Doing my part to win the Cold War

In the summer of 1983 I was 22 years old and writing software for a large defense contractor (Raytheon) in Rhode Island. Had a secret security clearance and everything. As it happens, a joint software project with Sperry-Univac required that I spend a bit of time that summer in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Defense Department (essentially our employers) was conducting round-the-clock stress testing on our weapons control system at Sperry, and someone from Raytheon had to be present. The work consisted almost solely of sitting in a chair (probably reading a novel) ready to step in if there was a test failure. My most vivid Twin Cities memories that summer were multiple trips to the Metrodome–mostly to see the Twins, but once to a Vikings preseason game where the crowd vigorously booed Broncos rookie John Elway.

After a couple of week-long sojourns with my boss, I made a trip by myself near the end of the summer. The solo voyage was to be an annoyance not because of the work, but because of logistical issues I had never dealt with before–I didn’t own a credit card, for example. No worries, I was told. Raytheon prepaid all the big items, and then gave me a karl-malden-aestack of travelers checks (look it up, kids) as a “per diem.” This $25 per day was ostensibly for food, but I was told that I was free to use it however I wished.

As luck would have it, my hotel provided free breakfast, and there was a lunch spread at work. I planned to go to a couple of Twins games, and I was pretty sure I could buy a prime ticket, food and beer for that budget. The other three evenings I figured I would just find some nice restaurants and bring a thick book. I brought some cash for incidentals, but I was optimistic that my per diem would be enough to get me through the week in style.

These well-laid plans were upset on my very first day when I discovered a delightful baseball card store near my hotel. (By “near my hotel,” I might mean: “up some obscure side street I found after poring through the yellow pages and consulting a local map.”) After wandering in, I drifted past the usual boxes of modern wax packs to the display case filled with old cardboard from the 1950s. At this point my collecting consisted of very slowly filling in the sets from my childhood (beginning with 1967) and keeping up with the annual releases.

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But one look at this pair of cards at the top of the case and I was like when Tony first laid eyes on Maria in “West Side Story.” The twin objects of my affection were from 1956, and they carried the same price tag: $25. I might have seen both cards before, but never in this condition or at this price.

On the other hand, I had never spent $25 on a baseball card before. Further, I didn’t really have $25–I had no credit card, I just had a bunch of traveler’s checks that I had already accounted for.

At that moment I realized that the traveler’s check budget needed refiguring.

I went back to my hotel and ran through numbers again. I wasn’t going to give up the two Twins games I had planned–don’t be silly–but the rest of the food suddenly seemed extravagant. What’s wrong with a nice sandwich?

Somewhat surprisingly, I made a fairly mature decision. I decided I would eat frugally throughout the week and return to the card store on Saturday morning before my flight. If I had money left, perhaps I could buy one of those beautiful cards? (If they were still there.)

The week passed uneventfully as I tried to keep my mind away from the card store. The weapons simulations did not misfire, I enjoyed my free breakfasts and free lunches, and discovered that I didn’t really need that second hot dog at the ballgame. On non-game nights I found some takeout and ate in the hotel.

Come Saturday morning and, surprise surprise, I still had about $60 in traveler’s checks in my wallet. I packed up my suitcase and headed for the card store.

As luck with have it, both of my dream cards were still in their case, and I trembled a little when I announced that I would take them both. The guy behind the counter chuckled at my traveler’s checks, but I accepted the teasing rather than tell him my sordid story. These two cards instantly became the best two cards in my collection. They still are.

I have made many baseball card purchases over the years, and to this day I usually feel at least a bit of guilt. (Is this really the best use of my money? Is that really a hole in my son’s shoe?) But as I flew home on that plane 34 years ago I felt nothing but satisfaction. I had not taken money from my children’s college fund. I would soon come to realize that defense department work was not my bag, but for these two cards I know who to thank: Ronald Reagan and his military buildup.

On the flight home I took the cards out of my brief case every ten minutes or so, and had the card backs memorized by the time we crossed over Detroit. The woman in the seat next to me gave me that look. You know the one.

