” cards due to the afternoon action shots created by high contrast situations that shaded the faces of the player or action shots with too little player information (no uniform numbers, no names on jerseys).

The Ugly

The Checklists are terrible. These ugly cards looked like they were designed in under 5 minutes. For comparison purposes I have included below what I feel is one of best checklist cards produced by Topps.

Two Great Cards

There are two great cards in this set. The Roberto Clemente card (which I mentioned in my first blog post about this set) and the Pat Corrales Card.

The current Topps management team thought so highly of the Clemente card that they included a reprint of the 1973 card in the base 2022 Heritage set.

There have been numerous blog posts and twitter mentions about the Pat Corrales card since the action shot features Hall of Fame pitcher – Ferguson Jenkins – sliding into home and upending Corrales. Jenkins was called out on the play, but if you watch the replay it looks like Corrales missed the tag.

1973 was not the last time that Corrales and Jenkins were on a Topps card together. Pat Corrales was the manager of the Texas Rangers from 1978 to 1980. Corrales and Jenkins appeared together again on the 1979 and 1980 Texas Rangers Team cards.

A Nice 1973 Tribute Card

One of the nicest cards from the Project 70 set was the Roberto Clemente card by Mimsbandz. The card utilizes the 1973 design and features four embroidered scenes from Roberto’s September 30, 1972, game where he collected hit number 3,000.

The Last Card

So, what is the last card I need to finish the set? It is not the Mike Schmidt rookie card. It is the 5th Series Checklist card – number 588. If you include shipping charges unmarked examples of this card are going for over $50 on eBay currently. Slabbed examples range in price from $90 to $339. I refuse to spend over $50 for a checklist – especially an ugly one.

While we are talking checklists, does anyone else think it is crazy that people are sending in checklists to get slabbed?

Unoriginality as the norm

Meet the new set, same as the old set. Or something like that.

You know what I’m talking about, right? Or maybe not. You were thinking this was about the new Topps cards? 😊 Don’t worry, we cover that too, courtesy of my friends Nick and Jeff.

Me? I’m here to channel my outrage at a card producer no longer even around to defend itself. Yes, I’m talking to you, Gum, Inc., as if your very name itself wasn’t a dead giveaway that originality would never be your hallmark. Shall we review the evidence?

PART ONE: 1939-41

The first Gum, Inc., baseball sets were released from 1939-41 under the Play Ball name. Here is the Joe DiMaggio card from the 1939 set.

1939 Play Ball Joe DiMaggio

While some collectors might refer to the card design as “classic” or “uncluttered,” let’s call it what it is: BORING!!! Just a black and white image on a nearly square piece of cardboard. No name, no team, no logo, no anything. This Play Ball brand will be lucky to last three years, give or take!

Gum, Inc., tried a little harder the following year, so I’ll give credit where due.

1940 Play Ball “Charley” Gehringer

Though many collectors are lukewarm on the 1940 Play Ball set, I rather like the working of baseball equipment into the design around the nameplate, and I absolutely applaud the level of effort taken to toggle the images of nearly every repeated player from 1939. Ah, and who doesn’t love nearly every first name in quotes?

Of course, just when we thought the good folks at Gum, Inc., were poised to innovate, they go full-on MP & Company on us.

1941 Play Ball “Charley” Gehringer

Yes, it’s a gorgeous card, but really?? All you did was color in the pictures from the year before? LAZY!!

True, conventional wisdom has it that U.S. entry into World War II is what brought Gum, Inc., baseball offerings to a standstill, but all geopolitics aside could they really have lasted another year with such a tepid creative team? I mean, gosh, what was next in line? Returning the 1941 images to black and white? (TCMA imagined a different path for 1942 Play Ball but unoriginality remained a key feature.)

PART TWO: 1948-52

When Gum, Inc., resumed baseball card production in 1948, the world was a very different place, and change can of course be a scary thing for most. Fortunately, card collectors could take comfort in the fact that time had not simply stood still at Gum, Inc., but actually gone backward. For its 1948 Bowman card design, the Gum, Inc., team–either intentionally or unintentionally–brought back 1939 Play Ball.

1948 Bowman Stan Musial

About the only discernible change to the cards was the use of about a third less cardboard, best shown by turning the 1948 card sideways.

The 1949 cards shrunk even more while “innovating” on the 1939/1948 design in swapping a solid color background into each photograph and colorizing certain elements of the player image.

1949 Bowman Ralph Kiner

In later series, Gum, Inc., even went a little crazy and added names.

1949 Bowman Boris “Babe” Martin

Teaming up with the George Moll advertising agency, the 1950 Bowman cards truly did something new and beautiful. I particularly enjoy the detailed baseball stadium scenes on some of the cards, complete with fans or sometimes “fan” as the case may be.

1950 Bowman Duke Snider

With no way to top the 1950 offering, Bowman adopted a “crop, don’t top” approach in 1951 for more than half of the players included in both sets.

1951 Bowman Duke Snider

Just for fun, here is a trio of 1951 Bowman cards superimposed on the same trio from 1950.

The 1952 cards continued the use of full color artwork and included my personal pick for the most gorgeous card of the entire decade. Facsimile autographs replaced the more pedestrian nameplate of the year before. If you couldn’t get an autographed photo of your favorite player, his 1952 Bowman card would have proved a worthy stand-in.

1952 Bowman Roy Campanella

Unfortunately for Bowman, much like the Campanella card’s background, the writing was on the wall.

PART THREE: 1953-1955

While Topps had some baseball cards of their own in 1951 and even 1948, Topps really got serious in 1952 and ready to compete in earnest for baseball card supremacy. While the Bowman cards had their merits in 1952, the Topps cards were much larger, featured lifelike player images, and even included stats on the back.

How could Bowman possibly compete?

“Hey, guys. I have an idea. How about we make our 1953 cards were larger, feature lifelike player images, and even include stats on the back? Am I a genius or what?!”

The result was that in 1953 the Bowman cards looked even more like Topps than Topps did!

While Bowman played catchup in 1953, Topps took their cards in other directions, going with a rectangular nameplate in the corner and a trivia question on the back…

So naturally Bowman did the same in 1954.

Still, the Bowman design proved no match for the near perfect, three-bordered beast Topps put out that year.

Rather than try to imitate Topps or evolve an older offering of their own, Bowman produced their most original (though perhaps imitative) set of cards to date, and this baseball card revolution evidently would be televised.

