Yeah, Topps Supers really are

clementeExcept for a fairly brief period in my life, when it comes to baseball cards I’ve always been little more than an interested observer. Oh, I’ve purchased a pack (or two or three) of cards in most years since the early 1980s, I guess. But my “collection” is mundane and I spent only three or four years somewhat insanely buying box after box of cards (with money I didn’t really have) in the pursuit of a complete Topps set. Or Donruss or Fleer or even Score set (which should give you a pretty good idea of when I was in the grips of this particular mania).

But that’s a story for another day (if ever). The above is just a long-winded way of saying there’s a great deal about baseball/bubble-gum cards I’ve never learned, because I’ve never really invested much time or money in the pursuit. And so, somehow I didn’t discover until almost just this moment the splendid delights of Topps’s 1971 Supers.

Now, there are a couple of obvious reasons why I’d never even heard of the Supers, which were actually produced in 1971 and ’70. The first is that I wasn’t even in kindergarten yet; I don’t remember seeing any cards until a few years later. The second is that the Supers just weren’t popular (as you’d expect, considering their short run in the marketplace). Maybe more to the point, they’ve never become popular. There was never anyone saying, “Rob, you should covet these bits of cardboard.”

And yet, now I do covet them, and recently picked up a dozen or so on eBay (for cheap).

gibsonThe cards are massive: 16.4 square inches, compared to 8.75 square inches for a standard card of that (and today’s) era. But even that understates the difference. The Supers are all image, zero border. Meanwhile, the oft-beloved ’71 regular set, with its black borders, winds up with an image of just 6.2 square inches, meaning the Supers actually give you 264 percent more player per card.

How do you turn down 264 percent more major leaguer?

Well, I can guess why the kids in 1971 turned it down. For one thing, there were only 63 Super cards, compared to a whopping 752 in the regular Topps set. For another, a regular pack cost you a dime and got you eight cards; your same 10 cents got you only two Supers. And finally … kids in 1971 had small hands! Those regular cards probably seemed plenty big enough!

Come to think of it, kids today probably still have small hands. Baseball cards were designed for baseball fans with small hands and sharp eyes. But my hands are big and my eyes … well, I’m getting fitted for bifocals this week.

mccoveyI can’t be eight years old again. What I am is fifty years old with a few of the enthusiasms, or at least the capacity for enthusiasm, of an eight-year-old. And I gotta tell you, right now there are few things that bring me more joy than holding 16.4 square inches of rigidly thick, vividly colored cardboard featuring Willie McCovey’s young, smiling, handsome, BIG face.

The Supers lasted for just those two years, and I understand why it was only two years. Doesn’t mean I have to agree with it.

One Man’s Garbage

If you’re reading this post you’ve probably bought at least 1 pack of baseball cards, if not 100’s of packs of baseball cards, in your life. Well, my experience was just a little bit different.

As a child growing up in the 60’s and early 70’s, Topps baseball cards were the gold standard, and for four years they were all mine. Every card and every insert were mine for the taking, and I do mean taking.

I grew up just six blocks from a Topps manufacturing plant and from 1967 to 1971 I got every single card for free. During that time, before the baseball card boom of the 80’s it was the practice of Topps to toss any cards that hit the floor into the garbage. At 5 or 10 cents a pack they weren’t worth much, and were treated as nothing more than litter. By pure luck I happened to live only a couple of blocks from the private garbage hauler that had the contract to take away Topps’s garbage. They picked up the garbage every Friday, and they wouldn’t take the trucks to the dump until Monday, so the trucks would be parked for the weekend loaded with Topps baseball cards, packs and packs of unopened cards. Every Saturday morning myself and a couple of friends would go “shopping”. It was dirty work, but when you’re 10 years old, it wasn’t much dirtier than a typical summer’s day.

