Inside the Donruss Studio

Innovative, interesting, often beautiful, Donruss Studio was a welcome new entry in 1991, a card set that relied on the personalities of the players.

Though I enjoyed Studio, I only have two complete sets. I had no idea how long lived the Studio concept was. It was a true survivor of the junk era, issued from 1991-98, then again from 2001-05, and once again from 2014-16.

I’m not going to go too deeply into this, only enough to show all the designs. When they’re great, they’re great. When they’re not, they’re interesting. That can’t be said for many other base sets that ran for so long.

1991 – 264 cards

1992 – 264 cards

The first set I completed.

 

1993 – 220 cards

1994 – 220 cards

1995 – 200 cards

Flashback to the 1980’s credit card sets.

1996 – 150 cards

Indicative of the card boom and bust, in five years the set was halved.

1997 – 165 cards

1998 – 220 cards

Last year of the first run, and a sizeable increase in the base set. Once of the offshoots was a 36 card set of 8 X 10s. I bought a box of those.

2001 – 200 cards

Back from hiatus, more border, less picture.

2002 – 275 cards

2003 – 211 cards

This set is absolutely beautiful.

2004 – 270 cards

2005 – 300 cards

Back to the original set length, and a farewell to the Donruss’ MLB license.

By 2014, Donruss was a throwback name, not even a real issue, and the Studio sets were small subset, 10-20 cards per year. In some ways the lack of license doesn’t hurt the core mission of Studio, to capture the faces of the game. Still, these look like hell.

2014

2015

2016

There are many inserts over the years, some quite good, like the Heritage subset than ran from 1991-94. (Here’s Straw from 1992)

Writing this is making me want more of these sets. You too? See you at eBay.

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.

A Trip Down Trader Lane

Mark Armour (the “Founding Father” of our illustrious committee) and I recently consummated a transaction in which we exchanged autographed 8” x 10” photos.  “Trader Mark” sent George “Boomer” Scott my way in exchange for Lou Brock.  Although this trade may seem to be in the same vain as Brock for Broglio, we both had two autographed photos of the players in the trade. Mark tried to get Brock for Lee Stange, but I held out for more.

Acquiring the Scott photo reminded me of the blockbuster deal that sent “Boomer” to the Brewers from the Red Sox before the 1972 season.  Seattle Pilots General Manager, Marvin Milkes, accompanied the club to Milwaukee in 1970.  He was dismissed after the season and surprisingly replaced by the legendary Frank “Trader” Lane, who lived up to his nickname.

In the 1950s, Lane was known for his multi-player trades which often seemed to be done just to shake things up.  Thus, Lane decided to shed some of the last vestiges of the Pilots to remake the “Brew Crew.”

The trade involved nine major league players and one minor leaguer. The Red Sox sent Scott, Ken Brett, Joe Lahoud, Dan Pavletich, Billy Conigliaro, and Jim Lonborg to the Brewers in return for Tommy Harper, Marty Pattin, Lew Krausse and AAA player Patrick Skrable.

In the 1972 card set, Topps responded to the deal in two ways: upturned head shots and airbrushed logos.  Apparently, Topps had a stash of Red Sox photos featuring players looking skyward. Only Jim Lonborg received an airbrushed Brewers cap. On the other hand, the three players sent to Boston have airbrushed cap insignia. 

The crack airbrush team at Topps did an excellent job on Marty Pattin.  His cap is either navy blue or black with the Boston “B” rendered expertly.  Of course, you must ignore the royal blue seats at Tempe Diablo Stadium in the background.

Tommy Harper’s photo, taken at Tiger Stadium, is less convincing.  The powder blue uniform and cap just don’t scream Bosox.

Lew Krausse has some strange stuff going on around his collar.  Odds are, he had on a Pilots/Brewers warm up jacket with gold piping.  Thus, he gets a blue and grey combo to cover up the gold.

Though his 1967 season is immortalized in the hearts and minds of all Red Sox fans, Jim Lonborg’s 1972 card will not be remember as fondly.  The sideways turn of the head complicated the formation of the “M” logo.  One “leg” appears shorter than the other.

As mentioned earlier, the airbrush was put away for the rest of new Brewers in favor of the “nostril” shot.  George Scott’s gaze into the Winter Haven sun or the Fenway press box is not a thing of beauty.  His cap is tilted so far back that the #5 inked on to the bill is visible.

Billy Conigliaro and Ken Brett both suffered the misfortune of having brothers who were better players.  Billy probably welcomed a chance to shed Tony’s shadow in Boston.  This trade would start Brett on a vagabond odyssey that would produce some true airbrushed gems.  Here is a link to a previous post on this topic.