Creativity at last, emphasis on last. Just as Bowman’s baseball card minds were beginning to think outside the box, the company was gobbled up by a manufacturer of…wait for it…boxes!

But wait, what’s this? Accounts of Bowman’s demise may have been greatly exaggerated? A shocking claim but then again the cardboard doesn’t lie.

1956 Topps, a collector favorite to be sure, but that landscape format…the reused player photos…another year of background action scenes…the facsimile signatures…undoubtedly the least original cards produced by Topps thus far, or to put it another way “the most Bowman!”

Gum, Inc., is dead. Long live Gum, Inc.

EPILOGUE

All kidding aside, Bowman really did make some comebacks in the Hobby after 1955. Topps brought the brand back to life in 1989 with a set that was at once reminiscent of the much acclaimed 1953 Bowman series and wholly despised.

Even today, Topps continues to pump out sets under the Bowman name with the 2021 Bowman’s Best offering even spawning the “Wandergate” controversy.

Certainly, hockey collectors of a certain age will recognize the strong influence of the 1955 Bowman baseball design on the 1966-67 Topps Hockey set.

Finally, readers may be aware of the 1956 Bowman baseball prototypes, which among other things clearly influenced the 1958 Hires Root Beer cards and perhaps even 1957 Topps football and 1960 Topps baseball.

As Faulkner wrote, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Junk Wax Rainbows

I’ve had a running joke on Twitter about how “when I was your age rainbows looked like this” where “this” refers to the multiple different colors of the late 80s and early 90s Donruss releases. From 1985 to 1992 Donruss released smaller—often 56-card—box sets around certain themes like Highlights, Rookies, Opening Day, All Stars, or the more-generic “Baseball’s Best.”

These sets are fun both because they’re often super-focused thematically and because they always presented a color variation on the base Donruss design. Highlights were orange in 1985 and 1986. Rookies were green from 1987–1992 except in 1991. The other themes had no consistent colors.

Occasionally players would appear in all the different sets in a year. The result of this is that you can collect something that appears similar to the modern parallel rainbow collecting where you can see what the base design looks like with different border colors. The only one of these I have in my collection is Pete Stanicek’s 1988 rainbow* but it occurred to me that it would be fun to go through and see how many guys had a proper rainbow each year.

*Yeah he’s one of my PC guys.

For the purposes of this post I’m only looking a years where there are at least three different sets available. This rules out 1985, 1991, and 1992 since 1985 only has a set of Highlights while 1991 and 1992 only have a Rookies set. I’m also not counting small sets like the Grand Slammers or any of the inserted bonus cards. Nor am I looking at sets which use a different design whether it’s the oversized Action All Stars or the close-but-not-quite 1988 All Stars.

1986

There aren’t a lot of rookies in the Highlights set but since two of the Highlights cards each year are the Rookie of the Year winners, those are the two most-likely ones to have rainbows. In 1986 both of these winners also had cards in the base Donruss set (and Worrell even had two Highlights to choose from).

I actually really like the Highlights set concept with all the monthly and yearly awards, other records broken or unique achievements reached, and Hall of Fame inductees. Is a very nice quick summary of that season of baseball and I really wish it had lasted more than just from 1985–1987.

1987

Just a single rainbow available. With four sets in 1987 I wasn’t sure there’d even be one. As it is, Kevin Seitzer is in all three box sets but for some reason doesn’t have a base Donruss card and Mark McGwire apparently wasn’t an Opening Day Starter.

It’s worth noting here that while in 1985 Donruss kept the black borders and changed the red stripe to be orange for highlights, in 1987 Donruss is doing the full border color swap.

Opening Day is one of my favorite sets of all time. The idea of having a set of just the Opening Day starting lineups is absolutely wonderful. It bookends highlights as a “state of the league in the beginning of the season” marker and is the kind of hyper-specific checklist which I’d love to see more of.

1988

In 1988 Donruss stopped making a Highlights set and switched to a larger, 336-card set called “Baseball’s Best.” This was more of a star-based set and the larger checklist combined with the looser specification meant that instead of looking for the on or two rainbows we have fifteen of them. This is more than 25% of the Rookies checklist. Heck, almost half of these guys didn’t even qualify as Rated Rookies.

1989

Like 1987, 1989 features three extra sets in the same design as the base cards. With the rainbow already existing as part of the base design it would’ve been unlikely to be able to build a real rainbow of parallels. The All Star design however did use a completely different color scheme compared to the base cards (not so much Baseball’s Best or The Rookies). Unfortunately there are no Rookies in he All Star set and so there’s no possibility for a proper rainbow.*

*It is however worth noting that every card in the Grand Slammers set this year comes in all five color options available in the base set.

1990

This is the last year where a rainbow is possible and is very much the same as 1988. Twelve of the Rookies are also in one of the two Best sets* though at least most of them are Rated this year.

*For the purposes of this post I’m combining “Best of the AL” and “Best of the NL” into one set since hey share the same color and by being league-specific have no overlap.

One of the fun things about looking at the Donruss rainbows is how they reveal different directions the base design could have gone. A lot of base Donruss designs are very much things you either love or hate and the color choice is a huge part of that reaction. I’m not going to pass judgement on any of the options other than to say that as a Giants fan I prefer the orange versions of 1986 and 1988.

In which I get insulted by Topps Heritage

With cards only just making their way into retail stores I haven’t been able to procure even a blaster and so I’ve been unable to keep up with my annual dive into the printing weeds. Given the simplicity of the 1973 design I wasn’t expecting to find enough for a post anyway. No obvious things to improve upon or change like 1969/2018’s photography or 1970/2019’s grey borders. No interesting reveals like 1971/2020’s black borders. And no impending trainwrecks like 1972/2021’s typesetting.

I was mainly hoping for clever homages of the best things that 1973 did such as the Jack Brohamer and Mark Belanger pair of cards. I’m hoping the Twitter hive mind will turn up something like that here.

The only cards I got were my Giants team set courtesy of  case break. At first I was extremely satisfied since at an individual card level things looked mostly nice. Some of the usual Heritage photo smoothing and fake trapping shenanigans* but that’s standard with the territory.

*I haven’t really posted about these since I don’t know how to describe them but in short whatever photo processing Topps is doing to make things look older has bothered me for years.

