Succumbing to the Siren’s Song of the Topps Heritage Collection: a 1970 journey

Let’s just say that I was Topps Heritage collection-curious.  Oh, I’ve seen the sets depicting contemporary players in designs from 1969, 1968, and others, looking all sleek and alluring, like a siren’s song calling to me and my debit card.  Shaking my head quickly, I tell myself, no, no — that’s is all a marketing trick, don’t fall for it. Don’t give in.  I knew that once I bought a pack, I wouldn’t be able to stop!

Well, there I was, at the Greenwood Fred Meyers waiting in line to make my purchases, and there they were, off to the right in the racks calling out their familiar song.  Sigh.  Okay, maybe just one.  I can do it.  Just one, and that’s it.  It’ll be fun.  I know other guys are doing it, right?  And hey – look – there are 20 cards.  More value, the package read!  Okay … just one.  Here I go…

The high number plastic pack I opened included 19 cards and a candy lid. Curiously I flipped through the pack, looking at the design, both front and back, checking out the team names, and making notes of the words and drawings on reverse side in blue, white and yellow.  Going through the names and faces now, I was pleased to discover Vladimir Guerrero, Jr (#504); Yasiel Puig (#541); Michael Pineda (#662); and David Freese (#691), among others.  The candy lid (available only at Target, but purchased at Fred Meyer) was Rhys Hoskins (#29 of 30).

Being reasonably satisfied with the purchase and the design of the cards, I turned to my binder of 1970 cards, my handy-dandy copy of “Topps Baseball Cards: The Complete Picture Collection, a 35 Year History: 1951-1985,” and the “Official Baseball Card Price Guide: 1990, Collector’s Edition” to compare designs.

From this point, I stepped a toe onto memory lane and wandered through the 1970 collection.  The Topps book’s 1970 introduction made much to do about the saga of the Seattle Pilots and their heart-breaking move to Milwaukee before the season began.  The complete set itself totaled 720 cards, the first time that the card set exceeded 700, measuring 2 ½ x 3 ½ inches.

The cards themselves are unremarkable.  They feature a blue and yellow printing on white card board with yearly stats, brief bio, and a cartoon on the backside with the front side showing crisp color photos with team name in upper corner, and the player name in script in the lower gray border.

1970 Sparky AndersonI mean unremarkable in that the photos include players in pitching or batting poses, close-ups with caps, without caps, and some with very, very bad airbrushed caps.  I’m looking at you Sparky Anderson (#181); Curt Blefory (#297); Tom Shopay (#363); and Bob Heise (#478), among others.  Poor Fred Norman (#427).  He looks like his LA Dodgers insignia was ironed on his ballcap, with a somewhat noticeable Spokane Indians pictured.1970 Fred Norman

Some of the more interesting cards included the NL and AL Championships (#195 – 202), another first for Topps.  One fun-filled card, was Lowell Palmer (#252) of the Philadelphia Phillies, who was the only one to sporting sunglasses.  In keeping with the true essence of the Topps Heritage collection, Philadelphia Phillies Pat Neshek paid homage to Palmer’s card by wearing sunglasses and sporting the card number 252, as well.

1970 sunglassesTopps has done an outstanding job with these Heritage sets.  I don’t know if I will make another purchase.  Maybe next year, I guess.  Perhaps those 2020 cards will incorporate the 1971 card design.  Those would be interesting to see!  But, then again, I’m hoping to keep my impulse control in check.  These things can be addictive!

Editors’ Note: Jeff Katz has previously written about reaching the exact opposite opinion of 2019 Heritage and Nick Vossbrink has more a more detailed description of how Topps changed the printing between 1970 and 2019.

Digital Footprints

A recent post by Jenny Miller about the Topps Bunt app got me thinking about digital cards. I’ve long wanted to see such a post on this blog but I suspect that our membership base is skeptical at best* when it comes to cards that only live in an app.

*And dismissive at worst.

I get it. This is a cardboard hobby and the idea of something existing only digitally doesn’t feel “real.” At the same time, the experience Jenny describes is closer to the pure ideal of the hobby than much of what’s going on with card releases. She doesn’t have to spend any money. She’s able to look at her collection and acquire new cards anywhere and anytime she has battery life on her phone. There’s no concern about finding a card shop or hoping that the card aisle hasn’t been raided by pack seekers. It sounds like a lot more fun than most of the bellyaching I see about the current state of the hobby on Twitter.

What really got me thinking though were the images Jenny used in her blog post. I’m online-averse in all my media. I prefer CDs/DVDs/BluRay to streaming. I prefer books to Kindle. As interesting as the Topps Bunt app seems it’s just not something that appeals to me…unless I can get the cards out of the app. As much as I’m a luddite, my concerns are actually more about being locked in to a corporate ecosystem and the fact that companies have a bad track record with regard to maintaining these things.

I just don’t trust these apps to last and while I don’t need ALL my cards to last another 20, 30, 40 years it would be nice to know that there’s a possibility of it. Jenny didn’t get her images out of the app (she confirmed with me that she pulled them from Topps’s Twitter feed) but she could have.

My phone (an iPhone8) produces screenshots that are 750×1334 pixels. This translates into 2.5″×4.45″ at 300 DPI. Even if you have to crop off a little of the image to get just the card this is enough data for good-quality printing. Yeah. There’s no reason why you couldn’t roll your own Bunt cards.

