They Literally Don’t Make Cards the Way They Used To

When a collector says that they don’t make baseball cards like they used to they’re saying more than they likely realize. This article shows the unique antiquated methods by which 1800s baseball cards were printed, and how early baseball cards, fine art and photography overlap.

Printed baseball cards as original artworks

Today, we take for granted the photorealistic images printed on and in everything from baseball cards to calendars to posters to magazines. We can even make our own, using our digital cameras, scanners and phones and home computer printers. As many know, this ‘halftone photomechanical’ printing method translates the image, whether it is of a photo for a 1975 Topps card or a painting for 1953 Topps, into a fine minute dot pattern. You can see the dot pattern under strong magnification, and it is this fine pattern that make the images look realistic from normal eye distance.

1700s engraving print shop
1700s engraving print shop

However, in the centuries old history of printing this halftone reproduction of photographic images is relatively modern. It was invented in the 1870s, but not used commercially until the turn of the 20th century. Before then, photorealistic images in ink and printing press prints were not possible. If you look at the pictures in 1800s newspapers, magazines and books, the pictures are often attractive but resemble hand drawn sketches. If you examine them under magnification you will see that they are made up of solid lines and marks.

Original Rembrandt self portrait etching
Original Rembrandt self portrait etching

In the fine arts, antiques and antiquities world, “handmade prints” or “original prints” are prints where the graphics were made directly onto the printing plate by the artist or craftsman by hand or handheld tools. This is the way Rembrandt, Albrecht Durer and modern artists such as Picasso, Renoir and Chagall made their original prints that hang on museum walls. Handmade prints are considered the highest form of printmaking, and are considered as original of artworks as paintings and sculptures.

This handmade way is also the way early baseball cards and related baseball ephemera (posters, tobacco albums advertising signs, Spalding and Reach guide illustrations, etc) were made. With handmade lithography, such as with the 1880s Allen & Ginters and many trade cards, the graphics were made onto the printing stone by brush, pens and special handheld tools. These lithographs resemble little paintings, even up close, and are prized by collectors for their beauty and brilliant colors. With woodcut, woodengraving and intaglio (engraving, etching) prints, such as with the Harper’s Woodcuts, 1885 Red Sox Tobacco cards and numerous trade cards. the graphics were cut or carved into wood blocks or metal plates. This was a long and laborious processes and publishers and card issuers employed professional artists and craftsmen.

So when you own an 1800s Allen & Ginter or Goodwin Champions cigarette card, baseball trade card, advertising sign or Harper’s Woodcut, realize that you own a handmade artwork that pre-dates modern reproduction methods and it is as original as the Rembrandt or Picasso that hangs in the Louvre.

* * * *

1800s real photo cards

Beyond the ink-and-printing press trading cards, the other 1800s baseball cards are actual photographs. This includes the 1880s Old Judges, Gypsy Queens, Peck & Sniders, Lone Jacks, Newsboy Cabinets and other cards with photorealistic images.

Again, this was before printing presses could reproduce photorealistic images. The only way baseball card manufacturers could produce cards with photorealistic images of the players was to issue actual photographs.

112652a_lg
1875 engraved trade card

Real photo images are created via the chemical interaction of sunlight and photochemicals, so there is no printed dot or ink pattern even under the microscope. This is part of the way these baseball cards are authenticated. If an Old Judge or Gypsy Queen image has a dot pattern, you know that it is a reprint.

These photo cards were made with an early photographic process called albumen. This was the standard paper photographic process of the day and most paper photos of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, Queen Victoria and such are albumen. As an antique and commercially discontinued process, the following are some of the interesting aspects of the process and baseball cards:

— The albumen photopaper was extremely thin and fragile and would roll up like a cigarette with time, so it had to be pasted to cardboard backing. You will see that the 1800s photocards have cardboard backing and cabinet cards are by definition a photographic print pasted to a larger cardboard backing. As the paper shrank over time (causing the cigarette to roll if unbacked), many N172 Old Judges have a noticeable bow. You will occasionally find “skinned” cards, where the albumen photo was peeled off from the backing. As you would expect, these are graded as poor.

— Albumen means egg whites, and that is what was used to affix the photochemicals to photopaper. Photographic paper needs a clear substance to hold the chemicals to the paper and to allow the images to develop. 1800s photopaper manufacturers owned large chicken farms to produce all that albumen. By the 1900s gelatin had replaced albumen.