Then I looked closer and realized that of fifteen cards in the base team set, twelve not only use the same background they in fact use the exact same background. This isn’t wholly unexpected since many teams have been posting photo day shots on Twitter than show players posed in front of a green screen. But I also expected a bit more effort from Topps instead of just pasting each player in front of a single stock background image.

I’ve gone ahead and turned my twelve Giants cards into an animated gif that shows how the backgrounds are identical, right down to the exact same cloud formations. I get it. Lead times are short. Creating a complete set is a lot of work. But still this level of templating is the kind of green screen photos that every family attraction used to ambush us with immediately after we entered the front gates.

It offends me professionally as a designer and it disappoints me personally as someone who loves baseball cards. It also shows that Topps is dialing up the worst qualities of their glory days. As much as I like those cards it’s a sad truth that many of them have the same handful of poses in front of the same kind of stadium background.

The difference though is that even with the sameness of location those cards have life to them. There are random dudes in the background. Players are bundled up against the elements. The photographer moves around the stadium so we end up with multiple views of the same place. Heritage instead is completely sterile and once you see how sterile it is you find yourself wishing for the awkwardness of the 1973 George Scott no matter how bad the compositing is.

Topps in 1972, Part 5

Editor’s note: SABR Baseball Cards welcomes new member F. Scott Wilkinson with the fifth of his 10 articles on the 1972 Topps set, now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Click here to start the series from the beginning.

I have explained many times that I am, by Profession, a Gambler—not some jock-sniffing nerd or a hired human squawk-box with the brain of a one-cell animal. No. That would be your average career sportswriter—and, more specifically, a full-time Baseball writer.

—Hunter S. Thompson

This post tries to make some sense of how all 787 cards of the 1972 set are organized, and takes a look at some of the sub-series offerings of the lot…

The ’72 Topps catalogue is divided into six distinct series, marked by canary-yellow checklist cards (numbered 4, 103, 251, 378, 478, and 604) that listed player cards in order so that collectors could keep track of their finds. These cards were losers when we were kids, but good luck finding them in mint condition today! From my experience, many a boy wanted to keep track of what they had (my old cards have pencil or pen marks in many of the square check boxes) and these days pristine cards seem to be somewhat rare and relatively expensive.

On average the first series seems to have the most cardboard in circulation (“commons”) and cards get rarer (and more valuable) as their numbers rise. By the sixth series there are many heavyweights that don’t seem as plentiful, like the last ever Topps cards of Hall of Famers Bill Mazeroski (#760) and Hoyt Wilhelm (#777).

Individual player cards make up most of all six series, but as usual there are trademark Topps theme cards within each series as well. The first series features statistics leader cards (#85–94), which have small photos of the top three leaders of a category (home runs, RBI, batting average, wins, strikeouts, and ERA) on the front and a listing of the top 10 leaders on the back. Even these cards have a distinct color scheme – the American League cards are blue with yellow piping and white lettering, while all the National League cards are green, with orange piping and yellow lettering.

The second series features 10 cards (#221–230) representing the 1971 postseason, all with the same design—bright red with yellow piping, a white border and black lettering. The first two cards of the series show scenes from the NL and AL Championship Series, won by the Pirates and Orioles respectively, with series totals for the two teams on the back.

The remainder chronicle the Pirates’ World Series victory over the Orioles in seven games, showing an action scene from each game on the front and the game’s box score on the back. Here are my two favorites – Brooks Robinson and Mark Belanger in Game 2 and Nelson Briles from his Game 5 two-hit shutout:

Card #230 perfectly captures the Pirates’ moment of victory, with a pack of delirious Pirates players—Manny Sanguillen (#60) smiling widely with arm raised; Luke Walker (#471), and Gene Clines (#152) to the right and third base coach Frank Oceak (wearing number 44 in photo) in the foreground. This card lists the cumulative Series stat totals on the back in tiny font and reminds us that Boog Powell hit only .111 (3 for 27) for the Series. Damn it! The O’s needed just a little more from the 1970 AL MVP.

The dominant overall theme (featured in all six series) is the “In Action” lot, which was just that—candid action shots with the same blood-red-with-yellow-piping design as the postseason cards. As a boy I never wanted to see these—they seemed less valuable somehow, just worthless filler. Bike spoke material. Today they’re far more interesting (and valuable), with some really capturing how intense, chaotic, and violent baseball can be – just look at #700 – Bobby Murcer’s devil-may-care slide into home.

Juan Marichal’s legendary high leg-kick delivery is perfectly captured too, (#568) while John “Blue Moon” Odom (#558) seems to be defying gravity. These are some of the best “In Actions.”

I never liked these next two, but they are pretty cool now. It looks like Seaver (#446) is laughing his ass off at something the catcher just said, but more likely he was having a bad reaction to a called ball he knew was a strike. Meanwhile, Clemente (#310) was maybe showing up the ump with a “that’s not a strike” look or possibly taunting the pitcher with a “No no, son – let’s try that again”. Who knows, unless you were there? Some day there should be a caption contest for these things. And how about The Great One’s big-ass hands with no batting gloves? Old school and fearless.

Each “In Action” card is numbered adjacent to the player’s standard card and there are 12 of these cards in each of the six series, all with the same front—players in various real-game shots—but with different themes on the back. The first series of IA cards has cartoon ads for other cards in the series—not too exciting. The second series has some of those silly ads, as well as some historical data, like a listing of National League pennant winners since 1900 (#178) and American League ERA leaders going back to 1913 when Walter Johnson led the league with a mark of 1.14 (#176).

The third sub-series has some of the ads as well as trivia questions about how to call some uncommon game scenarios. They’re titled “So You’re a Baseball Expert, by Harry Simmons” and here is a typically convoluted example, from the back of the Danny Frisella card (#294):

Scenario: Let’s say the Los Angeles Dodgers and Montreal Expos are tied, 4–4, in the sixth inning of a game at Montreal. With one out, the Dodgers have Maury Wills on third and Wes Parker on second. The Los Angeles batter runs up a count of two balls and one strike, but the scoreboard shows two strikes and one ball. On the next pitch, the batter swings, and misses. The Montreal catcher drops the ball to the ground, however, and the batter, thinking it is a fumbled third strike, dashes for first base. The catcher, confused, throws to first, but his throw is wild and the ball sails into right field. Wills and Parker score. The batter stays on first base. Actually, the batter has no business on first, and should not have run and drawn a throw as—except on the misleading scoreboard—it was the second strike and not the third. How would you untangle this situation?