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In Praise of Corsairs and Belters

My first baseball cards were 1967 Topps, which I discovered when I was a wee lad of six. Within a very short time, as I have explained, I used my cards in order to follow real baseball teams. I organized my cards by teams and made lineups based on the day’s box scores. I never knew what to do with the checklists, league leaders, World Series cards, and the like. Should I use the NL Batting Leaders card as a place-holder until I got Matty Alou? I might have done that.

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One group of cards I liked very much were those that pictured two or three players above a cute, often alliterative, title. Pitt Power — what a pair of words that was. Just as great was the back of the card, which was nothing but text. Understand, when I first saw this card I had little idea who these people were, and I wanted to learn. The fact that Topps put these happy-looking men on this card was proof that they were players to be reckoned with, and the news that Clendenon had once “paced the circuit” in home runs, albeit seven years earlier in the Sally League (whatever that was), sealed the deal. Phrases like “paced the circuit” became part of my language, along with “first sacker,” “blasted,” and “round-tripper,” all used here as well.

I knew right then what I wanted to do when I grew up: write the text on the front and backs of these cards. In 1967, Topps gave us 13 of them, with such wonderful titles as Cards’ Clubbers, Mets Maulers, Bengal Belters, and Hurlers Beware. And you can bet the backs had a fair bit of fence-busting, circuit-blasts and two-baggers. Warning: if we ever meet, I pretty much still talk like this today.

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Martin and Rizzuto
Berra, Bauer, Mantle
Berra, Bauer, Mantle

Credit for multiplayer cards, at least in the modern era, belongs to Bowman Gum, which produced two multi-player cards in their 1953 set, five famous players from the perennial World Champions. The cards had no text on the front, like all the Bowman cards that year, and card backs filled with prose. In their remaining two years of operation, Bowman never tried this again.

Four years later, Topps brought these cards back and this time they stuck. Topps made 107 multiplayer cards over a 13 year period (1957-1969). I am not going to go through every one of them, we don’t have all day here. Suffice to say that I like all 107 of them.

These cards depicted either two (72 times), three (29 times), or four (6 times) people, usually players but occasionally a manager or coach. Often they were just standing around being awesome, but sometimes they were talking, exchanging baseball nuggets.

Here are a few of my favorite examples.

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1959 Topps

Three times Topps referred to a pair of players as Fence Busters. Besides Aaron and Mathews above, they had used the phrase with Mantle and Snider in 1958, and brought it back for Mays and McCovey in 1967. Topps used similar terms through the years (clouters and sockers and belters), often for players who were quite a bit less worthy than Henry and Eddie. But Fence Busters seems to have been set aside for the cream of the crop.

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1969 Topps

Ted Williams signed a contract to manage the Senators in February 1969, quite late in the off-season for baseball card purposes, but Topps took photos of Williams in spring training and put him on his own late-series card plus this one of him teaching a mortal how to hit. Oddly, the Senators had already put the previous manager (Jim Lemon) on a card in an earlier series.

I recall as an 8-year-old seeing “Ted Shows How” on the checklist and wondering what it could possibly be. Much like kids must have puzzled over “Words of Wisdom” or “Lindy Shows Larry” a few years earlier.

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1968 Topps

Of these 107 multiplayer cards Topps depicted at least one (future) Hall of Famer 58 times. Often there were a pair of immortals on the card, and one time — this card right here — Topps struck gold with three players destined for Cooperstown. What’s not to like?

The photo was taken at the 1964 All-Star game at Shea Stadium. Topps used a few other All-Star game photos over the years (what better time to find pair of star players), and the 1967-68 player boycott required that they find some older photos.

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1964 Topps

The vast majority of these multiplayer cards employed titles meant to praise the players — clubbers, maulers, aces, heroes, etc. With the above card Topps stayed on firmer ground, telling us only that the depicted men were Angels, and were catchers. On the back, we learn that they are both “fine handlers of pitchers [who] know when to call for the right pitch in the right situation.” As for their hitting, Topps wisely ignored their unimpressive major league resumes so they could brag about long ago successes in the minors (13 years earlier in Ed’s case.)

