Free Agent Draft

Most collectors have a cringe inducing story surrounding the desecration of cards or related products during their youth. A classic example is Jeff Katz gluing ’71 coins onto a board. Of course cards were designed to provide fun and entertainment for kids. At the time, the alterations we made brought us joy. However, I was enough of a collector as a kid to only mess with duplicates. The following is a tale of desecrating a ’69 Pete Rose card-amongst many others-in the pursuit of fun.

Parker Brothers produced a board game called “Pro Draft,” which utilized ’73 Topps football cards. I very much coveted this game but never obtained it. Being a clever lad, I decided to create my own game using baseball cards. I called the game “Free Agent Draft.” My best guess is I created it in ‘75 after the Messersmith/McNally case resulted in free agency.

Borrowing liberally from the rules of Monopoly, I crafted a board game where the first player to obtain a card for each positon–plus a manager–would be the winner. The players had different values, much like the properties in Monopoly. Drawing from my vast number of duplicates, I proceeded to write dollar values, ranging from 50 to 500, on the front of cards. This resulted in not only Pete Rose being defaced but Luis Aparicio, Boog Powell and Bill Mazeroski as well.

My “Monopoly like” board had spaces for drafting players, winning or losing money, being forced to trade a player or pay opponents fees. I had a “Community Chest/Chance” space called “Hit or Error” resulting in good or bad outcomes depending on which card was drawn. Examples included: “3 game winning streak: move forward 3 spaces” and “Pay $100 to pension fund.”

Competitors could raise money by placing players on “waivers,” receiving half value from the bank. An opponent could put in a waiver claim if you couldn’t meet your financial obligations. Obviously, I stole this from the mortgage option in Monopoly.

Participants could purchase multiple players for the same position in an attempt to block opponents from filling out a team. Conversely, you could take a player you needed if you landed on a “trade” space.

Initially, I drew the game board-poorly- on the back of a roll of Christmas paper and glued it to a checker board. Later, the board was significantly improved by my buddy, Ted, utilizing a piece of plywood and etching the spaces with a wood burner tool. We even varnished it.

Since we played this game for hours, it must have been somewhat compelling. I remember having to alter the rules several times since flaws would creep up. Eventually, we nailed down a fun game.

During a furnace installation in my grandparent’s basement, the board and the “Hit or Error” cards disappeared. I saved some of the adulterated baseball cards, which you are viewing.

If I had sold this concept to Parker Brother or Milton Bradley–not the player–I might have made a fortune. Alas, I’m sure copyright infringement would have been an issue.

I also created a game called “Jenk-o-Matic” baseball, but that is a topic for another post.

 

Father and Son

Our son was born on Christmas Eve, 2001. This is actually a hell of a story, albeit one that I am not going to tell today.

A few weeks later a couple of friends handed me a complete set of 2001 Topps baseball cards — for Drew, to mark the year of his birth. (They did a similar thing for our daughter Maya in 1998).

Truth be told, I had not been keeping up with the baseball card scene. Several years earlier, before the crash, I had cashed in all of my post-1980 cards, and my remaining efforts were to work on older sets. I had not opened a pack of cards in several years. I put Drew’s cards in a closet.

A few years later (2006) young Drew and I were in a store and he put some baseball cards in the shopping cart. He had seen my cards a few times so he knew about them. We went home and opened the packs, and then added to our pile throughout the summer. I explained to him who some of the “good” players were, and he slowly learned how to sort them into stacks of teams, as all right-thinking people do. He had favorite players, and favorite teams. (He suggested throwing the Yankees cards away, but I cautioned restraint.)

At some point along about here I remembered his birth gift and presented him the box, undisturbed in its shrink-wrap. Appropriately, he dumped them out and started rifling through them. We continued to pick up packs of current-year cards for the next few years until he had filled several shoe boxes.

Drew and I are very different. I am a no neatnik, but my clutter is very organized. I may have stacks of baseball cards all over my office, and a few on my bedroom dresser, but the stacks have a purpose — nothing is ever “missing” or out of place, and this was just as true when I was 10.