With the leather-lined padding exposed under his batting helmet and a slight smile, Joe Lahoud’s card is a bit more interesting than the others.  Perhaps Joe is smiling over the prospect of more playing time outside of Beantown.

By far, the worst photo is that of journeyman catcher Don Pavletich.  He was apparently very surly at the prospect of another trade, having been dispatched by the Reds to the White Sox in 1969 and on to the Red Sox in 1970.

I would be remiss if I didn’t show a card (postcard with the Reading Phillies) of Patrick Skrable, the veteran minor league player the Brewers tossed into the trade mix.  Although Pat never made it to the big leagues, he was a master of placing the “Q” on a triple-letter space.

Which team came out on top of this deal?  Harper had good years with Boston, but George Scott developed into one of the most feared power hitters in the American League. Plus, when the Red Sox reacquired him from Milwaukee, they gave up Cecil Cooper.  So, advantage Brewers.

Wiggle Wiggle

If I said that for under $20 you could purchase a small set from 1953 which was one-third Hall of Famers and included a bunch of other big names from the time, I’d expect to be met with skepticism. Cards from 1953 aren’t generally cheap so a set like this is bound to come with a catch.

In this case, the catch is that the set is actually three Viewmaster discs. I’ve mentioned these before and have always had them in the back of my mind since 3D cards are one of my weaknesses. I don’t have a Viewmaster* but I don’t care, these are just fun objects to have.

*This is my mom’s cue to pull one out of storage even though she’s been culling almost all of my childhood stuff.

Just handling the paper envelopes and holding the discs in my hand evokes all kinds of childhood memories. Pulling out the discs, studying the text to see who’s on it, and holding it up to the light to get a glimpse of the images is the same kind of thing I did when I was 6—only my discs were Disney tales or something and not baseball heroes.

Now I may not have a Viewmaster, but I have something better. Since these discs are really just 14 different Kodachrome slides, dropping them into my photo scanner allows me to get an even better view of the photos. So that’s what I did.

I also went ahead and created wiggle “3D” gifs which alternate between the left and right images.* They’re not really 3D but our brains interpret them with depth and they’re a great way to get a flavor of the Viewmaster experience.

*3D photography involves photographing a subject at the same time with two different cameras that are a couple inches apart. This simulates the perspective that each of our eyes have. A 3D viewer then forces each eye to look at a different image and our brains combine the result into a 3D image.

Disc 1

The first disc has two Hall of Famers in Rizzuto and Berra, one should-be Hall of Famer in Miñoso, Al Rosen the year he won the MVP award, and some very good players in Jackie Jensen and Preacher Roe. Even Whitey Lockman had been an All Star in 1952.

I enjoy the variety of poses with Roe’s working the best in 3D of all the images. There’s also a lot of wonderful detail in the background of the Lockman image.

Each disc also comes with a 4-panel fold-out booklet which has a short bio of each player, the last two years of his stats (plus his regular season and World Series totals), and a facsimile signature. Since the full-fold-out is too long for my scanner, I just folded over one panel and scanned the three visible ones.

I really like the booklets. Clean and crisp typesetting with the box around them and a willingness to let the signature overlap the text like in Jensen’s panel. I’m sure I could have found these even cheaper as just the discs but it wouldn’t have been worth the savings.

Disc 2

Disc two is stacked. Four Hall of Famers in Mize, Lemon, Schoendienst, and Irvin plus the 1952 American League MVP in Bobby Shantz. Ferris Fain and Sid Gordon weren’t slouches either.

Aside from the player quality in this disc, the photos capture a couple of great uniforms of teams that no longer exist. Shantz is in his Philadelphia A’s uniform and Gordon is in his Boston Braves uniform.

Looking at the uniforms and seeing the color stirrups makes me realize how vibrant these must have been in 1953. Bowman had only just released the first set of baseball cards using color photographs. These go a step further and are color slides that literally pop off the film.

Not much more to add about the booklets except to note that while Gordon is depicted with Boston the move to Milwaukee had already happened when these were printed.

Disc 3

The last disc is a bit lighter on star power since Campy is the only Hall of Famer but for me it makes up for it by having two Giants legends in Maglie and Thomson.* Vic Wertz is another big name, Woodling was one of those annoying Yankees guys who always came through in the World Series, and Parnell and Hatton were both All Stars.

*Having four Giants out of the 21 players depicted is something I appreciate very much.

I really like Campanella’s pose with the mask in the foreground. Wertz meanwhile is the third image of a team that’s about to cease existing since 1953 was the last year before the Browns moved to Baltimore.