As much as it’s weird to me how the Bunt app cards show evidence of wanting to pretend to be physical items with their wrinkles, halftone rosettes, “autographs,” and peeling effects, they are actually something that can be taken into the real world if you wanted to.

Costco wallet-sized prints are 59¢ for four. Even if you didn’t print these, just being able to save them outside of the app gives you a level of flexibility and future-protection that alleviates a lot of my concerns. It also reminds me of a number of other card-related things we’ve covered on this blog where the original objects contain information that is no longer accessible for most collectors.

One of the best things about this hobby is how it’s a near perfect usage of technology—in this case print technology. Cards are the right size to hold and store. They’re durable enough to handle without falling apart immediately. And they don’t require any supplementary technology.

I very much love cards that push the into other technological realms though. They just require some help to be fully enjoyed if the other technology does not age as well as ink on cardboard.

For example, Auravision and Baseball Talk are both wonderful objects but the audio portions of them are tough to access. Record players may be making a comeback but they’ve not been standard in most homes for a long time. Plus you have to punch a hole in the middle of that nice Auravision photo to listen to anything. Similarly, Baseball Talk requires a special player which, even if you have one, is not guaranteed to work anymore since it’s a cheap child’s toy.

But the internet is a wonderful place. The Auravision recordings are up on YouTube. As are the Baseball Talk ones. This means I can have my Baseball Talk cards in my album and pull up the corresponding recordings on the web. Yes there’s always that fear that the recordings will disappear from YouTube but they’re out there, but there are tools out there that will download the audio from a YouTube video and convert it to MP3.

Another thing that YouTube has preserved is things like 2000 Upper Deck Power Deck. Sure you can just shove a baseball card sized mini CD-ROM into a binder page but reading the data is near impossible now. Most computers don’t have optical media trays and the ones that do are usually slot-loading ones that can’t accept non-standard sized or shaped media. So your only option to see what’s on the disc is to go to YouTube and hope it’s been uploaded.

I’ve actually been engaged in my own form of converting a somewhat-inaccesable product into one with digital footprints. I don’t have the toy to view my Viewmaster discs so I’m only able to see them by holding a disc up to light. This isn’t ideal. Scanning them into wiggle gifs produces a better way of seeing them.

I’m also going a step further and scanning the booklet so I can convert each image into a 2.5″ square card with a still image in the front and the booklet on the back. No it’s not the Viewmaster experience but it take the photos into a form that’s more accessible.

Do I expect Bunt to be around in a decade? No way. But I do expect JPGs of the cards to be available someplace. Maybe not all of them, but someone next decade will have an archive of a bunch of them. And I have my fingers crossed that a few cards will even be printed out the way I’m printing out my Viewmaster photos.

Heritage before Heritage

I reached a collecting milestone last week by completing one of my all-time favorite sets. It’s a set that’s off the radar of most collectors (until now!) and has few cards, if any, worth more than a dollar. Its value to me is purely sentimental but still sky high in that it’s the set that started my lifelong love affair with baseball’s all-time greats.

Before getting into the set itself, I’ll start with a card not in it.

You may recognize this as the 1960 Leaf card of Brooks Robinson. The first time I saw it 10-year-old-me took the glow around Robinson’s head for a halo and suspected only I could see it. (UPDATE: Rob Neyer also saw the halo!)

To other collectors (but not our own Jeff Katz) the set is perhaps a bit more boring, despite the fact that it has to be the most exciting set ever to come with marbles instead of gum! (And did I mention the packs had cards of “Your Favorite Major League Star?”)

Marbles aside, we are looking at a black and white set produced long past the era of black and white sets, whether to you the Grayscale Age of Baseball Cards was the 1920s or the 1880s. “Your Favorite Major League Player” notwithstanding, the Leaf checklist strikes many collectors as lackluster, with the Human Vacuum Cleaner and Duke Snider perhaps the only top shelf Hall of Famers.

Various articles note design similarities between the 1960 Leaf set and its predecessor 11 years prior. My own opinion is that the two sets aren’t that close, but I’ll let you judge for yourself.

I chose Elmer Valo to compare these sets because his placement in the 1960 set comes with a little bit of a story. As reported in the May 4, 1949, Boston Globe, Valo was one of six ballplayers to sue Leaf for using their likeness in the 1949 set. The fact that he found himself back on the checklist in 1960 says something about the ability to forgive or forget, whether on the part of Leaf, Valo, or both.

Now fast forward to 1977 and one of the nation’s best known mail order dealers is planning a set of 45 cards as her very first entrée into the card making business. The next 10+ years would see her company produce dozens more sets including…

A 1983 tribute to the 1969 Seattle Pilots…

A 1984 “Art Card Series” featuring acclaimed baseball artist Ron Lewis of Negro Leagues postcard fame…

And six single-player sets from 1984-86 of several big name ballplayers and cult leaders! (Wait, that’s Pete Rose? Are you sure?)

While these later sets drew on new designs, the last few of which just scream 1980s, her very first set, much like Topps Heritage does today, mimicked a set from the past. T206? Nope! 1933 Goudey? Nope! 1952 Topps? Nope again. As you’ve no doubt guessed already, that set was 1960 Leaf!

Here is card #5, Roy Campanella, from Renata Galasso’s debut set, “Decade Greats,” featuring top stars from the 1950s.

