On Top of Old Smokey

15 Wood

Many of us can open a binder or box and pull out a “Smoky” Burgess or Walter “Smokey” Alston card. Some “pre-war” collectors may even have a “Smoky” Joe Wood from the 1915 Cracker Jack set. But, as unlikely as it may seem, the most prevalent “Smokey” in the hobby may be Smokey the Bear.

The ‘80s and early ’90 saw numerous regional sets sponsored by the US Forest Service. The cards had the iconic bear logo or featured a “real” bear posing with a player. The backs often imparted a message on how to prevent forest fires. Most were given away at games. This post will examine some of the “ursine” sets, but it is not intended to be a complete list.

84 Harvey

The first MLB Smokey cards I found were Angels and Padres sets in ’84. The card backs commemorate the 40th Anniversary of Smokey the Bear. Notably, the Padres set has the “rookie card” for Umpire Doug Harvey. Both clubs continued to issue annual Smokey sets through ’91 for the Angels and ’92 for the Padres.

Other teams jumped on Smokey’s “fire wagon” as well. The “brave bruin” shows up on cards featuring the Dodgers, Athletics, Cardinals, Royals, Astros, Braves and Rangers. The Royals and A’s had sets featuring players’ caricatures

As a vintage collector, I find the commemorative sets to be the most “bearable.” I own the ‘89 All-Star Angels, which has players from the Angles early years. There are several photos I’ve never seen in any other context. Also in ’87, the Dodgers issued a 25th Anniversary set and ‘89 saw “A Century of Dodgers Greats.” A retrospective set for the ‘62 Houston Colt .45 came out in ’89 as well.

The US Forest Service really “bared it all’ in ’87 by producing 3” X 5” cards featuring AL and NL All-Stars. Each card has a star player posing with the “grizzled” grizzly.

Salinas

MLB teams were not the only baseball clubs who came “bearing” cards for fans.  In ’85 the Fresno Giants caught Smokey on a “fire break” and produce the earliest minor league set I found. Somewhere near Salinas, Smokey found his “bearings” and made a set with the Salinas Spurs set in ’87. College sets exist for UNLV, San Diego State and USC.

Other sports embraced Smokey in a “bear hug” as well. The LA Kings, Golden State Warriors, 49ers and the USFL’s Oakland Invaders issued cards.

Please remember: “Only you can prevent cardboard fires.”

 

 

 

Of Lefty Grove and Bad Decisions

The ‘90’s were a good time to be Lefty Grove. Sabermetrics were a godsend to his legacy. You’d think a Hall of Fame pitcher with 300 wins wouldn’t need much of a reevaluation, but Robert Moses did. The preeminent pitcher in a high offense era, Grove often had relatively high ERAs; his nine league leading totals included four times from between 2.81 and 3.08. It took ERA+ to really put it in perspective. That 3.08 ERA in 1938 was an ERA+ of 160, the same as Clayton Kershaw’s lifetime number. Good, right?

I wasn’t immune to the new found wonders of Grove. I bought an autographed newspaper clipping, no doubt real (who would fake such a crummy item. Plus, I got this lovely note).

I also got a 1937 O-Pee-Chee card, and herein lies the tale.

We were out in Southern California for vacation and, in nearby Laguna Niguel, or Laguna Beach, or some other similarly named burg, there was a high end auction house that had a store front. I was still trading options back then, my card interests and income at mutual highs. That was bad; it meant I was going to spend. Didn’t matter on what; I was going to spend.

There was a lot to take in at that store. I remember (though not with great surety) that they had old awards, rings, and, of course, cards. In the throes of Grove-mania, I honed in on this beauty, secretly stashed in a velvet envelope.

Tim Jenkins Tweeted his card show loot a few weeks ago and, in the midst of his horde, there was a 1952 Mother’s Cookie PCL card. It made my heart hurt, because, on that SoCal day twenty years ago, my ultimate choice was between the Grove card and a complete 1952 Mother’s set. I’m a set collector by nature, but, in the thrall of the Grove renaissance, Lefty swayed me. Upon further review, it was a bad call, only made worse by the misgivings that were there from the start.