The stadium background in these photos also demonstrate how much flash was used to take these pictures. The photos are all somewhat moody with darkish skies. This helps them pop a lot through the contrast of the light uniforms and the dark backgrounds while also giving them a look that’s different than the typical baseball card image. This look only started to show up on Topps cards in earnest around 1985.*

*Something I covered a bit on my own blog. In short, in the 1980s Topps started to underexpose the background of the portrait and use flash to produce more contrast between the subject and his background. Many 1985 and 1986 Topps cards feature dark skies.

One last look at the booklets and my only comment is that I’m relieved to see that Bobby Thomson’s home run is mentioned.

Are these Cards™? No. But they’re card adjacent and fit in binder pages so I’m counting them. I’m also planning on printing the photos out as 2.5″ square pieces with the relevant back information from the booklets so I can enjoy the images without having to hold the disc up to the light. Who am I kidding, holding the discs is the best part anyway.

Under Construction

As a team collector I’m spared a lot of the worries that set collectors have because my search list is quite a bit more focused. I don’t need ~700 cards, I’m only looking for ~30. Sometimes though I’m jealous of the set collectors. Where my albums tend to consist of three to four page runs of cards that all have the same color scheme, set collectors have pages that are full of wonderfully different colors.

So I started thinking about ways to put a sample page together for each set which would give me some of that color without being prone to mission creep. After looking through piles of 1970s cards I realized that the theme I was looking for was pictures of Candlestick Park. As a Giants collector I would already have a number of cards taken at the Stick. But there’s something about putting a page together of other teams and getting a bit of the flavor of the larger set which is very appealing.

I’ve mainly been pulling 1970s cards for now. Yes there a few cards in 1959 to 1962 which were shot at Seals Stadium but through most of the 1960s it doesn’t appear that anything was shot at Candlestick. Then in 1972 it all changed.

Looking at the Giants cards from this year doesn’t really show anything interesting. There are a lot of photos showing that trademark chain link fence and the red seats. It’s only if you take a really close look at Frank Reberger’s card that you see something’s up in the stadium.

It’s not super obvious unless you’re familiar with Candlestick but there’s a lot of construction going on behind Frank. On the left side of the photo there’s a press box being built. On the right side there’s a glimpse of some unfinished second deck.

What’s going on? Despite feeling like a member of the multipurpose donut family, Candlestick was a baseball-only facility for the first decade of its usage. Only in 1971 did the 49ers move from Kezar Stadium. This move prompted the installation of artificial turf and enclosing the stadium with an upper deck that completely circled the playing field.

Much of the construction occurred during the 1971 baseball season. Meanwhile, for the first time in a decade Topps was taking photos at Giants games. The result? Lots of construction shows up in the backgrounds of 1972 cards. That new press box being installed behind Reberger? That would be the football press box, which overlooked the 50-yard line.

I didn’t notice the Reberger photo until I’d noticed more obvious construction on a number of other 1972 cards. In many of the cards throughout the set* the concrete skeleton is not only visible behind the player but is clearly a non-decorative yet also non-functional part of the stadium.

*Much to my relief they appear across each series. In other words, I should be able to fill up a page without having to deal with the high numbers.

As a Giants fan it’s interesting to me how much of the skeleton feels like the Candlestick I remember. The park obviously didn’t look like this when I was going to games there. But the beams were there, visible from underneath the grandstand whether looking up from the lower deck, the second deck concourse, or from outside.

Many of the card photos taken at Candlestick are of players from the National League West.  Lots of Astros, Braves, Reds, and Padres—all of which are teams I remember seeing a lot of as a kid.* There are also a decent number of Expos, Cardinals and Pirates in the mix. Every once in a while though I’ll find a card of an American League team that was taken at Candlestick.

*Yes I watched a lot of Dodgers games too but for whatever reason I’ve yet to come across a 1970s Dodgers card which was taken at Candlestick.

The 1972 Frank Duffy is one such card.* That it said “Indians” meant that my Candlestick radar was sufficiently dulled and I didn’t recognize either the stadium or the fact that it was under construction.

*Also on this list are the 1974 Denny Doyle and 1978 Goose Gossage.

I like seeing the American League cards since, despite the airbrushing, they offer a chance to add some real variety to my binder page. This Duffy is also a lot of fun because it’s a short-term stop card in disguise. Duffy’s actually a Giant here; Topps has just replaced the SF with the wishbone C. Since this is a high number he’s shown with the correct team but if his card had come out earlier in the season there’s a decent chance he’d be with the Giants and I’d have a card commemorating the George Foster trade.

It must have been a weird experience to be at a game in an unfinished park with all the exposed beams and concrete in the outfield. It certainly made for a few baseball cards that don’t have the usual stadium backgrounds.

