It’s Hard

It can’t be easy being Dick Pole. Here’s a guy who was a major league pitcher for six years, including the 1975 World Series, then became a successful pitching coach, cited by Greg Maddux as a major influence. But his claim to fame is that his name is Dick Pole. Dick Pole! And then to be Dick Pole on the Beavers?  Come on, cut the guy a break.

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There’s a super cool 1981 TCMA Sandy Koufax card from when the great Koofoo was a roving minor league pitching instructor in the Dodger chain. TCMA put him in their Albuquerque Dukes team set but when word got out that they shouldn’t have assumed they had the rights to do so, the card was pulled. It’s not very expensive, $15-20, but it is relatively hard to find.

1981 Koufax front002

I’ve got a bunch of minor league sets, most I picked up in big lots years after they had plummeted from peak value. They’re fun, very goofy, and sometimes you come across a real gem. As I rifled through my 1981 sets, all in alphabetical order by team city, I hit upon this poor schnook.

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You’d think that with a name like Johnson Wood, to my ears even more ridiculous than Dick Pole, I’d have either heard of him or remembered him from when I got the 1981 Burlington Bees set. His card came as an incredibly funny surprise. I had to know more.

That’s when it became difficult. Wood had a nondescript minor league career, going by the name of John Wood to save his dignity, popping back up to manage in the Western League, guiding the 1998 Pacific Suns to a 28-62 record. Not so good.

I wanted to find out more about him but I can’t find much more online. I’m sure if I ducked to the Hall of Fame library I could dig up old articles and pictures. I’m not that interested. I thought I could find out some critical mass of information from my desk chair. No luck.  I also Tweeted out to Tom Candiotti, who was Wood’s teammate in 1983 in El Paso. I’m curious how much of a hard time his teammates gave good ol’ Johnson Wood. I’m still waiting for an answer.

Having a double phallic name has got to be tough, at least from the first moment of adolescent when your friends realizes that both of your names are synonyms for penis. I can’t imagine. I got a reasonable amount of shit with a last name of Katz!

I’ll probably stay on the Johnson Wood story for a little, maybe see what files the Hall has. I feel like this dude had it hard enough, what with his name, his less than illustrious minor league career and one horrendous season managing in the independent Western league.  We should all have a little empathy for the Johnson Woods of the world, doing their best to stand tall and firm against the stress and pressures that affect a lot of guys who, occasionally, fall flat.

 

Thriller Decade Part 1: Results

Thanks to the 160 of you who took our poll to determine the best cards sets, annually, from 1981 through 1985. Click here to read about the poll and see the fronts and backs of the fifteen different sets.

One overall observation (spoiler!): there is probably a lot of Topps Loyalty out there, people who grew up with Topps in the 1970s (or earlier) and stuck with them through the years even until today as most of their competition has come and gone.

Anyhow, here are our favorite sets, year to year.

Note: scores are average point totals, where a 1st place vote is a 3, 2nd place vote a 2, 3rd place vote a 1.

1981 Topps (2.46), Fleer (1.91), Donruss (1.64)

1981to3

In July 1980 Fleer finally won their court case against Topps, when a judge ruled that the player’s association must grant a license to at least one other company to produce baseball cards. As it happened, they awarded two: one to Fleer, and one to Donruss. The two companies had just a few months to put together card sets, including the gathering of several hundred photographs.

Given the timeframe, the existence of the two sets is remarkable. But not remarkable enough to produce designs as well as Topps, who had been at it for 30 years.

1982 Topps (2.55), Donrus (2.03), Fleer (1.40)

s-l225 (3)

Topps won a minor reversal in their legal battle, so beginning in 1982 neither rival was allowed to put gum in their packs. (In 1981, all companies had gum.) The 1982 Topps set also turned in its second decisive victory.

In my opinion, Donruss took a big leap forward in design and photography, but Fleer was the opposite — cards so uninspired and blurry that I wondered whether they would bother continuing. (I joked on Twitter that the photos look to have been taken by your stoned friends on Florida spring break. And they do.)