I know that Keith Olbermann has spent time researching the Topps photo archive, and I recently asked him whether he’d ever run across multiplayer groupings that were not used — indicating that Topps took a bunch of these every year and selected a subset of them to produce. Keith said he’d only seen a couple of new groupings, which suggests that Topps mostly printed what they got. The photographer was likely snapping some photos and said, “hey, come over here and let me get you both.” On this day, the two Angel backstops might have been warming up pitchers at the same time, and here we are.

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1962 Topps

This photo of the two biggest stars in baseball was taken at the 1961 All-Star game at Boston’s Fenway Park. You can also make out Elston Howard, John Roseboro and Henry Aaron engaged in witty banter behind them. Oh, to have been wandering around the field on that day.

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1967 Topps

This is one of my all-time favorite cards, because of its breathtaking beauty. The sunny day, the uniforms, the matching “on-deck” stances. Cardboard perfection.

The title is wonderfully alliterative, if perhaps an odd way to refer to men known for their speed on the bases and in the outfield. But I shall not quibble nor debate this card.

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1957 Topps

“I see the boys of summer in their ruin.”

When this card reached store shelves in late summer of 1957, these four wonderfully talented men could not have realized what lay ahead for their careers, or their team, or their city. Their expressions showed nothing but the justifiable pride and happiness for all they had accomplished thus far. Why shouldn’t it last forever?

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In their 1969 set Topps used four multiplayer cards, this being the final of the four in the checklist. And then, for whatever reason, it was all over. The multiplayer card was retired.

I have never heard an explanation for why. Its not as if Topps stopped other non-base cards — they still put out team photos, and tried “Boyhood Photos” or “Record Breakers.” These cards seemed to be very popular, and comparatively easy to put together. You just need someone to write 200 words on the back. Hell, I would have done it for free.

I consider these 107 cards, spread over 13 years, to be their own special subset, and if you have not yet experienced them I suggest you find some.  If filling in all of these old Topps sets is too much for your budget, how about just getting these 107 cards? There is no better way to celebrate the game and the era.

As for me, I need to figure out a way to make a poster, something more attractive than my feeble attempt below.

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The 1967-68 Player Boycott of Topps

I have written about this subject before, but have not done so here. This remains an area of study for me, and hopefully this post will catch some of you up.

From 1956 to 1980 Topps had a virtual monopoly in the baseball card world. There were exceptions along the way, mainly small specialty or regional sets, but for a quarter century the Topps base set dominated the field.

Topps maintained its monopoly by signing players when they were still in the low minors. They gave prospects five dollars as a binder to lock in exclusive baseball card rights for five years. Topps renewed these binders regularly and then paid players $125 per year if they were used on a card or if they appeared in the big leagues for 31 days. Topps even provided the players with a catalog of items they could choose from in lieu of the cash, like a set of luggage or a television. Topps continually renewed players prior to the expiration of their deals, keeping almost everyone in the fold.

In early 1966 the MLBPA hired Marvin Miller, an economist from United Steelworkers, as their first executive director. Over the next several years, Miller and the players engaged in true collective bargaining, earning increased benefits, larger salaries, an impartial grievance procedure, and, ultimately, limited free agency. What has been mostly lost to history is the role that baseball cards played to solidify the union.

In September 1966, the MLBPA created a group-licensing program—allowing companies to make deals to use any or all players’ names and pictures to sell their products. The union soon had very important and beneficial deals with Coca-Cola and others, but the contract that Miller most wanted remained elusive. Topps had binding agreements with virtually every player in professional baseball, making a group license seemingly impossible.

The player deals seemed inadequate to Miller, who set up a meeting with Topps, whose president, Joel Shorin, told him: “There will be no changes because, honestly, I don’t see the muscle in your position.” This response did not surprise Miller – he knew that he was not going to get a better deal from Topps by appealing to Shorin’s sense of fairness. That is not how labor battles were won. He needed muscle.

In early 1967 Miller suggested to the players that they stop renewing their individual Topps contracts and boycott Topps photographers. This was the only way, Miller advised, that they could get Topps to deal with them. Although the action was voluntary, Topps was able to take no more than a handful of photos during the 1967 season, and, with the dispute unresolved, none at all in 1968. This had an effect on the 1968 Topps set, which was not able to show as many properly attired photos as usual, and a much more dramatic effect on the 1969 set.

