Topps changed the face of baseball card collecting in the early 1950s and became the standard bearer for the hobby. By the early 1960s, they had expanded the size of the “base set” to more than 500 cards to include nearly all the players, and not just the stars.
Before the proliferation of baseball magazines in the later 1970s, cable television in the 1980s, and the internet explosion in the 1990s, these cards became the primary window for a young fan falling in love with the game to tie a player’s name to a recognizable face, and maybe even get a glimpse into their personality.
The reason it worked so well was in large part due the photography style. The photos looked so personal, so intimate, as though they were taken for your own family album. Each spring into summer, you got a fresh take (or maybe two or three, for stars and league leaders) on what a player looked like, adding dimension to your perception of that player. With time you got to see a player mature, from baby-faced rookie all the way to aging veteran.
My interest in cards was resurrected in 1985 as a re-capturing of my baseball fandom youth as it has done with countless others. For a whole new generation of players, even unrecognizable ones, I was provided with a recognizable face. I jumped back into the hobby with great enthusiasm. Four years earlier, Fleer and Donruss had broken up the Topps stranglehold, which ultimately led to a flood of manufacturer and set options that would follow for more than two decades. But I remained loyal to the Topps base set as the stable rock of the hobby, with its rich history and continuity.
Within a few years, something changed in the nature of the Topps base set, the cornerstone of the hobby. For many of the players, the intimate photo where I could see into a player’s eyes (and his soul?) was replaced by a photo of him turning a double play, or straining to throw a fastball. These “in game action” photos actually appeared on some cards as far back as the early 1970s, but they were the rare exception. During the 1980s they became commonplace. By the early 1990s they became the rule. In 2020, they’re essentially all you get in the Topps base set.
I did a little research to gain some insight into this evolution. I turned to my Red Sox card collection to get a sample of cards over several decades and classified the photos into a five different categories based on photo style:
Game Action: As described above, a photo taken during an actual game, usually with the player in motion swinging, pitching, fielding, etc., most often from a distance where the player’s entire body is in the photo
Candid Portrait: A photo of a player from the shoulders up that is not taken during a formal photo shoot, often taken when the player is in the dugout or on the field outside of actual game action.
Candid Action: A photo of a player “doing something”, but not in-game action. Maybe swinging a warmup bat or playing long toss. The photo is usually taken close enough to see expression in the player’s face.
Posed Portrait: A photo in the style of what you’d see in a high school yearbook, usually from the shoulders up, or just a “head shot”. You get the sense the player knows he’s being photographed, even if he’s not looking into the camera.
Posed Action: A posed photo of player “pretending” to be in action, in a batting stance, mid-swing, winding up to pitch, in a fielding stance, etc. The player knows his picture is being taken. It’s usually taken from close enough to see the player’s expression.
My collection starts in 1965, so I used a sample that ran from then until 1999. Binning it into five-year chunks, the distribution of cards falling into each of the five categories yields the distribution shown below. Even with this relatively small and not-so-random sample, the trend from posed shots to in-game action shots is unmistakable.
I realize many people like action cards. I understand it’s a matter of taste. Me? I get to see action when I watch the games. When it comes to cards, I’m looking for the personal charm.
Take another look at the three Don Sutton cards above, from 1967, to 1976, to 1985. You can see an actual person there. Now let’s take a look back to see how David Ortiz changed over a 10-year span of his illustrious career:
Ugh. David Ortiz is a beloved local hero in Red Sox Nation and loaded with charm. You certainly can’t see it here.
I often hear the retort that Topps provides all this in their Heritage and Archives products. For that, we’ll need a whole other discussion. For now, please Topps, put these classic photo styles back in your signature base set, so that the cards won’t get thrown away as mere nuisances in the lottery chase for rare inserts. Bring the base set back to its rightful prominence. It’s even okay if you include some action cards to keep everybody happy.
In this edition of “Covering the Bases” we are discussing the 1989 Topps All-Star Rookie cup card dedicated to outfielder Dave Gallagher.
The chief reason I chose to cover Gallagher here is that he recently discussed his Topps All-Star Rookie Cup on Twitter – spoiler alert, I was a little bummed with his feedback.
1989 Topps #156
Lets open by discussing the card which is Gallagher’s Topps debut. A couple of observations:
1) This appears to be a Spring Training shot – note the chain link fence and treeline beyond Gallagher’s left shoulder.