1983 Topps (2.71), Fleer (1.76), Donruss (1.49)

83-topps-last-card-ripken

The most decisive victory in the poll. I could be wrong, but I think this is more a reflection of people’s love for the Topps entry rather than a reflection of the other companies. This is my favorite Topps set of the 1980s, so I sympathize.

Where I differ from the consensus is that I love the 1983 Fleer set. In fact, Fleer was a game changer for me. I was now out of college, and I had pretty much decided that I was just going to be a Topps guy, that the usurpers, while admirable, had not done well enough to convince me to buy multiple sets. So I got my Topps set early that year and called it a day.

And then I wandered into a card shop one day, saw some Fleer cards, and basically fell in love. The use of the logo instead of (not “in addition to”, like 1965 Topps) the team name was genius, the overall design was attractive (the first non-white border since 1975 Topps), and the backs were much better than Topps (and had been from the beginning, to be honest).

As I said, I really liked the 1983 Topps set, but I still like Fleer better all these years later.

1984 Fleer (2.05), Donruss (2.03), Topps (1.97)

murphy-84f

This was basically a 3-way tie, and if I ran this poll again using a different methodology it is anyone’s guess which would win. In fact, Fleer had the lowest total of 1st place votes (although the margin was also razor thin). But Fleer is the winner.

I assumed Donruss would win as it is one of the most famous sets ever. It was famous in 1984 for supposedly being scarce, and for having a great Don Mattingly rookie card. I have seen a number of articles or surveys about the best card sets ever, and this set is often mentioned.

Personally, the 1984 Donruss and Fleer sets are my favorites from the 1980s. As for Topps, I didn’t like their repeat of the second photo on the front. They went 20 years before using it in 1983, and should have exercised the same patience before going back to the well. (Admittedly, I am a one-photo guy.)

1985 Topps (2.21), Donruss (2.02), Fleer (1.81)

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Topps is back on top in another very strong year for all three companies. After Fleer showed the way in 1983, Topps used team logos for the first time in 20 years. This was much preferrable to the second photo, in my opinion.

Donruss also debuted the team logo, and (like Fleer) used it instead of the team name. Donruss was the winner for me, but Topps was our (mild) consensus.

So there you have it. Topps takes four out of five, and easily could have swept. But by the mid-1980s I think it is clear that all three companies were on relatively equal footing, each having pros and cons. In 1981 we wondered: could the market really handle three card companies? A few years later, we knew the answer.

The best of The Thriller Years, Part 1

In previous polls, we have debated the best baseball card designs of the 1970s and the 1960s.  This was the heart of the Topps Era, when there was only one card set to worry about so we were ranking 10 sets per decade.

To tackle the 1980s, I decided to mix it up.  First of all, there were 31 cards sets in the decade, and I did not really want to ask you to ponder whether the 1983 Donruss deserves to slot ahead of the 1989 Score set in 27th place.  Check that: I did not really want to ask myself to do that.  So instead, we will start out by picking the best card set of each year.  We will skip 1980 for the moment (Topps was the only set).

Reviewing the rules:  Please, I beg you, do not vote for the set that had the best rookies, or the best update set, or the best retail value.  All those things being equal, if you look at 25 random cards from each year which are the most attractive? The End.

We are just going to do five years now, and finish up next week.

So, first review the photos below, and then vote.  The link is at the bottom.

1981

Steve-Garvey-(Surpassed-21-HR-on-card-back)  83-56aBk

s-l225  84-640aBk

1981to3  wpeE5

1982

s-l225 (1)  87-34Bk

s-l225 (2)  Robin-Yount

s-l225 (3)  89-390Bk

1983

$_58  download (1)

92-601Fr  92-601Bk

83-topps-last-card-ripken  download

1984

s-l225 (4) 95-151Bkmurphy-84f  96-186Bk

100_2721  25513-510Bk

1985

s-l225 (5) - Copy  100-222Bk - Copy

carew - Copy  101-297Bk

43648c5c004c7bf68b09711b4d8d9cd3  download (2)

OK, now go vote!