The Great Candlestick Derrière Dilemma

Recently, a post on Twitter included Willie Montanez’s 1973 Topps card.  This “in action” shot taken during the 1972 season has always intrigued me, primarily due to half of the photo being comprised of the Giants’ pitcher’s butt.  Inquiring minds want to know whose derriere filled the camera lens. Through the miracle of “Retrosheet” via “Baseball Reference,” I was able to pin down three possibilities, one stronger than the others.

In 1972, the 12-team National League played 18 games against divisional opponents and 12 against teams from the other division.  Thus, the Phillies and the Giants each had six home games broken into two series. (The work stoppage at the beginning of 1972 season did alter this scheduling formula; however, the Giants versus Phillies games were not affected.)

During the Phillies’ initial trip to Candlestick in April 1972, the clubs met twice in day games.  However, Willie Montanez was not involved in a play at the plate in either game.  So, his slide into home had to happen during the second set of games in July.

On Saturday, July 16 and Sunday, July 17 the squads squared off under a bright sun beating down on the rock-hard AstroTurf. Montanez scored a run in the Saturday game after being walked by Don McMahon in the second inning. He moved to second on a single by Don Money and went to third after Oscar Gamble walked.  Catcher John Bateman singled, scoring Montanez. 

This could be the play at the plate, provided Bateman’s single was of the infield variety or a shallow “Texas Leaguer.” Otherwise, Willie could have walked home on a routine shot to the outfield.  The “San Francisco Examiner” sports page for Sunday, July 17, is not helpful.  The game summary does state that Montanez scorede, but there is no mention of a play at the plate.  Therefore, it is possible that the photo shows the “arse” of the veteran “slabsman” McMahon.

In this same game, Chris Speier of the Giants hit an inside-the-park home run off Steve Carlton.  Speier has a 1973 card showing him sliding into home with the Phillies catcher, John Bateman, attempting to tag him.  Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Montanez’s slide occurred on July 16 since the photographer may have attended both games.

In fact, a more plausible play at home occurred in the next day’s game.  In the top of the 4th inning, Montanez singled to center off the Giants’ starter, Jim Barr, and took second on an error by Gary Maddox.  He then scored from second on a single by Don Money. 

In many instances, scoring from second on a single will draw a throw home, resulting in the runner sliding.  Of course, this would mean that Jim Barr is the pitcher whose backside is seen “up close and personal.” Alas, the Monday, July 18 “San Francisco Examiner” offered no supporting evidence, since it failed to mention Willie’s run at all.

Although not definitive proof that the photographer attended both tilts, the 1973 Topps in game action photos for Phillies pitchers Barry Lersch and Dick Selma were clearly taken at Candlestick.  Lersch pitched on Saturday and Selma on Sunday.  So, the photographer could have been at both games. But this is not a certainty because both pitchers appeared at “the Stick” during day games on April 26 (Lersch) and 27 (Selma).

To completely muddy the waters off Candlestick Point, this photo could conceivably be from 1971!  In the first game of a double header on June 6, 1971, Montanez doubled to center off Steve Stone in the 6th inning. 

He scored from second on a single by the next batter, ironically Ron Stone.  On June 7, 1971, “The San Francisco Examiner” stated that Willie “streaked to the plate.” Of course, we still don’t know if there was a throw, necessitating a slide into home. So, Steve Stone’s “bum” could be front and center in the photo.

The odds still favor 1972.  Barry Lersch did pitch in the second game of the June 6, 1971 doubleheader, but Dick Selma didn’t pitch at Candlestick during the day in 1971.  Photos from two separate years seems unlikely but not impossible.

If you are still with me, you are probably asking yourself, “who the hell cares about Willie Montanez sliding into home or pitchers’ butts?” Without a doubt, these are valid questions.  My retort is this:  I used this as a forum to show some of the great “warts and all” action photos from this era.  To me, these photos are exponentially better than modern shots.  The backgrounds and multiple players provide clues and context lacking with today’s cards.  Besides, it’s important to know which long ago Giants hurler left his butt in San Francisco!

Profiles in Profiles

Profile Preface

Thumb through a stack of 1964 Topps cards and you’ll see a host of classic Topps poses, whether it’s the manager (or head coach!) barking out instructions…

Pitchers at the top of their wind-ups…

Or unprotected catchers in a crouch.

Profile Prototypes

But there’s one classic Topps pose you won’t see at all until the following year, and even then not until the fifth (Johnson) and seventh (Banks) series…

…not withstanding the shiny pack inserts, which relied 90% on profiles. (If you can’t picture any exceptions, here’s a link to Koufax.)