First of all, though it’s a Grove card, it’s one card. The Mother’s set had 64. Second of all, they were both around the same price and, while Grove is Grove, the Mother’s set had a Mel Ott card and Ott is Ott. Third, I should have sensed that, from a purely financial position, the Grove card was going to top out and the Mother’s set would only appreciate. That’s been the case.

ott-mothers

I’ve managed to live a life, both a collecting life and a real life, with few regrets. This is one of them. The sad part is, though I missed the Mother’s set, the decision I made has always taken away from how happy I should be about the Grove card. That’s unfortunate, but hard to shake.

Leaching on Rick Leach

Rick Leach

“Graybeards” — like myself — may remember when the nine-pocket, plastic storage pages first emerged on the scene. I discovered them in the early ‘80s and couldn’t wait to transfer my collection from boxes to binders. As with many innovative products, there are always kinks to be worked out. In this case, the type of plastic used (Polyvinyl chloride or PVC) was not ideal.

At risk of being eviscerated by chemistry experts in the vast blogosphere, I will attempt to explain what happens to PVC pages over time. Plasticizing agents (phthalates) — which makes PVC plastic soft and pliable — tend to leach out over time. This results in an oily film on the page that can adhere to the cards and may pull ink off when the card is removed. Additionally, the pages become stiff, wrinkled and stick together. Essentially, PVC plastic is returning to its normal, rigid state. Hard sleeves are usually made from PVC plastic and are fine for long term storage.

I recently acquired a complete 1981 Fleer set in pages. Perhaps the reason this set sold so cheaply was the undisclosed fact that the pages were PVC. I don’t see any obvious discoloration or damage to the cards, but of course this set is notorious for having dark, blurry photos to start with.

PVC Side-load

If leaching chemicals wasn’t quirky enough, the early pages were side-loaders.   The first two rows required pushing cards in from the right and the last row from the left. Cards tended to spill out, so top- loaders soon became standard.

Modern Side-loader

By the way, side-loaders are still available. I found this out by purchasing two boxes without stopping to read the small print. The modern pages are tighter, so the cards don’t move. It is difficult to load them after decades of putting cards in from the top. The side-loaders are a solution for the odd sized disc cards, since they fit in with only a small edge sticking out, though they tend to slide out.

Odd Page Sizes

Another oddity associated with the early pages was the variation in size. The differing dimensions offered by various companies could result in a mishmash of pages in a single binder. Plus, the three ring holes didn’t always line up.

Fleer Stickers 2

I still have a few cards and stickers in PVC pages. For instance, my early ‘70s Fleer stickers are still entombed in PVC, since the sticky nature of the pages may pull the stickers loose from the backing. Also, I recently discovered some miscellaneous Mariners singles from the ‘90s still in PVC.

We should all sing the praises of Ultra Pro and their standard sized pages made from non-leaching polyethylene. Remember, we all enjoy “better collecting through chemistry.”

 

Fake News, Alternative Facts

Like all of you, I can instantly identify cards from my prime collecting/pack buying years. For me, that’s 1970-1977. I can more easily name and ID the 1973 Mets than the 2018 Mets. The cards from that era stuck with me, permanently.

When I started seeing “what if” cards, custom jobs made with original templates and period perfect pictures, I did Ritz Brothers burlesque double take. “How could I never have seen this 1978 Ken McMullen? Is my memory going?”

DeoxfYyW4AAFO4n

Nah, all these self-made cardboards are brilliant frauds, one-offs of guys who never got their own card, had to share a multi-player rookie slab, or, unlike some other players, never had a career capping card.

The two guys I follow religiously are Bottomms Cards (@BottommsCards) and Gio/wthballs blog (@wthballs). Their Tweets are a joy.