Let’s start with 1968.

Most Topps photographs in this era were taken either at spring training, or at one of the New York ballparks during the season, and almost always during the previous calendar year. For their 1968 set, Topps would want photos of the player taken sometime in 1967, in the uniform of their current (1968) team. Topps faced a challenge when a player was traded during the season, as a look at the 1968 Red Sox cards can illustrate.

The Red Sox acquired Elston Howard from the Yankees on August 3, 1967. In order to get a photo of Howard in his new uniform for his 1968 card, Topps sent a photographer to Fenway Park in late August (note the home uniform). Norm Siebern, acquired on July 15, was likely shot the same day.

On the other hand, Gary Bell and Jerry Adair joined the club in June 1967 but Topps used older photos of them in 1968 — both wearing uniforms from previous teams and photographed without a hat (the usual Topps trick in these situations). Why didn’t Topps take these photos in August when they got Howard and Siebern? A plausible explanation is that Bell and Adair were observing the boycott while Siebern and Howard were not. We can’t know for certain — maybe the players were in the bathroom at the time — but we know that by August Topps was having trouble getting players to pose.

More problematically than using an old photo was having no photo at all. Sparky Lyle made his big league debut for the Red Sox on July 4, 1967, and pitched in 27 games for the club in the pennant race. But Topps did not photograph Lyle either, so he did not get his first card with Topps until 1969.

Another interesting artifact of the 1968 Topps set is that the company made “team cards” for only 13 of the 20 teams. If you were a set collector, at some point you would have noticed that the team card you were waiting all summer for, the Red Sox for example, did not exist.

By the spring of 1968 the boycott was universally observed, and there is no evidence that any photos were taken that year. Topps and the MLBPA reached an agreement in November 1968, but Topps still had to put out a 1969 set without having any photos from the previous 18 months.

Making things even worse, Topps had to deal with four new expansion teams (whose players would appear hatless), the Oakland A’s (whose move from Kansas City caused them to be hatless), and the Houston Astros (who were hatless because of a logo dispute). That covers 6 teams, or 1/4 of the players.

Topps skipped the team cards, a staple since 1956, altogether.

If that weren’t enough, Topps used old photos, many of them recycled from previous years. Tom Seaver, Joe Morgan, Hank Aaron, well over 100 in all, used identical images from 1968.

In some cases Topps recropped the image, as they did with Carl Yastrzemski and Ernie Banks. Willie Mays used a recropping of his 1966 card.

On one occasion Topps (presumably accidentally) flipped a negative, confusing school kids everywhere.

(More details from David Sosidka here.)

The Reggie Jackson card, his very first Topps card, stands out because it presumably was taken during the boycott — the A’s moved to Oakland in 1968 and Reggie is shown in an Oakland uniform. I recently learned from Keith Olbermann that Topps purchased this photo, and a few others, from another photographer.

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The Johnny Bench card, his first all to himself, used a photo from a few years earlier. Many Topps photos — Reggie Smith is another example — show much younger versions of their subjects.

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In November 1968 Topps caved, agreeing to double its annual player stipend (to $250 per year) and to pay a royalty to the MLBPA of 8 percent on revenue up to $4 million, and 10 percent thereafter. In the first year of this deal the Association collected $320,000 from their Topps license, which came out to $500 per player on top of their individual deals. By the early 1980s, the union collected more than 10 times that from the licensing of baseball cards.

One could say that this was the first time the fledgling union used their collective power to effect change. “It was important on two levels,” said Jim Bouton. “One, it showed how powerful Marvin Miller was and how smart he was. It gave him instant credibility. But also, the player’s association became immediately self-funding.” Today’s licensing program, rebranded as Player’s Choice, nets tens of thousands of dollars per player annually, and funds charitable acts all around the globe.

As for the kids of America, in 1969 they were mainly annoyed, or at least confused. I loved the designs for both of these sets, but would have preferred fresh images of my heroes in those very formative (for me) seasons.

In 1969 Topps hustled to spring training sites and took lots of photos of cooperative players, and got many of these into their late series cards that very summer. By July of 1969, we got to feast our eyes on gorgeous cards of players wearing the uniforms of the four expansion teams, as well as the A’s and Astros.