2) In 1988 Chicago sported their uniform numbers on the front of the left pant leg, It is mostly obscured by the “White Sox” script on the card but you can still make out what is the top of Gallagher’s #17 here.
3) Gallagher is apparently holding some sort of BP bat. At first I thought Gallagher was using a bat sleeve – but 1988 seems sort of early historically. Looking closer I think what we are dealing with here is Bat Tape. I am guessing that the idea is to extend the life of a BP bat, perhaps the tape also acts as a visual cue to help a batter to target the sweet spot.
1988 Topps All-Star Rookie Cup
Of course the reason team Phungo took an interest in this card is that it falls under the umbrella of our obsession with Topps All-Star Rookie Cards. This past September SABR Member Brian Frank had posted via twitter a snapshot of the card on Gallagher’s 59th birthday. Gallagher acknowledged the posting noting the day is also his Wedding Anniversary. I later jumped on the thread posing the following question:
I wanted to hear that Dave Gallagher was a big fan of baseball cards, has a collection that he considers very special and that getting a Trophy from Topps Chewing Gum Co was the highlight of his playing career.
Well, that wasn’t the answer I received. Gallagher’s reply was sobering and quite prudent.
As a Topps All-Star Rookie Cup obsessive I was momentarily crushed. But it makes sense, I am sure there have been several dozen trophies that a player like Dave Gallagher has accumulated in a 20 year professional career. Keeping them all likely borders on hoarding. And his point of maintaining a separation of career and home also seems wise.
More Gallagher Cards
While researching Dave Gallagher cards I came across his 1989 Topps Big card
1989 Topps Big #310 Dave Gallagher
Which is a fine card but what really interested me was something on the back
1989 Topps Big #310 Dave Gallagher (b-side)
Check out the middle panel on the cartoon. It is not a Baseball Card Patent but Dave Gallagher does have a Baseball related Patent. His invention is known as the “Stride Tutor” or according to the Patent Office “Apparatus for improving the hitting technique of baseball players.” It is essentially a set of foot cuffs (with a longer plastic chain) that are designed to train a batter to make a consistent stride in their swing. The device was written up in a 1989 Sports Illustrated article.
Gallagher’s patent application is pretty interesting citing SIX Hall of Famers: Johnny Bench, Mel Ott, Joe DiMaggio, Reggie Jackson, Nolan Ryan, and Joe Torre plus Pete Rose and Hitting Guru Charlie Lau.
There you have it, Covering all the Bases on a single (well two) Topps card leads you to the US Patent Office and Joe DiMaggio.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m a sucker for 3-D cards. Not all (except when it comes to Kellogg’s), but most. I have, in addition to Kellogg’s, a smattering of Sportflics, Topps inserts and other oddballs. Sometimes the effect works, usually through some weird angle – under an armpit, between a bat and a head. You’ve got to pick your spots.
The 1995 Topps DIII set, 59 cards featuring “infinite depth perception,” held great promise, but, like Everlasting Gobstoppers and The Neverending Story, only delivered the falsest of false advertising. The 59 cards, uber thick with heavy laminate, are a blurry mess with no discernible movement.
I was going to post a video of the cards in motion, but there’s really no point. Unlike even the worst Sportflics cards, the DIIIs don’t budge.
Still, I like them. They’re heavy to hold, and, though ineffective, kind of nice.
The backs are a cube design, though Star Wars scrolls come to mind,
and the checklist is firmly mid-1990’s, when Orlando Merced and Mike Piazza could make the same set of name players.
DIIIs are not as terrible as the pit of man’s fears, and they may not represent the summit of his knowledge, but you can get a set for around $15, which is a pretty nice zone.
For most printed material, the method of printing is the means to the end. As long as the result looks good it doesn’t really matter how things were actually printed. Heck, from a printing point of view, noticing how something was printed is arguably a production failure since the standard processes are intended to make the printer’s hand as invisible as possible.
As a print and design geek though, one of my favorite things are designs that not only do something interesting with the printing but use the printing as a design feature in and of itself. Designs where I not only notice the printing method but which highlight the fingerprints of the printer.