1886-red-stocking-cigars
Woodengraving 1886 Red Stocking Cigars Hoss Radbourn

— Albumen photos and baseball cards are well known for their old fashioned sepia tones. This was a product of aging, and the images were originally much closer to black-and-white with some purplish tones. You will occasionally find a well preserved example with the original tones.

— Almost all 1800s real photo baseball cards are posed studio images, either portraits or fake action photos. The posed action shots often have painted backdrops, rugs as fake grass on wooden floors and balls hanging from strings. It is sometimes comical. This is all because it was not possible to to make instant

A pink Old Judge card
A pink Old Judge card

snapshots, much less live game action shots. The subjects had to stay perfectly still or the image would be blurry. In many American Civil War photographs, when the required exposure time needed was even longer, you will often see props and stands behind the standing soldier used to keep him still.

— A rarely used method of adding color dye to the photopaper was invented in the 1880s. Though possible to find blue and yellow albumen photographs, pink was technically the easiest to make and you will see a number of pink Old Judge cards. The down side of this novelty color is that the pink cards are usually underdeveloped.

1888 Goodwin Champions King Kelly
1888 Goodwin Champions King Kelly

— Realize that in the 1800s, many people who lived outside of the big cities followed the big teams and stars in the newspapers and magazines but never saw the games, much less the players, in person. Before television, easy travel and magazines with realistic pictures, pulling an Old Judge or Gypsy Queen photographic card from a pack of cigarettes was often a fan’s first time seeing what a star such as King Kelly or Cap Anson really looked like. It was akin to meeting the player in person.

———–

David Cycleback is an internationally known art and artifacts scholar who grew up collecting baseball cards and following the Milwaukee Brewers. He can be emailed at cycleback@cycleback.com

 

A F*ck Face Story for the Holidays

Soon after the 1989 Fleer baseball cards were released, word spread that there was an obscenity on Billy Ripken’s bat. In those pre-Internet days, every article, whether in the hobby mags or regular newspapers, spoke of the “obscenity,” but what that obscenity was was a mystery to me. The mainstream press wouldn’t actually use the term, and there was no way to find out. At least I didn’t know how to find out, unless I got the card.

Getting the card seemed harder than you’d think. I couldn’t find packs anywhere and it was clear that when the set came in the mail (I’d order all the base sets back then), I’d end up with a corrected card. It was pretty frustrating.

Karen and I were already living in Buffalo Grove, Illinois in the spring of ’89. We’d moved to Chicago in early ’87 and headed to the suburbs the following year. It must’ve been a Saturday morning that I had to drive to the Jewel. On the way home I stopped for gas at the Amoco (I’m pretty sure it was an Amoco) at the corner of Buffalo Grove and 83 (McHenry Rd). I filled up and went inside to pay. No futuristic credit card readers at the pumps, kids, these were primitive times.

Before paying I scanned the candy racks and there, with the lid torn off, was a full box of 1989 Fleer! What the hell? Of all place to find some cards, let alone a full box. I grabbed it and brought it home.

Maybe I’d already told Karen about the Ripken card. Maybe I explained the whole story as I put the box on the dining room table. Either way, my idea was that we’d both open all the packs, the quickest route to finding out what the fuss was all about. We started.

Pack after pack was opened, wrappers placed in a pile between us. Early hopes led to sudden fears and, as the amount of unopened packs dwindled to the last few, I was getting nervous and angry.  I have no idea what a single pack of cards went for in 1989 but a whole box of them was a pretty big waste of money if the Ripken didn’t turn up. I was already getting the set. I didn’t need a pile of doubles.

I opened one of my final packs, head down, shuffling through the 15 cards (and sticker).

_3“F*ck face?” Karen said with equal bits of surprise and smile.

She’d gotten it! Yup, f*ck face. Of all the obscenities, f*ck face? What a ridiculous thing to write on the knob of a bat. It was hysterical to see – f*ck face. Karen did it!

By the time the set arrived in the mail, f*ck face had been obscured in a variety of ways – black box, black scribble, white scribble, white out. I think I have a black box variation. Who cares though, it was f*ck face that mattered.

 

DEXTER PRESS/COCA-COLA CARDS 1966-68

Despite half a century of improvements in photography and printing — and just as many years’ worth of raised bars for what collectors consider ‘high end’ and what they’re willing to pay for it — it can still be argued that the Dexter Press baseball card sets of 1966-68 are the highest quality baseball cards ever printed. And just to make the set a little more interesting, about 400 unused negatives of photos the company took but never used on cards have just turned up.