Each week would yield anywhere from 75-100 packs of cards. Baseball card nirvana. Mantle, Mays, Aaron, Clemente, Rose, all mine for the taking. Rookie cards of Reggie Jackson, Johnny Bench, Nolan Ryan, and Thurman Munson. I had dozens of them.

After 4 years it was all over. Topps must have changed to another garbage hauler, because no more cards showed up on Saturday morning. It sucked at the time, but hey, I had several thousand baseball cards, in near-mint condition that I got for free, and in 15 years those cards would be worth thousands of dollars…….if I had only held on to them.

All the cards were faithfully placed into boxes, every set complete, from 1968 to 1971, along with 100’s of doubles. Being a Yankee fan I had a bunch of Yankee cards including at least ten 1968 Mantles. All “safely” tucked away in my closet.

High School, girls, college, girls, work, and girls took up a lot of my time and when I moved out in 1981 after I got married, I failed to take my cards with me. It never crossed my mind to do so.

A couple of years later the baseball card industry exploded, and I realized that I had a small fortune “safely” tucked away in a closet. As you can probably guess, the cards were not “safely” tucked away. My Mother had “thrown them out years ago.” No Mantle, no Mays, no Clemente, not even a Danny Cater. All gone, no small fortune, no new car, no Hawaiian vacation…..nothing…nada….zip…..or so I thought.

When I moved out I did take my books with me, mostly baseball books, but many classics as well. Catcher In The Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, All Quiet On The Western Front, among others. A couple of years after what I like to refer to as, “Baseball Armageddon”, I watched Fahrenheit 451 on TV, and decided to reread the Ray Bradbury classic. This happened to be one of the books I brought with me when I had moved out 10 years before and when I opened the book out popped this 1971 Thurman Munson card. I had used it as a bookmark over 20 years before when I first read the book.

munson

It reminded me of all that I had lost, but it also reminded me of some of the best times I’ve ever had. 4 summers of baseball card heaven, 4 summers of playing non stop baseball, 4 summers of childhood innocence and joy.

I’ve continued to use this card as a bookmark for the last 20 years. It’s creased and bent in 15 different places, and not worth a nickel.

Check that, ……it’s priceless, and every time I look at it, it makes me smile.

The Other Mike Cameron: A 2009 Topps Mini-Mystery Sorta Solved

Like many card collectors, I have a touch of what R. Crumb called “compulsive series syndrome.” That is, the need to create a collection that is not only complete, but organized in a specific way. As a Milwaukee Brewers collector, that means lining up the flagship team set every year – base cards arranged by last name followed by subsets by number, then the traded or update series organized in the same fashion – in nine-pocket bindered pages. It’s a nice way to capture a season, but the last decade or so of Topps flagship sets has often been frustrating. Series one usually contains  handful of guys no longer with the team while series two begins to roll out off-season additions. Unlike the clean single-series sets of yore, it leaves a sort-of two-season amalgamation of players. It also resulted in one of the true quirks of my flagship Topps Brewers collection – the twin 2009 base cards for Mike Cameron that sit side-by-side in my “2004-Present” binder.

cam

Before the 2008 season, the Brewers signed Cameron to a 1-year deal with an option for a second. Cam was to take over in center field for an over-matched Bill Hall and, after serving a 25 suspension for amphetamines, was one of leaders of a team that won 90 games and broke a quarter-century playoff drought for the Brewers. Cameron had a good season, but he wasn’t an all-star, got no MVP votes, and led the league in nothing. He was certainly significant enough to get a spot in the upcoming Topps set… but two? So far as I know, the only other player honored with TWO base cards with the same team in a single set was Ted Williams, who was both the first and last cards in the 1954 set. (I need to make clear here, there may be other examples of this… I just don’t know of or know how to search for them. If you know of others, please mention them)

cam2

So what gives? Well, the series one Cameron card is unremarkable. But the series two card offers a clue. While the series one entry correctly states that Cam was acquired as a free agent on 1-11-08, the second series card says “ACQ: TRADE WITH BREWERS, 12-15-08.” On December 11, 2008, it was reported that the Brewers were very near to a deal to send Cameron to the Yankees for Melky Cabrera. The Brewers had just picked up Cameron’s option year, but were looking at cheaper alternatives in center. Meanwhile, the Yankees were seeking a veteran upgrade from the 23-year old Cabrera. The deal was nearly official before the Yankees asked the Brewers to help pay part of Cameron’s salary. By December 17, it was reported that the deal was dead.

