1977 and the Hirsute Hardball Hero

Nothing captured the zeitgeist of the late 1970s better than the mustache—an exceedingly visible symbol of assertive manliness. No collection of cardboard depicted our hirsute hardball heroes better than the 1977 Topps set.

My first flashes of baseball consciousness were as a kindergartener in 1977. My earliest memory of peeling open a pack of baseball cards occurred that season. It was about this time my dad grew an exemplary handlebar mustache. These mustaches were not so fashionable just a handful of years earlier in baseball, however.

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In 1917, Athletics catcher Wally Schang caused quite a stir when he announced he would wear a mustache—the only one in the major leagues—because it made him “look more dignified and less like a ballplayer when off the field.” When Philadelphia visited the Yankees at the Polo Grounds on April 9, New York teased Schang mercilessly for daring to sport that “bit of shredded wheat” upon his lip. When Schang hit a go-ahead three-run home run in the top of the ninth, his mustache got the star treatment, “Schang’s mustache quivered defiantly as he dashed toward first base. It twitched noticeably as he turned second, and bristled as he rounded third and followed two runners home…never again will the Yankees be so reckless as to kid a guy with a soup strainer under his proboscis. Never again will they tempt the fates that keep watch over three or four misplaced wild hairs.”

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Schang eventually shaved the mustache in a show of team unity—his clubmates judged the mustache a jinx. The papers eulogized the whisker loss, but the gesture was of no consequence as the Athletics ended the 1917 campaign in the cellar with a dismal 37-81 record. It would be some nineteen years before another player would boldly sport a mustachio.

Outfielder Stanley Bordagaray showed up at Brooklyn Dodgers spring training in 1936 with a mustache he had grown for a cameo role in a film named The Prisoner of Shark Island. As he entered the April 14 season opener as a seventh-inning defensive replacement, his magnificent mustache conjured an “advertisement for bock beer” and sent “feminine hearts fluttering.”

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Bordagaray shaved the mustache shortly thereafter but was apparently beset with regret. He grew it back, sporting a “second-growth” mustache as he pinch ran in the ninth inning at Ebbets Field on May 22. His status as the only mustachioed player did not last, however. It was still newsworthy when Bordagaray shaved his mustache for good sometime in June—at least in Lincoln, Nebraska.

 

By all accounts, Major League Baseball did not see facial hair on a ballplayer again until Dick Allen in 1970. As a member of the Cardinals, Allen’s mustache was documented in the St. Louis Cardinals Picture Pack and Photocard sets. After his postseason trade to the Dodgers, Allen’s facial hair made its first national appearance in Topps’ 1971 high-number series, with card number 650 depicting a smiling, mustachioed Allen—the only card in the set to feature a bewhiskered player. Perhaps this was not surprising considering prevailing attitudes about baseball and facial hair at the time. That summer, an American Legion team from Orlando chose to forfeit after the tournament director ordered eight of the players to get haircuts or shave.

The 1972 set contained roughly five mustaches, including Reggie Jackson, who is often credited, incorrectly, with bringing the mustache back to baseball. Jackson, however, did inspire Athletics owner Charlie Finley to offer a $300 facial hair bonus to the Oakland players who had grown a mustache by his June 18 “Mustache Day” promotion that season.

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As the mustache gained more popular acceptance in baseball, the numbers of players sporting mustaches in Topps baseball card sets began to grow wildly. The 1973 set featured 17 bewhiskered players. There were 87 in 1974 and 144 in 1975. The 1976 and 1977 sets saw 195 and 190 mustachioed players, respectively. There were 232 mustaches in 1978 and the decade ended with a downright shaggy 1979 set that included some 259 mustached ballplayers.

Of all these sets, however, 1977 best captured the essence of mustachio and chronicled the finest pogonotrophy of the decade. Here are the best mustaches of 1977 in the Topps set:

Honorable mention: Wayne Garland, #33; Willie Horton, #660; Dave Tomlin #241.

10. John Lowenstein, Topps #393/O-Pee-Chee #175

After the 1976 season, Lowenstein was traded by Cleveland to the Blue Jays. Before the 1977 season, he was traded back to the Indians. [Despite never having appeared in a regular season game for Toronto, his 1977 O-Pee-Chee card shows him in a Blue Jays uniform.] Even if you squint and look at this card, Lowenstein’s mustache is unmistakably prominent. Not sure this is a requisite yardstick—but it is a good start.

9. Rollie Fingers, Topps #523

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Fingers grew his mustache to cash in on Charlie Finley’s “Mustache Day” bonus offer in 1972 and has sported his trademark handlebar ever since. In his first season with the Padres in 1977, Fingers led the league in games, games finished, and saves. And probably mustache wax.

8. Bill Greif, Topps #112/O-Pee-Chee #243

Bill Greif’s exemplary horseshoe and crap-eating grin belied the challenges of his personal life. As a healthy 27-year-old, Greif left baseball before the Expos broke camp in order to focus on his child’s medical condition. He never appeared for the Expos or any other team in 1977 and a brief comeback attempt in 1978 fizzled at Tidewater.

7. Bill Buckner, Topps #27

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Despite being pictured on a Dodgers card, Buckner has been traded to the Cubs in January. Subjectively, this card would have ranked much higher if Billy Buck was shown in a Cubs uniform – he was my first favorite player ever. Regardless, the hypnotic draw of his mustache is enough to render the card’s uncomfortably askew background imperceptible. (Seriously, did you just have to take another look?)

6. Phil Garner, Topps #261/O-Pee-Chee #34

Composition is everything with this card—a profile shot that allows one to fully appreciate Garner’s prodigious whisker depth. Even half of this walrus mustache is enough to demand more. Having been traded to the Pirates before the 1977 season, Garner’s O-Pee-Chee card features an alternate photograph with probably one of the most perfectly lit mustaches ever.

5. George Hendrick, Topps #330/O-Pee-Chee #218

Hendrick is utterly regal while donning a satin warm-up jacket, crisp visor, and horseshoe mustachio. Hendrick posted his career year by bWAR (5.8) in 1977 as a member of the Padres. His O-Pee-Chee cardboard is unusual in that the airbrush artist used the visor as the basis for Hendrick’s Padres “cap,” resulting in an oddly squat crown.

4. Al Hrabosky, Topps #495

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Deemed the “Mad Hungarian,” Hrabosky’s demonstrative mound demeanor was only accentuated by his impressive whiskers. Bonus points in this card for the pillbox hat, too. Hrabosky is the only player in Major League history whose last name started with “Hr” to surrender a home run.

