Montreal Expos postcards

The abstract below is based on a report that was originally delivered before a SABR-Quebec regional meeting on November 5, 2011. It has been revised and updated to reflect events and accuracies which occurred since that date.

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Modest as their success may have been on the field, the Montreal Expos introduced many innovations in their Gallic interpretation of Major League Baseball. During the early years at Jarry Park, it was not uncommon to see fans dancing in the aisles or attending the game with a pet duck. Wearing tricolour caps – bleu-blanc-rouge to honour hockey’s legendary Montreal Canadiens – the Expos introduced a seemingly indeterminate logo which was actually a stylized letter M. Moving to Olympic Stadium, the Expos and their fans often erupted in a chorus of “The Happy Wanderer” during a rally, usually led by an ursine mascot named Youppi. If an opposing baserunner led off 1st or 2nd base but did not steal, chicken sounds were the order of the day on the scoreboard. The Expos were the first team to play two national anthems and the first to sell mineral water. Although the Expos rarely issued a yearbook, they did produce a postcard set in each of their 36 years in the National League.

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The postcards were sold by the Expos at concessions, first at Jarry Park and then at Olympic Stadium. In addition, a supply of postcards was printed every winter for autograph purposes for the Expos’ annual winter caravan. If a fan wrote an Expos player for an autograph in the mail, it was not uncommon for his or her signed personal items to be accompanied by a signed postcard. Several players, including Steve Renko and Ernie McAnally, were sending signed postcards to autograph collectors long after they retired from baseball.

The first postcard series was produced in 1969 and consisted of two series of 16 cards each. The first series was issued in colour, while the second series was issued with monochrome images. The Expos continued with monochrome images from 1970 to 1976; each photo was underscored, for example, by the announcement of “Greetings from John Boccabella!”

In 1971 there were two Expos postcard sets. In addition to the official set produced by the team, a second set was produced by a Montreal company called Pro-Stars.   The photos were colour images taken in spring training at West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium. There were 27 players included in the set, along with manager Gene Mauch. The Don Hahn card is particularly hard to find, as he was traded to the New York Mets as the cards were going to press. Consequently, the Hahn card was issued in very limited quantities. Although the set was popular with collectors, the Expos did not engage Pro-Stars for additional sets subsequent to 1971.

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Most of the postcards during the Jarry Park era were mugshots, or in the case of the 1969 set, posed shots. However, many of the players who joined the team midway through the 1976 season were immortalized on their postcards with action shots. For example, after Andre Thornton was acquired from the Chicago Cubs in June 1976, he was shown batting during a game at Jarry Park on his postcard. The Olympic patch worn on the Expos’ sleeves that summer is easily visible.

In 1977, after the Expos moved to Olympic Stadium, they issued their postcard sets in full colour. Now the postcards were underscored with each player’s name and position, both in French and English. The position identifications disappeared from the postcards in 1980, which was also the year the Expos introduced red and blue racing stripes on their uniforms. The player’s identity disappeared completely from the postcards in 1984, though it was reintroduced in 1991. That same year, the postcards identified Petro-Canada, a Canadian gasoline retailer, as an Expos’ sponsor.

For the last thirteen years of their history, the Expos wore blue pinstriped uniforms with “Expos” written in a cursive, Dodgers-style script. Postcard photos were taken with a blue background from 1992 to 1996, and a beige background from 1997 to 2004. When it appeared the Expos may have been slated for contraction in 2002, the team issued a black and white postcard set depicting the stars of yesteryear. Some of the players to appear in this postcard set included Steve Rogers, Ron Hunt, Ron LeFlore, Buck Rodgers, and Tim Burke. Although the Expos and Major League Baseball survived the 2002 season, baseball in Montreal had only two more years before the franchise was moved to Washington.