Drew … does not share this trait, at least not yet. His baseball cards were fairly quickly strewn all over his room. If they occasionally breached the common areas of the house, he or I would pick them up and move them back to his room, finding an available surface.

As persnickety as I am about my own cards, I gave Drew a lot of leeway. I might find them on the bottom of his laundry basket, or under his bed, or stuck together by some mysterious adhesive. The damaged cards would get thrown away. When cleaning up, I did try to return any stray 2001 cards to their original box — I am not an animal — but the others would get stuffed into a shoe box, with neither rhyme, nor reason.

After taking a few years off, in 2012 I started buying him complete sets for his birthday or Christmas (both, sadly, in the off-season). I convinced him this was both a better deal and less messy. We still picked up cards over the summer, but in December he would get an entire set anyway.

All the while, he mainly liked going through the cards with me. (He also had a lot of Pokemon cards, and Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Magic, but he was on his own with all that.) Along the way Drew’s extra-curricular options expanded, and sorting baseball cards with Dad, oddly, stopped being his top choice. Properly.

Drew played baseball for several years (I was always the coach), but ultimately gravitated to soccer. Fine by me — soccer is a wonderful sport and has been great for him. He is in high school now, and he’s a good player. He is much more of a sports doer than a sports watcher, especially when compared with my teenage years watching any sport, no matter how obscure.

I recently asked Drew if I could “annex” his card collection. I assured him that he could take them back whenever he wished, and he was going to end up with all my cards someday anyway. I just wanted to organize the chaos, and all his cards would basically graduate to living with mine. He was cool with it.

I started by going through his 2012-2016 “sets” to verify that every card was there. Yes, they were! Adolescent Drew was neater than I thought. Bravo.

Next I took all of his other cards (mainly his ages 4-8 cards) and began the laborious process of figuring out what he had, starting with simply sorting the shoe box contents by year. Although spread over several boxes, he actually had a complete set of 2007 cards — not sure how that happened. I must have bought a hand-collated set on eBay ten years ago. He has a ton of many other years that I still need to go through.

Mainly, I was curious about 2001. This was like a grand social experiment: hand a five-year-old 790 baseball cards, allow him to live a middle-class junk-acquiring life for a decade, and then shout “time’s up!” and rush in to see what happened.

Tuesday night was the big night: How many of the 790 cards had survived a decade in that room?

Survey says: 757.

Honestly, not bad. The 757 are in fine condition, too.

There is a chance some of the missing 33 are in Drew’s room somewhere — in a box of Pokemon cards? In his sock drawer? In a large box of stray cards he picked up from the 1980s?

Maybe, but it is more likely that they decomposed in the town landfill many years ago. I will look around a bit more before giving up.  And by “giving up”, I mean “finding and purchasing the missing 33 cards.”

I was going through this exercise when Drew came upstairs, ear buds in place, bopping to something or other. (Drew is amazing.)

Suddenly I felt a little sad. Here I was riffing through his childhood, a part of his childhood that we had shared, and he was uninvolved. I motioned to him to come closer. He removed the buds.

“Drew,” says I, “I think we need to come up with some other activity we can do together.”

He pondered this, and said we could start doing jigsaw puzzles, or maybe a model. He went to my office and retrieved a White House model we had made years ago and we agreed it was still fabulous.

I also told him about the new movie, “Dunkirk,” coming out on July 21. “You’ll like it,” I said. “I’ll get out a map and explain the basic premise of the movie before we go.”

Date confirmed. Still amazing.

 

Delicious Memories

I haven’t spoken to my parents in about 12 years. It’s a long story, not a particularly interesting one, so I won’t go into it. Even though I don’t speak to them anymore, don’t draw the conclusion that they never did anything nice. That would be wrong.