1967clementereal
1967 Dexter Press

Dexter is best known for 228 (or by one definition, 229) 5-1/2” x 7” premiums it produced for Coca-Cola in 1967. Collectors opened bottles of Coke, Fanta, Fresca, Sprite or Tab to find black and white head shots of their local players or one of 25 All-Stars on the underside of the bottle caps, then glued them  into matching spaces on a “cap-saver sheet.” When your 35-cap sheet was finished you could trade it in for one set of 12 Dexter photos of your local team, or in non-major league areas, 12 All-Star photos. Even though some of us had enterprising fathers who figured out that the discarded caps from Coke bottles bought from vending machines were collected in a receptacle inside the machine (and that a dollar could get your corner store owner to stash a summer’s worth for you), the promotion still enabled a lot of cavities among eight-year olds (I had seven by September).

Coke and Dexter made sets of caps and photos for 18 of the 20 major league teams. The 1967 Angels and Cardinals were skipped for whatever reason, which is odd given that Dexter had gotten into the baseball card business the year before with a series of different-sized sets of Angels players. The best-known were slightly larger than a standard postcard (4” x 5-7/8”) and included 16 players plus a shot of brand new Anaheim Stadium, but Dexter also made smaller and larger versions of the player photos for sale inside the ballpark and in other unknown ways. At least one 1966 Angel, Paul Schaal, was produced in exactly the same size that would be used nationally a year later and is usually included in the 1967 checklist as a 229th card, although technically it’s debatable as to why it would belong with the ’67 set.

1968-dexter-press-frank-robinson
1968 Dexter Press

The company also made a 4” x 5-7/8” set for the 1967 Yankees, duplicating 10 players and images from the Coke set, which I can remember seeing on sale individually at the souvenir stands at the old Yankee Stadium. Dexter would also reprise the premium role for Coke in 1968, but with smaller (3-1/2 x 5-1/2), fewer (77), and less attractively-published postcards featuring a dozen players from each of six teams and five other players scattered among four teams.

1967morganreal
1967 Dexter Press

The quality of the 1966-67 printing is so good that the cards almost glow. This was evident even to us collectors of 50 years ago. You kept the Topps cards in boxes. You kept the glossy, shiny, richly colorful Coke cards displayed on a shelf or a bulletin board. It would later prove that this was Dexter’s selling point. Mention the company name to collectors of souvenirs from the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair and you’ll get nods of appreciation: Dexter was the official postcard supplier to the Fair, and those cards also glisten. Do an eBay search for “Dexter postcard” and you’ll find that the company based in the New York suburbs did high-quality work for restaurants and stores and businesses of all sort around the country, and came back in 1971 with another Yankees set and, later, the official postcards for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

As to 1967, counting the All-Stars there are cards of 32 Hall-of-Famers and many more greats of the era. One of the only complaints you could make is that all the poses are the same: portraits to the waist with the player’s hands at his sides or seemingly crossed near the belt, and his autograph superimposed over his head. Even that monotony earns style points when you see all of the cards together. Then as now, the repetition of the poses somehow made the photos look official.

1968-rocky-colavito
Rocky Colavito

The other complaint would have been that even if you lived somewhere where geographical definitions overlapped — say in New Jersey — and had access to trading in the right 140 bottle caps to get the sets of the Yankees, Mets, Phillies, and All-Stars, you would still have only 48 different cards compared to the 609 Topps would make that year. It bothered me then and it bothers me now and it made an item in a recent auction even more appealing to me: a collection of production materials from the Dexter sets, including dozens of the actual player autographs used (and many not used)

Jim Gentile
Jim Gentile

on the cards, still more autographs transferred onto clear plastic overlays, and what turned out to be about 500 negatives, around 400 of which showed players not included in the various Dexter sets.