Side note for vintage collectors like me that bemoan all the “shiny stuff” in the hobby these days. It ain’t so new!

Profligate Profile Proliferation

Fast forward 13 years to my rookie season collecting, and Topps had so much “facial profiling” you’d think Rudy Giuliani was in charge!

Profile Pro forma

For at least two Boston superstars, the side shot had evidently become the pose de rigueur.

Baker’s Recipe

Look carefully at the gallery of 1978 Topps profiles and you’ll notice several, Yaz among them, that go beyond the standard side view and add an upward gaze as well. These “look up there” profiles can be seen as hybrids of standard side-views and the “look up there” front or three-quarter views Topps used on way too many cards in the 1960s and 70s.

For whatever reason, these “look up there” profiles were among my favorite cards as a kid.

SIDELINED SIDE VIEWS

While Topps struck gold with their Baker alchemy, not all their experiments led to success. For example, Topps introduced a “look down there” variation with one player each in 1976 and 1977, but the approach was not carried forward to 1978.

Profile Prehistory

If there’s one thing readers of this blog know well it’s that nothing in baseball cards is truly new. Goudey flirted with the idea in 1933 and Bowman went all the way there in 1948, and I suspect readers can cite many earlier examples.

PROFILE PROGNOSTICATION

It’s hard to imagine profile pics making a big comeback. They seem a bit dull when compared with the kinds of card photos now available.

That isn’t to say that you’ll never see another profile again, and I proffer this Profar as proof.

At some point (2027 if I’m doing this right), Topps will release the Heritage version of 1978 Topps. Though the younger collectors of the future will wonder why so many of the pictures suck, I sure hope to see a ton of “look up there” big sideways heads of the game’s top stars. If that won’t make me feel young again, nothing will. And Oddibe young again, right?

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.

Héroes de Cartón: When is a Card not a Card?

A few months ago I attended the Frederick Ivor-Campbell 19th Century Conference at the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Fred is my favorite of all of the SABR conferences because of the intimacy, the subject, the location and the camaraderie. One of the presentations that weekend was entitled “The Birth of Baseball Cards.” The panel was moderated by MLB historian John Thorn and featured the SABR Baseball Card blog’s very own Jeff Katz, Hall of Fame curator Tom Shieber and author Peter Devereuax. Devereaux’s book, Game Faces, is an inside look at many of the early baseball cards that constitute the Benjamin K. Edwards Collection at the Library of Congress and served as a jumping off point for the panel. Game Faces should be on the reading list of everyone in this group.

Over the course of the panel the question was brought up of just what it is that defines a “card.” It is a question that is often addressed in the hobby; has, in fact, been addressed in this blog by Mr. Katz. It is also a question with no definitive answers, although Shieber, who was one of the driving forces behind the Hall’s new permanent baseball card exhibit entitled “Shoebox Treasures,” listed a few personal criteria. To be clear, Tom does not espouse to be the final voice on this subject, but much of what he said rang true to me. To him, the item in question should be: intended as a collectible, part of a set, directly related to baseball, and there should be a “cardyness” about it. That last one is admittedly vague, though for most of the folks reading this, the idea is likely akin to the old adage coined by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart about pornography. We know it when we see it.

My paper-thin 1946/47 Propagandas Montiel Los Reyes del Deporte card for Nap Reyes, purchased on a visit to Cuba. Reyes has an earlier card, a 1945/46 Caramelo Deportivo, but it was only issued to collectors who had completed the rest of the set, thus making it rare and one of the most expensive cards of a Cuban ever issued.

This panel was the highlight of the weekend for me, not just because it was dedicated to one of my favorite subjects, but more so because I have wrestled recently with this very question. As I mentioned in my last post, in my quest to complete a collection of the rookie cards of every Cuban who has appeared in a major league game, I have had to stretch certain standardly-accepted definitions, beginning with the idea of a what constitutes a “rookie card.” In the interest of finding at least one card for every player, I have had to not only step outside of some of the accepted definitions within the hobby, but I have been confronted numerous times with the issue of whether or not an item I am looking at even counts as a “card.”

Such is the case with the 1943 set issued by the Havana-based, cracker, candy and chocolate manufacturer, La Ambrosia. As with major league baseball, the arrival of World War II created a vacuum of talent in the Cuban professional league. The league had already been struggling financially since the political upheaval of the overthrow of President Gerardo Machado, in the early 1930s. When the war began, it stemmed the flow of top-tier American talent, the quality of play suffered, and the league found itself at a low point. The silver lining of this nadir was the maturation of the Cuban amateur leagues.