Perhaps Ms. Galasso had a sentimental attachment to 1960 Leaf or maybe she just held a special admiration for her fellow challengers of the Topps monopoly. More than likely, her reasons for copying the Leaf set were more pedestrian. Black and white was cheaper than color, and it would have been tough to get too close to Topps without getting even closer to their lawyers. Finally, a collection of 1950s players made more sense in a decade-capping 1960 set than, for example, 1922 American Caramel.

Particularly for her rookie offering, Renata Galasso did a fantastic job capturing the look and feel of the 1960 set. Put the cards side-by-side and you’ll spot some differences, most notably the missing halo, but to paraphrase Maya Angelou the cards are much more alike than unalike.

As the small print on the back of the Campanella card shows, Renata Galasso received an assist from Mike Aronstein’s company, TCMA, which had already been making its own cards since 1972.

The 45-card set was evidently popular enough to engender a sequel two years later, this time numbered 46-90. While you might have expected this continuation set to focus on the 1960s, TCMA had already beat Galasso to the punch the year before with a stunning color issue (left) reminiscent of 1953 Bowman (right) in yet another case of Heritage before Heritage.

TCMA had similarly put out a 1930s set five years earlier, but the half decade gap left enough breathing room for Galasso to put her own “1960 Leaf” touch on the decade.

Where I had previously seen sharp photos of Aaron, Mays, Mantle, and other 1950s stars in my reading books, this 1930s set was the first time I had ever seen such vivid images of earlier stars. To a certain extent, Galasso’s set transformed these 1930s heroes from cartoon characters into men, which somehow made their records and feats all the more impressive. As the card footer shows, TCMA was again a partner in the effort.

Renata Galasso extended her set once again the following year, issuing Series Three in 1980. This time her decade of choice was the 1920s. This was around the time I started taking the bus to card shows, and the Galasso cards were a frequent purchase for me out of bargain bins. While I regret turning down a T206 Cobb for $14, I have no regrets about scooping this one up for a dime.

Once again, TCMA was in the mix, and once again the cards looked fantastic. In my view, all they needed was stats on the back instead of that humongous logo and they would have been perfect.

Series Four, numbered 136-180, came the very next year and featured stars of the 1910s. You don’t even have to look at the rest of the checklist to know the key card in this series is the Cobb, with its iconic Conlon photo.

In a move that foreshadowed the later work of SABR, you’ll notice that Cobb’s hit total was reduced between his 1980 and 1981 card backs. I’ll also credit Galasso (or TCMA) with splurging for a brand new bio where other card makers might have simply recycled the back from the previous series.

The Decade Greats set, now up to 225 cards, would continue in 1983 with a 45-card series, sometimes numbered 181-223 (plus two unnumbered cards), commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1933 All-Star Game.

I say “sometimes numbered” because the same 45 cards are also numbered 1-43 (plus two unnumbered), reflecting either a clever marketing move to co-brand this series as a standalone or just an oops by someone who forgot numbers 1-180 were already spoken for.

On top of that, the sequencing of the 43 numbered cards comes in the exact opposite order of their 181-223 counterparts. For example, here is my version of the Hubbell card, numbered 16 instead of 208, which of course is the 16th number counting backward from 223.

Card footers no longer mention TCMA, which I take to mean Renata Galasso was either producing these cards solo or experimenting with new vendors. Perhaps connected to the absence of TCMA, the quality of the cards drops off some with centering/miscut issues and minor typos being the main culprits.

The sixth and final series was released in 1984 and commemorated highlights and records. One of my favorite cards in the set provides a much sharper image of Jackie Robinson than his 1948 Sport Thrills card, even as both cards drew from the same George Burke photo.

As with the fifth series, quality falls short of the first four series. Look closely at the Robinson card, and you’ll see the name and caption are poorly centered relative to his portrait. This proves to be the case for the majority of the cards. This final series also includes a “BILL MAZEROWSKI” UER and the awkward Koufax caption “PITCHES 4TH NO HITTERS.”

There are also some really bad looking photos, especially compared to the earlier cards. For example, compare the elegant Mays from Series One to the practically reptilian Mantle of Series Six.

Finally, there is notable drift from the original 1960 Leaf design that inspired the set. Photos now are more squared off, the big letters have gotten smaller, and the small letters have gotten bigger. The resemblance is still there though perhaps more amateur.

The final two series are the hardest to find, a sign of declining production and sales. That no Series Seven or Eight was ever produced affirms the reduced interest in sets of this kind. We had reached the mid-1980s after all. Collectors now preferred future Hall of Famers to actual Hall of Famers, but why not! What could King Carl do to make his cards go up in value? Certainly not win 400 games like Dwight Gooden would!

Even where some collectors still wanted old-time stars for pocket change, there was no shortage of color offerings to choose from, including a gorgeous Dick Perez collaboration from Donruss in 1983 and various other Perez-Steele offerings that had gained popularity with autograph hounds.

Regardless of its flaws, its waning popularity, and its uselessness in funding my retirement (I just picked up the “tough” Series Five for $0.99 plus shipping), the 270-card “Decade Greats” set, also called “Glossy Greats,” will always be a favorite of mine.

It is a set that might have seemed lazy at the time, an unimaginative reboot of a set from two decades earlier. What we didn’t know then is just how ahead of its time that was…Heritage before Heritage if you ask me!