There are actually two baseball card designs from my youth which do this. The first is 1985 Fleer. Lots of people love this set for the colorful borders and interesting photography. I admit that I like it for this as well. What is especially interesting to me though are the grey borders. I’ve seen some people call them grey. I’ve seen others call them burlap and compare them to the textured borders on 1983 Fleer or 1968 Topps.
So let’s take a closer look. On the left, 1985 Fleer. On the right, 1970 Topps. Both borders are basically the exact same color: just black ink printed at close to 40%. The only difference? The way the dots are arranged on the paper, specifically the angle of the dots.
Traditionally, when a halftone* is printed by itself it’s printed at a 45° angle.** This minimizes the screen pattern and results in a color that we tend to view as solid and patternless. 1970 Topps’s border is a textbook example of how this works. Zoom in on the photo and, if you can get your brain to not see things as just grey,*** you can see that the rows of dots are at 45° angles and produce somewhat of a checkerboard effect.
***Something my brain has a hard enough time doing since the entire point of the 45° angle/screen is to confuse your brain.
1985 Fleer though is printed at 0°—instead of a checkboard effect we have a clear grid of dots in rows and columns. This creates an effect where many people notice the actual pattern of the dots rather than treating the area as a flat grey color. I was unaware of this as a kid but it’s something I love about the design now. It’s an elegantly simple approach which uses the actual mechanics of printing to produce an effect that didn’t have to be designed.
Another thing worth pointing out about 1985 Fleer is the composition of the colored borders. As you can see in the sample above, there’s no screening pattern at all in the blue. This is because it’s being printed as 100% Cyan (one of the four standard printing inks).* One ink. No screen pattern of dots. No registration to worry about.
The red and green borders are similarly solid. This time though they consist of two inks. Red is 100% Magenta and 100% Yellow while green is 100% Cyan and 100% Yellow.* The three colors we’ve covered so far are some of the simplest colors to print and as a result are colors that come up frequently on baseball card designs.**
*You can see a bit of misregistration in the red border as there’s some Yellow fringing on the bottom edge and Magenta fringing on the top edge of the red elements.
**The other simple colors are the pink (100% Magenta), yellow (100% Yellow), black (100% Black), and dark blue/purple (100% Cyan plus 100% Magenta).
The other three colors show that Fleer’s screen choices were intentional. All three borders here feature a Magenta screen at 45° mixed with either 100% Yellow or 100% Cyan. It’s worth noting here that these screen angles are only being used for the borders too. The photos appear to be printed using the traditional angles.*
*Magenta can be seen at 75° in a couple of the zoomed in images—specifically green-bordered Essien and light-blue-bordered Teufel. And for anyone who didn’t read the link provided earlier, the traditional angles are Cyan 15°, Magenta 75°, Black 45°, and Yellow 0°.
Why am I looking at the screen angles for the solid colors? Two reasons but for now the only important one is that the other set which is about print screens happens to be about colored screens. Once we start looking at this set the screen angles become part of the design.
Yup. Come on down 1990 Topps. I’ve seen this one referred to as the Lichtenstein set since the screens look like the Ben-day dots that dominated comic book shading and which Roy Lichtenstein referenced in his pop art paintings. This is an appropriate name even though 1990 Topps’s design is still a halftone screen rather than Ben-Day dots.
So let’s dig in, starting off with the simplest of the color options in the base set, the light blue gradient. This should look somewhat familiar. Just Cyan ink. A screen angle of 45°. Up close it’s just dots but at arm’s-length it’s still a somewhat smooth gradation from almost white to 100% Cyan.
The crop above is a half-inch square from the middle of the gradient Comparing the sizes of the dots on the top of the crop to the bottom shows how halftone screens work in general and how the gradient effect works specifically. In a halftone, the size of the dot changes as a color gets lighter or darker. Larger dots are darker colors, smaller dots are lighter ones*. In the gradient here as the dots get smaller the color approaches white and as the dots get larger the colors approach turquoise/cyan.
Printing the dots at a super-coarse screen of around 20 lines per inch instead of over 100 allows them to be part of the design while still conveying the color information.
It’s in the mixed colors that things get interesting. The red, orange, and green gradients all involve mixing two inks together. In each of these cases the darker ink (Cyan or Magenta) is printed at 45° while the Yellow is printed at 15°.