Solution: The runs count, but the batter must return to bat with the count properly two-and-two. There is no rule to penalize him. The catcher bears the blame for throwing away a live ball when he should have known better.

“In Action” cards of the fourth series contain some history, with newspaper headlines of noteworthy feats on the reverse—one from the Ken Singleton card (#426) shows an article from the Chicago Tribune, June 3, 1971, “(Ken) Holtzman Hurls 2nd No-hitter”. Another, from the Bob Robertson card (#430), has a St. Louis Dispatch article from August 14, 1971, that reads “(Bob) Gibson Pitches No-hitter vs. Bucs”.

Here are two neat ones – the Tito Fuentes card (#428) has a Philadelphia Enquirer headline boasting “Wise No-Hits Reds and Hits 2 Homers” and the back of the Willie Stargell card (#448) features an article from The Montreal Star proclaiming “Hunt Hit By Pitch 50th Time of Season”, a record-breaking “effort” well before Rudy Stein and Michael Conforto were instructed to “lean into it”.

The backs of the fifth and sixth series are corny, the fifth being puzzle pieces that fit together to create larger pictures of Joe Torre (#500) and Carl Yastrzemski (#37) and the sixth featuring puzzle piece pictures of Tony Oliva (#400) and Tom Seaver (#445). Nice try, but these six-card pictures are goofy and staged and it’s safe to say that my friend Billy and I never bothered to assemble any of them even once. Still, we need to exercise our due diligence, so here’s Yaz! Looking just fine, actually.

For the hell of it, here’s a breakdown of all the players/card numbers of the “In Action” cards of each series. You’d think every card would be of an All-Star (the 4th series is loaded with greats), yet there are plenty of guys here who may have seemed destined for greatness, but ended up being (relative) scrubs:

First Series: Cleon James (#32), Billy Martin (#34), Jerry Johnson (#36), Carl Yastrzemski (#38), Bob Barton (#40), Tommy Davis (#42), Rick Wise (#44), Glenn Beckert (#46), John Ellis (#48), Willie Mays (#50), Harmon Killebrew (#52), Bud Harrelson (#54).

Second Series: Tug McGraw (#164), Chris Speier (#166), Deron Johnson (#168), Vida Blue (#170), Darrell Evans (#172), Clay Kirby (#174), Tom Haller (#176), Paul Schaal (#178), Dock Ellis (#180), Ed Kranepool (#182), Bill Melton (#184), Ron Bryant (#186).

Third Series: Hal McRae (#292), Danny Frisella (#294), Dick Dietz (#296), Claude Osteen (#298), Hank Aaron (#300), George Mitterwald (#302), Joe Pepitone (#304), Ken Boswell (#306), Steve Renko (#308), Roberto Clemente (#310), Clay Carroll (#312), Luis Aparicio (#314).

Fourth Series: Ken Singleton (#426), Tito Fuentes (#428), Bob Robertson (#430), Clarence Gaston (#432), Johnny Bench (#434), Reggie Jackson (#436), Maury Wills (#438), Billy Williams (#440), Thurman Munson (#442), Ken Henderson (#444), Tom Seaver (#446), Willie Stargell (#448).

Fifth Series: Ollie Brown (#552), Wilbur Wood (#554), Ron Santo (#556), John Odom (#558), Pete Rose (#560), Leo Cardenas (#562), Ray Sadecki (#564), Reggie Smith (#566), Juan Marichal (#568), Ed Kirkpatrick (#570), Nate Colbert (#572), Fritz Peterson (#574).

Sixth Series: Curt Blefary (#692), Allan Gallager (#694), Rod Carew (#696), Jerry Koosman (#698), Bobby Murcer (#700), Jose Pagan (#702), Doug Griffin (#704), Pat Corrales (#706), Tim Foli (#708), Jim Kaat (#710), Bobby Bonds (#712), Gene Michael (#714).

For the fourth and fifth series (cards #341–348 and #491–498), Topps thought it was a good idea to go with the theme of “Boyhood Photos of the Stars,” where you find a black and white photo of the player from their youth, often in their Little League or Babe Ruth uniforms, and a description of their youthful exploits on the back. Check out Jim Fregosi posing with his accordion (#346) and clean-cut Jim Perry, (#497) sharing a telling description of what it was like to play high school baseball with his younger brother Gaylord:

When Jim and his younger brother, Gaylord, were kids, they would get a hard rubber ball from their sister Carolyn, the kind girls use for playing jacks. They would wrap it in yarn and thread and cover it with black tape. Jim said, “it didn’t look like much, except it was sort of round. But it did the job and didn’t cost anything.” The Perry brothers played together one season in High School. “I’m two years older,” Jim recalls, “I was a junior when Gaylord was a freshman and I pitched, and he played third base. He had a strong arm and we needed another pitcher, so I worked with him and he became the second starter. When he pitched, I played third. If either of us got into trouble, the other would relieve. We won 7 straight playoff games and the state title, the only baseball championship the school ever won.”

As with most other Topps years there were cards for every team, with all-time team record holders for hitting/pitching listed on the back. Since the Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series in 1971, their team card is #1.

There is a “Rookie Stars” card for each team sprinkled throughout the entire set, with two or three of the team’s most promising rookies pictured on the front and their minor league stats listed on the back. It’s interesting that Ed Armbrister (#524) shows up again on the 1975 “Rookie Outfielders” card (along with Terry Whitfield, Tom Poquette and Fred Lynn); understandably it was tough to crack that Big Red Machine roster. Poor Ed never got even 80 at-bats in a season and his last year in the league was 1977. But we digress.

For whatever reason, one of the two or three most valuable cards in the whole ’72 series these days is Carlton Fisk’s rookie card (#79), which he shares with Cecil Cooper and Mike Garman. I found one in my long-neglected boyhood collection with great color, nice centering…and one big crescent-shaped crease, probably from kneeling on it while it was laid out on the floor during a trading session. Darn kids.

Finally, late in the sixth series there is one nondescript “AL Rookie Stars” (#724) card and two “AL – NL Rookie Stars” cards (#741 & #761). Unclear why these were tacked on – I guess Topps couldn’t squeeze all of the “Stars” onto the 26 team rookie cards (the Astros and Twins had two “Stars” cards each). Here is the best one (#761), anchored by six time All-Star and 1981 World Series MVP Ron “The Penguin” Cey. Sans mustache!