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Most of the photos on the Expos postcards were snapped by Denis Brodeur. The official photographer of both the Expos and the Canadiens, Brodeur had been the goalie for Team Canada who won the bronze medal in hockey at the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. Brodeur was also the father of NHL superstar goalie Martin Brodeur. In 1996, a collection of Brodeur’s baseball imagery was showcased in a French language coffee table book about the history of the Montreal Expos. Many of the postcard photos were reprinted in the definitive history of the Expos, a two-volume set written in French by Jacques Doucet and Marc Robitaille. Brodeur died in 2013, age 82.

The question remained: who got to be photographed on an Expos postcard? Most of the stars and regular players were issued a distinct postcard every year. In 1970 and 1971, as the Expos were marketing Rusty Staub as the franchise’s marquee player, there were several postcard varieties for the affable redhead known as ‘Le Grand Orange.’ Nine players who appeared on Expos postcards were ultimately immortalized with plaques in Cooperstown. Besides managers Dick Williams and Frank Robinson, and coaches Duke Snider and Larry Doby, this roster included Tony Perez, Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Pedro Martinez, and Randy Johnson. The Johnson postcard, issued in limited quantities in 1989 in light of his trade to Seattle in May, is considered to be the most valuable in Expos history. It was the Big Unit’s rookie years and has sold for as much as $250 if it can be found at all.

What about the coaches, midseason acquisitions, or September call-ups? In 1969, since the postcards were not issued until midseason, players such as Manny Mota, Maury Wills, Mudcat Grant, and Donn Clendenon were not included because they had already been traded to other teams. In most subsequent years the postcards were released at the beginning of the season in April. Photos for supporting cast members, including coaches, were often reused the following year. For example, Fred Breining was on the disabled list for most of 1984 and all of 1985, his two years with the Expos. The same photo of Breining was used in both sets.

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According to Jacques Doucet, who broadcast Expos games for most of their history, Brodeur snapped most of the player photographs for postcards in spring training. If a player on the 40-man roster spent the season in minor leagues to be recalled in September, his photograph would be ready for a postcard. Take the shortest career in Expos history – one day. That was the extent of Curt Brown’s tenure with the Expos. He was included in the postcard series in 1973. On the other hand, in 1996, Rick Schu’s contract was purchased from Ottawa in August before being outrighted back to the Lynx a week later. Schu was not given a postcard. Similarly, Leo Marentette was recalled from AAA Vancouver in 1969 in time for an Expos’ California road trip. As the team prepared to fly east, Marentette was returned to Vancouver. He never had a postcard either.

As for midseason acquisitions, it often depended on the player and how late in the season he was acquired. After ten second division finishes, the 1979 Expos found themselves in a pennant race with the Cubs, Pirates, and Phillies. Once their division rivals in Pittsburgh acquired Bill Madlock in a trade with the Giants, the Expos had to counter. On July 20, they brought back Rusty Staub in a trade with the Tigers. Considering Staub’s popularity in the early years of the franchise, it went without saying to print batches of a new Staub postcard to be included in the 1979 set. However, the next year, after the Expos acquired John D’Acquisto and Willie Montanez in separate trades with San Diego at a similar juncture of the season, neither player was included in the 1980 postcard set.

75528_14Generally speaking, superstars like Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Tim Raines, Vladimir Guerrero, and in 1984, Pete Rose, have generated the most attention for their postcards. However, this was not always the case. When Bill Lee joined the Expos in 1979, he was depicted on his postcard sporting a Grizzly Adams-style beard. The Powers That Be in baseball, already dismayed by admission to sprinkle marijuana on his organic buckwheat pancakes (as it made him impervious to bus fumes when he jogged), pressured him to shave the beard. He complied early in the season and almost as soon as he shaved, his postcard was replaced. The bearded Spaceman postcard remains a collector’s item.

In 1981, Jerry Manuel’s postcard was at the centre of a different controversy. Unlike Jerry Seinfeld’s proclamation in an episode of “Seinfeld” many years later, Manuel never spelled his first name with a G. However, you would not know that by his postcard, which identified the infielder as ‘Gerry Manuel.’ The postcard was quickly recalled and replaced an orthographically accurate ‘Jerry Manuel.’