In the last few days I’ve tweeted about a dozen of the rarer finds for the sake of other hobbyists like me who hunt the arcane combinations of obscure players

Alan Schmelz
Alan Schmelz

with teams they only spent a little time with: Rocky Colavito with the White Sox, Jim Gentile with the Phillies (he was cut during Spring Training) and the like. There are literally dozens of these, plus just as many minor leaguers who got no closer to the big leagues than spring training and the Dexter photographer. The company probably grabbed everybody who would agree to stand still for them, and so the image of Arizona State star and two-game Mets pitcher Alan Schmelz comes complete with a couple of Alan Schmelz autographs on ordinary note paper.

fullsizerender-4
Bruce Howard
1967-nick-willhite
Nick Willhite

And as always when the production materials for any card set are revealed there are inexplicable and/or rewarding quirks discovered. For instance, a Dexter negative showing Nick Willhite with the 1967 Angels implies that even though the company didn’t make a set of the Halos that year, they were seemingly prepared to. The variety of images from 1968 suggests that the second Coke Premium set was supposed to be much bigger: Dexter shot players from the A’s, Mets, Phillies, Reds, Senators, White Sox, and Yankees — and made no cards for any of those teams. And perhaps best of all, photo after photo shows why so many players look like they’re clasping their hands at their stomachs. They are holding ID slates with their own names on them!

Joe Rudi
Joe Rudi

DOUG McWILLIAMS: Baseball Card Photographer, Chronicler of Baseball History

You could talk about his 20-plus years setting the gold standard for baseball card photography as a lensman for Topps. Or his incredible collection of ephemera pertaining to the Oakland A’s. Or his friendship with Vida Blue and Willie McCovey. Or his amazing Zee-Nut baseball card collection of Oakland Oaks players from 1911-1939. Or the 11,000 negatives of his non-Topps work he donated to the Hall of Fame.

And you’d still come up short.

Meet Doug McWilliams, chronicler of baseball and American history. The Berkeley, CA, native has been photographing the national pastime since 1950. The trim, bearded 80-year-old (who looks as if he’s in his late 60s) recounted the day he was bitten by the bug in 1948:

doug-m-pcl-cards“I started listening on the radio to the Oakland Oaks baseball games. They had a little feature on there about the baseball cards they are giving away at Signal Oil and if you stop by your local gas station, they’ll give you a new card. They were in full color. I finally talked my father into taking me to one of the games. He wasn’t a fan of sports at all. We stopped by at a Signal oil gas station and I got a baseball card of a Ray Hamrick, who was a shortstop for the Oaks.

ray-hamrick-card259loWe got to the ballpark. It was evening and I got up to the top of the walkway and looked down on the field. It was all lit up. It looked like it was magic and saw down by the fence, there was Ray Hamrick signing autographs. I borrowed a fountain pen from my dad and ran down there and got him to sign it. I was hooked, hooked more on baseball cards than the game.”

I met Doug at a SABR event earlier this year, where I was presenting my last film about writer Arnold Hano. We happened to be sitting next to each other and introduced ourselves. I’m a baseball card hound since 1964, and I found his story fascinating. My latest project, “The Sweet Spot—A Treasury of Baseball Stories” features people from across the baseball spectrum, and Doug’s story fit the bill for an episode.

My cameraman, Otis, and I spent the better part of the day with Doug at his home, and I was awed by the baseball artifacts, relics and photography he had collected during his lifetime. I interviewed Doug extensively, covering his career shooting for Topps and love of the game.

“I got away from baseball when I was a kid because I went away to college and got married, joined the army, although I was a photographer in the army also. I just didn’t have time for it, but the A’s came to Oakland in 1968 and in 69, they had a picture day. I went down the field with my 35 millimeter Leica and flash bulbs and took pictures of the players as they came by. It reminded me of when I was a kid. I started going to the games and shooting out of the stands and got to know the players. Some of them wanted to buy pictures, too. At that point, I had already been a photographer at the University of California for 10 years almost. I knew I could do well because I’d been doing well. I just kept shooting out of the stands and pretty soon a guy came by, named Jim Mudcat Grant, who I had photographed as a kid probably 15 years before. He remembered me, which totally shocked me. He was with the A’s for a while. I did some pictures for him. He got traded to Pittsburgh and then he came back. The A’s told him to get some new PR pictures. He needed to make an appointment with their photographer.