3. Ramon Hernandez, Topps #95/1968 Topps #382 

Hernandez appeared in just six games for the 1977 Cubs before he was shipped off to Boston. His time in Chicago is certainly best remembered for his most gentlemanly walrus. [Hernandez looked decidedly different on his 1968 Topps Cubs card.]

2. Dennis Leonard, Topps #75

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There’s a new sheriff in town. Looking as though he just stepped of the set of a Western soundstage, Leonard led the league with 20 wins in 1977, the first of three times he would win 20 or more. And how could you not love a guy with two first names or two last names or one of each?

1. Luis Tiant, Topps #258

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This is a stunner that has only gotten better with age. Amid his twisty windup, Tiant faced fully away from the batter. As he turned back, batters were mesmerized by his reemerging horseshoe mustache. Tiant is one of only 22 pitchers to amass 2400 strikeouts and post a career ERA of 3.30 or less. (All but Roger Clemens, Max Scherzer, and Sam McDowell from that list are in the Hall of Fame.) Tiant belongs there. Until then, he is a charter member of the Baseball Mustache Hall of Fame and caretaker of the best mustache in the 1977 Topps baseball card set.

Overall, my favorite mustache in 1977 belonged to my dad. But there were some other great ones out there, too.

Notes:

Counting mustaches was a surprisingly hairy task. Topps cards of the 1970s often used photos of dubious quality and odd perspectives that made identifying mustachioed players challenging. Additionally, shadows sometimes created potentially illusory mustaches. Judgment calls were made, especially when no conclusive determination was possible with the assistance of magnification.

For this exercise, only single-player/manager cards were counted. I did not include action cards, leaders, highlights, multiple-player rookie cards, or cards from any other subsets.

I was not able to find any baseball cards of Wally Schang or Frenchy Bordagaray in which they were depicted with a mustache.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com
http://www.retrosheet.org
http://www.tcdb.com
• King, Norm. “Frenchy Bordagaray,” SABR Baseball Biography Project, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/frenchy-bordagaray/, accessed July 14, 2020.
• Wolf, Gregory H. “Bill Greif,” SABR Baseball Biography Project, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/bill-greif/, accessed July 14, 2020.
• Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), March 31, 1917, 17.
• Photo of Schang, Buffalo Courier, May 24, 1917, 10.
• “Schang Wears Mustache, Only One in the Majors,” The Washington Post, May 28, 1917, 6.
• “Induce Schang to Remove Mustache but Team Loses,” Buffalo Evening News, June 21, 1917, 18.
• Hughes, Ed, “Since Bordagaray Intends Sporting a ‘Soup Strainer’!,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 9, 1936, 18.
• McLemore, Henry, “Some Odds and Ends as Dodgers were Taking their First Beating,” The Brooklyn Citizen, April 15, 1936, 6.
• Brietz, Eddie, “Sports Roundup,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, April 15, 1936, 17.
• Photo of Bordagaray, Detroit Free Press, April 19, 1936, 48.
• Diamond Dust, Daily News (New York, New York), May 23, 1936, 240.
• The Lincoln Star (Lincoln, Nebraska) June 19, 1936, 16.
• “In Hair Dispute: A Team Cuts Itself,” The Morning News (Wilmington, Delaware) August 10, 1971, 22.

In the course of current events

For the most part baseball cards reflect last year. Last year’s stats, last year’s teams, last year’s highlights, last year’s posteseason, last year’s leaders, etc. Yes this has never been exclusively the case with multiple series releases in the past making things complicated and dedicated traded and update sets in more recent years which exist to explicitly address the last-year’s-information issue.* But speaking in a general way, I’ve never expected my cards to be current.

*Later-season releases like O Pee Chee also fit in this category.

This season-long delay makes it easy for cards to avoid commenting on current, or even semi-current, events. The closest I can think of are the memorial cards in 1964 which mention events that happened the year they were issued. Compare those to how ToppsNOW avoided mentioning Tyler Skaggs despite the emotion of the no hitter just last year and it’s clear to me that I shouldn’t expect Topps, or any other company, to change things up.*

*The Stephen Piscotty card from 2018 may be the only exception to this.

That Topps includes Flashback inserts in its Heritage sets that describe noteworthy events that happened in the original set year has me thinking about what would happen if Topps chose to address even just events that happened in the past year. What kind of events might Topps choose and how would it deal with politically charged news?*

*The closest Topps has come to this was by releasing a Heritage Flashback card of the Voting Rights Act the year after the Supreme Court gutted it.

Enter Project 2020. The massive amount of engagement, interest, and speculation that has accompanied the emergence of Artist Cards as a viable collecting medium has driven most of the commentary. Recently though two cards from Efdot Studio have caught my eye for a completely different reason.

His JaKCie Robinson card dropped mid-June in the midst of the first wave of the Black Lives Matter protests precipitated by the George Floyd murder. It’s a hell of a card with a lot of great stuff going on but what struck me first was that small Justice sign in the top right corner.

Major League Baseball has a tendency to trot Jackie out as a defensive measure against any racial critiques. As if retiring his number league-wide and having a special Jackie Robinson Day each season somehow makes up for ever-decreasing numbers of African American players and a near-absence of African American coaches and front office executives.

Efdot’s card is a reminder that Jackie’s struggle is still ongoing. Things weren’t solved 73 years ago and it took a horrific murder for many white players to recognize what their black teammates have been trying to tell them. The Kansas City Monarchs logo meanwhile is a reminder of how while Jackie represents the integration of MLB on the field, he also represents the destruction of the Negro Leagues.

I’m honestly shocked that Topps published it. Yes we’ve been getting all kinds of corporate messaging (including from Topps) decrying injustice but I remain skeptical about any company taking a real stand. It’s just not the corporate way where trying to both-sides an issue and remain centrist/ignorant is the “best” way to not offend anyone.

One of the coolest things about digital art and (and digital cards) is that you can get stuff like this timelapse of many of the different ideas that Efdot had. Including a couple that didn’t make the cut such as the MLB/BLM which he eventually replaced with “Justice.” As much as  the final card captures the moment and takes Topps into areas it doesn’t usually go, it’s also interesting to see that things could’ve gone further.

Efdot actually says that he and Topps pulled back because they didn’t want to commercialize “Black Lives Matter.”* I understand this but also feel like it represents a missed opportunity. It’s a good thing to not want to piggy back on a movement like this for profit. It’s a bad thing if that instinct results in behavior which is indistinguishable from not caring.