Part of an ode to baseball and the early 1970s in general, and to the Topps Company and the special 1972 set specifically. Thanks for the memories, Topps—both the old ones and the new ones! Apologies for the pronounced wordiness, but the 50th anniversary of the set warrants some indulgence.

Dedicated to my sports-loving mom, Caroline B. Wilkinson, who never threw my cards away, and to all the players from the 1972 Topps Series, especially those who passed during the writing of this article: Henry Aaron, Dick Allen, Ed Armbrister, Glenn Beckert, Larry Biittner, Hal Breeden, Lou Brock, Oscar Brown, Horace Clark, Billy Conigliaro, Chuck Dobson, Paul Doyle, Ed Farmer, Ray Fosse, Bill Freehan, Bob Gibson, Jim Grant, Grant Jackson, Bart Johnson, Jerry Johnson, Jay Johnstone, Al Kaline, Lew Krausse, Angel Mangual, Mike Marshall, Denis Menke, Lindy McDaniel, Roger Moret, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, Bob Oliver, Don Pavletich, Ron Perranoski, Juan Pizzaro, J. R. Richard, Mike Ryan, Tom Seaver, Richie Scheinblum, Rennie Stennett, Bill Sudakis, Don Sutton, Tony Taylor, Dick Tidrow, Bill Virdon, Bob Watson, Stan Williams, and Jim Wynn.

Special thanks to Baseball-Almanac.com, Baseballhall.org, Baseball-Reference.com, and Wikipedia.com for kindly compiling and sharing their vast treasure troves of data.

Extra special thanks to Jason Schwartz and Nick Vossbrink  for their timely encouragement and warm welcome into the SABR community.

Much gratitude to Mr. Larry Pauley, who gave this project direction when there was none.

An oddball addition to the Henry Aaron collection

I’ve shared pieces of my Aaron collection here before. It includes bobbleheads, magazines, milestone home run “I was there” certificates, postcards, and of course the obvious: baseball cards.

For the most part, the collection had felt complete (or at least done) over the last year or so given that the only items on my checklist are way out of my price range. A typical example is Aaron’s 1972 Topps Cloth Sticker test issue, a recent copy of which just sold for about $600.

Of course that was before I came across a Brewers Spring Training program from 1975.

In truth, I tend to limit my magazine/program collecting tends to what Mark Armour would call “primary subject” covers. With this particular program, taxonomy is a bit complicated in that Aaron is the only named player but his image is much smaller than that of the batter and catcher shown, to whom we’ll now turn our attention.

At first glance these two players appear to be generic ballplayers reminiscent of the generic athletes that donned our ubiquitous Pee Chee (not to be confused with O-Pee-Chee) folders in elementary school.

However, there was no question who served as the model for at least the catcher.

It would be fair to ask if the similarity here is simply coincidental or if the match is exact. For this it is useful to overlay the two images. Rather than use the Bowman card, which crops away portions of Campy I’ll use the original photo upon which the Bowman image was based.

Since I am not only an Aaron collector but a Campanella collector as well, this discovery promoted the program from mere curiosity to must have, particularly given the very reasonable $5 price tag involved.

Through no lack of attempts I was ultimately unable to determine who the program’s batter (“Bento”) might have been. The name and uniform number made me think of Johnny Bench, though the handedness was a problem.

Perusing Getty Images I found shots of Rose, Maris, Yaz, and others that were similar but never exact. Still, as they say on the “X Files,” I do suspect the truth is out there.

Barring a miracle find from one of our readers, the one person who does (probably) know is the artist, whose last name is clearly Broadway but whose first name is less evident (Lonn? Ronn? Tom?).

Leaving the mystery of the batter unsolved for the moment, we can at last turn our attention to the Home Run King.

A keen-eyed Twitter user had no trouble finding the source photograph for Aaron himself.

From there it’s easy to imagine the graphic designer (perhaps Mr. Broadway himself) cutting out a Brewers hat logo (or just a capital M) from another photograph and gluing it over the Braves logo. One source I can rule out is the 1974 Topps Brewers team set where the closest match would require reversing the image of Bobby Mitchell’s card 497.

Is the result rather amateur? Absolutely, but in fairness there may not have been any photographs of Aaron in a Brewers cap at the time the program went to press, right? Oh but wait, what’s this on page 6 of this very program?!

Aaron is also featured (but with no photo) in the brief 1975 season preview on page 4 of the program. As the writer notes–

The addition of the all-time home run king Hank Aaron fills the designated hitter spot of the Brewers, a spot that last year produced only 14 home runs, 62 runs batted in, and a .222 batting average.

Almost on cue, Aaron’s 1975 slash line was .234/12/60.

Were I to rank my Top 100 Henry Aaron collectibles, this Spring Training program would fall far below even the bottom of the list. At the same time, were I to rank them by their oddity or mystery it probably makes the top five. After all, even if you solve the riddle of Bento, I now challenge you to identify the players on page 16…

Page 19…

And most importantly…what the heck is going on with dad’s hair on page 5? All I’ve been able to figure out so far is that the artist went on to work for Fleer in 1989. 😊

ANSWERS TO PICTURE CHALLENGES

Congratulations to Don Sherman who was the first to identify the page 16 artwork as coming from the 1946 National League playoff between the Dodgers and Cardinals.

Umpire is Babe Pinelli, catcher is Bruce Edwards, and batter is Red Schoendienst.

Multiple readers correctly identified the two most prominent figures on page 19 as Yogi Berra and Don Larsen following the final out of Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. However, the jury is still out on which other players are “going for the gusto” in the image.

Topps in 1972, Part 3

Editor’s note: SABR Baseball Cards welcomes new member F. Scott Wilkinson with the third of his 10 articles on the 1972 Topps set, now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Click here to start the series from the beginning. This post takes a detailed look at the design of the 1972 cards, with a brief comparison to other Topps schemes of the era (1970-75).

I have explained many times that I am, by Profession, a Gambler—not some jock-sniffing nerd or a hired human squawk-box with the brain of a one-cell animal. No. That would be your average career sportswriter—and, more specifically, a full-time Baseball writer.”