Mudcat said, “Doug is going to do my pictures for the PR.” They said, “Who?”[laughs] I got my foot on the field for the first time through him. When he posed for me, I got the pictures up to the PR people and they approved them and use them. About that same time, Vida Blue was coming up in the September to show what he could do. He stayed with Mudcat. I did some pictures for Vida for his family. Well, the next year, which I guess was 71, I may have my dates mixed up, but he won the Cy Young and MVP both. He came to me and says, “I need postcards.” I’d been doing photographic postcards in black and white for quite a few of the A’s by that time. He says, “I want color.” I say, ”Well, what do you want a 100 or 200?” I was thinking photographically making them. I made my black and whites photographically. He says, “I get a 100 letters a day, I need lots of them.” The upshot was that I did three different printings for him, about 15,000 color postcards. All of them had my name and address down the center of the postcard back. One of them landed on the desk of Sy Berger at Topps in Brooklyn. Soon, I got a call from him, saying, “We like your work. Would you like to shoot for Topps?” I said, “Well, is the Pope Polish? I think I would.” [chuckling]

dm-topps-pass339loShooting for Topps was a side job for Doug, who spent his days working for UC Berkeley as an industrial photographer. But it was baseball that owned his heart, and every spring Doug would appear in Arizona to create the images that would enrapt children, and later, adults, across America. I asked him about the scope of work for those shoots.

“Take six posed pictures, everybody in full color, shoot 16 rolls at 36 exposure action during the games. The posed pictures were shot on Ektachrome, which is very difficult to shoot. You have to be right on the button or you’re in trouble exposure wise. The action film was in color negative, which is not quite as critical. The big problem early on was that lenses weren’t fast enough. They insisted on using 100 ASA film, which they thought gave better color. Also, I was instructed to photograph the player facing the sun with a shadow of the across their face and they told me that showed ruggedness and character. I, to myself thought it showed poor lighting. I never shot my own pictures that way. Why not turn the guy around, use flash film, you got the sun, coming from behind to separate him from the background and you get beautiful portraits of people.”

Did he have an assistant to keep track off all the players he shot? No.

“I devised a system where I had a roster sheet. I printed up my own and I’d have [the team name and] little stickers with all the numbers of the players on it. I could get two players per roll of 120 film on the posed shots and I’d pull off the sticker, put it on the roll when I was through and then put a piece of tape around it. Then, I’d send the roll off. It would have like number 3 or number 10. If they keep track of it at the processing place, then they’d know who’s on that roll.”

 “Some of the managers were extremely good to me. John McNamara and Dick Williams in particular … [Williams] managed about four of the teams that I shot in Arizona. He seemed to have been there my whole career. He would come up to me and say, “How’s it going?” He said, “You got everybody?” I’d say, “No I still need to get a few people.” He’d stand right beside me and call men off the field and make sure I got everybody. Occasionally, I’d have the San Diego Padres or the Seattle Mariners team shot by 11 o’clock and the game starts at 1 o’clock or so. Generally, I had to chase them down for hours and hours and come back another day. It was really nice to be helped that way by several of the people who knew me.”

Clearly, this is a bright guy with a strong work ethic. But what was it that made his photography so good?

“Well, I went to professional photo school. I went to a place called Brooks Institute doug-shoots-mccovey264loof Photography in Santa Barbara. I was a commercial illustration major, but we had portraiture also and we got the classical portraiture posing and that’s what I used. You just don’t have a guy stand up and look at you. I mean you give them some angle and angle his head and make it look correct, so he doesn’t have a broken neck. You shoot women one way and men another way just to feature them. I always shot a gray scale and a color chart every time I started because the lab could use that. I never saw other photographers doing that and that’s something I used to do at the University of California when I was shooting there. Quality: that’s the whole name of the game. I insist on having the best quality possible.”

reggie-on-deck2-dm114loOver the years, Doug formed friendships with some of the players, like Ted Kubiak, Willie McCovey, Vida Blue and Reggie Jackson. If he has a favorite, it might be Vida.

“I met him when he was a young 18-year-old kid and he was very friendly. I enjoyed that. He came to me to have some work done and he got me going as far as a second job. In an area that I just pinched myself that I actually had 24 years in the big leagues, 23 years actually shooting for Topps, but I made a lot of friends and I still have many friends that were baseball players. I keep in touch. I enjoy that.

Doug ended up shooting Vida’s wedding at Candlestick Park, where Willie McCovey was the best man.

“Willie McCovey was a special one. When he retired, he had a thing and had a special all-star game. He had a big get-together at Palace Hotel. He let me bring my son along and so that was fun. I had some pictures of us together, the three of mccovey-sf-giants-dm164lous and I just covered the whole event for him and made a great big picture book for him. That was special. I did a lot of postcards for Willie also, maybe three different times. I loved his Southern drawl and the way he spoke. He would call the house and Mary, my wife just loved talking to him. He always said [lowers voice], “Doug this is McCovey.” You know who he was way before he even said his name.” [chuckles]

I asked Doug if he ever got any oddball requests from ball players.