75748-25fr1One of the more unusual stories surrounding an Expos postcard involves another members of the 1981 Expos, Steve Ratzer. Although his Expos career was limited to 13 games, the Ratzer postcard remains one of the more popular issues in franchise history. First off, the postcard was printed for only two months of the year as Ratzer was assigned to Denver during the midseason players’ strike, not to be recalled when the rosters expanded.

Further to that, Ratzer is a member of the Jewish faith. According to Vancouver-based hobbyist Ernest ‘Kit’ Krieger, the only two ethnic identities whose members collect cards of players who share their identity are Cubans and Jews. There have been several Cubans to play for the Expos and have a postcard, including Tony Perez, Bobby Ramos, and Nelson Santovenia. By contrast, Ratzer is considered to have been the only Jewish player in Expos history. Everyone with a Jewish collection wanted the Ratzer postcard. Furthermore, until the publication of the Jewish Major Leaguers set by Fleer in 2003, the postcard was the only major league card of any sort Ratzer had. When the author sent Ratzer a postcard to be autographed, his request was returned four months later along with a note of apology – he wanted to hold onto the

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postcard because he didn’t otherwise have one! (Ed. Note. Norm Sherry, who coached for the Expos for four years, is Jewish and appeared on postcards)

The Expos, through the lens of their postcard sets, provided a unique history of the team and its players from the expansion season of 1969 through 2004, the final year for the franchise in Montreal. Not only did the postcards tell the story of the players, but for many fans, they evoke memories of particular game or meeting with a particular member of the team. For example, the first postcard I ever owned was a Tom Foley card from the 1988 set. Foley was distributing them on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa as part of the Expos’ Winter Caravan. Along with Rex Hudler and Brian Holman, Foley took part in a skating demonstration. But Canadian winter sports didn’t come to Foley as naturally as baseball had. “What do they want from me?” he asked rhetorically, “I don’t know how to skate – I’m a Georgia boy!” Sixteen years later, as a coach for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, he was reminded of his winter trip to Ottawa. Do you think he remembered? You bet, he remembered!

Collecting Goals for 2016

One year ago, as 2015 was approaching 2016, I was having a conversation on Twitter with some fellow collectors about our collecting goals for 2016. I had not made goals in previous years nor had I made any for the upcoming year. As a disciple of the Yoda-like collecting legend Eric, also known as @ThoseBackPages on Twitter, I have been trained in the ways of #FOCUS and buy the card not the holder so a list of goals was an idea I liked very much.

Following that conversation I scribbled six goals on a sticky note and stuck it on my above my computer screen where I could see it each day. The goals I set for 2016 are as follows.

  1. Acquire a 1967 Topps Brooks Robinson #600 graded in a PSA 7 NM.
  2. Acquire a 1966 Topps Jim Palmer #126, his rookie card.
  3. Reach 65% completion of my signed 1959 Topps set.
  4. Reach 70% completion of my signed 1981 Fleer set.
  5. Reach 55% completion of my signed 1984 Topps and Topps Traded sets.
  6. Reach 50% completion of my low grade 1934 Goudey set.

fullsizerender-5The first goal I was able to complete was the Palmer RC, I picked up a nice example of this card graded PSA 5.5 EX+ in early February. It is an excellent example of buying the card not the grade as the eye appeal is that of a much higher graded card at a much lower price.

