Finding the Right Woman (and the Right Card)

I think a lot of us went through a phase where we recognized that collecting cards wasn’t cool, that making it known at 18, 20, 22 years old that we were working on completing our 1967 Topps set was not the best pickup line. “Hey, how’s it going? I gotta tell you, finding a Near Mint Juan Pizarro high number is really tough. Can I buy you a drink?” It doesn’t work.

I gave up on cards during college, though I’d occasionally buy packs. Once graduated (and single), I made up for lost time and bought the sets I’d missed from 1981-1984 (though not the 1984 Fleer Update, dumb!). Then I got back on the trail of my 1967 set.

You know you’ve met “The One” when you can openly fess up to what you perceive as your most embarrassing traits. Karen was “The One,” and not only did she quickly know I collected cards, but she came with me to shows! That’s true love. It was at one show, I think in New Jersey (let’s just say New Jersey, it’s a good setting), that having Karen along made all the difference.

Down to my final few ‘67’s, I found a dealer with a nice supply in nice condition. I got what I could and now, with one card to go, but the one card I didn’t see, I asked – “Do you have a Red Sox team card?”

“I don’t,” I heard him say, or was it “no,” I can’t recall. Whatever it was, it was bad.

I bought the cards he did have and we walked away from the table.

“I can’t believe he didn’t have the last card I needed,” I said, moaning the words out, Eeyore style.

“No, he did have it,” Karen said. “He said ‘I have it someplace else.’”

Really? How did I miss that? We headed right back and Karen was dead right. He had the card, it was in another box behind his table. He got it and it was beautiful. Thanks to Karen, it was mine.

Sure, I would have gotten the Sox team card eventually, yet, in my mind, I never would have completed the set without Karen. It’s a better story that way and that moment is eternally connected to that set and this card:

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Latino Commons in a 1965 Topps Card Lot

The Topps 1965 series was a 598-card set, featuring the team logo within a pennant.  The 2 ½ by 3 ½ inch cards included rookies such as Joe Morgan, Steve Carlton, Jim Hunter and Tony Perez.  I would later become more interested in a group of cards that would lead to a presentation at the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR)’s 46th annual convention in Miami, Fla.

As I tell the story, I attribute the interest in the 1965 cards not only because it was the year of my birth, but also I offer thanks to fellow SABR chapter member, Mark Armour, who wrote a great series on Topps cards for a baseball blog.  At the time, I had only been collecting cards from 1970 to 1990.  As a kid, I starting collecting cards around 1973, throwing them into a box, where I was spent time sorting them first by team, in alphabetical order, then later by card number.  And then, maybe sort them once again by team.  Alas, like many a lad, my precious pieces of cardboard would fall victim to a mother’s cleaning and obtuse unawareness for her child’s treasures.  And like that, they were gone.

Later as an adult with some disposal income, I could reach back into my childhood, and begin my favorite passion, collecting the baseball cards I had lost.  I don’t know how else to explain it, but it was if I had found old friends, and enjoyed the time of catching up.  I think 1970 seemed like a good time to start my re-collecting.  But, along comes Mark and his fancy nostalgia for cards in the 1960s.  I looked again at the 1965 set, and thought they looked fun, and decided to start there.

On eBay, I found a 1965 medium grade 23-card lot for $30.  A week later, I made a pleasant discovery that out of the 23 cards, six of them were Latino players.  I am a Latino baseball enthusiast, so the find was awesome.  From there, I started wondering about these guys.  They weren’t the Latino superstars, just “common”, in the baseball card vernacular.

They were: Phil Ortega (pitcher, Washington Senators); José Santiago (pitcher, Kansas City Athletics); Juan Pizarro (pitcher, Chicago White Sox); Vic Davalillo (outfielder, Cleveland Indians); Camilo Carreón (catcher, Cleveland Indians); and Héctor Valle (catcher, Los Angeles Dodgers).  The cards were in decent shape: no bad creases, no rounded edges, and the photos still relatively sharp.  Overall, I was happy with the purchase, but still…who were these guys, and what impact did they have on their teams?

I think out of the six, I was most familiar with Davalillo and his days with the Dodgers in the 1970s.  I have his 1978 Topps card.  In researching their 1965 contributions, the most remarkable thing you can say is that their year was pretty unremarkable.  Save for Davalillo, that is, who had an All-Star year with a batting average of .301 over 142 games, collecting 152 hits along the way.

He was also one of eight Latinos playing the 1965 All-Star Game held in Minneapolis, where San Francisco Giants pitcher Juan Marichal was the MVP.  Marichal would go on to have a more eventful summer.

In flipping through these cards, you realize that in blindly buying a lot online, the cards are not always going to be Latino superstars, and that’s okay.  I think the common Latino player is just as interesting with his own story to tell.  Those guys deserve our attention as well, and I am going to enjoy collecting their cards just as much.