The 30° difference in angle minimizes moiré effects and produces the halftone rosette pattern that we’re used to seeing. In these cases though the yellow is so light that we don’t really see it and even zoomed in it’s very easy to see these as being red or green dots a a 45° angle and not even notice the yellow ink and the fact that it’s also being screened into a gradient.*
*Sharp-eyed readers will also notice that in the orange gradient above (second image) the dark blue stripe is screened at 0° and Mike Scott’s background is Black-only at 45°. These black-only All Stars show voids when they’re from the same press sheet that the famous Frank Thomas no-name “error” is printed on.
The difference in angle is also what keeps this design from looking like Lichtenstein or Ben-day dots. With the yellow in the mix it’s easy to miss the two inks. But with the dark blue and purple cards the screening is much more obvious. These screens involve two similarly-dark inks but Topps chose to print them differently. Above on the left is dark blue which Topps chose to print Cyan is at 45° and Magenta at 75°. On the right is the purple which printed Magenta at 45° and Cyan at 75° instead.
Despite one screen being at 45° these two colors look much more halftone-like than the other four colors in the set. There’s a clear mix of colors and the 45° angle is difficult to see. Even though I know it’s there I see these as being more rosette-like.
Compared to other color choices Topps made for this design though the dark blue and purple are pretty restrained. This would change later in 1990 as Topps’s later sets—Topps Traded, the Mini Leaders, and Major League Debut—are all very different from what Flagship is doing.
Topps Traded (photo 1) is a basic red gradient except that unlike Flagship the Yellow isn’t being screened at all and the Magenta is screened at 15°. This is the only design of the nine 1990 designs where there’s a solid ink (Yellow) in the gradient.
Mini Leaders (photo 2) meanwhile feature a gradient from Cyan to Yellow so the mid-point looks green as one ink fades out and another fades in. Where all the other 1990 designs fade from a dark color to a lighter version of that color, this one features essentially two gradients. In the zoomed in image above, the Yellow ink is at 15° and goes from large dots at the top to smaller ones at the bottom. Cyan meanwhile is at 45° and goes from large dots at the bottom to smaller ones at the top.
The last image is the most-interesting sample for me. Major League Debut consists of a four-color gradient. Zooming in on this design shows all kinds of dots. Rather than looking remotely Lichtenstein this is pure halftone all the way down. Black is at 45° like it usually is. As are Cyan at 15° and Magenta at 75°. Yellow meanwhile looks like it’s at 30°—not the 0° I’d expect but slipped in between two of the other screens where it’ll result in the same kind of halftone rosette pattern.
Anyway, despite my not particularly liking the 1990 design even though it’s full of things for me to geek out about, one of the things I do love about it and 1985 Fleer is how they’re extremely hard to replicate with modern technology.
Before computer-based color separations, all the printing elements were assembled manually, stripped together, and then burned onto a printing plate. This allowed different elements to be screened at different frequencies and angles. The photo is screened differently than the borders and it doesn’t matter.
Now, everything is done on the computer and the plate is made using the same screen on all elements. This is generally better in terms of color accuracy and reproducibility but when replicating old designs runs into the issue where things that were formally-solid inks are now being screened.* Or in the case of designs like 1990 Topps, things that used to be screened are now being double screened.
This brings us to the second reason I was looking at screen angles. Modern remakes of these designs are completely different. Zooming in and comparing the Topps Archives version (left) to the dark blue screen of the 1990 design (right) shows how Topps Archives treats the halftone dots as only a pattern. Instead of two coarse Cyan and Magenta screens, there’s a light blue background color and a dark blue dot pattern, both printed with a super-fine stochastic screen. The edges of the dots aren’t crisp and, for me, the design just isn’t the same.
I get it. With today’s technology, doing this kind of thing requires you to go out of your way for an effect that’s intentionally going to make the printing look “worse.” When Fleer reprinted its 1985 design in 2001* it got hit with all kinds of moiré because Fleer couldn’t cope with changing the 0° angle to 45° (what a computer would want to print it at). Computers just don’t do this kind of thing well plus manually making your own screens means you also lose all color controls that your printing process has.
*I do not have this card and refuse to buy it just for this post but if someone supplies a 24oo DPI scan of that card I’ll edit this post to show how badly it was handled.
That’s the shame or replicating these kind of things. No one points to the 1980s and 1990s as a time of being careful about how cards were made. Despite being massively overprinted, it’s clear with sets like these that there was still some thought being paid to the nitty-gritty details of how the ink was actually going on to the paper. And that’s pretty cool to realize.