Stardom “Staehled”

68 Bench                          

Topps’ ability to project stardom for young players has always been mixed. For every Nolan Ryan and Johnny Bench who appeared on the “Rookie Stars” cards of the ‘60’s and ‘70s, there was a Mike Brumley or a Ron Tompkins. Of course we all know baseball is the most difficult sport to project success beyond potential. Nonetheless, the talent evaluators in Brooklyn could be decidedly dogged in their insistence that some youngsters had star potential. Thus, there are several instances of the same players featured on multiple “Rookie Stars” cards.   I included the ’63 version-which is not team specific- in the survey.

64 Piniella

69 Staehl

In most instances statistical evidence did not back up Topps’ talent appraisals, with a few exceptions. The most well known is “Sweet” Lou Piniella who appears on three cards for three different teams. Lou vindicated Topps loyalty by emerging as a solid player for the Royals and Yankees. Darrell Knowles is another multiple card rookie who had a good but not spectacular career. One of the “Miracle Mets” chief “linchpins,” Tommy Agee, was another excellent player who-like Piniella- earned Rookie-of-the-Year honors.

63 Simpson

64 Simpson

65 Simpson

66 Simpson

However, the majority of the guys who appear two, three or four times never lived up to Topps’ lofty expectations. For instance Dick Simpson is on four different cards starting with in ’63.  He bounced around with five teams before his potential ran out in ’69 after a stint with Seattle. Bob Davis shows up three times and Ron Stone has a “triple” as well. The before mentioned Ron Tompkins, Roberto Rodriquez, Darrell Osteen (who appear together in ’68 for Reds) and Richie Scheinblum (paired with Lou Piniella as ’68 Indians) all had “doubles.”

65 Staehl

66 Staehl

69 Staehl

Marv Staehl is a classic example of overhyped potential. He appears on the White Sox “Rookie Stars” cards in ’65 and ’66 and for the Pilots in ’69. Marv played a total of 47 games for the “Pale Hose” but never played with Seattle, having been optioned to AAA Vancouver at the end spring training. He does hold the distinction of being the first player with major league experience signed by the Pilots.

After being dealt to the Expos, Marv finally exceeded his rookie status in ’70 by playing in over 100 games. The Expos are not impressed and cut him in April of ’71. He latches on with the Braves but is released after 22 games and a .111 average. Though his major league career ends, ’71 is not all bad for Marv. Topps finally gives him a card of his own, even if the cap emblem was inexpertly airbrushed away.

71 Staehl

Several months ago erstwhile blog contributor and Mayor of Cooperstown, Jeff Katz, informed me that Marv Staehl was once his insurance agent in Illinois. Marv had to be an All-State agent since he was known for having “good hands” around second base.

If I missed a multiple “Rookie Stars” player, let us know.

 

Goin’ Horizontal

When this blog did its poll of favorite 1970’s sets, I was surprised that 1974 was my #1. Before I truly thought about the decade’s offerings, I would have flippantly said 1972 or 1977. Maybe even 1971. When I really got to thinking about it, I found I loved ’74 the most.

A prime reason I’m fond of that year’s cards is the huge amount of horizontal cards, especially the subset of 13 player cards. It’s not really a subset; I just think of them that way. They are my favorite cards in my favorite series, and they should be yours too. They’re great.

Here they are – not the horizontal All-Stars, team cards, Hank Aaron #1, playoffs, World Series (although there are some spectacular horizontals there) and leaders cards. These are the special baker’s dozen (non-Dusty variety) players that made the recumbent grade.

#28 – Manny Sanguillen 

I’ll admit this is not the best card to start with to prove my point. It ain’t much, but it’s a start and, you’ll have to admit, has its own look. Manny looks as sad as the Clemente-honoring black armband on his left sleeve.

$_58

#80 – Tom Seaver 

Possibly my favorite card of my favorite player. Fierce Seaver follow through, big Shea crowd behind him. I always figured this had to be taken during the 1973 World Series, but there’s no Seaver started day game in Flushing. Maybe Game 5 of the NLCS? Sure, why not.