The La Ambrosia card for Rogelio “Roy” Valdés. He had a single plate appearance with the Senators in 1944, although Valdés stuck around in the Washington minor league system for another four years after that.

With no minor league system in place, Cuban clubs would find their promising young talent on the sugarmill teams that dotted the countryside. Similar to the American company teams that would produce exciting local baseball that filled the void before the advent of radio and television broadcasts, the sugarmill teams were a loose collection of business-based semi-pro clubs. One of those clubs was sponsored by La Ambrosia, and would feature the likes of such luminaries as future Cuban batting champ Claro Duany and Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso.

The candy giant capitalized on their sponsorship of the club by publishing a set of 240 images that were released as “stamps.” Collectors were encouraged to get all of the stamps and then stick them inside an album, similar to the more ubiquitous Cuban release issued by Caramelo Deportivo during the 1945/46 and 1946/47 seasons. Printed on thin paper that most closely resembles magazine stock, the La Ambrosia stamps featured the largest single published collection of Cuban amateurs that I have found.

The album that La Ambrosia issued, with the intention of the stamps being pasted inside. The cross promotion with the Wilson sporting goods company is an interesting insight into how intrinsically American business was intertwined with Cuban interests at the time.

Unlike the Deportivos, in which the images are black and white and often grainy, the La Ambrosias are in color. They have the distinctive look of the tones being both vibrant and muted, as though the photos had been tinted with watercolors. The images look especially bright when mounted on the yellowed pages of their original album. It is those albums which resulted in the Deportivos and the La Ambrosias sharing another unfortunate trait. There are few remaining of either issue that do not have serious flaws, including backs that were damaged by adhesives.

For many, including the auction houses that sell these sets, the descriptions of these issues have evolved from “stamps” to “cards.” They certainly fit with Shieber’s first three criteria. But what about “cardyness?” They are not published on what we think of as a card stock. But does that matter? What is that quintessential piece that makes a card a card? Does an item need ALL of Shieber’s (self-proclaimed arbitrary) criteria? Are three sufficient? What about two? Or one?

The La Ambrosia cards feature a large number of pencil-thin mustaches, a popular fashion choice in Cuba at the time. Rogelio Martinez, who would not make his lone appearance with the Senators until 1950, sports a rather thick example of the style.

The “cards” I have included in the collection for the Aragóns, Ángel and his son Jack, are a perfect example of this latter question. Their short major league careers, as well as the fact that they played during war years (Ángel appeared in 32 games with the Yankees during World War I and Jack’s lone major league appearance was in 1941), led to neither of them having what would be thought of, traditionally, as a card. I have not even had any luck by expanding my search to include cards that portray them in foreign leagues, although Jack’s extensive minor league career gives me hope that I may discover him in an obscure set someday. At the moment, though, they just don’t seem to exist.

However, while trolling through ebay, I came across a seller who was offering images of both Ángel and Jack. He had come into possession of a number of old periodicals, including a 1914 Spalding Guide and a 1949 publication called, “Historia del Base Ball Profesional de Cuba,” written by Raul Diez Muro. The seller, scissors in hand, cut up both periodicals into a series of head shots for the players that appeared in the two collections. The Spalding Guide offered a number of publicity photos of minor league players, including Ángel. Jack appeared in the book by Muro.

Ángel played for the minor league Long Branch Cubans in 1913 and 1914 before being called up to the Yankees. Unlike some other teams named “Cuban,” the Long Branch squad was made up almost entirely of actual island-born ballplayers.

I have decided to include these hand cut bits of newsprint in lieu of “cards” because there aren’t any other options for these players and they do have the advantage of originally being printed concurrent with the player’s career. They pass virtually none of Shieber’s criteria. While the publications themselves could be considered collectible, they certainly became less desirable after the scissors were taken to them. The subjects are definitely baseball related, but they are not part of an intended set, nor do they feel very “cardy” to me. I have blurred the line considerably in the interest of completing my checklist.

I am now at the point where I need to decide if, since I have expanded my definitions for the Aragóns, do I do the same with the remaining Cubans who were never issued a card? Are pictures cut from newspapers enough to check that box, especially if I hold true to the criteria of the images being published during their careers? I know it’s my set, and I can do with it as I damn well please, but I’m not a fan of cheating. I suppose the best answer would be for me to wait to make a similar discovery of a player who is cardless, and decide when I see the actual item. Because, like Stewart’s porn, I believe I’ll know it when I see it.

Author’s note: I thought some of you might be interested in seeing the collection as it develops. I have created a flickr album that you can access here. The cards appear in the album not by the year in which they were issued, but rather in the order in which the player made their major league debut. Thus, even though the card for Esteban Bellán wasn’t produced until 2014, he is the first one in the set.