Gio does a great job with players who, I’m shocked, I’ve never heard of and who never even sniffed their own card. These guys didn’t even get to bunk next to Dave Freisleben in a quartet of rookies.

DemLWl8XcAAFtsz

The other category Gio does well is the career summary cards. That’s a rare thing. A player had to either retire after his card was issued (1969 Mantle) or die (1973 Clemente) to have his entire career stats on the back of his card, yet a summary card, a tribute of sorts, is a solid idea. Here’s that McMullen card.

Bottomms does cool stuff, but lately he’s been doing something amazing – making “cards” of players where their picture mirrors the generic player icon. So great, in conception and execution. Here are two, but there are others.

I love this genre, which is purest online. I have seen that people sell their custom cards but that’s not my bag. It’s cool to have cards of a unique design for sale, but to sell a faux-1972 Topps card seems wrong. I know one of my friends hates these “cards that never were.” It messes him up. “Wait, do I need this card for my Hall of Fame album? Did I miss this card for my rookie album?” I have no such worries, they’re just cool.

The Express Expressed Exponentially

When conditions are optimal, a perfect storm may form. Three decades ago, the collision of an athlete at his peak and the excesses of the “Junk Wax” card era resulted in a “Texas tornado” cutting a swath across the cardboard landscape.

The legendary, laconic Texan, Nolan Ryan, was at the height of fame from the early eighties to the end of his career in ’93. (I attended his final game, played at the Kingdome.) This coincided with the emergence of new card companies in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, all of which needed product lines. Ryan was the perfect subject for numerous “odd ball” and promotional card sets. Over 30 different sets featuring the “Express” would find their way into the hobby

Star

The first company to cash in on the Ryan phenomenon was Star, who introduced a 24-card set in ’86. They follow up with 11 card sets in ’89 and ’90. The cards have simple designs with white backs featuring stats and highlights. Only one card out of the three sets show Nolan on the Mets.

Postcard

Next in the “shoot” are two postcard sets consisting of 12 cards each in ’90 and ’91. The postcards were distributed under the name “Historic Limited Edition” and all featured original art work from Susan Rini. Since the company produced 10,000 sets each year, their definition of limited is questionable.

Mother's

In my humble opinion, the best of the lot was produced by Mother’s Cookies, which included four different cards in the cookie bags in ’90 and four more in ’91. They returned with a eight card “No-Hitters” set in ’92 and culminated with 10 cards in ’93. The design follows the Mother’s template: simple design, excellent photography and a glossy finish. I have a few of these from each series

Coke

Donruss teamed up with Coca-Cola in ’92 to issue a 26-card career retrospective set distributed in 12-packs of Coke products. I collected these at the time and have 12 different cards.

Classic

Classic cards chimed in with a 10-card set in ‘91 that resembles all of their “crap” cards of the era.

Barry Colla

Other Ryan sets were issued by Spectrum, Barry Colla, Whataburger, Bleachers 23K. ‘95 MLB All-Star Fan Fest and Classic Metal Impressions. Also, Upper Deck produced a mini-set within the “Heroes” issue in ’91.

 

By any definition, this number of sets is excessive. But one company, Pacific Trading Cards, ‘jumped the shark.” The Seattle area company produced a 222 card, two series set in ’91. Add to that, a ’93 Nolan Ryan Limited regular and gold issues, plus a special 30 card box set called: “Texas Express.” But wait, there’s more. Pacific teamed with Advil — for whom Ryan was a spokesman — to produce a set in ’96.

Horse

Producing hundreds of cards for the same player results in mind-numbing repetitiveness. Even throwing in cards depicting Nolan on a horse, with other animals and his family doesn’t break up the monotony.

The next time you curse the Aaron Judge card explosion, remember how Ryan’s “heater” caused a “junk wax” era meltdown.

 

Fork in the Road – Take It?