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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Post Cereal Issues from 1961-1963

I remember pieces of the 1964 season. I remember that we watched the Dodgers sweep the Yankees in the 1963 World Series. But my earliest baseball memory is being really excited about finding a Roger Maris card on the back of a box of Post cereal in 1962. Although I did not have this card in my possession for close to fifty years, its image was burned into my memory. This blog and my plans to write this post caused me purchase the card displayed here.

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Post started their brief foray into sports cards with a nine card set of oversized cards in 1960, which they put on the back of boxes of Grape Nuts Flakes. The cards were 7” by 8 3/4”. The set contained five baseball players (Eddie Mathews, Mickey Mantle, Al Kaline, Harmon Killebrew and Don Drysdale), two football players (Frank Gifford and Johnny Unitas) and two basketball players (Bob Cousy and Bob Pettit).

They went full on in 1961, when they issued a set with 200 baseball players, all standard baseball-card size.  The cards were blank on the back, with a color photo and biographical information on the front (with the photo on the left), along with lifetime and 1960 statistics. The name is in black, in a sans-serif font , and the phrase “BASEBALL STAR CARD No. ##” in black across the top, with a row of eight red stars below. The statistics are on a yellow background, with “MAJOR LEAGUE BATTING RECORD” or “MAJOR LEAGUE PITCHING RECORD” printed in white on a black background above the stats. The cards appeared on ten different varieties of cereals in multiple box sizes, and also on variety packs. There were 73 different box panels, affecting the variability of the various players. For example, for the Post Tens bottom tray, there were seven panels of three cards each. Only one of those 21 players appeared on any other panel. Cards were also available in team sheets, directly from Post. These cards came on thinner stock. There were four cards which were only available in this way, as well as cards that were only available on boxes. Information on some cards was updated as the year progressed. Dan Mabey, the recognized authority on the Post issues says there are 361 different box cards.

1961 Post
1961 Post

The 1962 set continued to have 200 players. Updates, card stock and other differences bring the total varieties to 543 cards. Layout is the same, but this time, the picture is on the right side instead of the left, and the player name is in a script font, written in blue ink, and the line of stars above the name is missing. The statistics title is black on the background of the stat box. The American League players (like Maris, above) have blue line around the statistics box and a white background for the player information and a yellow background for the statistics. National League players have a red line around the stats with a yellow background for the player information and a white background for the stats. Also,  100 of the cards were also issued in a Canadian set, without the color differentiation and with reduced text printed in both French and English.

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1962 Post
1962 Post
1962 Post

The 1963 set ceases the differentiation between the leagues and returns to a standard black serif font for the player names, The rest of the card uses a sans serif font, with the team name and position in all caps red. The card number is in red, prefixed by “No.”, and with three blue stars on each side, to center it above the player name. There are three blue stars on each side of the “MAJOR LEAGUE BATTING RECORD” or “MAJOR LEAGUE PITCHING RECORD” in the stat box.

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1963 Post

The “Laughing Bob” Trade

Undoubtedly following the example of my eleven year old brother Tony, I started collecting baseball cards in 1968 at six years of age. Since my brother was more knowledgeable in regards to which players were stars, he would try to hoodwink me into trading away players he coveted. For example, he was able to acquire Curt Flood and an Orlando Cepeda All-Star card for undoubtedly a bunch of scrubs. However, there is one transaction from the distance of nearly 50 years that stands out the most: Alvin Dark for Bob Tillman.

Obviously, this trade does not fall in the category of star player for scrub. In fact I’m not sure why my brother wanted the Indians manager and, since he is deceased, I will never know. The 1968 Bob Tillman features him hatless with the broad smile of someone in mid-laugh. tillman-backIn fact my brother emphasized this fact by convincing me that Tillman’s nickname was “Laughing Bob.” Also he pointed out on the back of the card that Bob had once played for the Seattle Rainiers in the Pacific Coast League. This geographical connection to the small, Central Washington town I grew in, coupled with the unique nickname, made an impression on me. But what sealed the deal was when my brother pointed out that Bob and I share the same birth date.

Perhaps my brother’s smug reaction or my realization that he continually took advantage of my naiveté in any number of situations soon brought on trader’s remorse. After pleading with him to reverse the deal, our confrontation turned physical. The resulting beat-down sent me running to my mom in tears. She didn’t know Al Dark from Harry Bright, but mom knew I had been cheated in some manner. Channeling her inner commissioner, she voided the trade in the best interest of household peace.

When my brother entered high school, he gave me all his baseball cards. I finally completed the 1968 set a few years ago and upgraded the condition of many of the cards including Dark and Tillman. But I specifically set aside the original two cards to serve as a reminder of that long ago transaction.

Incidentally, I had to smile when I purchased a 1961 Union Oil Seattle Rainiers set and discovered that Bob Tillman was amongst the featured players.