“I had one fellow who was a pitcher with the A’s and also the Cubs and I think maybe Seattle too, named Jim Todd. He liked photography and he liked my photography and so he would challenge me to do something different each year and pay for it. He had me take a picture of him going through his entire pitching windup, where he changed colored [jerseys] all the way through. Then, I picked out the best ones and had him change from the start to the end of his delivery as his jersey color changed and that was kind of fun. Then, I mounted it in front of a portrait of him that I did and then mounted it on a wood plaque.”

Like all card collectors, I’m interested in error cards. Was Doug ever involved in an error card?

1981cvox“I had a habit of photographing all the Oakland A’s players when they were in the minors if I could. I happen to have photographed Jeff Cox with Modesto and Vancouver and San Jose, just about everywhere he played. I knew him and he finally got up to the big club, spring training and he was so excited to find out that he might be on a Topps card. That happened several times with the young players and it’s kind of fun. The card came out (1981 Topps #133) and I was so happy to hear about that. I looked at the back and all the statistics were correct and it said Oakland A’s on the front. I looked at the picture and it was Steve McCatty. I don’t think the hobbyists discovered that yet. I had never seen it mentioned, but it was McCatty. It wasn’t Jeff. I felt so bad for him that I made him a custom card — this was before computers — and gave them to him to give to his family and friends.”

I asked if there was a particular set of cards he shot that was meaningful to him.

“I thought when [Topps] came out with the “Stadium Clubs”, those were really well done, attractive. They had full bleed edges and they were on thicker stock and they were glossy, looked good.”

Doug proceeded to take me through his favorite Topps cards from 1983-1993 and some of the stories behind them. [Check out Doug’s episode on “The Sweet Spot” to catch them here for $2.99: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/thesweetspot]

I wondered how Doug was perceived by other baseball card photographers, as well as the industry.

“Two years ago, I and two other Topps photographers were inducted into the Cactus League Hall of Fame as photographers for Topps. It was really pretty nice and one of the other photographers was the person who was just starting when I was finishing up [in 1993]. We were in Tucson, shooting the Cleveland Indians and before the game, the posed stuff and action during the game, and it was very hot. This fellow, he kept looking over at me. In his speech at the Hall of Fame induction, he said that he kept looking over at Doug to see if he was ready to go because he was thinking about going back to the hotel and jumping in the swimming pool.” He kept looking over at me and I was still there. Then, the game got over and he says, “Wow, now I can finally head off to the hotel and go swimming.” He looked around and there I was, out on the mound, grabbing players and taking pictures of them. He said, “Now, there’s a baseball card photographer.”

I recently happened on some of Doug’s work as part of the Hall of Fame’s traveling photo exhibit at Dodger Stadium’s current “pop-up museum” [open weekends now through March 5- http://dodgerblue.com/dodgers-pop-up-museum-dodger-stadium-dec-2-vin-scully-items/2016/12/01/%5D

doug-m-hofHis photo of Bert Blyleven, along with the supporting curatorial text, tells us he was not only a world-class photographer, but a baseball historian of note. His contributions to the game, and baseball history, are immeasurable.

But, there’s a couple of problems for Doug:

“Baseball has become a problem to me because I’m so immersed in it. Photography has become a problem with me because I’m continuously looking at everything and making a picture out of it.”

 What’s next for Doug?

I still have 15,000 [negatives] to send [to the Hall of Fame], 35 millimeter and digital and keeps me busy, keeps me alive, keeps me going. I’ve got plenty to do!

 [note: I will be presenting Doug’s episode and my project “The Sweet Spot—A Treasury of Baseball Stories” at the Lefty O’Doul Chapter’s SABR Day meeting in San Leandro on January 26, with Doug in attendance).

Doug was not unlike that kid in the neighborhood who had the coolest toys and baseball card collection and who enjoyed sharing them.