*Something that may also explain Topps’s choice regarding Tyler Skaggs last year.

Would it be more work to find a non-profit to steer the money into? Absolutely. But that would be a much more meaningful statement.

A couple weeks later Efdot did it again. This time with a fantastic Dr. K card where Gooden is wearing a facemask. As with the Jackie card there’s a ton of wonderful small details but the mask steals the show. We’re three months into a pandemic crisis that shows no sign of letting up partly because many people refuse to follow the most basic of advice that doctors insist on.

Wear a mask. Listen to doctors. Protect each other.

Are those things explicit in the card? No. That would be boring. But the mask; that Gooden is named as “Dr. K;” that he’s not only a New York player but that the Mets play in Queens, the hardest-hit borough of the hardest-hit city (so far) in the US; that there’s a detail of the Unisphere which is explicitly about global interdependence and is located in a place literally (and yes coincidentally) named Corona Park. Everything works together here and the message is clear.

Wear a mask. Listen to doctors. Protect each other.

I’m not surprised Topps published this one. As a New York company this would be a lot more personal to everyone at Topps Headquarters.* It still represents a willingness to wade in on not only current, but still-ongoing events that I don’t expect from Topps. Plus there are enough other corporations out there whose first step was to try and both-sides mask wearing.

*I am surprised we haven’t seen collectible facemasks but that’s another post for another day.

When you partner with artists you open yourself up to them commenting on things beyond the simple subject matter in the prompt you’ve given them. The best Project 2020 cards start with the card but explore who the player is, what he represents, and our associations with him and his team.

Jackie Robinson was a long-overdue first step, not the solution, and we still need to fight his fight today. Dwight Gooden is a Queens legend and we can learn a lot from what Queens and New York went through last March.

Stay safe out there and don’t just be a spectator in the fight for justice.

50 years ago today…

During the 1960’s and 1970’s, through-the-mail communication was an invaluable resource for collectors. So much so that publications like Marshall Oreck’s The Collector’s Directory and Irv Lerner’s Who’s Who in Card Collecting were compiled to help everyone connect. And connect they did. But it was in 1969 that something happened to change the course of hobby history — a gathering of multiple sports collectors in one place, at one time finally became a viable concept. That year, small gatherings or “conventions” of around a dozen collectors started popping up around the country and were documented in hobby periodicals of the day.

Mike Aronstein sorting 1963 Topps.

My father, Michael P. Aronstein, hosted his own “convention” at the Aronstein family home on March 15, 1970 — 50 years ago today. For some perspective, I asked hobby historian David Kathman (trdcrdkid on Net54) to provide his thoughts regarding the occasion:

“Your dad’s March 15, 1970 ‘convention’ wasn’t the first such hobby convention, but it was the largest one up to that point (with 19 attendees), the first one in New York state, and the second one on the east coast (after a 9-person gathering at Mike Anderson’s house in South Weymouth in early December 1969)… but your dad’s 1970 convention is rightly considered a landmark because of the people who were there, several of whom became very influential in the hobby, and the fact that it was the first in the New York area.”

There’s quite a bit of info out there regarding the hobby pioneers who attended so I won’t delve too much into their individual stories here. I do encourage you to research them on your own, however. They’ve all got unique stories and -as is the case with most things in our hobby- you’ll be taken down a rabbit hole that goes off in a million different interesting directions.

Here’s a postcard from hobby pioneer Crawford Foxwell to my father confirming he’d be attending the convention along with Tom Collier. Keep in mind Tom Collier was the “TC” in TCMA but they didn’t partner up until 1972. Third image is a wire photo depicting Foxwell with his collection in 1975.

Photos taken by my father on March 15, 1970 during the convention at his home. Note my sister, Melina with the “Welcome Collectors” sign (we’re still eight years pre-Andrew here). Now see if you can spot the uncut sheet of 1970 Topps hidden in there somewhere.

All collectors in attendance signed several 8 1/2 x 11 uncut 1968 SCFC (Sports Cards for Collectors) sheets. Good luck tracking down one of these in the wild! A full list of the names are below along with where they traveled to the convention from.

SIX of these men (that I know of) either owned a T206 Honus Wagner at the time or would shortly after the event. I’ve placed an asterisk next to their names. Bill Haber actually brought his Wagner to the convention. Also worth noting -among many other deals struck that day- a T206 “Magie” error changed hands from Dennis Graye to Bill Mastro.

  • Bill Haber* – Brooklyn, NY
  • Crawford Foxwell – Cambridge, MD
  • Bill Zekus – Elmsford, NY
  • Dave Zemsky – Bronx, NY
  • Nate Cohen – New York, NY
  • Tom Dischley – New York, NY
  • Dennis Graye – Detroit, MI
  • Mike Jaspersen – Rosemont, PA
  • Fred McKie* – Fairleigh Dickinson University
  • Bruce Yeko – New York, NY
  • Irv Lerner* – Philadelphia, PA
  • Dan Dischley – Lake Ronkonkoma, NY
  • Mike Aronstein* – Yorktown Heights, NY
  • Bob Jaspersen – Rosemont, PA
  • Bill Mastro* – Bernardsville, NJ
  • Tom Collier* – Easton, MD
  • Bill Himmelman – Norwood, NJ
  • Jim MacAllister – Philadelphia, PA
  • Myron S. Aronstein – Mount Vernon, NY

With Dan Dischley and Bob Jaspersen attending, of course this convention received coverage in their hobby publications The Trader Speaks and Sport Fan respectively.

-Bob Jaspersen, publisher Sport Fan

See the young man sporting blue in the photos above? That’s Mike Jaspersen. Heres his “Stealth Extremely Short Print” card from 2017 Topps Allen & Ginter. “Mike attended his sports card show in 1970.” Yes, he did and we’ve got proof!

Following the 1970 convention at his home, Dad attended a similar gathering at Crawford Foxwell’s place in 1971, known as the Mid-Atlantic Sports Collectors Convention. I call this his “super-villain” shot because, well, you be the judge.

Dad then attended the 1972 Midwest Sports Collectors Convention in Detroit and also founded TCMA with Tom Collier that year. In 1973 he went on to help plan and host the ASCCA (American Sports Card Collectors Association) shows in NYC with Bruce Yeko and brothers Bob and Paul Gallagher.