Editor’s note: We normally reject any “Favorite Common” submission featuring a Hall of Famer, kindly of course, but when we saw the condition of the card…well…see for yourself! 🙂 Plus, it’s Pudge’s birthday!
I still have this damn card.
97 or 98 percent of it, at least. Some of it has disintegrated. God knows where that black mark in the lower right edge came from. If you hold it at a certain angle, the creases either look like lightning bolts or rivers on a map.
It’s the first Carlton Fisk card that came into my possession. The first of 2,000 or so (I really need to get an exact count) Carlton Fisk cards in my collection.
Carlton Fisk is my all-time favorite player. This card had something to do with that. Did anyone wear catcher’s gear with such authority? No. Nobody ever looked better with the chest protector and backwards helmet. Carlton Fisk was the best. Still is. Has a cool name. Wore number 72! Who the hell wore 72?
He was a star player on my favorite team. His cards had several lines of stats on the back. His career went back to the 1960s! I was fascinated by cards with many lines of stats. So many that they had to make the print smaller.
The 1983 White Sox are my all-time favorite team. Even if I don’t remember anything about the games of that season. But you see, that doesn’t matter.
I had a plush “Ribbie.” And a hat signed by “Roobarb” (and Rudy Law).
And a pin that says “Winnin’ Ugly.”
And White Sox Pizza Hut placemats (okay, those were from 1984).
And the 1983 White Sox Yearbook.
And a bunch of 1983 Topps* White Sox cards. My mom says I learned to read with these cards – at age three.
Including this 1983 Carlton Fisk All-Star #393.
I have at least 20 additional copies of this card (including the O-Pee Chee version). But I will never get rid of this card. If I were to send it in to PSA to get graded, they’d suspect me of pulling a prank (or laugh at me, or both), but there is no card in my collection with more nostalgic value.
The recent posts about Favorite Commons sparked my interest in contributing to this blog.
My favorite common is just about any card of Steve Nicosia in a Pirates uniform.
However, if I had to pick just one it would be his 1982 Fleer card pictured below.
In this Spring Training shot, the photographer pressed the shutter button at just the right time to capture Steve blowing a bubble that covers the lower half of his face. Steve is also wearing the – I luv em – you hate em – black and yellow uniforms complete with the Pill Box ball cap.
In the 1973 amateur draft, Pittsburgh selected Steve in the first round and he went straight from North Miami Beach High School to A ball with the Charleston Pirates.
1979 was Steve’s official rookie year and he was a key member of the World Champs batting .288 primarily against left-handed pitchers in 70 regular season games while sharing the starting catcher duties with Ed Ott.
Steve started 4 games in the 1979 World Series. He was only 1 for 16 at the plate but made some key defensive plays and was masterful at calling pitches in Game 5. He was behind the plate for the last out of Game 7 and can be seen at the end of the game throwing some hay makers at a fan who tried to steal his face mask.
During his additional time with the Pirates (1980 -August of 1983) he platooned with Ott and then was a backup to Tony Pena who was brought up in 1981.
He was traded to the Giants late in the season in 1983 and played another year in San Francisco before finishing his career with the Expos and then the Blue Jays in 1985.
Being a diehard Pirates fan, a card of Steve in another uniform just doesn’t look right to me.
A Fam-A-Lee Connection
During Steve’s time at North Miami Beach High School my uncle was his baseball coach (my uncle was also a biology teacher). It was a nugget of information that stuck in my head from a conversation over a few beers with my uncle back in the late 1970’s.
In 2009 I was spectator at the Pirates Fantasy Camp in Bradenton, Florida and noticed that Steve was one of the alumni Pirates who was coaching and playing against the campers. I waited for the right moment and leaned over the fence and told him that my uncle, Sam Viviano, was his baseball coach in high school. He immediately smiled and asked me how my uncle was doing. He mentioned that he had not spoken to him in a long time. I told him that I would be back to tomorrow and put him in touch with my uncle on a cell phone call.
I arrived early the next day and got my uncle on the phone first and then called out to Steve. He came over and I handed the cell phone to him and told him my uncle was on the line. Steve shouted, “Coach Viv” and then proceeded to walk around the field for the next 20 minutes smiling as he conversed with my uncle.