—Hunter S. Thompson

If memory serves, it seemed like with a little help from the “Dick, Jane, and Spot” books I learned to read by studying Baltimore Orioles box scores at my grandparents’ house, and in those days they got both morning and evening editions of the Decatur Herald & Review – woohoo! Right away I was finding baseball books for kids and taking in old numbers like candy. Ruth’s 714 home runs, Cy Young’s 511 wins, Walter Johnson’s 3508 (now 3509) strikeouts, Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak, Ty Cobb’s career batting average of .367 (now .366), etc…all of those and many more are iconic, seared in there early. Who knows why they were appealing – they just were.

Then you start looking into things like Tris Speaker being the all-time leader in doubles (with 792) and Ted Williams being the last person to hit over .400; turns out he could have sat down for the final two games of the 1941 season (a double-header) to protect the number, but he played both games, went 6-for-8 and ended up hitting .406. Important stuff, right? Yep – because then it’s interesting when players like George Brett, Tony Gwynn, and John Olerud make a run at that .400 barrier.

As fascinating as the facts and figures are, they’re just numbers – entry-level and rudimentary. But baseball is famous for being a true statistician’s game, which ultimately led to Sabermetrics and a deeper analysis of the game by comprehensively crunching and evaluating the numbers ad nauseam, looking for a winning formula. And that’s all fine, but it gets us too far away from the feeling of the game…and the feelings those cards stir up…they’re not easy to describe…but let’s try…so, back to those cards…

There’s so much color and data to take in from the ’72 set – it’s any lifelong baseball fan, art aficionado and/or number-addled stat geek’s happy daydream fully realized. The palette of the series is otherworldly compared to every other Topps year and the design almost reminds of classic Art Deco, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters or pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein or Andy Warhol. If there was a singular influence, likely it was not as antiquated or highfalutin as these, but closer temporally and geographically to the Brooklyn-based Topps Company (like Lichtenstein and Warhol). Namely, this David Edward Byrd poster from the musical “Follies”, which debuted on Broadway, April 4, 1971. The font is a match and the stars on either end are uncanny too.

Whatever the inspiration, the series is defined by the look of the individual player cards which feature their team name bursting off the heading in black 3-D block lettering. The bold team name is highlighted with two colors that complement the main color of the card and is bookended with two small stars that share those complementary colors. Fancy fancy.

Here’s a prime example – the card of Dick Williams (#137), who managed his Oakland Athletics to a World Series win in 1972.

Oddly, the main color of a card often has nothing to do with the team’s actual uniform colors. Example: The Dodger cards are orange, with yellow and white highlights—no trademark Dodger blue anywhere. The Reds are green; the Cardinals and Orioles are blue, the Cubs and Indians are purple, and the Mets and A’s are both red. Still, it all works somehow.

There are 12 distinct color schemes, all bright primary and secondary colors (hues of yellow, blue, red, green, purple, and orange), and well-conceived for the most part. With 24 teams in 1972, Topps assigned each design to both a National League team and an American League team.

Each scheme has three colors, with a principal color for the body of the card, a second color (generally) making up most of the accent coloring of the team’s name in the 3D font, and a tertiary color for the remainder of the 3D accent coloring and the piping that frames the picture and text. All of that within an outermost border of white, with player names at the bottom, in capitalized black font on a small white placard. A simple, elegant design.

Collectors have called the 1972 cards “tombstones” for their unique border and it’s true—the colored portion is shaped like an old-time tombstone. They definitely have a groovy, psychedelic feel, even though the Summer of Love was five years past. Somehow they always made me think of paper trophies. They differ from other years in that the position of the player is not indicated on the front, removing some clutter and borders, and there are no sprawling player signatures either.

The result is so clean and perfect that some of them almost transcend baseball to look more like iconic artistic works than mere sports cards. Think of Andy Warhol’s silkscreened visions of athletes like Pele, Muhammad Ali and Tom Seaver. That’s an overstatement, but some of these look as fresh as any pop art there ever was.

Here are some nice examples including my personal favorite, Horatio Pina (#654), with blue sky and cotton ball clouds in his background. I swear all these look like artful, timeless portraits worthy of a silkscreen or framed oil painting. Really.

For fun here are all 12 color schemes, ranked from my most to least favorite, listing in order the NL team, AL team, first color (most prevalent), second color (majority of team name), and third color (piping). [Note: team allegiances may have influenced rankings somewhat!]

  • San Francisco Giants/New York Yankees – yellow, orange, red
  • St. Louis Cardinals/Baltimore Orioles – dark blue, yellow, light blue
  • Cincinnati Reds/Chicago White Sox – light green, blue, yellow
  • Los Angeles Dodgers/Detroit Tigers – orange, white, yellow
  • Montreal Expos/Boston Red Sox – green, orange, yellow
  • Chicago Cubs/Cleveland Indians – purple, green, yellow
  • Houston Astros/Texas Rangers – yellow, orange, blue
  • Pittsburgh Pirates/Minnesota Twins – light blue, dark blue, orange
  • New York Mets/Oakland A’s – red, yellow, orange
  • Atlanta Braves/Kansas City Royals – red, green, yellow
  • Philadelphia Phillies/California Angels – orange, green, blue
  • San Diego Padres/Milwaukee Brewers – dark blue, orange, light green

The ’72 set is defined by organization, with every player on a team sharing the exact same color scheme while the aforementioned 1975 cards have schemes assigned randomly, so that most players on the same team have a different look. This seems a little chaotic and purposeless, but maybe that was 1975 in a nutshell?

Before we get to those unruly ’75 cards, let’s rewind to 1970 to remind ourselves why the 1972 lot stood out so much from all the other Topps cards that came out between 1970-75 (let alone all the cards that came before 1970 and after 1975).

1970: Those gloomy gray borders and cards almost devoid of color. Earl Weaver, who managed the O’s to a World Series win in 1970, would probably be the first to say that he was no Flower Child, and here is proof. Earl looks more like 1960 than 1970.

1971: Similar to 1970, but much better – the black is bolder than the gray, there are showy signatures, and more color in the larger font. For me, Dock Ellis epitomizes the early 1970’s – the bold fashion statements, politics, fearlessness, and renegade demeanor. Plus, for a while he was a hell of a pitcher. If you don’t know why I picked his card to represent this pseudo-psychedelic year (and even if you do) please watch this

Again, 1972: Bill “Spaceman”Lee. Perfectly normal, right? Actually they are, for the most part – the (red-brown) backs saw a return to listing career stats and the pictures are mostly standard (more on that later) – it’s just the team name that’s gone crazy compared to other years.