Piecing all this together, we can assume that Topps was finalizing its series two checklist right around the time of the rumored trade and prepared a Cameron-as-Yankee card. When the deal fell apart, they inexplicably kept Cam on the checklist as a Brewer, forgetting to change the ‘how acquired’ line. Why he wasn’t replaced altogether on the checklist remains a mystery. Several players who changed teams around the same time Cameron nearly did appear in series two in their new uniforms, so it’s not as though Topps did not have the time to make significant alterations to the series. And then there is the matter of CC Sabathia, who, like Cameron, was featured in the first series as a Brewer. Sabathia was the that off-season’s top free agent prize, and signed with the Yankees on Dec. 20. While Topps included a number of players who changed teams after Dec. 20 with their new clubs, they ignored the Sabathia signing – and any other player in series one who changed teams – until the update series. So, again, we’re left with to wonder what was so special about Mike Cameron.

So, in my quest to learn why my perfectly-aligned 9-pocket page had two Mike Cameron cards right next to each other, I ended up with as many questions as answers. Can anyone think of other two-base card players in Topps history? Does anyone have any similar petty-yet-maddening card mysteries?

Follow me on Twitter, @mjpmke and check out my blog on Brewers history.

Topps “Now” Card Program

ichiro-3000-hits-topps-now-card

As Mark wrote about in Entry 4 of his 10-part series on the Topps baseball-card monopoly, a breakthrough in card design – although not always executed well at first – was the introduction of action photography in 1971.

It took 45 years, but Topps found a way to enhance the experience of viewing action cards, by letting fans choose the specific plays they wanted to immortalize, and do so with quick turnaround from order to delivery.

In 2016, Topps began its “Now” program, allowing fans to order specially made cards capturing action images of noteworthy events on the diamond, generally no-hitters and important home-runs. The idea is that, once a significant (in some fans’ minds, at least) development occurs, customers have 24 hours to go online and purchase an action-shot card of the milestone (as long as Topps has decided to make one).

I first heard of the Now program via this article on the runaway demand for a Now card of Bartolo Colon hitting his first major-league homer on May 7. According to the article, Topps “sold 8,826 cards of the 42-year-old pitcher hitting a home run on Saturday. The card went on sale at 11:30 a.m. ET on Sunday and stopped production exactly 24 hours later.”

Before the Colon card, the biggest-selling card (Jake Arrieta’s second career no-hitter) had attracted 1,808 purchases.

In August 2016, the sales figure for the Colon homer card was eclipsed by the Now card for Ichiro’s 3,000th hit, which sold 11,550 copies.

As a Cubs fan, I decided to look into Now cards commemorating the team’s World Series victory. Topps made several individual cards and sets available, with a one-week ordering window instead of the usual 24 hours.

I zeroed in on a single card, showing the Cubs’ celebratory gathering in the infield, immediately following the final out, which carried a $9.99 price tag. I’m pretty frugal, so $10 for one baseball card seemed a lot. But then I asked myself, “How often do the Cubs win the World Series?” and the decision to purchase a card became obvious.

artbb-16c2s-16tn-0665-1

The card took about two weeks to arrive and came enclosed in a clear plastic case, not a flat one, but one big enough to hold a deck of playing cards. The back of the card contained a paragraph-length summary of the series, with an emphasis on Game 7. I would have preferred a more data-laden back (like regular baseball cards), such as a listing of scores of all of the Cubs’ 2016 post-season games. I can’t complain, though.