The first of many ASCCA shows was held May, 25-27 1973 at the District 65 Center at 13 Astor Place in Manhattan. Great images from this event were posted by Sports Collectors Daily in 2018 and can be found here. It was also chronicled by Keith Olbermann in the very first issue of Sports Collectors Digest, dated October 12, 1973. 6 of the 19 people at the March 15, 1970 convention are also depicted in the SCD photos below.

Fred McKie, Mike Aronstein & Frank Nagy at the 1972 Midwest Sports Collectors Convention.
Who doesn’t love free buttons? An ASCCA show staple.

Where the hobby will be 50 years from now is anyone’s guess. A LOT has happened since those 19 guys got together in 1970. What we do know right now is that the hobby is booming — let’s keep that up! Dad and I hope to see you all in Baltimore for #SABR50 this summer and Atlantic City for the National. Feel free to say hi and let’s talk hobby history. Cheers!

Special thanks to hobby historian David Kathman (trdcrdkid on Net54) for his valuable insight and for providing the scans above.

The Gould Collection: What Johnny Left Behind

Just a few days before the opening of “Home Base,” my exhibition about the history of baseball in New York City, I received an email from a woman who had been steered my way by the esteemed official historian of Major League Baseball, John Thorn. The content of the email was, mostly, something I have seen before. A family had inherited a baseball card collection. They believed it had some value but were looking for assistance as to which way to best navigate a sale.

In the few years I have been assisting people in selling their collections, I am, at best, usually approached with cards from the 1970s. Often, it’s even more recent and pretty worthless. I’ve disappointed many a soul when I told them that the five Wade Boggs rookie cards they hoarded as a kid weren’t going to make them a millionaire. I’ve reached a point where I understand that such collections aren’t worth the many hours that go into what it takes to inventory, organize and sell a collection, and I pass on the opportunity.

But, this email had two distinctive features. The first was the recommendation from John, who has the wisdom to know if something is the real deal. The second was that this family had already done a considerable amount of inventorying and research in the eight months since their uncle died. They sent me a series of handwritten lists they had created, which told me which sets they had and which cards were missing from each. It was intriguing enough that last week I decided to meet with them to see it in person.

I met the three sisters, Karen, Lynn, and Mary, and their mother, Gertrude. They made me a splendid breakfast and regaled me with stories of their uncle, Johnny Gould. Johnny (the handsome fellow whose picture is at the top of this blog) was born in 1940, was single for most of his life, and was living in the home that belonged to his parents when he died. He was remembered by his family as one who was both “salty and sweet,” a kind soul who was a bit of a reclusive loner. He was also a sports fanatic. All sports. He was a Redskins fan who was the quarterback in many a neighborhood pickup game. He liked basketball and was an avid watcher of golf. But, the true passion of his life was baseball.

Because Whalen only served as a scout for the Indians between 1953-’56, Johnny was clearly already on the radar of major league teams when he was a boy no older than 16.

As a youth, he pursued a professional career. Among the things he left behind in his collection were an interest letter from the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the business cards of John Whalen and Walter Youse, scouts for the Indians and Orioles, respectively. He signed with the Indians, as a pitcher, and was in their minor league system when an arm injury derailed his fledgling career. After his dreams of major league glory were dashed, he continued to channel his love of the game into collecting. It was an intense romance that resulted in a collection that has brought me to pen this little missive.

I am in the middle of inventorying the first five fifty-gallon storage tubs, and those represent just a portion of the collection. The cataloging process will likely take me several more weeks and as a result, I can’t accurately represent the sheer enormity of it, not just yet. However, I have seen enough that a story is starting to emerge.

Robinson’s 1950 Bowman image was based on a photograph taken by Barney Stein, the Dodgers official team photographer.

Johnny began collecting baseball cards in 1950, when he was a ten-year-old boy. His timing was synchronous with the explosion of the hobby, which had been mostly dormant during World War II. Johnny began with Bowman, the only real game in town at that point. That 1950 offering included what we now think of as key cards for Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, and Yogi Berra. The nickels that Johnny paid for a pack of five cards (or one-card packs for a penny), resulted in him having multiple copies of those legendary players, and more, in this relatively affordable vintage set.

After he experienced the photo-based, lushly painted wonder of the 1950 Bowmans, he clearly became hooked. For the next 13 years he purchased every set that Bowman and Topps produced, with the seeming exception of 1960. The quantities he bought would vary, year to year. He was missing fewer than 50 cards that were produced by Bowman from 1950-1955. From Topps, he had a complete set of 1957, was missing only one (ironically inexpensive) card from the 1956 set, and was only a couple dozen cards shy of completing the sets from 1952-55.

Among the many, many cards that Johnny collected in his teens are some of the most iconic ones in the hobby. He not only owned the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle, perhaps second only to the famed T-206 Wagner in terms of desirability by collectors, but he had two 1951 Mantle Bowmans. There are multiple rookie cards for all of the biggest names of baseball’s golden age: Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, Eddie Mathews, Al Kaline, and Sandy Koufax are all represented, just to name a few. Johnny also, at one point in his life, started collecting pre-war cards, too. There are 1934-36 Batter Ups and Diamond Stars, 1935 Goudey 4-in-1s, 1933 Eclipse Imports and a fair sprinkling of 1939 Play Balls, including both the Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio rookie cards.

One of two Bowman ’51 Mantles in Johnny’s collection. The other one has much nicer corners, but I chose to use this image for the blog because the other is in a yellow Card Saver, making an ugly scan. Since I don’t want to touch them any more than is necessary, I chose to not pull it out just yet.
The 1939 Play Ball of Ted Williams is one of the most recognized rookie cards in the hobby, and one of the most frequently sought after, even when suffering from water damage.

The conditions of the cards vary. At some point he trimmed the ’52 Mantle so he could fit it into his wallet, according to the sisters. Most of the wear is more traditional. It’s clear from the ones dating back to the early years that Johnny loved his cards with a little boy’s enthusiasm. But, as he matured, he started to take better care of his collection. The borders of the 1962 Topps, with their dark faux woodgrain, are remarkably sharp and unchipped.

One habit superseded any desire he may have had to keep his cards pristine. Johnny went through a phase in the mid-’50s where he wanted to learn how to sign an autograph, just like his idols. What better arena in which to learn than on the cards themselves, where manufacturers frequently provided a facsimile signature? Johnny had nine copies of Hank Aaron’s 1956 Topps. Five of them feature what I believe are the sixteen-year-old’s florid attempts at replicating the tight signature of Hammerin’ Hank.

The creative autograph stylings of teenage Johnny Gould. Of these, I believe only the faded example on the top right is even potentially legitimate.