When Hostess started issuing cards in 1975 on the back of Twinkies, Cupcakes, Suzy Qs and Chocodiles (which may have arrived on the East Coast a few years later) boxes, I was quick to up my intake. Not that I needed an excuse to eat more Hostess Cupcakes, an all-time great junk food, but cards were a very effective spur to increase buying. I was a pretty serious collector by 1975, but still dumb enough to cut the cards from the boxes. I don’t even want to show any; they’re not terribly cut, but they make me feel bad. By the following year I realized I should cut the whole back panel out.

1977 Niekro panel front004

Around that same time my mother started taking me to a Hostess outlet. I can’t remember where it was in relation to our Lake Grove home in the middle of Suffolk County, but it wasn’t close. The outlet (imagine a Hostess outlet!) had boring stuff like bread and rolls but it had boxes and boxes of pastries (does Hostess product count as a pastry?). I could take my time checking their inventory and picking out cards I needed. It was a cake/card shop, the nearly perfect shop for a mid-teen like me.

My mother was a good sport about it, buying, it seems to me, as many boxes as I asked for. Once we brought the goodies home, there was no way I was going to wait until me, my brother and maybe my parents slowly ate their way through the stock. I dumped all the cakes out and put them in a bowl. The cellophane wrapper kept them sliding off each other, but I managed to cram the whole lot into the fridge. (There’s nothing better than cold Hostess cakes.) The boxes were empty, the back panels were cut and laid in an old shoebox.

1979 Hostess Yount panel front008

It wasn’t until 1977 that I saw individual cards in two packs of Twinkies and Cupcakes. I was visiting my cousin in Staten Island and we were in some kind of convenience or grocery store when I saw them and bought a bagful. I probably through an immature tantrum and made him pay. Like many food issues, those cards were the platter that the product sat on, so the cards all get stained. I’ve read that clean cards were released into the hobby, but that’s cheating. I got mine, Twinkie grease and all, the old fashioned way, at the retail level.

197 Hostess Twinkie Carew front013

I was looking through my Hostess cards (full confession: to list doubles on eBay) and I was instantly brought back to mid-70’s Long Island. Hostess cards bring happy memories and all I need to do is look at them. I don’t even need to eat a Twinkie to be transported. Even Proust’s madeleine couldn’t do that.

Almost Olbermann

I’d only been to SABR Conventions when I was speaking about a book I had out, so it was Cleveland in 2008 (Kansas City A’s & The Wrong Half of the Yankees) and Chicago in 2015 (Split Season). With this year’s SABR 47 in New York, it was too close to miss. Still, I couldn’t go for multiple days – cost, for one, and conflicts (friends coming to Cooperstown) – but if you read my last post you know how much the SABR Baseball Cards Committee has meant to me so I definitely wanted to be there for Saturday’s committee meeting, in general, and to see Mark Armour and Chris Dial, in specific. That Keith Olbermann was speaking was an added boost.

KO is 3 ½ years older than me and his lifetime of card collecting somewhat mirrors mine. I didn’t know how much until he spoke. Waving around a 1971 issue of the early card magazine The Trader Speaks, Olbermann spoke about going to card shows in NYC starting in 1971, realizing that he could buy 1940 Play Balls for a buck a piece and searching antique stores for T206s at .35 each. His Dad drove him from Westchester to Lake Ronkonkoma in Suffolk County for a show.

I went to those early card shows as well, starting in 1973. It seemed they were always either after my birthday or after Hanukkah, so I had some cash, $100 for each show. Though I was into cards and baseball history as much as Keith, I didn’t have the same focus he had. My first show I bought a 1955 Koufax rookie, a 1957 Paul Hornung rookie, a 1965 Don Maynard, a T206 Mathewson without much trace of a back. Why? I don’t know.

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Over the years I narrowed my focus, sort of. I knew who I liked – Koufax, Frank Robinson, Kaline, Banks – and got all their base cards. I occasionally bought a Mays, Mantle or Aaron. I never really liked The Mick, but my aversion to Mays and Aaron cards is inexplicable to this day. I also was set prone. Sometimes that worked for me – the 1959 Fleer Ted Williams comes to mind – but often it didn’t – the 1979 Topps Comics set comes to mind.