1973: After the anomaly of 1972 there was a return to drab normalcy, but at least Topps didn’t exactly go backwards. Here’s a good one – one of my favorite pitchers ever (see the silhouette in the bottom right corner? that’s how we know he’s a pitcher!), with one of the most entertaining wind-ups of all time – borderline Hall of Fame prospect Luis Tiant, mugging like a Vaudevillian:

1974: There was some improvement with those banners at the top and bottom and the colored border piping. The cards are still mostly black and white and a little tame, but they almost have a classy look. Here’s another favorite – another borderline Hall of Fame candidate – Dave Parker in his rookie year, with sideburn.

Then came the 1975 set…which more or less amounts to a flaccid reprise of psychedelia. Though I’ve grown to appreciate the ’75 cards for the players they represent and the funky mid-decade style that’s on full display (Oscar Gamble, anyone?), the design feels lazy and simplistic, with one solid color on the top half border of the card, a second solid color on the bottom half, and a third color for the team’s blocky faux-3D name at the top. Overall they lack detail but at least got back to player signatures…and the little baseball with the player’s position is a nice try too.

The worst thing about them has to be the choice of color schemes, with some just damn ghastly compared to the 1972 lot: purple paired with pink and yellow lettering, salmon and teal with red letters, and poop brown with burnt orange and red font—ick. They look cartoonish and haphazard, with mis-cuts galore. Mid-70s apathy.

And even with all that said…they do have a nice high gloss…and they’re more fun than what came out in 1973 and 1974…some pizazz after two years of relative stodginess.

Check out these gems found happily in my recovered collection—rookie cards of Hall of Famers Gary Carter, Robin Yount, and George Brett.

 Maybe they aren’t so bad after all? The jury’s still out!


This is part of my ode to baseball and the early 1970s in general, and to the Topps Company and the special 1972 set specifically. Thanks for the memories, Topps—both the old ones and the new ones! Apologies for the pronounced wordiness, but the 50th anniversary of the set warrants some indulgence.

Dedicated to my sports-loving mom, Caroline B. Wilkinson, who never threw my cards away, and to all the players from the 1972 Topps Series, especially those who passed during the writing of this article: Henry Aaron, Dick Allen, Ed Armbrister, Glenn Beckert, Hal Breeden, Lou Brock, Oscar Brown, Horace Clark, Billy Conigliaro, Chuck Dobson, Paul Doyle, Ed Farmer, Ray Fosse, Bill Freehan, Bob Gibson, Jim Grant, Grant Jackson, Bart Johnson, Jerry Johnson, Jay Johnstone, Al Kaline, Lew Krausse, Angel Mangual, Mike Marshall, Denis Menke, Lindy McDaniel, Roger Moret, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, Bob Oliver, Don Pavletich, Ron Perranoski, Juan Pizzaro, J. R. Richard, Mike Ryan, Tom Seaver, Richie Scheinblum, Rennie Stennett, Bill Sudakis, Don Sutton, Tony Taylor, Dick Tidrow, Bill Virdon, Bob Watson, Stan Williams, and Jim Wynn.

Special thanks to Baseball-Almanac.com, Baseballhall.org, Baseball-Reference.com, and Wikipedia.com for kindly compiling and sharing their vast treasure troves of data.

Extra special thanks to Jason Schwartz and Nick Vossbrink  for their timely encouragement and warm welcome into the SABR community.

Much gratitude to Mr. Larry Pauley, who gave this project direction when there was none.

The beautiful cardboard of Hall of Famer Gil Hodges

What an unexpected thrill for me to see Gil Hodges finally “get the call” from Cooperstown. Among other things, his recent election provides the perfect occasion to showcase some of his most beautiful baseball cards.

FIFTH PLACE

1957 Topps “Dodgers’ Sluggers”

If there is a single card to represent 1950s baseball, this might be it. Four beloved “Bums” in a classic baseball pose with the Ebbets Field outfield wall behind them in all its advertising glory.

FOURTH PLACE

1960 Topps World Series

The very first Topps World Series subset (if you don’t count 1948) is in my opinion the best. Obviously my love of the Dodgers plays a role here, but it’s really the look of the cards that grabs me. The Hodges card, in particular, is a true masterpiece of its time.

THIRD PLACE

1957 Topps

For many players, a card this beautiful would take first place without question. In truth, I’m not sure any other player of the era has a third place card even close to this one. I suspect it’s possible to look at it and see only a rather overused batting pose with a not particularly crisp stadium backdrop. Equally, however, it’s possible to look at it and see something more: perfection.

SECOND PLACE

1952 Topps

I know not all will agree here, but I regard Gil’s 1952 Topps card as the prettiest in the entire 407-card set. I love everything about it: the peach background, the landscape format, the shadows, the pose, the expression, the shoulder patch, the cut of the sleeves, the timeless Dodgers logo.

Though far more attention today goes to the pseudo-rookie cards of Mantle and Mays, I have to imagine this card when it came out was instantly one of the two or three most popular among the 12-and-under division of New York’s gum chewing elite.

FIRST PLACE

1954 Dan-Dee

What can I say? I’m a sucker for skies. For whatever reason the white and purple clouds and baby blue sky create not only a three-dimensional look to the card but practically trick my eyes into thinking the actual Gil Hodges (1954 version, not 2021) is looking right at me. It’s an illusion I normally only get from Graig Kreindler paintings. Note that this same image haunts the 1953-55 Stahl-Meyer Franks and 1953-54 Briggs Meats cards. Ditto for 1958 Bell Brand but in black and white.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Three other Gil Hodges cards that could have easily occupied any spot on this list are his 1950, 1952, and 1953 Bowman cards. I lack the image editing skills to do so, but I daresay adding some flourish to the bald sky of his 1953 card probably takes it straight to number one. Did I mention I’m a sucker for skies?

Finally, I would be remiss in ending this article without a single Mets card. After all, his time at the helm of the Miracle Mets may well have factored into his Hall of Fame nod nearly as much as his years as Dodger first baseman. In truth, I don’t think any of Gil’s Mets cards can compete aesthetically with his Dodger cardboard, but his 1972 O-Pee-Chee, noting his (then) recent death, is what I’ll end on.