His habit of copying signatures almost made me miss a group of 1953 Bowmans that contain, what I now believe to be, legitimate autographs. At first I was working under the premise that they were also fakes, largely because the Mantle autograph looked so different from his more familiar style, with the half-moon M at the front of both parts of his alliterative moniker. Then, I took a second look. On the cards that were obvious forgeries, Johnny’s youthful attempts at copying the signatures weren’t very good. Not only did they look nothing like the real thing, but they were all obviously written in the same hand. The ’53 Bowmans not only seemed to be by different hands, but the cards themselves do not contain a facsimile to inspire his practice. That realization then triggered the memory that Mantle’s signature, like so many others, evolved over the years. With the help of sportscollectorsdigest.com I found a version of Mantle’s autograph from a similar era. I leave the comparison to you.

Top image: Johnny’s 1953 Bowman. Bottom image: Mantle’s 1954 Yankees contract.

Gertrude confirmed that Johnny started taking the bus to Griffith Stadium when he was thirteen. All of the signatures on the ’53 Bowmans, seven in total, were guys who played on American League teams, four of them Yankees. As such, there would have been an opportunity for Johnny to connect with each of them. I’m firmly convinced these signatures are real and will be keeping an eye open for even more examples as I inventory the rest of the collection.

One of three containers filled with hundreds of envelopes. Because he requested autographs for many years, one can observe the evolution of the signatures of players who replied to him more than once.

Autographs became very important to Johnny, ultimately overcoming his collection of baseball cards. While he appears to have mostly stopped buying cards around 1962, that year also marks the beginning of when he started a new hobby. Included in the collection are three boxes of envelopes, with approximately 150 envelopes per box. The dates on the postmarks span the years 1962-’97, and come from around the United States. It seems that Johnny wrote the ballclubs (and later in life, professional golfers), and sent them a SASE filled with blank index cards. The teams returned them, signed, with mixed results in terms of player participation. Often, only one player responded, signing multiple cards. Anyone in need of 12 copies of Charlie Spikes’s autograph?

Some of the envelopes, however, have taken my breath away. One postmarked from San Francisco in 1965 contained the autographs of six Hall of Famers, including Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, Gaylord Perry, Warren Spahn and Willie Mays. Another contained almost the entire starting squad of the 1969 Mets, including Tom Seaver. A third featured many of the 1969 Pirates, including one signed by Roberto Clemente. I had never touched anything that was also once held by Clemente, a personal idol, and the experience left me shaken.

Johnny’s index card from 1969, bearing the signature of The Great One, Roberto Clemente.

The contents of the card collection itself are a rare experience for many hobbyists. A chance to dive into so many of these legendary pieces of cardboard is a precious opportunity indeed, and I expected to be moved by my discoveries along the way. But, I’m normally not an autograph guy. Even as a child, I found something awkward in asking a player to sign something for me. It felt like an invasion of their space, like I was a thief trying to steal their names. So, it is with no small amount of irony that I find myself most captivated by this collection of envelopes. The sisters did not have time to inventory their contents, so each is a surprise to me, and some of the names I am stumbling across are humbling.

The envelopes have also given me a chance to better understand Johnny Gould, the man. It is one thing for a ten (or twenty) year-old boy to spend a few dimes on packs of baseball cards. But to practice a habit for thirty-five years, carrying it through until well past middle-age, speaks to a particular mind. Lynn pointed out that while many of the cards were stored in literal shoeboxes, the envelopes lived in the top drawer of his dresser, always close at hand. Each one of those envelopes, all of them containing the same D.C. return address written in the same, neat, steady hand, is a testament to a passion I readily recognize. For Johnny, those index cards were transformed from simple squares of paper to direct links to the game that he gave his life to, in his most singular way. I, and likely most of you reading this post on this particular blog, can certainly relate.

Once I’m done cataloging all the index cards, I should probably go back and check on the value of the almost 500 stamps that he attached to his requests. The FDR stamp was a part of the USPS “Prominent Americans” series, issued between 1965-’78.

I am excited for what the next few weeks hold. There are still plenty of treasures to discover as I prepare to help the family sell their uncle’s legacy. There’s more I’ve already uncovered that I didn’t even mention this time around. Maybe I’ll have to write more about it as I journey down the path. In the meantime, if any of you might be interested in purchasing items from the Gould Collection, feel free to drop me a line at carhartcards@gmail.com. I’ll be over here, touching history.

If They Can Make it There

I am currently curating an exhibition at Queens College, in Flushing, which will be on display throughout February and March. While I don’t yet have a title for my little experiment (the show marks the first time I have ever done such a thing), the theme of the event centers on the history of baseball in New York City, from its inception to the present day, told through art and artifacts. I am indebted to a number of individuals who are either loaning me pieces from their private collections, or are submitting original work to help me craft the story I am trying to tell.

The gorgeous artwork of Jesse Loving at Ars Longa

Of course, baseball cards are a part of the event. I have long known that I wanted Jesse Loving, creator of the beautiful Ars Longa cards, to be a part of this. Although he had gone on a bit of a hiatus, he kindly agreed to fire up the engines again and is providing me with roughly 80 cards that cover the game in the Big Apple from William Wheaton and Doc Adams, to Rube Marquard and Casey Stengel, a span of roughly eighty years. I am giddy at the idea of creating a wall of his lush, vibrant images, and eagerly await the arrival of the package.

With one or two exceptions, I was intending for Jesse’s work to be the only cards in the show. There are lots of ways to tell the history of the game that have nothing to do with our favorite hobby and I wanted the beautiful creations of Ars Longa to exist in a vacuum. Then, I learned last week that one of the individuals who was contributing some truly exciting pieces from the 19th Century had decided to withdraw from the exhibition. I had to come up with something to fill the holes on the walls of the gallery left by his exit.

I am not a fine artist, nor do I have a particularly extensive collection of artifacts and memorabilia laying about. So, what to do? While the pieces I lost were from the 19th Century, I actually have some of Jesse’s cards, as well as uniforms and equipment loaned to me by Eric Miklich, that are already assisting me in telling that part of the story. I also have quite a few items that represent the Golden Age of baseball in New York, the halcyon days of Willie, Mickey, and the Duke. What the show was really lacking was a nod to the more modern incarnation of the game. The best way for me to benefit my show, and fill the unexpected void, was to focus on that gap.