In 1970, Topps showed off some of its best-ever photography. And kids everywhere turned away from their paths toward delinquency.

Death & Baseball Cards

The year was 1964. I was six years old.

The black baseball card in my hands contained the haunting image of a somber fellow wearing a Cubs batting helmet.

hubbsfront“In Memoriam — Ken Hubbs”.

He looked so sad. All the other baseball cards I’d seen were bright and colorful, with the players gaily swinging bats, smiling at their good fortune. I turned the Hubbs card over and learned “the private plane he was piloting went down in a snowstorm near Provo, Utah”. I would later learn that Ken Hubbs was deemed a special player: 1962 Rookie of the Year, and the first ROY to win a gold glove. Set a fielding record the same year: 78 consecutive games and 418 chances without making an error. He played in the Little League World Series as a kid, was recruited to play quarterback for Notre Dame and UCLA to shoot hoops for John Wooden. If there ever was an All-American boy, Hubbs fits the profile. He even died trying to conquer his greatest fear.

hubbsbackFor many of us card junkies, we recall the day we held that black shroud in our hands and felt a small hunk of our innocence ripped away. The real world had intruded into the special place where I’d always felt safe, and, for the first time in my young life, felt vulnerable (I was too young to grasp the enormity of the events of November 22, 1963).

And there was more death on the way.

The Houston Colt .45s had a seductive name and logo, even if they weren’t very good. There was something different about the back of the card of one of their pitchers, Jim Umbricht. It said he was 6’4”, 215 pounds and 389-jim-umbrichtwas “one of the NL’s top relievers in ’63…”. The card also contained an epilogue I’d not seen on any other cards, settling under his stats, where lively cartoons usually appeared if you scratched the surface with a coin:

“Jim Umbricht passed away on Wednesday, April 8, 1964.”

What?! Another player died in the same year? Is this some kind of epidemic?

389-jim-umbricht-backThen came the questions that had no answers: why did he die? How did he die? The card didn’t say (Hubbs died 2/13/64, giving time to make the special card). That was more unsettling, not knowing what took the life of one of the NL’s top relievers. In adulthood, I would learn Umbricht was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in his right leg in March of 1963. His comeback from surgery made national headlines and he had arguably his best season pitching in agonizing pain. Dead at age 33, his ashes were spread over the construction site of the Astrodome.(1)

If my technicolor baseball gods were not impervious to the rigors of life on earth, what chance did the rest of us have? Some spend a lifetime looking for such answers.

One of the problems with mythologizing athletes who die young is getting at the truth about that person: who were they, what did they mean to their friends, family and community, and, most importantly to me, what kind of a person were they?

59-174frI decided to spend some time getting to know Ken Hubbs further. I contacted the Ken Hubbs Foundation in Hemet, CA, and spoke with it’s leader, Ron Doty. The Foundation’s mission is to honor athletes selected from high schools in the area, selecting boys and girls “who display not only outstanding athletic abilities on the field of plays, but also achievements in the classroom, community, in leadership and in community service.” I ordered a DVD of the mini-documentary made about Ken during his playing days, “A Glimpse of Greatness”. It lionized Hubbs further, but it shared perspectives of him growing up in the town of Colton as someone who was a leader and roundly admired. Ron told me of the annual ceremony and invited me to attend, which I plan to do as one of the stories for my new baseball documentary series.

I did more reading on updates of the Hubbs story. The guy was like a cross between a saint and Knute Rockne. Didn’t drink or smoke, had to be dragged off not just playing fields, but PRACTICE fields in his never-ending quest for perfection (Alan Iverson, take note). He was a legend unnamedbefore he became pro, with stories of him hitting a half-court shot to end the first half over a rival high school team AND nailing a buzzer-beating jumper to send the game into OT, eventually leading his Colton squad to victory. Another high school story has him breaking his foot before a big football game, stuffing the casted foot into a size 14-shoe and playing the entire game. (2) If I didn’t know better, Ken Hubbs crawled out of a John R. Tunis story.