I called my uncle back after the call and he told me how great it was to catch up with Steve and how surprised he was that I remembered that he coached Steve in high school.
Steve Nicosia owned Hall of Fame pitcher Steve Carlton hitting .339 against him in 60 at bats. My uncle was Steve Carlton’s biology teacher in high school (my uncle was not the baseball coach at the time).
Those who have visited the memorabilia room (checks with fiancee…okay, GUEST ROOM) at our house know most of my best cards live on the wall. Though there’s some variety to my methods, I most often use top loaders to provide at least some protection of the actual cardboard. This new T205 Brooklyn display (thanks to David at Cigar Box Cards) is a good example.
While the cards are just sitting loose on the “shelves” each is in not only a tobacco size top loader but a penny sleeve as well. I took a similar approach to my Dodger team sets from 1956 and 1957, where cards were first put in sleeves and top loaders before being glued into the frame.
Sometime about a month ago I got to thinking about how even though my main collecting interest is vintage cards the Dodger fan in me really needed a card display honoring the 1988 World Series team. Not being the 1910s or the 1950s I naturally had several choices for sets to draw from: Topps, Fleer, Donruss, Upper Deck, and Score at the very least, and plenty of others if I was okay focusing mainly on stars. Mix and match approaches were possible as well.
Ultimately I decided on 24 cards from the 1989 Topps set, complemented by four cards from the under-the-radar World Series subset unique to the O-Pee-Chee release.
Unfortunately, a funny thing happened to me when I bought my frame, carefully measured to ensure enough room for four rows of 28 cards. They didn’t fit, at least not with the top loaders on them. The best I could do was six rows of three and way too much white space to look good.
Then a strange and foreign thought crossed my mind. Did I even need the top loaders? Did I even need any protection for the cards at all? After all, we were talking about $6 maximum worth of cards. The obvious solution was simply to glue the cards in directly. Besides solving the sizing problem, there would also be less glare in avoiding extra layers of plastic between cardboard and eyeball.
There was only one problem.
I couldn’t do it!
I couldn’t destroy perfectly good baseball cards, no matter how worthless they were. I reached out to my fellow collectors online and realized I wasn’t alone. Yes, some collectors said, “do it!” but most offered suggestions for other methods that would keep the cards intact.
Ultimately I decided that I needed to do it. I needed to not be crazy about a $6 stack of cards. I needed to realize that gluing some cheap cards to a picture frame didn’t make me a bad person or bad collector.
I was that kid standing at the end of the diving board over a cold pool, one step from doing what needed to happen but unable to budge. And then I jumped. And not just any jump. I jumped the shark.
I headed to my magazine shelf and grabbed a Sports Illustrated issue I’d been saving in plastic for more than 30 years. My stomach turned. My throat was dry. I cut off the cover and glued it down.
The process was agonizing for me, but I really liked how the final product turned out. A funny thing that hit me when it was over was that the new design probably could have fit the top loaders after all. Still, less glare, so I’ll call it a win. And really, what did I lose besides a few dollars worth of cards and my baseball card collecting soul?
While recently looking through my 1975 Topps binder, I was drawn to an “uncommon” common- the one and only Topps card of Bruce Ellingsen. His cherubic face and pompadour do not match the prevailing 1970s style of long, unkept hair, mutton chop sideburns and mustaches-though his sideburns are creeping down. Intrigued by the photo, I was compelled to find out more about Bruce and this ultimate common.
The photo was only three years old when the card was issued. In November of 1971, the Angels plucked Bruce from the Dodgers in the Rule 5 draft. Based on the red and navy jersey piping, he is with the Angels when the photo was taken. In April of 1972, California returned Bruce to the Dodgers-which is required by Rule 5 if the player doesn’t make the major league roster. So, the photo had to be taken in the spring of 1972.
Topps had at least one photo of Ellingsen on the Dodgers in case he ever made his LA debut.
The Dodgers selected Ellingsen in the 1967 amateur draft in the 63rd round. Though he put up some descent numbers, he was apparently blocked by the Dodgers quality, big league staff. After the Angels sent him back to the Dodgers, he toiled for two more years in AAA Albuquerque. For some reason, Bruce did make it to Dodger Stadium and suited up, since there is photographic evidence. Perhaps, it was the annual exhibition series with the Angels.