“BO”: The History of the Perfect Junk Wax Card

If there was a single athlete who personified the so-called “junk wax” era of trading cards, it was Bo Jackson. Bo was a force unlike anything the sporting world had ever known when he burst onto the scene in the late 1980s. As was the idea of grown men taking over a hobby once deemed the realm of children, the idea that a single freak of athletic nature could be the most exciting player in both baseball and football seemed ridiculous. And, just as with the hobby that promised to turn a stack of Todd Van Poppels into a college fund, Bo Jackson vanished from the scene before his potential could truly be realized. And in the summer of 1990, the forces that were Bo Jackson and the riding-high trading card hobby melded into what might be the definitive card of the junk wax era… 1990 Score baseball #697.

bofront

In 1988, Major League Marketing, the company that had given the world Sportsflics, introduced Score. The brand was a more mainstream play on the Sportsflics concept, which was largely defined by the gimmick of their plastic-coated changing-image obverses. Score was a more tradition cardboard issue, but utilized the underappreciated back-of-the-card features of Sportsflics – color photos and extensive biographical information – to create something truly revolutionary. A year ahead of Upper Deck and a year and a half of Pro Set, 1988 Score was a slick, premium trading card that brought collectors closer to the players than anything else on the market.

By 1990, with Upper Deck having enter the fray, the baseball market was more competitive than ever and brands were looking to differentiate themselves. For their third year of baseball, Score issued their most colorful and rookie-loaded set to date. They introduced draft pick cards – something pioneered by Topps the year before – and robbed Upper Deck of the illustrated card idea with their “Dream Team” subset. They also brought back an old-school concept with a playoff subset, highlighting the League Championship Series and the World Series.

But with card 697, they did something somewhat unprecedented in the hobby. There had been special, one-off cards of players before – honoring accomplishments, recognizing retirements, and the like – but card 697 was a tribute to nothing more than the sheer force that was Bo Jackson. The card itself, even devoid of context, is pretty remarkable. The front featured a black and white, horizontal image of Jackson in shoulder pads, hands draped over a baseball bat resting behind his neck. The photo was taken from a Nike Air poster titled “The Ballplayer” that had been issued the previous year. The image was framed by a white border and inset with the Score logo. The card’s minimalism, the subtle tones of the artful image, Jackson’s effortless pose and impressive physique all melded to form one of the most beautiful baseball cards yet issued. On the card’s reverse side, inside a green border and above the requisite branding and licensing bugs were just two letters – BO – done in black and blue (Raiders and Royals). To anyone who was a sports fan or a collector in 1990, those were the only two letters necessary to convey the power of the card. If you didn’t know BO, you might as well just put down the baseball cards and start collecting stamps.

boback

1990 Score baseball hit the store in January, right around the time Bo Jackson was finishing up an 11-game NFL season in which he ran for 950 yards on just 173 carries – which itself followed up a baseball season in which he hit 32 homers, made the all-star team, and placed 10th in the MVP voting. It was, perhaps, the height of Bo-mania both in the sporting and pop culture realms. 1990 was also near the peak of card-mania and, laughable as it seems today, adults were tearing through fifty-cent packages of Topps, Upper Deck, Score, Fleer, and Donruss baseball – carefully setting aside Ben McDonalds, Pat Combes, and Steve Hosesys with the honest belief that they were something akin to blue chip stocks.

Card 697 was the perfect combination of subject and timing. The oddity of it (I can’t think of any truly comparable card that had been issued to that date) and the hobby obsession with Jackson soon became the card of the season. By February, it was selling for a respectable sixty cents – about the same as the base cards of superstar players. By March, it was going for $4 – an unheard of sum for a new issue card that was not an error or rookie. By April, it had reached $8 and was drawing interest from the media outside of the hobby. Just weeks into the baseball season, with Jackson off to a blistering start, the Chicago Tribune reported that area card shops were selling packs of Score baseball for a dollar each – twice their retail price – and limiting customers to ten packs per day. Rumors flew that the entire 1990 Score set had been short-printed because of the brand’s newly expanded football line. Other whispers had it that card 697 was about to be pulled from production because of a Nike lawsuit. Score denied all the rumors (indeed, the 1990 set was just as overproduced as anything of the era), but that could not stop the furor over the card. In late April, 25-year veteran National League umpire Bob Engle was arrested for shoplifting seven boxes of 1990 Score from a Bakersfield, CA store. He was suspended by the league for the incident and later retired after being convicted and receiving probation. Bo-mania was officially causing strange behavior.

By June, even with Jackson having cooled off at the plate, the card was selling for $15 and Beckett Baseball Card Monthly ran the full-length Bo-in-shoulder-pads image on its cover. That same month, a spree of counterfeit 697s began to appear in Mississippi, Chicago, and New Jersey. They were strictly low-end knock-offs, given away by their lack of color on the reverse (some shady dealers were hocking them as Score “press proofs”). The Associated Press picked up on the story and newspaper coast-to-coast ran the story of the fake cards.