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1961 Union Oil Bob Tillman

 

 

Vada and Felipe

Mark Armour recently challenged us to write about our favorite common cards. For me, two cards from the 1971 Topps set immediately came to mind.

vada-pinsonGrowing up in Sacramento, the 1971 cards were really the first I collected and, as an Indians fan, my favorite player was Vada Pinson. To this day he remains one of my favorites. The 1971 Topps card shows him sliding into home against one of the greatest catchers of the era — Thurman Munson of the Yankees, wearing his Yankee cap, not a helmet, on his head. Totally old school. Plus I loved action shots as a kid and seeing your favorite player in that shot keeps it ingrained in your mind.

That year was Pinson’s second with the Indians and he had a small resurgence in his base stealing, nabbing 25 that year after stealing in the single digits the previous two years. Vada came up with the Reds, and in 1959 at age 20 led the National League in runs scored and doubles. He followed that up two years later by coming in third in the MVP voting, part of a decade-long run of stardom in Cincinnati. He ended his career with 2757 hits, just short of the magic number of 3000. 

I loved those old simple Indians uniforms. This card I think about more often than I probably should.

felipe-alouAnother card from that set I loved was this Felipe Alou, taking a full swing in those beautiful Oakland A’s uniforms, his number 8 showing for the camera. Just the color of that card was, and still is, mesmerizing. Alou moved around a lot when I was a kid, and he eventually landed with another of my favorite teams — the Montreal Expos — in 1973, their first decent team. Felipe will always have a special place in my heart, but this card is just flat out gorgeous.

The 1971 Topps set was the first that showed action photos as part of the regular player cards. There are many in this set I could choose, but Pinson and Alou are my choices. Both cards will remain in my memory forever.

1950s/1960s Oddballs: Spic and Span Milwaukee Braves

When the Milwaukee Braves moved to the midwest from Boston for the 1953 season, the local populace was ecstatic. From 1947 through 1952, thanks to the Milwaukee Brewers serving as the Triple-A affiliate for the Braves, the locals had already had the opportunity to learn the names of many of the Braves prior to their promotion to Boston. The move was an immediate financial success for the club — attendance went from 281,278 in Boston in 1952 to 1,826,397 in Milwaukee in 1953. It didn’t hurt that the Braves went from doormat to a second place finish.

As that attendance jump shows, the Braves captured the hearts of Milwaukee immediately that initial season. As detailed in the September 16, 1953 issue of The Sporting News, the players themselves received outpourings of monetary support from the fans. Wisconsin native Andy Pafko, for example, was quoted saying:

We never knew a player could have it so good. You know, the only thing we have to buy in the way of food is meat. The rest we get free–milk, cheese, butter, eggs, frozen vegetables, cookies and even bread.

These people just can’t do enough for you. The other day the fellow at the parking lot where I leave my car overnight came over and said: ‘I understand you’re Andy Pafko of the Braves. Park here any time you want to and it won’t cost you anything. I’m sorry I didn’t know who you were sooner.

It should come as no surprise, then, that multiple local companies sought to capitalize on the good feelings engendered by the team. One of those companies was Spic and Span Dry Cleaners. As checklisted in the 2011 Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards, edited by the late Bob Lemke, Spic and Span issued multiple sets of photos and cards featuring the hometown Braves beginning in 1953 and ending in 1960. Included in this cavalcade of items were cards, photos, and postcards of various sizes and shapes. Here is a list of those issues:

1953 to about 1955: 3-1/4″ x 5-1/2″ cards, 29 total issued

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1953 Eddie Mathews, Courtesy of Bob Lemke’s Blog dated May 5, 2011

1953 to 1957: 7″ x 10″ black and white photos, 14 total issued

1954: 5-1/2″ x 8-1/2″ set of 13 cards

1954 to 1956: 4″ x 6″ postcards, 18 issued

1955: 7-1/2″ x 7″ die cut standups (the rarest set) of 18 total players

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1955 Die Cut Lew Burdette, from an auction on the Mears Auction Website, where a complete set sold in 2015 for $7,243

1957: 4 ” x 5″ cards with a total of 20 cards issued

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1957 Hank Aaron, from an auction in 2015 on the Greg Bussineau Sports & Rarities Website

1960: 2-3/4″ x 3-1/8″with a total of 26 cards issued

In addition to these cards, Spic and Span also used Braves players on other ephemera around their business. Specifically, in 2013, a paper dry cleaning bag came up for auction at Mears Auctions, and it sold for $92.

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As the Braves started their decline in the 1960s before they bolted for Atlanta, Spic and Span and other local retailers lost their taste for being involved with the team. Though Milwaukee spent just four seasons without a major league team of its own — really two years if you count the games in 1968 and 1969 that the Chicago White Sox (with help from eventual Brewers owner and Commissioner Bud Selig) played in Milwaukee — Spic and Span was pretty much done with the baseball endorsement business.

As a postscript, despite being a national dry cleaning chain into the 1970s, Spic and Span barely exists with that name today. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cracked down on the dry cleaning industry because of its pollution of groundwater. The solvents that dry cleaners used were loaded with trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene — known, potent carcinogens that dry cleaners often just dumped out the back door. Today, Spic and Span is nearly gone, but its legacy lives on both in baseball memorabilia and far less exemplary areas.