But there is something about his death that gnaws. Was it the irony of his search for conquering his fear that led to his demise? After taking flying lessons, Hubbs fell in love with it and bought a Cessna 172. Brother Keith recalls watching his Ken make touch-and-go landings in 1963, with his father asking him to talk Hubbs out of flying. He was supposed to fly with Ken and a friend to Provo to play in a charity basketball game, but his schedule changed. The morning of his death, a storm moved in that Hubbs thought he could outrace. It was less than ten degrees and the visibility was terrible when he took off. Hubbs tried to turn back to the airport shortly after taking off, but the die had been cast. He had only 71 hours of flying experience and wasn’t qualified to fly by instruments and lost his bearing. The plane went into a death spiral, crashing into a Utah lake, leaving a ten-foot crater. It took divers two days to recover the bodies. (2)

Right about now is when one starts to hear refrains of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”…”does anyone know where the love of God goes when…”

Hall of Famer Ron Santo was so unsettled by Hubbs’ passing, he had to see a priest. Ken’s brother, Keith, had recurring nightmares so bad he didn’t want to shut his eyes. He had one final dream that snapped him out of it. In that dream, Ken told him, “I want you to stop worrying about me. It was quick and there was no pain. And I’m happy where I’m at.”(2)

Cessnas in the air mingling with snowflakes. A cancer victim blazing a final path of glory. Both spirits refusing to go gently into that dark night. Maybe that is the lessons of the Ken Hubbs’s and Jim Umbrichts’s: play hard, fight through the challenges and maybe then, and only then, we’ll be happy where we’re at.

 

Footnotes:

1 – “Jim Umbricht” – SABR bio project, by Thomas Ayers.

2 – “Fifty Years later, memories of Ken Hubbs still glowing”, 2/13/14 foxsports.com

 

Don Mincher on the Pilots

A recent posting of Bruce Markusen’s Card Corner featured the 1968 Topps Don Mincher card and provided an excellent overview of his career. The article mentioned that Mincher was selected by the Seattle Pilots in the 1969 expansion draft. Although Mincher was not a superstar, he was a well-known, productive player and as such stood out amongst the rag-tag group assembled on the Pilots roster.

This resulted in Mincher being featured in both 1969 and 1970 by Topps, Milton Bradley, Kellogg and other manufacturers as the Pilots’ representative on specialty cards, posters, stamps and inserts.  What follows is a look at Don’s cards and related collectibles during the brief existence of the one-and-done Pilots.

Topps 1969 Regular Issue and Decal Insert

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1969 Topps
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1969 Topps Decal

As with most cards for expansion teams, Topps airbrushed out the cap insignia from the players previous team. Based on the batting cage in the background, these pictures were taken during the same photo session. Obviously, the photographer wanted one with Don’s glasses on and one without. Also note that Topps didn’t stick with the same color designations on the decals as the cards. The light green ball on the decal was the designated color on cards for the Astros and Orioles.

The decals measure 1 ¾ X 2 1/8. There are 48 stickers in the set which featured many of the superstar players of the era. My memory is of them being distributed in the later series. The cellophane like decal peeled off from the white, waxy background paper. Over time, the adhesive tends to fail and the decal will separate from the backing. I can attest to this having a backless Mantle and Clemente in my collection.

1969 Topps Super

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1969 Topps Super 

Apparently the Topps photographer believed Don photographed best while gazing into the upper deck at Yankee Stadium. The image on the Super card is exactly the same pose as the 1968 regular issue card sans hat. The Super cards are on thick stock with rounded edges and measure 2 ¼ X 3 ¼. They were sold three to a pack. The backs are the same as the deckle edge inserts found in the early series of the regular issue packs. One of Topps test issues, Supers were only distributed in Michigan, making the 66 card set extremely rare. Even non-stars are valuable. Tommy Davis is the other Pilots player found in this set.

1969 Topps Team Poster

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1969 Topps Team Poster

Once again Don is gazing skyward but in the opposite direction and without a bat on his shoulder. The team poster measures 11 ¼ X 19 ¾ and came one per pack for a dime. The dimensions are bigger than the 1968 player posters that were also sold one per pack.   The team posters had a wider distribution than the Super cards but didn’t reach all regions.