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#86 – Joe Ferguson

Ferguson was a caveman with a rifle arm. He doesn’t look too imposing here, kinda dorky, but he had some power. Speaking of dorky, the Phillies’ batter is Craig Robinson. If it was Hot Tub Time Machine Craig Robinson, that would make a killer card.

$_58 (1)

#105 – Carlton Fisk

Fisk’s second full card and was there ever a better one? The guy played 20 more years and 1974 may be the pinnacle of his card-dom.

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#153 – Jon Matlack

The Seaver-Matlack 1974 combo was potent on the mound and unrivaled in this set.  Same looking day as the Seaver card, same looking crowd, but there’s no 1973 post-season Matlack appearance that fits. I have no idea, but it doesn’t matter. This card rocks.

s-l225 (1)

#238 – Fran Healy

No star, but Healy gets to go horizontal. Odd choice. I know nothing about camera technology, but the dark dark background is a signature period look. Plus, you get Thurman Munson, a future Healy teammate on the Yankees from 1976-78.

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#270 – Ron Santo

Like Sangullien’s card, not solid evidence that the 1974 horizontal cards are the best, and yet there’s something to this. The askew helmet is so goofy, and so appropriate for often silly Santo. Though small, who should be centered but bald old Leo Durocher. That’s good stuff.

1974-Topps-Baseball-Ron-Santo

#386 – Gary Matthews

This is a great action card. I’ll hear no objections. Everyone’s doing their job – Wayne Garrett’s waiting for a throw, John McNamara is showing excellent third base coach clapping skills and Matthews is clearly busting it out for a triple. Except he’s not. It was August 25, 1973, Matthews had singled in the top of the fifth off Seaver and hustled to third on a Tito Fuentes single. He was stranded when Bobby Bonds ended the inning with a fly out to Don Hahn in center field.

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#392 – Dick Green

Green doing what Green did best, guarding the keystone and turning double plays.

Green74

#490 – Vada Pinson

That Vada Pinson always had a handsome card and this latter day Angels’ action shot is a keeper. I’m a big fan of veterans finding themselves on the Angels in the 1970’s. Frank Robinson in the Halo uni is my favorite. Another vet is still to come in this post.

s-l225 (2)

#575 – Steve Garvey

Another non-star, but not for long. 1974 was Garvey’s breakout, MVP season. Good scouting Topps! Like the dark Healy card, this one has a classic sports photo look, with the out of focus crowd providing a gauzy backdrop. Unless early ‘70’s crowds were themselves out of focus. Lots of drugs back then you know.

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#640 – Milt Pappas

Pappas had a late career revival in Chicago, with back to back 17 win season in 1971 and 1972 (when he nearly, and sort of did, pitch a perfect game. He was robbed). 1973 was his last season and this is his last card. A good one to go out on.

s-l225 (3)

#650 – Mike Epstein

In 1972, the Hebrew Hammer belted 26 homers for the champion A’s and finished 16th in AL MVP voting. Then he was traded to Texas to open space for Gene Tenace, then on to California. 1974 was his last year and, like Pappas, this was his farewell card. It’s a fine example in the washed up veteran on the Angels series.

74-650Fr

Fleer Funnies

Like many of you, any card series that dealt with sports sparked my interest as a kid. Fleer offered several collecting options beyond traditional picture cards. I collected the cloth logo and cap emblem stickers, “Famous Feats” in ’72 and “Wildest Days” in ‘73 as well as the ’70 and ’71 World Series.

The World Series sets featured cartoons or caricatures of baseball players and managers. The cartoons do a nice job of conveying the prime event or factor that led to outcome of that particular year. Robert Laughlin was the cartoonist who came up with this concept. He self-produced a set in the late ‘60s and then sold the concept to Fleer.