The second, third and fifth goals completed were done rather easily as I underestimated the value of the Twitter collecting community in tracking down the people who have some of the tougher signed cards to find available. I reached 65% on the 1959 Topps set in early April with the purchase of signed Billy Consolo and Alex Kellner cards. Nearly two months later I crossed the 55% pole of the 1984 Topps sets with the addition of Gerald Perry and Ron Reed. The 1981 Fleer goal was reached sometime in August, and for the life of me I can’t find the details of which card pushed me over. Looking back as a whole these three goals were undershot by a significant amount as currently stand at roughly 72%, 81%, and 68% in ascending chronological order.

img_4796The fourth and from my view most difficult goal to reach was the 1967 Brooks Robinson in the PSA 7 grade. The card itself is both a high number and short print, and it is also prone to being off-center. Being a tougher card to find in excellent condition, I found it difficult to find one at a price I could live with. Finally after being snipped in several auctions I got a hold of the 67 Robinson in late July.

The often neglected and last completed goal was to reach the 50% mark of my low grade 1934 Goudey set. I completed this goal in late September with a flurry of eBay purchases from a seller I found who did not overvalue these well-loved cards solely because of their age.

Looking back on this journey I feel that it helped me focus and to keep from splurging on cards that didn’t necessarily fit my collections. I have a few goals already in mind for 2017 number one being a 1957 Brooks Robinson rookie card graded PSA 7.

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DEXTER PRESS/COCA-COLA CARDS 1966-68

Despite half a century of improvements in photography and printing — and just as many years’ worth of raised bars for what collectors consider ‘high end’ and what they’re willing to pay for it — it can still be argued that the Dexter Press baseball card sets of 1966-68 are the highest quality baseball cards ever printed. And just to make the set a little more interesting, about 400 unused negatives of photos the company took but never used on cards have just turned up.

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1967 Dexter Press

Dexter is best known for 228 (or by one definition, 229) 5-1/2” x 7” premiums it produced for Coca-Cola in 1967. Collectors opened bottles of Coke, Fanta, Fresca, Sprite or Tab to find black and white head shots of their local players or one of 25 All-Stars on the underside of the bottle caps, then glued them  into matching spaces on a “cap-saver sheet.” When your 35-cap sheet was finished you could trade it in for one set of 12 Dexter photos of your local team, or in non-major league areas, 12 All-Star photos. Even though some of us had enterprising fathers who figured out that the discarded caps from Coke bottles bought from vending machines were collected in a receptacle inside the machine (and that a dollar could get your corner store owner to stash a summer’s worth for you), the promotion still enabled a lot of cavities among eight-year olds (I had seven by September).

Coke and Dexter made sets of caps and photos for 18 of the 20 major league teams. The 1967 Angels and Cardinals were skipped for whatever reason, which is odd given that Dexter had gotten into the baseball card business the year before with a series of different-sized sets of Angels players. The best-known were slightly larger than a standard postcard (4” x 5-7/8”) and included 16 players plus a shot of brand new Anaheim Stadium, but Dexter also made smaller and larger versions of the player photos for sale inside the ballpark and in other unknown ways. At least one 1966 Angel, Paul Schaal, was produced in exactly the same size that would be used nationally a year later and is usually included in the 1967 checklist as a 229th card, although technically it’s debatable as to why it would belong with the ’67 set.

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1968 Dexter Press

The company also made a 4” x 5-7/8” set for the 1967 Yankees, duplicating 10 players and images from the Coke set, which I can remember seeing on sale individually at the souvenir stands at the old Yankee Stadium. Dexter would also reprise the premium role for Coke in 1968, but with smaller (3-1/2 x 5-1/2), fewer (77), and less attractively-published postcards featuring a dozen players from each of six teams and five other players scattered among four teams.

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1967 Dexter Press

The quality of the 1966-67 printing is so good that the cards almost glow. This was evident even to us collectors of 50 years ago. You kept the Topps cards in boxes. You kept the glossy, shiny, richly colorful Coke cards displayed on a shelf or a bulletin board. It would later prove that this was Dexter’s selling point. Mention the company name to collectors of souvenirs from the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair and you’ll get nods of appreciation: Dexter was the official postcard supplier to the Fair, and those cards also glisten. Do an eBay search for “Dexter postcard” and you’ll find that the company based in the New York suburbs did high-quality work for restaurants and stores and businesses of all sort around the country, and came back in 1971 with another Yankees set and, later, the official postcards for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

As to 1967, counting the All-Stars there are cards of 32 Hall-of-Famers and many more greats of the era. One of the only complaints you could make is that all the poses are the same: portraits to the waist with the player’s hands at his sides or seemingly crossed near the belt, and his autograph superimposed over his head. Even that monotony earns style points when you see all of the cards together. Then as now, the repetition of the poses somehow made the photos look official.