As the season wore on, the card began to cool off. In September, it hit its Beckett price guide peak of $12, and was down to $9 by December. This was due in part, no doubt, to overkill. Only Nolan Ryan had more baseball cards in 1990 than Jackson and, by the season’s end, the market was flooded with Jackson football cards as well. Then came the January 13, 1991 divisional playoff game between Jackson’s Raiders and the Cincinnati Bengals, when a tackle dislocated Jackson’s hip and effectively ended his days as the nation’s most captivating athlete. Many thought his professional careers were over and, the following March, the Royals released him. That summer, as Jackson worked towards his comeback, Beckett listed the card at $4.50 – more of a novelty than an investment (more on that here). I recall that for years afterward, as it remained above common card status, the card was listed as “697 Bo Jackson (FB/BB)…” in price books. And still, everyone knew what it meant.

Today, the card can be had for a few dollars online and can probably be found in dollar binders at card shows across the nation on any given weekend. Certainly a hard fall from the summer of 1990, but it remains a remarkably sought-after card. Take a look on eBay and you will inevitably find a few copies (ungraded) listed at outrageous prices given the marketplace – $10, $20, $30 (the complete 1990 Score set can be had for about $15). It’s easy to mock people who list junk wax era stuff for such prices as ignorant of the hobby, but with card 697, it feels just a little different. I’ve still got my copy of the card, still encased in the top-loader that my shaky little 8-year-old hands slipped it into a quarter century ago. I understand that I could only get a few bucks for it if I ever tried to sell it. But I also know it’s worth a lot more than that.

 

Yeah, Topps Supers really are

clementeExcept for a fairly brief period in my life, when it comes to baseball cards I’ve always been little more than an interested observer. Oh, I’ve purchased a pack (or two or three) of cards in most years since the early 1980s, I guess. But my “collection” is mundane and I spent only three or four years somewhat insanely buying box after box of cards (with money I didn’t really have) in the pursuit of a complete Topps set. Or Donruss or Fleer or even Score set (which should give you a pretty good idea of when I was in the grips of this particular mania).

But that’s a story for another day (if ever). The above is just a long-winded way of saying there’s a great deal about baseball/bubble-gum cards I’ve never learned, because I’ve never really invested much time or money in the pursuit. And so, somehow I didn’t discover until almost just this moment the splendid delights of Topps’s 1971 Supers.

Now, there are a couple of obvious reasons why I’d never even heard of the Supers, which were actually produced in 1971 and ’70. The first is that I wasn’t even in kindergarten yet; I don’t remember seeing any cards until a few years later. The second is that the Supers just weren’t popular (as you’d expect, considering their short run in the marketplace). Maybe more to the point, they’ve never become popular. There was never anyone saying, “Rob, you should covet these bits of cardboard.”

And yet, now I do covet them, and recently picked up a dozen or so on eBay (for cheap).

gibsonThe cards are massive: 16.4 square inches, compared to 8.75 square inches for a standard card of that (and today’s) era. But even that understates the difference. The Supers are all image, zero border. Meanwhile, the oft-beloved ’71 regular set, with its black borders, winds up with an image of just 6.2 square inches, meaning the Supers actually give you 264 percent more player per card.

How do you turn down 264 percent more major leaguer?

Well, I can guess why the kids in 1971 turned it down. For one thing, there were only 63 Super cards, compared to a whopping 752 in the regular Topps set. For another, a regular pack cost you a dime and got you eight cards; your same 10 cents got you only two Supers. And finally … kids in 1971 had small hands! Those regular cards probably seemed plenty big enough!

Come to think of it, kids today probably still have small hands. Baseball cards were designed for baseball fans with small hands and sharp eyes. But my hands are big and my eyes … well, I’m getting fitted for bifocals this week.

mccoveyI can’t be eight years old again. What I am is fifty years old with a few of the enthusiasms, or at least the capacity for enthusiasm, of an eight-year-old. And I gotta tell you, right now there are few things that bring me more joy than holding 16.4 square inches of rigidly thick, vividly colored cardboard featuring Willie McCovey’s young, smiling, handsome, BIG face.

The Supers lasted for just those two years, and I understand why it was only two years. Doesn’t mean I have to agree with it.