That’s when it struck me that, while I don’t really have a lot of personal memorabilia at hand, there was a way I could tackle my problem at very little expense. Any exhibit on the history of New York City, (especially one taking place in the most ethnically diverse borough, on a campus that hears over 110 languages spoken every single day) needs to explore the beautiful multiculturalism that makes this City what it is. That was when I came up with my plan, a work I am calling, “If They Can Make it There.”

In the long history of professional baseball, there have been men who were born in over fifty countries besides the United States that have made the incredible and unlikely journey to the Major Leagues. While the Dominican Republic and Venezuela have provided an outsized portion of these ballplayers, countries as far-flung as Belize, the Czech Republic and Australia have also chipped in. Many of those foreign-born athletes got their professional starts in New York City. In fact, twenty-one different countries, not counting the U.S. and its territories, have generated players who made their Major League debut with the Yankees or the Mets. My plan to fill in my unexpected vacancy is to honor these men, and what better way to do it than through the beauty of baseball cards.

I am putting together a collection of these itinerant dreamers which will feature each of them in the uniform of either the Yankees or the Mets. Why just those teams and not also the Giants, Dodgers, and the multiple early squads? Two reasons. The first I already mentioned. The goal was to try and examine the impact of the game in the present day. By focusing on just the Yankees and Mets, it reinforces that point by design. The other reason is economics. Now, I can complete this set, mostly, with inexpensive cards from the last thirty or forty years.

Beyond the player appearing in a New York uniform, I decided to lay down a few other guidelines to make this creation have a little more form, and not just be a random mishmash of cards thrown up on the wall. First of all, no reprints. While the exhibition will feature some reproductions (uniforms, mostly), I have been trying to limit their influence all along. No need to further water down this project by including “fake” versions of the cards. Besides, very few of the cards I needed were particularly valuable, so why resort to knock-offs? I also wanted, if at all possible, for the card to have been issued at the time the player was employed by that team.

Jim Cockman’s .105 average may explain why the 1905 season was his lone chance at the big leagues.

This is not always feasible. A number of players who fit this criteria, including cups of coffee like Jim Cockman (born in Canada) and Harry Kingman (China), both of whom made brief appearances with the Yankees years before Jacob Ruppert signed Babe Ruth, never had any card issued, nonetheless one of them wearing the proper uniform. There are even holes for more durable players from recent years, like Stan Javier (Dominican Republic), who enjoyed a seventeen-year career that ended in 2001. During his first big league season, in 1984, he appeared in seven early-season games for the Yankees before being shipped back to Nashville and Columbus for more seasoning. He would later appear on the roster of seven other major league teams, but he never played another game for the Yankees. The Trading Card Database claims he has 289 cards out there, but none of them were issued in 1984 or ’85 featuring Javier in pinstripes.

There are missing pieces of the puzzle for the Mets, too. Utility man José Moreno (Dominican Republic) and shortstop Brian Ostrosser (Canada) never got a card of themselves in blue and orange, at least not while actively playing for the team. I have decided that in their cases, as well as that of Javier, to bend the rules and use one of the cards that came with the sets issued by the NYC-based appliance retailer, The Wiz, in the early nineties. While most of the hundreds who appear in this ubiquitous set were no longer active members of the roster at the time the cards were issued, at least they are dressed properly. I am also considering getting an Aceo Art card of Frank Estrada (Mexico), whose two lifetime plate appearances were insufficient to ever make Topps take notice.

The sets issued by The Wiz were originally released in 15-card sheets.

Most of the collection, though, will be the real deal. There are cards from almost all of the big name publishers of the modern era, including Topps, Bowman, Fleer and Donruss. There will be plenty of Junk Era wax, as well as the slick chromes that have come to represent the current state of the industry. The bulk of the exhibit will include roughly 130 cards (purchased via COMC or already in my collection) that cost me a combined total of $45.76. Most exciting to me, however, is that there will be a small handful of pre-war cards thrown in there, too. I decided to reward my clever thriftiness by investing in some slightly pricier goodies.

Arndt Jorgens played for the Yankees his entire career, serving as Bill Dickey’s backup.

I’ve already picked up a 1934 Goudey Arndt Jorgens (Norway), a 1934-36 Diamond Stars George Selkirk (Canada), and a 1911 T205 Jimmy Austin (United Kingdom). I also have my eye on two T206s, a Jack Quinn (Slovakia) and a Russ Ford (Canada). Assuming the Ebay gods favor me and I get the latter two, they will represent the first cards I’ve owned from that hobby-defining set. These bits of old paper not only give the exhibit a little more gravitas as a whole, but when it’s all over I will have some gems to add to my personal collection.

The exhibit also gives me a chance to show off a little bit of my beloved collection of Cubans who made the leap to the majors. There have been eight Cubans who began their major league career as Yankees, most recently Amauri Sanit in 2011. The Mets have birthed the careers of four citizens of the forbidden island, the most notable of which was Rey Ordoñez. While Ordoñez was famously weak at the plate, rarely hitting more than a single home run in a season, he was a defensive mastermind at shortstop in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, when the Amazin’s had one of the most exciting infields in baseball history. His partner in the middle of the diamond, Edgardo Alfonzo (Venezuela), will also be featured.

The players mentioned here really are just the tip of the iceberg. The exhibit will also include some of the brightest stars of today, including Gleyber Torres (Venezuela) and Miguel Andujar (Dominican Republic). Ron Gardenhire (Germany) makes an appearance, as do the Mastuis (Japan), Hideki and the less-successful Kazuo. There is even one Hall of Famer who is featured, buried in the dozens of other more obscure names. The quickest among you will figure out who that is almost instantly. The rest of you, well, I guess you’ll just have to stop by the college and find out. My currently unnamed exhibition opens February 18. I hope to see you there.

Angel in Cooperstown

Induction Weekend in Cooperstown is the best. If you’ve never been here for it, work on it! Before I moved to Cooperstown I’d never been to Induction. Now, I’d never miss it.

From Friday to Monday, there are events, vendors, signings, player sightings, a baseball fans dream. (Where else can you see Tony Oliva walking down the street, unaccosted?). On Saturday, Main Street is closed and becomes the best baseball block party in the country.

Last month, I worked the Cooperstown Rotary Club tent, selling raffles for an autographed baseball. I loved doing that, standing on Main St., gabbing about baseball with people who do and don’t know me. I have a very small level of fame, so I do get to meet some social media pals in real life. This year, I had an expected treat.