1972 O-Pee-Chee

Side note: I have to imagine a lot of Canadian youth asking their moms and dads what “deceased” meant and then getting really sad.

Hodges died suddenly at the very young age of 47. His 1972 baseball card is a reminder that none of us really know the days we have left, whether for ourselves, our loved ones, or our heroes. About all we can do, though it’s not a small thing, is to make the most of the time we have, living our lives with purpose and gratitude and making the world a little better where we can.

Author’s note: This post is dedicated to SABR member Donna Muscarella and the memory of her father, a Gil Hodges fan without equal.

Creating the set: 2018-19 Baseball Treasure

If you’re a reader of this blog, which I’d bet a lot you are (at least today!), you’re not content simply to collect baseball cards. You enjoy learning and knowing about the cards you hold in your hand or dream about on your want list. While in many cases our research into a set turns up more mystery than history, we are occasionally lucky enough to go directly to the source and have all our questions answered.

Our latest series, “Creating the set,” features interviews with the creators directly responsible for the various cards and collectibles that comprise the Hobby. Leading off the series are the Baseball Treasure sets of officially licensed MLB coins produced in 2018 and 2019 by Boston-based florist-collector Rick Canale.

Each base set included 30 copper coins, one player per team, mounted in cardboard holders the size of standard baseball cards. Coin fronts featured a portrait of the player, along with position and team. 2018 versions also noted the year. Coin backs depicted an action pose captioned with a career highlight.

The holders changed considerably from 2018 (Perez above) to 2019 (Yelich below), evolving from a single 2.5″ x 3.5″ cardboard slab that rendered both coin sides visible to a fold-over model with a window for only the front of the coin. Fronts featured a minor re-design, omitting player name and uniform number in favor of more prominent team identifiers.

Each year of the release included special premium edition coins, such as this 2018 gold edition of the Aaron Judge coin.

With these basics out the way, let’s catch up with the set’s creator.

SABR Baseball Cards: Rick, before we jump into the Baseball Treasure sets themselves, tell us a little bit about your own background as a collector.

Rick Canale: I picked up my first cards in 1978 when I was seven years old and from 1979-86 I was completely hooked. After that I still bought a few packs a year but other interests like cars and girls took over. College too eventually. The birth of my first son in 2004 brought me back into the Hobby, and thankfully my mom did not throw out my baseball cards. While my sons never got into card collecting, they do love Fenway. As for favorites, I loved those late 1970s Red Sox teams: Fisk, Lynn, Scott, Hobson, Eck, etc. I also enjoyed the speed-power combo guys like Rickey Henderson and Cesar Cedeño, but it’s the sluggers like Greg Luzinski and Dave Kingman who really captured my heart.

SABR Baseball Cards: When did you get the idea to produce a set of your own. Was this a lifelong dream or something that just popped into your head one day?

Rick with Baseball Treasure coins

Rick Canale:  I think we all want to make our own set at some point. This was kind of something that fell in my lap. My best friend from high school was looking for something to do after selling his company. He had connections at a mint in Massachusetts and I had connections to MLB and various distributors. Our early pitches to locals were not met with much enthusiasm, but when we pitched the idea to MLB of collectors winning real silver or gold they really ran with it.

SABR Baseball Cards: What came next? How did the idea become an actual product?

Rick Canale: There were a ton of hoops to jump through. Things like getting calls back from MLB and the MLBPA did not happen overnight. I was fortunate to have some connections who helped keep things moving. I’ll add that there was a lot of secrecy, for example contract language that can’t be shared.

SABR Baseball Cards: What prompted you to decide on coins rather than cards or some other form of baseball collectible?

Rick Canale: Coins was the natural choice because of my friend’s connections to the mint. Keep in mind also that cards would not have been possible due to the exclusive licensing that Topps already had in place. In fact, many of the changes in the product between 2018 and 2019 were due to Topps regarding our initial release as too similar to baseball cards. It was a major setback for us that required us to change our packaging and mounts. Sales suffered as well.

SABR Baseball Cards: Your debut offering included one player for each of the 30 teams. How were the players selected?

Rick Canale: One player per team was how we chose to create the set. However, we definitely saw that the market is driven by a small handful of teams. For each team we focused on talent, character, and the likelihood of being traded. Drafting the list of players was fun, though finding a Marlin was tough. We actually asked MLB if we could use Don Mattingly, the team’s manager!

SABR Baseball Cards: I know Todd Radom worked with you on the Baseball Treasure logo and packaging. How did you go about getting the coins themselves created, including the artwork?

Rick Canale: Yes, the coins themselves were created by a person whose craft is coin dyes, but Todd created all the mounts and associated artwork. I cannot say enough great things about Todd. His work is incredible, and the person matches the talent. His friendship is the greatest asset I kept from the venture.

SABR Baseball Cards: If you could turn back the clock, are there changes you’d make to the sets, notwithstanding the ones forced upon you by Topps?

Rick Canale:  More players from the most marketable teams as well as more star power. We also would have spent less on advertising and more on prizes (e.g., the silver and gold coins). Still, being featured on MLB Network was a thrill.

SABR Baseball Cards: What were some of the other challenges in marketing and selling these coins?

Rick Canale: First the positives. We sold great at the Hall of Fame (1000 packs the first year), on MLB.com, in hobby shops, and at ballparks. However, not being in Target and Walmart killed us. Getting our coins into people’s hands was of course key, and this was too hard to do without the two biggest guns supporting us. 7-Eleven did pick us up, but they really butchered the product. They wanted open packs, no mystery at all, which also meant no chase for silver or gold. In Boston, for example, once Betts and Benintendi were gone the box would just sit on the shelf with no sales.

SABR Baseball Cards: What was it like to hold an actual Baseball Treasure coin in your hand for the first time?

Rick Canale: It was awesome. I put one in my pocket every day that first season.

SABR Baseball Cards: Fantastic! Probably safe to say that’s a feeling most collectors can only dream of, and you made it a reality. Thanks for speaking with us, and thanks also for putting out two terrific sets of baseball coins. Anything final your like to share with SABR Baseball Cards readers?

Rick Canale: We have something of a surprise for Ichiro collectors. Before we closed up shop we also produced 51 fully licensed silver coins of Ichiro that collectors may see hit the open market timed with Ichiro’s Hall of Fame induction. Be on the lookout!