WS32 (70)
1970 Fleer

 

WS 32 (71)
1971 Fleer

The two sets are not duplicates. 1970 consists of 66 standard sizes cards with a narrative of the series printed in blue on the back. In ’71, Fleer produced 68 cards (issuing a card for the 1904 series that was not played, and adding 1970), and uses a completely new cartoon and the MLB logo to the front. Also the backs are different with scores for each game and a different narrative printed in black.

Since I’ve completed the ’70 set recently, it will be the focus of the post.

14WS

The “Miracle Braves” rocketing to an incredible upset of the “Mackmen” is a good example of a generic cartoon players telling the series story. Also it demonstrates that one of Laughlin’s aims was “kid appeal.”

WS 09

One of my favorites is the ’09 card which has great caricatures of a maniacal Ty Cobb and a dignified Honus Wagner. Notice the nick-names on the crossed bats.

WS 19

The “Black Sox” card is an excellent example of Laughlin capturing the essence of a particular series.

WS 48

Native-American themed logos should be consigned to the “dust bin” of history, but as an eight year old I loved this ’48 Series card.

WS 60

This ’60 World Series depiction nicely sums up the underdog aspect of the Pirates’ win.

WS 69 Front

The “Cinderella” Mets ride in style at the expense of the Orioles on this ’69.

WS 69 Back 

The lack of specific players’ names within the narrative on the back is the result of Fleer not securing the rights from the MLB Players’ Association.   All mention of active players was omitted from the narratives.

 

To find out more details, check out this “Sports Collectors Digest” article.

 

The Wild, Wild West

The ‘70s and early ‘80s saw a sartorial explosion of color in Major League Baseball. The Astros “Tequila Sunrise” jersey and the Padres various brown, yellow and orange togs are the gaudiest examples. This movement from home whites and road grays was not exclusive to the “bigs;” the minor leagues saw a similar profusion of color.

In addition to decades’ worth of Mariners farm team cards, I have accumulated many other minor league sets. Recently while browsing through a binder of late ‘70s and early ’80 Pacific Coast League cards, I was assaulted with some true “retina burners.” Here’s a look at some seriously questionable uniform designs.

Sexton Toros

This ’80 TCMA Tucson Toros card show the most egregious example of “double-knit” debauchery. Obviously, the Toros were inspired by the Astros but went too far. The desert earth tones, diagonal lettering and orange base add up to a real mess. The caps only make the outfit worse. Supposedly, the colors would “run” when laundered, making for an even more psychedelic effect.

Pietroburgo Tigers  Alston Tacoma

Not to be out done by Tucson, the Tacoma Tigers created a “dog’s breakfast” design as well. These ’80 TcMA cards show two hideous combinations. I know all too well that eight months of gloomy, Pacific Northwest weather can do strange things to the mind, but what were they thinking?!

Harris Vancouver

Tacoma’s Canadian brethren to the north got into the uniform perversion act as well. The Vancouver Canadians sported these mono-chrome Navy “jobs” in this ‘80 TCMA.

Beavers  81 Beavers

The other Northwest entry, Portland, went nuts as well. These ’81 Beavers cards show the mix-and-match style popularized by the Pirates. In ’81, Luis Tiant signed with the Pirates but spent most of the year at AAA Portland where he tossed a no hitter.

Rocky-Bridges 82   Jones Giants

Phoenix Giants donned this forgettable ensemble in ’82. Not even the signature “chaw” in his cheek could make Rocky Bridges look anything else but ridiculous in these “babies.” The “pill box” caps are the perfect accessory to this abomination. This ’81 Tommy Jones shows the uniform in its full glory.

80 Ogden

The ’80 Ogden, Utah A’s had fairly staid uniforms, but what’s up with the cap? It would be more appropriate on the head of a trucker. The yellow undershirt from the parent club worn by Milt Ramirez doesn’t quite match the overall color scheme. Like many of the TCMA cards of this era, this photo was taken at Tacoma’s Cheney Stadium.

Allen Lynn

Lastly, I switch to the Eastern League to present this ’80 TCMA Lynn Sailors card of future Mariner Jamie Allen. The uniform manufacturer somehow sold the same awful design worn by Tacoma to the Sailors management as well.