Extra for experts

The 1977-84 Renata Galasso Decade Greats set is a relatively early example of “Heritage before Heritage,” but it’s certainly not the only example or even the first. Go back six years and Allstate Insurance (of course!) put together a small set evoking the 1933 Goudey design. Here is the Ted Williams card from the set.

One could perhaps even consider the 1955 Topps Double Header issue a reboot of the 1911 Mecca Double Folders (T201) design, even as the cards differ in many ways visually.

There is also enough similarity across many tobacco issues that perhaps one could regard just about any of the sets Heritage-style remake of some other from a couple years earlier, though I would argue here that this is less about paying homage and more about paying less!

I’m curious what your examples are of early Heritage before Heritage. Ideally the visual match would be strong and the difference between the sets would be a good decade or more. Let me know in the Comments, either here or on Twitter.

Solving the border crisis

A common complaint among vintage collectors who run across newer issues is that we miss the good old days when baseball cards had borders. Looking at cards like these 2017 Astros leaves us feeling (ahem!)…cheated.

The borders we overlooked as kids have come to symbolize all that was right about baseball cards. Joni Mitchell had us pegged. You really DON’T know what you’ve got till it’s gone. No, we’d never pave Paradise to put up a parking lot, but we sure wouldn’t mind a thin cement edge around it.

The borders on our cards have taken on almost a spiritual significance with “meaning of life” level implications. We ponder koans such as, “Is a card without a border even a card?”

The sages teach us that without nothing there could be no something. Cardboardismically speaking, the border is the yin to the image’s yang. Form needs outline.

The vintage collector therefore must find “border in the chaos,” else risk serenity and sanity alike. Should he even consider collecting cards post-2015, his best, nay ONLY, option is Heritage!

Whatever you hear on TV, friends, THIS is the real border crisis, but fear not…

Tengo un plan para eso…and it won’t even raise your taxes! (Checks new eBay policy. “Okay, so maybe a little.”)

Add just THREE CARDS to your collection and you’re gonna win on borders so much you’ll be tired of winning on borders.

1960 Fleer ted williams

Let’s start with Ted Williams. Compare his 1960 Fleer card with that of Hack Wilson or any other player in the set. That’s some serious border! Where some perfectly centered cards are said to have 50-50 centering, Teddy Ballgame comes in at 150-150!

Back in the day you might have found this card an eyesore, but that was then. Now you probably look at the card and wish the borders were even bigger!

1936-37 World wide gum Lou Gehrig

The second must-have for the border hoarder is the 1936-37 World Wide Gum card of Lou Gehrig. (Note that this issue is catalogued as 1936, but Matthew Glidden makes a compelling case that 1936-37 is more correct.)

At first you may shrug away Larrupin’ Lou’s border as nothing special, no different than that of teammate Dickey. Look closer though and you’ll see that Gehrig’s image comes to a refreshing end more than a quarter inch from the card edge. After unremarkable offerings in 1933 and 1934, World Wide Gum definitely put the Border in “North of the Border!”

1934 Butterfinger Paul Waner

Finally we come to the 1934 Butterfinger card of Paul Waner, the card that I believe sets the standard when it comes to border-to-image ratio.

While the Dizzy Dean image from the same issue flirts tantalizingly close to the card edge, the Waner card has more margin than Gould selling hammers to the Pentagon. If the card had any more border we might forget it was a baseball card altogether and assume it was a Home Depot paint sample for Gotham Gray. If Big Poison were any smaller on the card he would have been Little Poison.

Teddy Ballgame, the Iron Horse, and Big Poison. Three players who made the Hall of Fame by a wide margin, but even more importantly, three cards who made the wide margin Hall of Fame. Border crisis averted, at least for now.

A 1943 mini-mystery 79% solved

In a previous article I detailed the 1949 M.P. & Company baseball set and paired up each of its 24 cards with their recycled artwork from the original 1943 issue. For example, the Del Ennis below comes from the 1949 set and reuses the same art, Giants uniform and all, as the Carl Hubbell from the 1943 set.

A question I only barely touched on, largely because I had no answer, was where the artwork for the 1943 cards came from. The closest I came was in speculating that Vander Meer’s artwork may have been based on a 1938 press photo due to his wearing number 57 on the card.

The Standard Catalog is equally mum on the artwork’s origins, noting only that “the cards feature crude color drawings that have little resemblance to the player named,” a sentiment echoed by the minds at PSA:

“The cards were produced as crudely drawn cartoons presented in bold colors, but show little resemblance to the players themselves.”

Perhaps I would have dug deeper someday but chances are I would have gone to my grave believing a cartoonist somewhere simply drew generic baseball men and attached the names of famous players to them. Then I got an email from fellow collector Jack Q. Spooner.

Jack’s message immediately grabbed my attention with this photo of Johnny Vander Meer.

Not only did the picture include Vander Meer’s 1938 uniform number, but EVERYTHING in this Charles Conlon (!) photograph matched up to Vandy’s 1943 M.P. & Pressner card.

Contrary to my press photo guess, Jack identified the Vander Meer photo as a Baseball Magazine Player Poster, designated M114 by Jefferson Burdick and released in 1938.

Had Jack’s email stopped there it would have already been one of the highlights of my inbox this year, but it kept right on going. Here is what Jack sent me for Mel Ott.