1969 Topps Stamps

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1969 Topps Stamp
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1969 Topps Stamp Album

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Topps repurposed the 1968 card picture for Don’s stamp. The stamps came 12 to a sheet and each pack contained one album. There are 240 stamps in the set and they have the same thickness as a postage stamp.

1969 Globe Imports Playing Cards

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1969 Globe Imports
1969 Sports Illustrated poster
1968 Sports Illustrated poster

Arguable the worst card set in history, these 1-5/8 X 2 black and white cards were printed on flimsy paper stock with blank backs. Each of the 55 cards represents a standard playing card. Mincher’s card is the same image as found on a 1968 Sports Illustrated poster. The SI promotional poster catalog featured a small version of each poster (image on the right). This may have been the source for the grainy pictures. It would be interesting to know if Global Imports bought the rights or simply pirated the images. Apparently, the cards were sold or given away at gas stations in the south. I found a set in the 1970s at a liquidation store in Yakima, WA.

1969 and 1970 Milton Bradley Official Baseball

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1969 Milton Bradley
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1970 Milton Bradley 

The 1969 game is composed of 296 2X3 cards which came on perforated sheets requiring detachment before playing. The backs contain a list of outcomes (ground out, single etc.). Oddly, there are not enough cards to form a lineup for each team.

In 1970 Milton Bradley issued a simplified version of the 1969 game. The 24 cards in the set measure 2 3/16 X 3 ½ with rounded edges.

1970 Topps Regular Issue and Poster

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1970 Topps
1970 Topps Poster
1970 Topps Poster

Don was traded to Oakland in January of 1970 but not before Topps produced the early series cards and poster inserts. There are 24 posters, one player for each team, and measure 8 11/16 x 9 5/8. Note that the black and white “action” picture is actually Carl Yastrzemski.

1970 Kellogg’s 3-D

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1970 Kelloggs

The 2 ¼ X 3 ½ 3-D cards were made by Xograph and issued one per box of Corn Flakes. Interestingly, Rich Mueller of Sports Collectors Daily mentions that the cards were also distributed in six card packs with an iron on transfer. Don is #75 of the 75 card set. He is depicted in his Pilots regular season home uniform. The background appears to be RFK stadium where the All-Star game was held in 1969 and Don was the Pilots representative. However, Xograph did superimpose players in front of backgrounds unrelated to the location of the photo. Furthermore, the photo appears to be identical to a publicity shot taken at Sicks’ Stadium in September of 1969.

 

Whither the Astros?

One of the unresolved (to me, at least) mysteries from collecting baseball cards from the late 1960s was how Topps handled the Houston Astros. As you likely know, the Houston expansion team was known as the Colt .45s for its first three seasons (1962-64) before becoming the Astros in 1965, coinciding with their move into the brand new Astrodome that April. Houston tried grass for a year, before contracting with Monsanto to install artificial turf (soon known as “Astroturf”) in 1966. That much we know.

armour-part04-1966-robinsonfrankTopps made a point in this period of trying to never show a player in the “wrong” uniform; if a guy was traded from the Reds to the Orioles early enough in the off-season, Topps could correctly move him to the Orioles but would not yet have a photo of him with his new uniform. Instead they would use a headshot with no hat, or with the hat logo blackened out, or some other solution that would protect young kids from the horror seeing Frank in his old Reds togs. Of course kids could usually tell, but at least they tried. In the 1960s this was a particular problem, because there were 8 expansion teams and 5 franchise moves between 1961 and 1971. This led to a lot of blackened or missing hats.

Which brings us back to the Houston Astros.

In 1965, Topps did not react to the Houston name change right away, referring to the team as “Houston” in the early series (and showing the old .45s hats) and “Houston Astros” (with no visible old logo) thereafter.

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But for the next two years (1966 and 1967) Topps put out two great sets and treated the Astros with dignity — the correct name, the correct hats and uniforms. Problem over?

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Not so fast.

In 1968, suddenly the name Astros was not used on either the front or back of any of the cards, nor were the hats or uniforms shown. (The cards for the other 19 teams used the team nickname, not the city.) I was 7 at the time and an avid collector, but I did not really take notice of the missing Astros name until a few years ago. I spent some time tryi86d0f5e8620b13e1f37a5a5ae38ee092ng to figure out why this happened, contacting Topps, former Topps employees, the Astros historian, Rusty Staub, and several knowledgeable bloggers. The most common reaction was. “I can’t believe I never noticed that.”