Three men stopped by the tent and one, Angel Colon, was a gift. He’s involved with SABR in Puerto Rico and we talked at length. Angel is involved in many things – using different braches from various trees felled during the devastating hurricane and turning them into baseball bats, creating a book about major leaguers who have played in Puerto Rico –

but the one that grabbed me the most, and fits our little world, is the 40 card set he created of Puerto Rican


League stars.

With work from the great Gary Cieradkowski, the set is tobacco card sized and portrays Major, Negro and Puerto Rican legends. It’s spectacular. The more we talked about the cards, the book, baseball, and Puerto Rico, the more I realized that Angel needed a bigger audience.

The next day, a few hours after Induction, is our annual Cliff Kachline Chapter meeting. It’s our biggest of the year, bringing in SABR members from all over the country. We had a huge lineup – Jane Leavy, Erik Sherman, Jay Jaffe and….me. I was going to talk about Friends of Doubleday, the 501c3 (I’m President) which raises money for Doubleday Field improvements (contact me for more info. There’s cool stuff happening) and the coming Doubleday renovations. It seemed clear to me that Angel was more interesting. I asked him to speak in my place and, though he’d never spoken to a group in public, he accepted. Of course, he killed.

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On top of this, Angel gifted me a copy of the SABR Puerto Rico book and, to my shock and joy, the complete card set! It’s a wondrous series of cards and you should get one too.  Angel’s contact info is here. Reach out. You won’t regret it.

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Barajitas estadounidenses: Copa de Diversión

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

UNCOMMON COMMON: Ernie Barnes

Author’s note: This is the second post in a series highlighting “common players” with stories far richer than the value of their trading cards. The first post in the series profiled Dave Hoskins and can be found here.

The common understanding of the term “Renaissance Man” is of someone with many talents or areas of knowledge. Ernie Barnes fits this description. Less correct but truer to the origin of the word renaissance would be a man reborn. Ernie Barnes fits this description too.

“Song of Myself”

Raised in segregated Durham, North Carolina, Barnes was chubby, nonathletic, and bullied by his Hillside High School classmates. He mainly kept to himself and drew in his sketchbook to pass the time. Tommy Tucker, a teacher at the school, noticed the drawings and took an interest in Barnes. A bodybuilder, Tucker sold Barnes on the positive impact weightlifting could have on his life. By the time he graduated, Barnes was state champion in the shotput and captain of the football team. He also had scholarship offers to 26 colleges.

“Sunday’s Hero”

At North Carolina College, Ernie Barnes played tackle and center on the football team while majoring in art. As a kid, despite his interest, Barnes was never able to visit the North Carolina Museum of Art. Blacks were not allowed. In college, however, Barnes made a trip to the recently desegregated museum with one of his art classes. The answer when Barnes asked where he could find paintings by Negro artists? “Your people don’t express themselves that way.”

“Friendly Friendship Baptist Church”

Twenty-three years the work of Ernie Barnes would fill this same museum, and today his work hangs in Halls of Fame, top galleries, art museums, and the homes of the art world’s top collectors. If you love Motown and grew before everything was digital, there’s a good chance you even have an Ernie Barnes sitting in your music collection.

“Sugar Shack” painting used for Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” album cover

You might even have several!

That’s great, Jason, but what does all this have to do with baseball cards? Well, let me at least bring it back to sports.

“Fast Break”

Barnes was selected in the 8th round of the NFL draft by the Washington Redskins, but his Redskins career lasted only a few minutes. Then the team found out Barnes was black. Two rounds later, the Baltimore Colts called his name but ultimately cut Barnes at the end of training camp. In 1960 Barnes played five games with the Titans of New York, who later became the Jets.

“Football Pileup”

Barnes spent the 1961 and 1962 seasons as a San Diego Charger and the following two seasons with the Denver Broncos. Barnes never approached All-Pro status or even started a game, though he picked up the nickname “Big Rembrandt” for the sketches he did during games, including in huddles.

I suspect when you think of football players turned actors, Barnes is not the first to come to mind.

“O.J. Simpson” (1984)

Nonetheless, Barnes acted in numerous television shows and movies, highlighted by his portrayal of Josh Gibson in the 1981 Satchel Paige biopic “Don’t Look Back.”

There is another connection Ernie Barnes has to baseball, one shared with me by Lawrence “Dan” D’Antignac, owner of Chicago’s historic Woodshop, longtime institution and early commercial epicenter of African American art.

As Dan tells it, his wife had made a trip to Los Angeles to meet with Ernie Barnes and discuss the selling of his work when the meeting was interrupted by a woman hoping to show off the work of her teenage son who 100% lived up to the hype.

Perhaps you’ve tasted the back of some of his artwork…

Or been greeted by it at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City…

“Safe at Home” (2005)

There’s also a very good chance you’ve run across his book.

Of course, you didn’t come here to read about Kadir Nelson or even art! You want CARDS! Well, luckily I aim to please.

While an Ernie Barnes painting would easily set you back five figures if not six, it turns out any motivated collector can add an Ernie Barnes to his or her collection for the price of a bad ham sandwich.

As the title to this post suggests, Ernie Barnes, one of the great artists of the 20th century and an absolute icon in the African American art world, is a mere “common player, starting at around $2 on COMC and eBay.

1964 Topps Football card #48

Common though he is in the price guides, Ernie Barnes is the only man on the set’s 176-card checklist certain to remain relevant not just decades but centuries from now. Somewhere in a museum a young visitor will ask the docent where the works by African Americans are kept. And then, long, long after all 11 Hall of Famers in the 1964 Topps set have faded from memory, the visitor will happen upon an Ernie Barnes and neglect the rest of the day’s plans for a brush with greatness.

“Hook Shot” (1971)

Héroes de Cartón: A Cuban Collection

When I first traveled to Cuba in 2015, I had hoped to bring home some cards of the stars I would be seeing while I was on my baseball tour. Still naive about the differences between Cuban baseball and the major leagues, I believed that there would be such a thing. I knew the stadium amenities weren’t going to be luxurious (they weren’t) and the food at the park was bound to be lousy (it often was, though the pulled pork sliders I bought outside of Estadio 26 de Julio in Aretmisa remain vividly delicious in my memory). Still, surely an enterprising soul, or the government, had managed to publish a few sets of baseball cards. I was quickly corrected by none other than fellow traveler and Cuban baseball expert Peter Bjarkman. He informed me there were no modern cards in Cuba. There was one set published in 1994 which included pre-MLB cards for the Hernández brothers, Liván and Orlando. The one before that was sold in the 1950s.