Not only did Jack match the Ott card to his M114, this one from 1933, but he even showed a match to Ott’s subsequent 1946-47 Propagandas Montiel card.

Then I opened the attachment Jack included with his message. You can probably guess where this is going.

Sure enough, Jack had supplied M114 matches for 19 of the 24 cards in the 1943 set. The only players missing from the match were Bill Dickey, Stan Hack, Tommy Henrich, Lou Novikoff, and Pee Wee Reese.

While there are other possibilities I now picture that the M.P. & Company artist had these posters in front of him (or her) when sketching the 1943 card set. Only one fact makes this seem improbable, at least at first. The Vander Meer poster was five years old, and the Ott poster was ten years old. Unless someone was a collector, where would all these posters come from?

The answer is that while the Baseball Magazine M114 issue was released more or less continuously from 1910 to 1957, nearly all posters remained available until sold out. In other words, anyone with about two dollars to spend could have ordered all 19 of the posters shown just about anytime, for example in late 1942 or early 1943.

For fun we’ll take a look at when each of the posters in this article were first released. I’ll also include the non-matches in yellow for completeness. (For reasons I’ll save for the Comments if asked, there is some uncertainty to the entire exercise but not enough to worry about unduly.)

Before proceeding I’ll note the asterisk for Johnny Mize is that the Standard Catalog, at least my Fifth Edition (2015), lists his only M114 posters as from 1937 and 1946. However, since his “match” poster shows him with the Giants, we know it can’t be from 1937. Likewise, since the M.P. & Company set came out in 1943, we know the source poster can’t be from 1946. Because the M114 checklist is known to be incomplete and because Mize joined the Giants in 1942, I feel confident his source poster was issued that year.

When I got through Jack’s email it was KILLING me that five of the 24 M.P. & Company cards were left unmatched. In his message, Jack had indicated to me that he had already checked the M114 posters for four of them and confirmed the non-matches. Thanks to the unbelievable online gallery hosted by Doug Goodman, I was able to track down the fifth one (Novikoff) as well. Here they are next to their 1943 cardboard.

At the moment, then, the mystery of where the 1943 M.P. & Company artwork came from appears to be 79% solved. I would love it if any of you can solve the rest of the mystery by tracking down the source photos for these final cards. That said, 79% isn’t a bad place to be considering I was at 0% yesterday!

Quick note: The original version of this article included speculation that the M114 posters of other players could have been the source for the five “missing” players. That was before I found Doug Goodman’s flickr site and reviewed all 961 posters from his collection. None matched the missing five.

TWENTY-FOUR HOURS LATER

I still haven’t found photo matches for the missing five players, though I’ve gone down than more than my share of rabbit holes in the 24 hours since this article was first published. While I came up completely empty in terms of photo sources I did find some images that at least came close in some instances.

While you might imagine bottomless searches through the archives of the Sporting News or newspapers.com, it turns out that these images were right in front of my nose the whole time. I know these aren’t really correct, but they sure looked good to me through the eyes of desperation!

And while we’re at it, who’s that guy batting behind Pee Wee Reese? He sure looks a lot like Hank Greenberg! 😄

A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the New Millennium

Starting in the late 1980s, I can no longer remember the year of Topps base card sets from simply eyeballing the design.  For the most part, I can only give you a ballpark estimation of the year based on the player.  This stems from buying the factory sets, sorting, putting them in binders, and immediately archiving them in the card closet.

Contributing to this “one and done” approach to collecting modern cards is my curmudgeonly insistence that current designs are either lame or too similar from one year to the next.  To try and break from my “old school” mindset, I took a fresh look at each of the sets from the first decade of the 2000s.  What follows is one old curmudgeon’s ranking of the cards based solely on design.

Bringing up the rear of the decade rankings is 2007.  This one falls in my pet peeve wheelhouse by using foil lettering. The letters are very difficult to read, due to insufficient contrast, which renders the whole purpose of identifying players and teams moot.  Also, what is with the corner dots?  They remind me of the test pattern from the field of vision test I routinely take as part of my glaucoma treatment. The black borders are acceptable but not the “day-glow” green statistics box on the back.  The entirety of design is a complete “excrement show.”

2001 falls into awful category as well.  First off, this is the 50th Anniversary year for Topps. A design that paid homage to Topps past glories seems like a logical approach.  Instead we get teal borders and gold foil lettering!  Teal?  You’ve got to be kidding me!  Sy Berger would have turned over in his grave had he been dead at the time.

At number eight I present 2002 in all its “puke” gold glory.  This is not an attractive color.  It reminds me of the color of my first car, a 1972 four-door Plymouth Valiant with a black vinyl top. Also, are the ribbons supposed to be “gonfalons” floating in the stadium breeze?  Well, the gonfalon bubble burst, and the design is weighty with nothing but trouble. “Stinky (Davis)-to-Stanky-to-Sauer”

2000 and 2006 both suffer from the foil legibility issue, but 2006 gets props for including a cartoon on the back instead of a photo.  Do we really need photos on the back?  This generally means fewer statistics and limited or no biographical information.  How are kids supposed to who led the Sally League in triples in 1998?

Topps stepped up its game in 2005 by introducing white borders and team names, utilizing team word marks. But, why did they put only the player’s last name in bold letters at the top? The vertical placement of the players position is weird as well.  Kudos for having lengthy biographical material.

2009 has some positive elements such white borders and logo placement, but the hard to read foil “foils” the overall aesthetic.