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When I say things “didn’t work,” I’m talking investment and future value. I always bought what I liked; in that way everything worked. Still, I look back and wonder where my head was at. It certainly wasn’t where Olbermann’s was.

As Keith spoke about buying truly old cards, going the extra mile to meet the great Mike Aronstein of TCMA fame, travelling to Lake Ronkonkoma for a show, I could see the monstrously large gap between his devotion and mine. Sure, he clearly had, and has, more disposable card money than I do, but his drive put mine to shame. I lived next to Lake Ronkonkoma, went to Sachem High School in Lake Ronkonkoma, knew The Trader Speaks was published in Lake Ronkonkoma but never, never, sought the local card community.

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The room was packed, a sure sign that the SABR Baseball Cards Committee has touched a nerve. Maybe some were only there to hear Olbermann speak. Even so, he spoke cards and that only reinforced what we’ve been up to on the blog.

As Chris Dial said as we talked about the future of the Cards Committee, “baseball cards are bigger than all of this.” “This” means SABR, Sabermetrics, Negro Leagues, women in baseball and so on. It seemed a shocking thing to say, but I know he’s right. EVERYBODY has come through cards at some point. Not everyone has dipped a toe in the other arenas. So when Keith Olbermann says he started as a baseball card collector and then became a baseball fan, that’s an experience we can all share equally.

 

SABR 47

SABR_logo-square-700pxThings have been quiet around here. I was out of town for nearly two weeks, and I probably should have mentioned that. I brought my laptop with me and had plans to put up some posts (a few came in last week) and remain active on Twitter. But other than briefly answering emails and retweeting a few times, the committee was dormant. Hopefully things will return to normal over the next week.

The culmination of the time away was SABR 47 in New York City. I can’t really do it justice here — it was four great days filled with learning, laughing, and hanging out with (or meeting for the first time) good people. For more, read all of the recaps and view all the photos on SABR’s web site. Check back, because more are being added.

All SABR committees have meetings at the convention, and our meeting was Saturday morning. Chris and I introduced ourselves and spoke briefly about what the committee was and what we had done so far (basically this blog and our active Twitter account), and invited everyone present to participate. That took five minutes. Here is proof.

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After this, we introduced our guest speaker, who crushed it.

We did not invite Keith Olbermann to speak because he is a famous public figure (although the packed crowd was nice), or because of his decades long experience in sports media (although he was obviously more polished than most SABR speakers). He was invited because he is one of the foremost experts in the history of baseball cards and has been an avid collector since childhood. He is one of us.

Screen Shot 2017-07-03 at 9.07.34 AM.pngKeith was funny, insightful, and friendly, all of which are positives for a speaker, but his greatest contribution was that he made the best case yet for why this committee is appropriate and (dare I say it?) necessary.

Chris and I started this last Fall largely because we thought it would be fun for a lot of people (including us). Maybe SABR would gain some members, maybe people would have some knowledge to share. SABR has plenty of projects and committees of a more “academic” bent (in some of which Chris and I participate), but why not do something a little more fun?

But in Keith’s talk, in which his own five-decade experience in the hobby was the through-line, he made the points that (1) baseball cards are part of our (SABR’s) DNA, and (2) there is a real story to document. Many of the founders were serious memorabilia collectors, and early baseball card publications (more like newsletters) helped spread the word in SABR’s early days.

I found myself thinking, “Why did SABR wait 45 years?”

Many thanks to Keith for entertaining the troops, and being a perfect first speaker for our motley crew.

Next year: Pittsburgh PA, June 20-24, 2018.

— Mark and Chris

 

Reanimated

About a year and a half ago I realized I was within striking distance of completing my 1971 Topps set. Though I’ve always been a card collector, in recent years I had been limited to buying the new Topps factory set. That was it. I wasn’t active, I wasn’t interested, and, while I loved my cards, I wasn’t involved with them emotionally.