Super Asymmetry meets Play Ball

Author’s note: I suspect what I’m presenting here must have been obvious to the collectors of the day. However, any record of it seems to have gone unpublished. I am hopeful that I am sharing something new and interesting to our readership, but feel free to let me know in the comments if this is more “knew” than “new!”

My previous Cardboard Crosswalk examined the 1941 Play Ball set’s connections to its 1940 predecessor. As I researched and wrote the piece, it was only a passing thought that the 1939 debut offering would contribute anything essential to the story, so I was happy to save the 10+ hours of work any deeper look would provide. It certainly didn’t occur to me that the connection between the 1939 and 1940 set might be the single most unusual and interesting connection between any two baseball card sets ever produced.

Here, then, is the story of an incredible secret, perfectly hidden in the one place nobody would ever think to look: in plain sight.

Williams and DiMaggio

We’ll start the story with the two top cards in the 1939 set, shown here with their 1940 follow-ups.

Williams and Joe D.jpg

There is a nice asymmetry to the four cards. As Williams moves from an action pose to a portrait, DiMaggio does just the opposite.

For collectors undecided as to whether they prefer portraits vs action poses, it might seem fortuitous to end up with one of each. The secret of the sets, however, is that there is no happy accident here. This asymmetry is THE defining feature of the 1939-40 Play Ball sets! Let’s take a closer look.

Repeated players

The 1939 Play Ball set consists of 161 cards. (The cards are numbered to 162, but there is no card 126.) Of the 161 subjects featured in the set, 137 are repeated in the larger 240-card 1940 release.

As the graph below shows, these repeated players (red) came entirely from the first two-thirds of the set. Whereas most repeats from 1940 to 1941 reused photos, the opposite was true from 1939 to 1940. Of the 137 repeated subjects, only 11 (yellow) reused the previous year’s photos.

1940 art repeats

The other 126 (92%) used new photos. It is these 126 slots on the checklist that will be our main focus from this point forward.

Starting off 24 for 24

Here are the first six such cards on the 1940 checklist. (All are Yankees as the 1940 checklist was largely organized by team.) Beneath each card is its 1939 counterpart.

Batch 1rev

The three action poses from 1940 correspond to three portraits from 1939 and vice versa: Super Asymmetry nearly 80 years before Drs. Cooper and Fowler even proposed the idea on the Big Bang Theory!

Now let’s head to the next 6 cards: 7-11 and 13. And look at that! For every portrait in 1940 an action shot in 1939 and vice versa. Super Asymmetry again!

Batch 2

We’ll pause here, having examined the first 12 repeated players in the 1940 set, to consider the odds of such an outcome having happened by chance alone. While more complicated modeling leading to even lower probabilities is possible, the simplest and best case scenario would be (1/2)^12 = 1/4096 ≈ 0.00024.

And now, onto the next 6 cards: 14-19. Perhaps you’re not even surprised at this point. The probability of asymmetry through the first 18 cards? One in 262,144!

Batch 3.jpg

Now here are cards 20-25. The probability by chance now drops to around 1 in 17 million!

Batch 4

Definitely not random!

By now I hope I’ve convinced you that the swapping between portraits and action poses for each player is no accident but a very intentional design feature of the set. I imagine there are two ways this arrangement could have come about.

  1. The photographer, George Burke, could have provided Gum Inc with two images of each player: a portrait and an action pose. Once one was chosen for the 1939 set, the other then became the default photo for the 1940 set.
  2. Alternately, Gum Inc could have been more intentional by either drawing an opposite pose from some larger collection of player photos or asking Burke to provide the opposite of whatever he’d provided the year before.

Either one of these approaches seems to require more planning, consideration, and expense than anything I would have thought possible at the time. It’s really quite remarkable. (And if you are dying to know which of these explanations is more likely, read on till the end. I have a good guess till someone debunks it in the comments!)

Before continuing through the set, I’ll also pause to comment on the connection (so far) between Super Asymmetry and the 1941 set. Granted there were not many players who made the checklists of all three Play Ball sets, but let’s consider those who did (e.g,. Williams, DiMaggio). Gum Inc had already provided both a portrait and an action pose. Were they to provide another portrait of Teddy Ballgame, they’d be copying 1940, and were they to provide an action pose, they at least broadly be copying 1939. The strategy they had employed to make 1940 as different as possible from 1939 had led them to a no-win situation for 1941.