Because it harkens back to past sets, I like the 2003 set with the picture-in-picture look.  If only Topps had used black and white photos with poorly airbrushed logos like 1963, it would be the winner.  The back has most of the good elements, apart from a cartoon.

I must admit that 2004 is a great look.  The team name in foil is very visible against the white background.  I love the drawing of a player representing the position of the person on the card.

As nice as the design is in 2004, it must take runner up status to the “Curmudgeon Cup” winning 2008 design.  The alternating color balls at the top-forming the team name-is simultaneously innovative and retro.  The white borders help draw the eye to the team name as well.  Also, the facsimile signature warms the soil of the vintage collector.  The biggest downside is the lack of the player’s position on the front.

Before you fill up the comments section with vitriol and torch me on Twitter, there is a strong “tongue-in-check” element to this post.  I am not inclined to defend my choices, since I have no strong attachment to this era’s cards.  I will leave you with this though: “Get off my lawn, Topps, and bring back burlap and wood paneled borders!”

Bowman’s encore performance

The first Bowman baseball card sets might technically be considered the 1939-41 Play Ball sets produced by Gum, Inc. However, the first baseball cards to use the Bowman name were released in 1948.

The 48-card set used black and white photographs and looked very much like miniaturized versions of its 1939 Play Ball predecessor.

Bowman followed up its 1948 offering with a set five times the size. The appearance of the cards differed from the 1948 cards primarily in using color over the player images and using one of several solid colors for the background. The backs also used color ink.

Bowman changed things up again in 1950. Player images used a fuller color palette and backgrounds were quite remarkable in their mix of color and detail. Among full-color baseball card sets, this was almost certainly the most lifelike one ever produced.

When the 1951 season rolled around collectors had been treated to fresh, if not revolutionary, new designs each of the past two years. How could Bowman possibly keep the wheels of progress turning? What would they do for an encore? Would the 1951 cards be 3-D? Scratch and sniff? (Let’s hope not!) True color photographs? Let’s take a look.

Well those cards sure look familiar, don’t they? Aside from adding names and making the cards taller, Bowman seemed content to put out more or less the same product as the year before.

In almost all cases, Bowman (or rather their artists at the George Moll Advertising Agency) employed a standard formula for turning the 1950 images into the 1951 images.

The 1950 image was enlarged about 25%, its full height was used, and excess width on each side was discarded, possibly unevenly. For players whose 1950 Bowman card used a landscape image, Bowman took an analogous approach.

Having just written about the laziest set ever, the thought crossed my mind that 1951 Bowman might at least warrant a seat at that table. However, reuse of prior images, and generic ones at that, was employed by MP & Company for its entire 1949 set, while reused Bowman images were at least based on actual player photos and in fact made up barely a third of the total set.

118 of the 1951 Bowman set’s 324 cards featured repeated players and images from the year before, such as the six I’ve shown. (See this article’s Appendix for a link to the full list.) I should note here that I’m referring to repeated source images, even if modifications were made to reflect team changes. For example, this Peanuts Lowrey card is counted among my tally of reused images.

Another 116 cards were of players who had no card at all in the 1950 release, including these two particularly famous ones.

Finally, there were 90 repeated players from the 1950 set whose cards used new images. While I’ve chosen two superstars to illustrate the point, it’s not evident to me that star power was a primary factor in selecting which players would receive image makeovers…

…nor was the player’s position on the checklist. For those of you with Ted Williams 20/10 vision or really large computer monitors, I’ve plotted the entire checklist using the color scheme from the pie chart (e.g., the top row of blue dots represents repeated players with new images.)

As much as I was hoping to spot a pattern, the dots strike me as largely random other than the unsurprising clustering of brand new players in the set’s final three series.

While my research into the set didn’t turn up any big find, there was at least one card pair that I was glad to stumble upon, not because it confirms any particular theory I had but because it does the opposite.

At first glance these Eddie Lake cards appear a lot like the landscape cards of Mueller, Kerr, and Snider that I showcased earlier. However, a closer look at Lake’s rear end on the 1950 card shows it just about (ahem) butting up against the card edge while the 1951 card leaves room for a sliver more of infield dirt. Likewise the 1951 card shows (nearly) full bodies of two players in the background while the 1950 card barely shows more than one.

These are minor details, but they are enough to illustrate that not all repeated artwork followed the simple crop strategy I showed earlier. In Lake’s case, previously unseen elements were added to the card whereas all earlier examples only showed elements subtracted. Had Bowman followed the standard formula, the result would have been the Fake Lake on the right instead of the Honest Eddie on the left.

Admittedly, I’d be a bigger fan of the 1951 Bowman set had it used all new images rather than recycling more than a third of them. Still, the subtle differences in the reused images–the cropping necessary to produce a new aspect ratio, the occasional team/uniform updates, and the bonus art of the Lake card–provide ample reason to take some of these cards out for a second look, an encore if you will.

Take a Bow…man!

Appendix

Want to do your own comparisons? I’ve created a Google Sheet with the 118 cards from the 1951 set that recycled images from the 1950 set.

Origins of the laziest baseball card set ever

At first glance the 1949 MP & Company baseball set is simply…how shall I say this? Ugly.

And lest you think the card designers were saving all their mojo for the backs of the cards, let me disabuse you of that notion before we go any further.