I had never given much thought of what it would be like to be a youthful fan who could not regularly experience baseball cards. I loved the cards long before I truly loved the game. In the days before the internet and daily airings on team-owned networks, they were my most direct connection. I thrilled with each new pack and the treasures I found inside.

That same passion, this time on the faces of a gaggle of Cuban children, was on display whenever a member of our group pulled out a pack of Topps at one of the five Serie Nacional contests I attended. They would swarm, a collective that would consume any gleaming picture of a hero-in-action they could get their hands on. Bonus points if it was Yasiel Puig or Aroldis Chapman. At one point I pulled out a business card to give to a local sportswriter and a child’s eager hands immediately reached out to me. Just the image of a baseball on my card was enough to ignite their imaginations.

Jorge Soler’s rookie card appears in the Topps 2015 set, the year I began the collection.

All of this got me thinking about the Cuban stars of the past, and whether they had baseball cards. I had learned that generations of Serie Nacional heroes have never had one. But, what about the hundreds of Cubans who played in the major leagues? Surely many of them must have cards. I first considered starting a collection of all of the cards featuring Cuban-born players. I quickly realized that a complete collection of Cubans was going to necessitate far too much energy and money pursuing just José Canseco. There are roughly 3000 distinct cards of the tainted slugger. I decided that maybe the best way to approach this new whim would be to just get the rookie cards. The set would become relatively finite and definitely more achievable.

Many of them have rookie cards, but certainly not all. Some never had a card issued at all, at least none that my current research has revealed. Others have cards, but not ones that modern collectors consider “rookies.” Cards from a player’s minor league days do not qualify. Neither do cards from foreign leagues, such as the pre-revolution Cuban Winter League.

Tony Taylor’s 1958 Topps rookie card. Taylor is tied with Bert Campaneris for career triples by a Cuban-born player.

Such is the case of the Acosta brothers, José and Merito. The two appeared on Clark Griffith’s Cuban-laden Washington Senators of the 1910s and 20s. However, neither made enough of a mark to appear on a card during World War I and the lean years of the hobby that followed. Cards were produced in smaller sets, thus players like Merito, who appeared in 180 games in the outfield over five seasons, and José, who pitched in 55 games over three years, often fell through the cracks.

However, while playing for the 1923/24 Marianao squad of the Cuban League, they both appeared in a set that was issued in their homeland by Billiken. Like their American counterpart, these cards could be found in packs of cigarettes. In addition to Cubans, they also featured American Negro League legends like Oscar Charleston and Andy Cooper. Per the definitions set by modern collectors, these do not qualify as “rookie cards.” I decided that because so many of the pre-revolution members of the fraternity fell into this category, I was expanding my criteria to include first-known cards, as well.

The most respected Cuban-born player in his homeland is Martín Dihigo, whose 1945/6 Caramelo Deportivo is not a part of the collection because the color line kept him out of the majors.

As of this writing, there have been 208 Cuban-born men who have played or managed in the majors. So far, and research is ongoing, there appear to be 194 cards in the set I have designed. I had four at the outset, just by culling from my own collection: a 1990 issue of Tony Fossas, a 1989 Orestes Destrade, a 1987 Rafael Palmeiro and, from a pack bought in the interest of the project, a 2015 Jorge Soler. All of them happened to be Topps. There are numerous other publishers in this set, including Bowman, Upper Deck and Fleer. Going back before World War II, there are Zeenuts, T207s, an E135, and multiple cards from the candy manufacturer Caramelo Deportivo.

Palmeiro holds most of the offensive records for Cuban-born players, even outshining Hall of Famer Tony Perez. If not for his involvement with PEDs, he’d likely be a Hall of Famer, himself.

The day after I finished the first draft of the checklist for the set, I paid a visit to a comic book store in New Paltz, New York. My ex-wife and I meet there sometimes when we exchange our daughter. B is a fan of comics and I like to encourage my kid to become a nerd, just like her old man. While not a large shop, the collection is extensive and a fan of the genre is certain to leave satisfied.

What it does not have, however, is very many baseball cards for sale. The two collectibles will often appear together at small retail shops like this, though such stores usually lean more heavily in one direction. No one would ever think of this place as a local card shop. But, it does sell packs of the current sets and that day had about 50 individual cards up for grabs. Of those singles, the inventory was split between medium value cards of current players, a sprinkling of stars from 1970s, 80s and 90s, and a few lesser known players from the 60s.

One of those latter cards was from the Topps 1965 set, number 201. Minnesota Twins rookie stars César Tovar and Sandy Valdespino share the honors. Tovar, a native of Venezuela, had a fine twelve-year career with the Twins, Phillies, Rangers, A’s and Yankees. He finished in the top twenty-five in MVP voting every year from 1967-1971 and led the league in doubles and triples in 1970. The Trading Card Database has identified 56 unique cards manufactured for Tovar.

Hilario “Sandy” Valdespino lasted for seven seasons with the Twins, Braves, Astros, Pilots, Brewers and Royals. He did not share the same success as his card-mate, though he did get eleven at bats in the 1965 World Series, contributing a double and a run. Valdespino was born in San Jose de las Lajas in Mayabeque and became the 106th Cuban to appear in the majors when he made his debut on April 12, 1965. Number 201 is his official rookie card, one of only nineteen different identified cards of the outfielder ever produced.

A cardboard miracle.

The odds of finding that card, in that place, just days after I decided to pursue this quest, cannot be calculated. It was a divine intervention, a gift sent by the baseball gods in the form of a fifty-year-old piece of cardboard.

Today I have 115 of the cards from the set. The latest pickup, a W514 of Dolf Luque, is a real beauty. The corners are a little rounded and there are some minor markings on the surface, but it is crease free and remarkably sturdy for something that was printed a century ago. Luque, the first Cuban superstar, is an underappreciated name from yesteryear and a personal favorite. Finally acquiring his card inspired me to tell this story.

Among Cubans, only Luis Tiant put up better career pitching numbers than Dolf Luque. The W514s began production in 1919, the year Luque’s Cincinnati Reds defeated the Black Stockings in the World Series.

As always, the final cards of this set are the most challenging and, of course, the most expensive. It is also a set that is always expanding. Despite the recent short-sighted pronouncements of the current presidential administration, Cubans will continue to find a way to travel those ninety miles to American shores to play the game. Last year, six more made their major league debut. Three of them have rookie cards, so far, and the recent call up by the Yankees of Nestor Cortes, Jr., who had a less-than-impressive debut with Baltimore last March, increases the chances of him getting one at some point this season. When he does, I’ll be there.