2016-Topps-Baseball-Factory-Set-Hobby

Finishing off the ’71 set was great fun and I turned to 1970. I was making good headway, having a blast doing so, but nothing, and I mean nothing, brought me back to the joys of the hobby more than when Mark Armour and Chris Dial restarted the SABR Baseball Cards Committee and a blog.

I met Mark once, two years ago at the SABR convention in Chicago, where I was presenting and pushing Split Season. (I also wrote an Earl Williams  bio for the SABR Bioproject, but that was years ago and I bet Mark doesn’t remember that.) Mark and I started talking about how to elevate the new cards committee, find writers, start a Twitter account, and so on. We also started working on a few card sets together. Instant buddies!

I tend to write when I need to write and, since I’m not working on a book right now, writing isn’t tops on my list. I remember hearing that Ringo never practices; he plays when he has to. That’s my approach to writing, but the cards blog is compelling to me. I’ve written a bunch of posts and most aren’t about cards, they’re about memories and life, with cards as vehicle to tell the story. It’s a reality of mine that cards have been a constant presence in my life and being back into cards, deeply, has made me so very happy.

Boys Collecting Baseball Cards

The SABR convention is starting tomorrow. I couldn’t fit the entire multi-day event into my schedule, but there was no way I was going to miss the Baseball Cards Committee meeting on Saturday and a chance to hang out with Mark and many others who I’ve met these last few months via the blog and Twitter. I’ve never been someone to reach out to trade cards and share with strangers, but, again, through the cards committee, I’ve virtually met a lot of kindred spirits, some who I’ll meet for real in a few days.

So I owe a huge thank you and much gratitude to Mark and Chris for jump-starting my dead card collecting battery and to all those who read, comment, share and collect. We’re all one big happy family.

California is the Place Topps Oughta Be

The relocation of the Dodgers and Giants to the West Coast after the ’57 season not only broke the hearts of fans but meant Topps didn’t have a NL base in New York at which to photograph players. So, Topps decided to follow the departed clubs and shoot the National League teams in sunny California. This results in several sets of cards with photos taken at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and Seals Stadium in San Francisco.

I’m sure most of you know the story of the Dodgers initial plan to use the PCL Angels facility (Wrigley Field) as their home turf. But the prospect of selling 60-70,000 seats per game instead of 20,000 caused Walter O’Malley to select the cavernous Coliseum, despite its track and inflexible football field configuration.

There is no mistaking the Coliseum cards since many clearly show the Peristyle from which burned the Olympic flame during the 1932 Olympics (1984 too). Also the arches are apparent in numerous photos. The haziness may be a result of the infamous LA “smog,” which was particularly bad in the days before auto emission control devices came along in the ‘70s.

59 hodges59 Burgess   60 Robinson

The ’59 card of Gil Hodges is a prime examples of a card with the Peristyle and arches in the distance. The ’59 Smokey Burgess and ‘60 Frank Robinson clearly show that the visitors were also photographed in the Coliseum.

60 Zim  61 Drysdale  62 Koufax

The shots continue to show up over the next three years-as attested by the ’60 Don Zimmer, ’61 Don Drysdale and ’62 Sandy Koufax.

After the move west, the Giants were content to use Seals Stadium, knowing that a new ball park (Candlestick) was scheduled to open in ’60. Additional seats were added to bring the former PCL venue’s capacity up to around 22,000. This single deck stadium in the Mission District is very distinctive with orange box railings.

Sauer   61 Antonelli Bazooka   61 Alou   59 Robbie   61 Aaron   62 White

Former NL MVP Hank Sauer in ’59, Johnny Antonelli in ’60 and Felipe Alou in ‘61 are all at Seals Stadium. The ’59 Frank Robinson,’61 Aaron and ’62 Bill White are opposition player examples.

Seals Seat

When Seals Stadium was razed after the ’59 season, the wooden seats along with the light towers made their way to the new Cheney Stadium in Tacoma, Washington. The seats remained in use until being replaced in 2005. I purchased one, which is now displayed in my memorabilia room. I have at least one piece of memorabilia from all the San Francisco and Tacoma teams displayed on the seat.