The most plausible explanation I have heard is that Monsanto was in a dispute with the Astros over the use of the name — though the baseball team used the name first, it was Monsanto that actually trademarked it (says the theory). Topps, seemingly uninvolved, took the cautious approach and decided to avoid using the name.

When this was going on I was already a rabid card collector — especially the cards of my beloved Red Sox. If I had grown up in Houston following the Astros, collecting an entire team’s worth of bland hatless logoless cards like this Jim Wynn card, might I have turned to other pursuits? Maybe 166083become a productive citizen?

The Astros did not stop using the name, nor the logo, nor did they or Major League Baseball stop authorizing the use of the logo to other entities. Dexter Press came out with a beautiful set of postcard-sized cards in 1968 and had several gorgeous Astros photos (like this one of Joe Morgan). If I was a kid in Houston, I would have found these a better option.

In 1969 Topps again avoided the name Astros, and avoided the uniform in the first three series. Starting with Series Four, sometime around June, the uniform finally returned (though not the name). The dispute, whatever it was, had been resolved, but Topps likely decided to keep the team name consistent throughout the set.

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Topps finally restored the Astros to full citizenship in 1970, giving many of us our first good look at the Astros uniform, especially these gorgeous home unis, in several years. It was great for me, but for the kids of Houston, Texas, it must have been glorious.

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Hatless photos in 1963 Topps

Topps had used the technique of using photos of traded players without their baseball caps in earlier years, but the use of small silhouetted action photos on the 1963 cards posed new problems. Topps designers tried to disguise the old uniform with airbrushing and some creative artwork. The results were often laughable.

Of the lee-wall-63-topps576 cards in the ’63 set, 70 players are pictured without hats. Most but not all had been traded in the off-season. The majority of the 70 cards feature the player in the uniform of his previous team — the piping is usually the giveaway — along with a crude attempt at obliterating the old team name on the small action shot and by drawing the new team’s letter or logo on the cap.
The first base card in set (following the 10 cards of 1962 league leaders) is one of the hatless 70 — Lee Walls. Although he had played with the Dodgers in 1962, his color head shot shows him in a Cubs uniform. with whom he last played in 1959. His small action shot has the team name airbrushed out and a Dodgers interlocking “LA” drawn on his cap. Perhaps someone knows why Topps began its set with a player for whom they did not have any recent pete-burnside-63-topps-19photos.

One of my favorite cards, being an old Senators fan, represents one of the most obviously
botched cards in the set: lefty Pete Burnside’s #14. He is shown following through on a pitch in a full Senators home uniform, even though he is properly identified as a pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles. (He had been traded to the Orioles in December 1962, a few months before this first series card hit store shelves.) Compounding matters, his small action shot shows him with the team name on his old Tigers’ jersey (back in 1959 or 1960) airbrushed out and a crude “W” drawn on his cap.

The only other player in the set shown wearing his previous team’s hat is pitcher Stan Williams (#42). He has on his Dodgers hat in the large photo, but the Topps artists vainly tried to draw the Yankees’ interlocking “NY” on his action photo cap.

Six traded players — including Dick Groat, Bob Turley and Don Zimmer — are pictured in their color photo wearing caps that have the previous team’s logo airbrushed off. The new team’s letter or logo is drawn on the action photo’s cap.

luis-aparicio-69-toppsFive players who had been traded to the Orioles posed a real challenge for Topps. The Orioles players wore caps with a relatively wide horizontal bird on them. Results of the attempts to draw an oriole on the five action photo hats were mixed, to be charitable. Attempts to recreate the Tigers’ old English “D” also proved difficult.

In most cases, the airbrushing did little to hide the identity of the player’s previous team and, given the crude results, you have to wonder why Topps bothered.

Nonetheless, the ’63 set is highly regarded by collectors for its overall design and sharp color photos. The bright, orange on white-stock, backs of the cards were far more readable than those of previous years.