Bruce’s big break come prior to the 1974 season when the Dodgers shipped him to Cleveland for a raw, untested minor leaguer named Pedro Guerrero. Yes, this is the same Pedro Guerrero who will become an All-Star.
Ellingsen didn’t make the Indians roster out of spring training, so it was back to AAA-this time with the Oklahoma City Eighty-Niners. However, the Tribe made his big-league dream come true with a July call up. Bruce proceeded to post a 1-1 record in 16 games. He was with the Cleveland long enough to get a team issued postcard.
Anticipating a possible long term stay at the “mistake by the lake,” Topps issues Ellingsen’s only card in 1975. Alas, he never saw a big-league mound in 1975 or ever again. Bruce returned to Oklahoma City for two seasons, retiring after the 1976 season in which he went 4-12 with a 6.43 ERA.
If Bruce had stuck with Cleveland beyond 1975, Topps had a photo ready to go for 1976-as this custom card clearly shows.
I discovered a few other things about Mr. Ellingsen. First, his nickname was “Little Pod,” though I’m not sure why. Too bad someone didn’t nickname him Duke, when he played for the Albuquerque Dukes. “Duke Ellingsen” would have been a real “jazzy” nickname. Also, Bruce played winter ball for Hermosillo in the Mexican Pacific League-where he wore the cool jacket in this photo.
Bruce Ellingsen’s card is the epitome of a common. Yet, there is something satisfying about knowing that his dream of playing baseball came true, and he has a card to prove it.
On the heels of Nick’s suggestion, I thought I’d take a stab as well. If you’re one of the blog’s more avid readers you may recall I’ve already done two pieces on “Uncommon Commons,” the first on Ohtanian Texas League pioneer Dave Hoskins and the second on football player-artist Ernie Barnes. At present my cards of Hoskins reign supreme over the tens of thousands of commons in my collection, so much so that they get their own shelf in my memorabilia room.
Neither Hoskins nor Barnes will be the subject of this post, however. More in line with the spirit of the “Favorite Common” series, I’ll highlight a favorite common or two from my formative years as a collector, long before I had ever heard the names Dave Hoskins and Ernie Barnes.
Having come of age as a collector and fan in late-1970s Los Angeles, I went to bed each night with the transistor radio glued to my ear, faithfully tuned to the play calling and commentary of Vin Scully, Ross Porter, and Jerry Doggett on KABC 790. You’d be forgiven for not noticing from the outside, but inside Dodgerland there was a great chase afoot as dramatic and legacy defining as Mantle, Maris, or Aaron’s pursuit of Ruth.
The great Manuel Rafael Mota Geronimo (SABR bi0), whose full name was sometimes used by Scully out of reverence, was on the verge of becoming baseball’s all-time Pinch-Hit King! With every plate appearance came the question of whether he’d pull one hit closer to the immortal (or at least centuries old sounding) Smoky Burgess.
Many fans today know Scully’s famous call of Kirk Gibson’s pinch-hit home run in the 1988 World Series. From my memory, perhaps faulty but not wholly unreliable, that radio call was every Manny Mota at-bat in the year of our Lord 1979 as well as half the times Manny could have come up and didn’t.
So yes, your VCPs, Standard Catalogs, and Beckett Monthlies might regard Mr. Mota as a common, but I am here to correct the record. In Greek mythology some gods assumed common form, but this was 1979 Los Angeles, not 2000 B.C. Athens, and Mr. Mota’s assault on immortality made his 1978 and 1979 Topps cards anything but common in my collection.
Mota had entered the 1979 season with 132 pinch hits, a dozen short of the record. With roughly six months of baseball to play, barring whatever type of injuries befell pinch-hitters, Manny would need to average two hits per month to tie Burgess and of course just a hair over that to claim the crown for his own. Sure Ty Cobb once banged out 67 hits in a single month, but old Ty had the advantage of everyday play and competed against inferior talent. Let’s call it a wash, shall we?
Sure enough, Manny Mota began the season on perfect pace to match Burgess. Two hits in April followed by two hits in May. One one occasion each month, Mota drew a dreaded base on balls, the record chasing equivalent of a prom date with your cousin. Forgive us for we did not yet know walks would someday be hallowed above even RBIs among baseball savants, meaning at the time that the only response our amygdalas could produce was, “Pitch to the man, you bum!”