Still, ugly ≠ lazy, and even if it did I suspect many of you could find uglier sets out there somewhere. (See any set with “metal” in the name.)

To understand the 1949 MP & Company baseball set as the laziest set ever, it’s important to know it had a predecessor six years earlier. Here are two cards from the 1943 release.

I know some of you still aren’t convinced. After all, other sets have reused prior card designs and fared quite well in the minds of collectors. It’s just that the 1949 MP & Company cards took recycling to a whole new level. For instance, here are the 1943 cards of Danning and Medwick.

Scroll up the page and you’ll note more than just a passing resemblance to the 1949 cards of Berra and Pesky. In fact, every one of the 24 cards in the 1949 set is a retread of a card issued six years earlier. Here are each of the 1949 cards (yellow rows), a few at a time, matched to their corresponding 1943 versions (red rows).

Cards 100-102

While Boudreau and Williams are repeated from set to set, we see that Yankees pitcher Ernie Bonham becomes Giants shortstop Buddy Kerr.

CARDS 103, 105, 106

The next three cards in the sets are pure repeats of their earlier issues, though Joe DiMaggio’s cap and sleeves, along with the fielder’s garb, appear to have changed from white to light blue.

Cards 107-109

All three players are different in this next grouping. Hank Greenberg’s playing days were over by 1949, so he instead becomes Ferris Fain. That they batted with opposite hands was not a detail that would trouble the set designers. Turning Lou Novikoff into Andy Pafko required little effort and made good use of the Cubs uniform already there. The change from Hubbell to Ennis was a bit more gauche as it not only got the glove hand wrong but also put the Phillies star in a Giants uniform.

Cards 110-112

First up is a slugger-for-slugger trade that works well as both are righties and the uniforms are fairly generic. Next up are the two brothers and battery mates from the Cardinals. Pitcher Mort becomes shortstop Nippy Jones while catcher Walker morphs into fellow catcher Del Rice. As Jones and Rice were both Cardinals, the uniforms are good as is.

Cards 113-115

Mize to Sauer is another example of a lefty turning righty while Reiser to Coan works just fine. Small liberties are taken in shortstop Joost inheriting a classic pitcher’s pose from Ruffing.

Cards 116, 117, and 119

The Alvin Dark card is worth attention and not just because nobody expected this Giant to be the second coming of Mel Ott! Unless the 1949 release has been incorrectly catalogued all these years, we have our first instance of “Cardboard Clairvoyance” since Dark did not move from the Braves to the Giants until December 14, 1949, a date presumed to be later than the set’s release.

Berra from Danning is one we’ve already seen, and it generally works, apart from looking nothing like Yogi Berra. Of course, collectors wanting more lifelike images were welcome to buy Bowman instead.

Meanwhile, Lemon from Hack is another with a story. Stan Hack played his entire career as a Cub, so the Chicago uniform makes sense, just not when it goes onto Bob Lemon, who played his entire career with Cleveland. Though the MP & Company sets don’t scream “quality control” when you look at them, high ranking execs found this error too great to let stand, leading to the only major variation in the 1949 set.

No word on why Bob’s face turned blue in the process unless to show he’d been screaming for the corrected jersey till he was…oh, never mind.

Cards 121-123

The left-handed hitting Johnny Pesky inherits a right-handed stance from Joe Medwick while Cronin-for-Sain works out even if the “Boston” on their uniforms were from two different teams. As with the Pesky-Medwick pairing, Hoot Evers is forced to bat wrong-handed thanks to inheriting his artwork form Dolph Camilli.

Card 124 and un-numbered cards

The last numbered card in the 1949 set is card 124, Larry Doby, who is shown throwing with the wrong hand thanks to the recycled Johnny Vander Meer artwork his card was based on. You’ll also notice both players wearing uniform number 57.

While Vander Meer wore number 33 from 1939-1949, he did in fact wear 57 in 1938 when he threw his consecutive no-hitters. Though much of the artwork in the 1943 set feels very generic, we can at least wonder if the artist may have been looking at a 1938 press photo when drawing Vander Meer’s MP & Company card. Either way, neither 33 nor 57 would have been a match for Doby, who wore either 14 or 37 at the time his card was produced.

Following Vander Meer is Tommy Henrich, a repeated player from the 1943 set. While none of the 1943 cards were numbered, Henrich’s 1949 card is one of only three un-numbered cards in the 1949 set. A second un-numbered card is that of second baseman Al Kozar, who must have struggled mightily to play his position in full catcher’s gear!

The last un-numbered card in the 1949 set is Jimmie Foxx. As his final season was 1945, I don’t have any theory for how Foxx cracked the 1949 set. His presence is particularly puzzling in that he gives the set 25 cards, despite numerous accounts that the set was released as three strips of eight cards each. (See this auction listing for an example of a 1943 uncut strip.)

Noting the very low population counts on the 1949 Foxx, I wonder if the card was released somewhat by accident (“Oh, shoot! He retired? Seriously?”) and then replaced by another player.

MP & Company gets even lazier!

Thus far we have focused solely on the fronts of the cards. Now let’s take a look at the card backs of each player who had cards in both 1943 and 1949. First here is Lou Boudreau, fresh off managing the Cleveland Indians to the 1948 World Series title. Easy as it might be to note that accomplishment, the 1949 card simply repeats the 1943 card back verbatim.