For the last two years or so, I’ve been on a tear, buying cards, completing sets, having a ball. Usually the road to set completion has taken two forms – 1) I had enough of a critical mass of cards that a push to the finish made sense, in number and in dollars, and 2) I had a good amount of the high priced cards that, even if I needed a lot of cards to get to the end, the cost was right. Add to this a healthy amount of eBay (and other) selling of doubles, triples, crap I don’t even want, and I was (and am) happy. I still can’t believe some of the sets I’ve gotten done.

I see the horizon though. I’m working on five sets right now – 1933 Tattoo Orbit, 1936 Goudey Wide Pens Type 1, 1956 Topps, 1969 Topps Decals and 1972 Fleer Famous Feats. The Tattoo Orbit is a pipe dream; I don’t know that I’ll ever finish. The rest are within my grasp. So what to do when I close the books on these? I don’t want to lose the enthusiasm and fun I’ve been having.

1972 Fleer #1044

I’m torn though. I really don’t know what to do. Part of me says I should start buying complete Topps sets I don’t have and sell the Hall of Famers, stars and commons that I do have for those years to offset the price. That might work for me, but it would also be less fun. A full set, in one swoop? Appealing, in a way.

Or, maybe, I approach it scattershot, picking up cards here and there, some cheap lots, small sets, type cards. The ideal me is cool with that – buy what grabs you. The real me has a hard time with goalless purchasing of random cards. I’m too focused to be comfortable with that.

I’ve always liked non-sports cards too and have some good old sets. Try those? No way I’d put a set like that together from scratch. I imagine it would be impossible to find individual Mod Squad cards at a pace that worked for me. A complete set would be the way to go.

no9 Mod Squad

Or the other sports? There are sets I could definitely fill in, but I don’t like most older football sets, the older basketball sets are out of reach, and hockey, well, I could find a set that didn’t have some super-pricey early Bobby Orr card.

So, I ask all of you for advice. What is this committee, and this blog, if not an open Group Therapy session for the cardboard addicted?

Fox and Friends

In 1964 Topps tried to “pull a fast one” by putting Nellie Fox’s picture on the back of Roy McMillan’s 1964 “Giant.”  In this wonderful set, McMillan is on the Mets and Nellie is wrapping up his Hall-of-Fame career with the Colt ‘45s.

Mccmillan BackFox Back

Each “Giant” card has a black and white action photo on the back accompanying the text of a career highlight. A close examination of the grainy images-taken seconds apart-distinctly shows the “short and squat” body of Fox, along with his signature “chaw” of tobacco distending his cheek in both photos. The one on the McMillan card captures the Texas flag emblem and distinctive stirrup striping worn by Houston. Plus, Roy’s signature glasses are nowhere to be found. The .45s insignia and the Houston jersey script on the Fox card “seals the deal.” Finally, the photos must be from ’64 since Nellie was still playing for the White Sox in ’63.

As Mark Armour pointed out in his informative blog post on the ’64 large format cards, the series was not issued until late summer. This means the players’ photos are all up-to-date, and several of the photos on the back are from the ’64 season. The photos on the McMillan and Fox cards appear to be taken on August 1st at Shea Stadium.

Jackson

The exact game can be pinpointed based on the identity of the sliding runner, who’s wearing number 15 on his pinstriped uniform. The Mets, Cubs and Phillies were the only NL clubs to wear pinstripes in ’64. This is not a Phillies player, since they had extra-large numbers in that era. Leo Burke wore 15 for the Cubs, but was not involved in a play at second with Fox. Thus, the runner must be Mets pitcher Al Jackson.

In the third inning of a day game on Saturday, August 1, Jackson singled off Hal Brown and was subsequently erased at second on double play ball hit by Bobby Klaus. The two photos show Fox turning the “twin killing.”

By the way, the Mets beat the Colt .45’s 3 to 2 with Jackson tossing a complete game. McMillan started at shortstop for the Mets, so the photographer had multiple opportunities to snap a photo of Roy.

It is conceivable that the photos are from a ’64 spring training game. Until proven otherwise, I’m going with the “tilt” played at the brand new “Big Shea.”