I don’t normally use this blog to shame anyone, but here are the bums in question. A pox on both your houses, Frank Riccelli and Mike Tomlin!
With two months of the season in the books, Mota’s average was a “Peachy” .364, but then came his dreaded June swoon and a slowing of Manny’s assault on Burgess. Only one hit in five at-bats prompted the question: Like Aaron in ’73, would Mota fall just short of the mark and be forced to carry its full burden into the off-season?
As it turns out, not a chance! Channeling Kobe’s final game, it seemed every time a Dodger hitter stepped to the plate in July it was Mota. I remember his plate appearances that month as 100 though the record books now tell me they numbered a mere dozen. Perhaps I’m counting all the times Scully wondered aloud whether Mota might be making his way to the bat rack.
“And look who’s coming up…”
Still, 12 at bats for a pinch-hitter is like a million for anyone else. Mota made the most of his trips to the plate, connecting for four hits and closing out the month with 141 pinch-hits. With two full months remaining, there was little doubt Mota would soon claim the crown.
Hinting at the role Fate had played in his career, Number 11 came to the plate 11 times in August. His first four times up resulted in three singles against only one out. He was now batting .375 on the season. More importantly, his career total for pinch-hits was now 144. The man was Ty Cobb meets Tie Burgess.
As was the way in ancient Sparta, there were now two kings. This we expected. What we didn’t expect was that the diarchy would drag on as long as it did.
As hot as August began, a rash of cool summer nights followed:
August 9: ground out
August 12: ground out
August 16: sacrifice bunt
August 20: ground ball double play
August 24: line out
August 25: fly out
August 28: strikeout
The wear of the season had caught up with Mota. While everyday hitters could match Manny’s hitless streak and barely blink an eye, they also cycle through seven plate appearances every two games. For Mota, the drought represented a full one eighth of the baseball season, which is quite an o-fer for a .375 hitter!
The Dodgers gave Mota the rest of the month off and didn’t call his number again until the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, at home against the Cubs. Leading off the bottom of the eighth inning on September 2, 1979, Manny Mota replaced Ken Brett in the Dodger lineup. On the mound for the visiting Cubs was card-in-every-pack northpaw Lynn McGlothen, who held a 1-2 count on Mota.
On the next pitch…history was made, or in the immortal words of Topps, “Basehit to Rightfield Does It!”
The king is dead. Long live the king! Let the history books (or at least the SABR Baseball Cards blog) show that this common was no common common but a common who one day ruled them all.
A couple years back I was staying with a friend in the Bay Area, and he brought out his old baseball cards. Seeing my reaction to his 1970 Manny Mota card, he was kind enough to give it to me. The front featured a beautiful image of Mota waiting his turn at bat, ready to deliver his trademark single to right. His gaze seemed affixed beyond the mound or batter’s box, almost heavenward, as if to let the baseball gods know, “Yeah, I got this.”
Flip the card over, however, and I’m actually thankful that I didn’t have it back in 1979.
“Considered by many to be the best #4 outfielder in the NL, Manny proved his value to the Dodgers in 1969 with timely hitting.”
As a kid who listened to Vin Scully more than his own parents and teachers, I saw Mota as a superstar. It had never once crossed my mind that Mota might have simply been the fourth best outfielder for a lot longer than most players, many of whom eventually became the third, second, or even first best. I was cheering a prize for bench warmers all those games, all the while thinking I was witnessing the toppling of the Bambino.
Who was Manny Mota then? Was he an immortal carving out his own slice of baseball’s record book or was he a glorified bench warmer? I prefer to remember him as the former, not just because it’s how I experienced him at the time but because such a portrait inspires me in my own life.
In so many parts of life, we are not the stars, the best, or even in the top three. We are the helpers, the ones who wait their turns, and the ones who much rejoice in small victories. We fail more than we succeed, and we don’t always know when our next opportunity will come, if at all.
We aren’t Hank Aaron or Mike Trout (unless one of them is reading this column…HOLY SMOKES!!!), and nobody will ever collect our baseball cards. Still from our benches there are glories and gratitude as we aspire humbly not to be heroes to millions but on a good day, to those around us, a Favorite Common.
Author’s note: Manny Mota fans and baseball fans in general might enjoy W.P. Kinsella’s short story, “The Night Manny Mota Tied the Record.” It’s in “The Essential W.P. Kinsella,” among other places.