Next up is the Splendid Splinter. There are some subtle wording differences between the two bios but nothing substantive. Oddly, the most significant update is changing the spelling of Francis to Frances. Of course, Ted’s middle name was Samuel, but what the heck! (For whatever reason, you will find Theodore Francis Williams in several other contemporary sources including his 1940 Play Ball card. Also head to post #21 in this Net54 thread for even more Williams misspellings/variations in the MP & Company sets.)

Next up is Bob Feller, and you probably think you know the drill by now. Still, even I was surprised to see the on both cards that “Feller is 24 years old.”

Batting clean-up is the Yankee Clipper, centerfielder…I mean rightfielder (?!)…for the New York Yankees. Again, the 1949 bio is stuck in 1943. (Technically, both bios are current through the end of the 1942 regular season since they ignore New York’s loss to St. Louis in the 1942 World Series.)

Pee Wee Reese is next. His 1949 bio shows the biggest change thus far, omitting the opening line about being with the Dodgers for three years. Still, I bet Pee Wee would have preferred to see a revision to his batting average instead since his 1949 card still had his career mark at at very pee wee .244 when in fact he had raised it to .265.

Next to last of the repeated players is Tommy Henrich. While some of his bio has been removed, nothing new has been added.

The final repeated player in the set is Jimmie Foxx. Again, part of the bio has been omitted but nothing new has been added.

Cardboard ancestry OF the 1949 set

As has been shown in great detail, the immediate ancestor of the 1949 set is the 1943 set, right down to the reuse of all 24 player images. However, as amateur as the cards look, you’d be wrong to conclude that they represented a one-off (sorry, two-off) effort that just showed up in 1943 out of thin air.

Just one year earlier, MP & Company issued its “War Scenes” set, a collection of 48 cards numbered 101-148 and featuring similar comic book style art to the baseball issues.

Between the “War Scenes” set and a “War Gum” set from Gum, Inc., the makers of the 1939-41 Play Ball (and later Bowman) sets, 1942 was a great year for Admiral Nimitz supercollectors.

Interestingly the 1942 set was not the only time MP & Company had the same idea as Gum, Inc. Here is a card from the 1935-37 Gum, Inc., set known as “G-Men and Heroes of the Law.”

And here is a card from a 1936 set known as “Government Agents vs Public Enemies.” The copyright line on the card back identifies “M. Pressner & Co.,” which is simply a long form of MP & Company.

Interestingly, the earliest collectibles produced by MP & Company are hardly knock-offs at all but at least in my opinion nearly 20 years ahead of their time.

Yes, these Ruth and Gehrig photos fall somewhere short of striking, but good chance they were developed by a ten-year-0ld kid! That’s right, MP & Company’s first collectible I could track down is a 1930 set of eight “Ray-O-Print” photos that kids produced themselves from a kit that included negatives and photo paper.

Though the technology would differ, I believe the next time kids could develop their own baseball photos from a pack would be 1948 in a set that would quietly mark the baseball card debut of the small company that would soon come to be synonymous (if not hegemonic) with baseball cards.

1948 Topps “Magic Photos”

Another ancestor I’ll offer, though not blood related, is the 1933 Eclipse Import baseball set. Between the artwork, the card backs, and even the oddball numbering scheme, this set seems to have everything in common with the 1943/1949 MP & Company sets. What’s more, the two companies were only a block apart!

The final ancestor of the MP & Company cards is the American Caramel E91 series. As Anson Whaley details on his Prewar Cards website, each piece of player art is used for up to three different players across the three-year issue’s 99 cards. If you know your deadball era hurlers well, you might also notice another detail reminiscent of MP & Company: Rube Marquard has his glove on the wrong hand.

In truth, the E91 cards from American Caramel make a credible run at laziest set ever, but I still give the nod to 1949 MP & Company since at least the American Caramel cards batted 1.000 on updating teams and uniforms whereas the MP & Company cards barely even bothered.

Just who are these guys?

The MP in “MP & Company” stands for Michael Pressner. The name suggests the proprietor would be a person named Michael Pressner, but I’ve personally come up short in my attempts to find such a person beyond this bowling team photo from 1895…

…and a skin care consultant in Virginia! I can see some resemblance between the two, but that’s not to say either has any link to MP & Company.

What is known is that MP & Company was a producer of carnival supplies. No, not Ferris wheels and bumper cars but the sorts of trinkets you might win at Skee Ball. This ad from 1927 gives you the general idea…

And this 1974 catalog shows the firm was still in business a good quarter century after their 1949 baseball release.

In fact this notice of product recall shows MP & Company alive and well as late as 1995!

Finally, I suspect MP & Company had some relation to Pressner’s Carnival Mart, a 1960s version of “Party City” just outside New Orleans. If you’re thinking Mardi Gras beads, you’d be correct, as we learn from this January 1969 article.

This could go on a ways, but you can see we’re drifted pretty far from baseball cards already. I’ll just close by noting that I wrote most of this post over Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and that for many of us the New Year is a time of hope and renewal. At the same time, what many of us find is that our “new” years look a lot like our old years, save some occasional new names and faces around us.

In the world of baseball cards, 1949 was one such year. There were some goodbyes. There were some hellos. But when you put that set together it looked exactly the one before it. Lazy and ugly, yes, but also familiar, which we sometimes need just as much as newness and beauty. And besides, spring was just around the corner.

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.

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.