The Now program seems like an excellent way for fans to celebrate their favorite players’ and teams’ accomplishments, including those on the quirkier side, such as when a certain aging, not-so-svelte pitcher goes deep.

“It’s My Turn”

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On the subject of onscreen baseball cards, IT’S MY TURN (1980) is the story of Ben Lewin (Michael Douglas), a recently-retired ballplayer. The film may primarily be about the crisis of a modern woman (played by Jill Clayburgh) as she realizes she is no longer a child in her father’s house, etc. But if you ever wondered what Michael Douglas would look like on a baseball card, this is the movie for you… (In one of the film’s publicity stills,  Clayburgh’s right arm is around Douglas– and she is clutching a Topps Ben Lewin baseball card. It’s hard to make out the year.)

What Condition My Condition Was In

I’m not a stickler for condition. For the cards I’ve collected on my own, I like them Near Mint (NM), maybe EX-MT. It’s more important to me that the picture is sharp than that the corners are. I’m not bothered by off-center cards, slightly bothered by miscuts. All my sets are in pretty solid shape.

Then there are the cards I’ve gotten from other people over the years. Those tend to be more hit or miss. Not everyone put their cards straight from the pack into a shoe box or plastic sleeve. Some of the cards I’ve picked up from friends are nice, maybe EX or better; some look like they’ve been driven over by a car in a rough, cement-floored garage.

It’s the latter conditions I grappled with when I decided to finish my 1971 set. 1971 was the last year I let my mother (yes, let) throw out my cards. She would ask if I wanted them anymore and I, shockingly, told her no. Over time I reacquired a bunch of those, but in conditions that made me wince.

But when I looked and saw I only needed 57 cards to complete the set, I figured, what the hell, I’ll go for it, but I’ll go for it with cards in similar condition to the rest of what I had. Not only was pursuing 1971’s in Very Good (VG) condition a cheaper choice, it was also a liberating one. I didn’t have to worry if the corners were pointy enough, if the borders were as close to solid black as they could be (a notorious 1971 problem), if the cards were relatively well-centered. Once I finished the set, I was thrilled by it, happy to have them all, less concerned about the state of any individual card. I can tell you my Rich Morales (267) is a crime against collecting. Some slight upgrading is in order.

morales

With 1971 wrapped up, I turned to 1970, the last set I didn’t have that I was reasonably close to. In mid-July, I assessed the situation. I needed 187 cards to complete the set, lots of high numbers, some big stars too. Whoever at Topps put Nolan Ryan at #712 should be subject to enhanced interrogation.

ryan

Again, I had some condition problems, but, if I went after VG or EX, I could get this done reasonably and that’s what I’ve done. Starting with a solid nab of 25 cards at the great Baseball Nostalgia in Doubleday Court, Cooperstown, I was well on my way. Then I tweeted that I was working on this set and, lo and behold, prayers, had they been said, were answered. Two friends (Chris and Mike) gave me significant piles of their 1970’s. Not only did these windfalls fill a lot of holes, but they allowed me to upgrade to a more EX set.

I’ve been working the old eBay machine for the rest. While I miss the fun of card shows (there aren’t any to speak of in the greater Cooperstown area), I don’t miss haggling with dealers. I’m eminently patient and will wait out losing auction upon losing auction until I get my price. There’s a fun to buying on EBay, a different entertainment than shows. Swooping in at the last moment to get a good deal makes me feel, for no valid reason, a bit smarter. With much good fortune, I picked up a lot of EX-NM cards at VG prices. I’ve also been selling some doubles and triples to subsidize the endeavor. I’ve had a lot of fun with this, which is sort of the point of card collecting.

As of this post, I need only three cards – Johnny Bench (660), Ron Santo (670) and the Pilots team card (713, Nolan’s neighbor). I’m almost there.

Yeah, yeah, oh yeah!