Rather than accept defeat and go with one or the other, Gum Inc pulled the first (and perhaps only!) Kobayashi Maru of the trading card world. By moving to color, they ensured the 1941 series would look completely different from either of its predecessors regardless of whether portraits or posed action was used.

Two dozen more for good measure

Here are the next 24 repeated players, along with their 1939 counterparts.

Batch 5

Batch 6

Batch 7

Batch 8.jpg

Once again, each 1940 card shows the opposite pose of its predecessor from 1939. We are now a perfect 48 for 48. Perhaps you can predict the ending at this point.

Not so fast…

As the 1940-1941 crosswalk showed, a set can start out one way and finish another way. Indeed we will not go 126 for 126, which is why we are dealing with only Super Asymmetry rather than Perfect Asymmetry!

Before looking at the cards themselves, I’ll present an updated 1940 Play Ball checklist with nine new shaded cells corresponding to the set’s asymmetry exceptions, i.e., cards where either the 1939 and 1940 photos were both portraits or both action poses.

1940 corrected grid.gif

The seven green cells

First up is Pete Appleton, card 128, who moves from the Senators to the White Sox. (All seven green cell card will involve team changes.) As a side note useful to Appleton supercollectors, Pete Appleton began his big league career as Pete Jablonowski, the name used on his 1933 Goudey and 1934 Canadian Goudey cards.

Appleton

Lynn “Line Drive” Nelson, card 135, moves from the Athletics to the Tigers, where he certainly lived up to his nickname. Though his at bats were limited as a pitcher, he parlayed his famously low launch angle into a .348 batting average.

Nelson

Beau Bell, card 138 and French for Beautiful Beautiful, moves from the Tigers to the Indians in his two portraits poses.

Bell.jpg

Joe Vosmik, card 144, moves from the Red Sox to the Dodgers, a transfer camouflaged by the matching hats but revealed by the differing jerseys.

Vosmik.jpg

Pinky Shoffner, card 149, moves from the Braves to the Reds just in time to win the pennant.

Shoffner

Ray Hayworth, card 155, changes sides in the Big Apple’s crosstown rivalry.

Hayworth.jpg

Finally, imminent batting champ Debs Garms, card 161 and a featured player in the 1940-41 crosswalk, moves from the Bees to the Pirates.

Garms2.jpg

Our analysis of the 1940 Play Ball set would be ready to tie a bow around if not for two inconvenient cards, highlighted in blue on our checklist.

The two blue cells

Cards 150 and 151 in the 1940 set belong to Cincinnati players Whitey Moore and Eddie Joost, whose stat line upon moving to the A’s makes it look like he might have!

Blue Guys.jpg

As often happens in the research I do, I have no explanation at all for why these two players had portraits in each set. Looking back at the checklist, I suppose it’s possible that whoever was responsible for cards 143-151 simply didn’t get the memo, and I suppose it’s also possible that Gum Inc simply had no action shots available. At any rate, two is not a big number.

Final thoughts

I speculated earlier as to the two most likely explanations for this near-perfect pairing of portraits and action poses. I am ready now to narrow this down to the first of the two.

Let’s assume that the photographer, George Burke, initially took a portrait and action shot of each of the players in the 1939 set, that Gum Inc simply slotted one for 1939 and the other for 1940 as needed.

The one place this approach would fail to provide for the 1940 release would be if a player changed teams. In these cases the leftover photos would no longer be current enough to use. As we have just seen, eight of the ten exceptions to portrait-action pairs occur with players who did exactly that.

The next clue actually came at the very start of this article. (I know it’s bad form to end a Super Asymmetry article with this kind of symmetry, but sometimes it just happens.)

Williams and Joe D2.jpg

Folks I know who are good at such things tell me these photos of the Splendid Splinter and Yankee Clipper were taken in 1939. (Among the “evidence” presented: “Williams didn’t smile for the camera after 1939.”) If so then it’s easy to imagine a similar story for the other 135 repeated players in the 1940 set.

However, this is a case where the how and the why are less notable than the what. The near-perfect pairing of portraits and action poses is the main headline here as such a connection between the 1939 and 1940 Play Ball sets is something unseen before or after in the long history of the hobby. That this pairing could go unnoticed (or at least unpublished) all this time makes it that much more remarkable.

Appendix for the die-hards

Early in the article I mentioned that 11 of the repeated players in the 1940 set did not get new photos. For completeness, I wanted to at least show them. The first two, Chuck Klein and Gene Moore, appeared in the 1941 set with colorized versions (and uniform updates) of their 1939-40 photos. The other nine players were not part of the 1941 set at all, hence any variety in their cards was limited to black/white vs sepia, slight differences in zoom, and an occasional tilt.

1940  to 1941 same pics.jpg