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Rocky Colavito

The other complaint would have been that even if you lived somewhere where geographical definitions overlapped — say in New Jersey — and had access to trading in the right 140 bottle caps to get the sets of the Yankees, Mets, Phillies, and All-Stars, you would still have only 48 different cards compared to the 609 Topps would make that year. It bothered me then and it bothers me now and it made an item in a recent auction even more appealing to me: a collection of production materials from the Dexter sets, including dozens of the actual player autographs used (and many not used)

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Jim Gentile

on the cards, still more autographs transferred onto clear plastic overlays, and what turned out to be about 500 negatives, around 400 of which showed players not included in the various Dexter sets.

In the last few days I’ve tweeted about a dozen of the rarer finds for the sake of other hobbyists like me who hunt the arcane combinations of obscure players

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Alan Schmelz

with teams they only spent a little time with: Rocky Colavito with the White Sox, Jim Gentile with the Phillies (he was cut during Spring Training) and the like. There are literally dozens of these, plus just as many minor leaguers who got no closer to the big leagues than spring training and the Dexter photographer. The company probably grabbed everybody who would agree to stand still for them, and so the image of Arizona State star and two-game Mets pitcher Alan Schmelz comes complete with a couple of Alan Schmelz autographs on ordinary note paper.

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Bruce Howard
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Nick Willhite

And as always when the production materials for any card set are revealed there are inexplicable and/or rewarding quirks discovered. For instance, a Dexter negative showing Nick Willhite with the 1967 Angels implies that even though the company didn’t make a set of the Halos that year, they were seemingly prepared to. The variety of images from 1968 suggests that the second Coke Premium set was supposed to be much bigger: Dexter shot players from the A’s, Mets, Phillies, Reds, Senators, White Sox, and Yankees — and made no cards for any of those teams. And perhaps best of all, photo after photo shows why so many players look like they’re clasping their hands at their stomachs. They are holding ID slates with their own names on them!

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Joe Rudi

Don Mincher on the Pilots

A recent posting of Bruce Markusen’s Card Corner featured the 1968 Topps Don Mincher card and provided an excellent overview of his career. The article mentioned that Mincher was selected by the Seattle Pilots in the 1969 expansion draft. Although Mincher was not a superstar, he was a well-known, productive player and as such stood out amongst the rag-tag group assembled on the Pilots roster.

This resulted in Mincher being featured in both 1969 and 1970 by Topps, Milton Bradley, Kellogg and other manufacturers as the Pilots’ representative on specialty cards, posters, stamps and inserts.  What follows is a look at Don’s cards and related collectibles during the brief existence of the one-and-done Pilots.

Topps 1969 Regular Issue and Decal Insert

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1969 Topps
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1969 Topps Decal

As with most cards for expansion teams, Topps airbrushed out the cap insignia from the players previous team. Based on the batting cage in the background, these pictures were taken during the same photo session. Obviously, the photographer wanted one with Don’s glasses on and one without. Also note that Topps didn’t stick with the same color designations on the decals as the cards. The light green ball on the decal was the designated color on cards for the Astros and Orioles.

The decals measure 1 ¾ X 2 1/8. There are 48 stickers in the set which featured many of the superstar players of the era. My memory is of them being distributed in the later series. The cellophane like decal peeled off from the white, waxy background paper. Over time, the adhesive tends to fail and the decal will separate from the backing. I can attest to this having a backless Mantle and Clemente in my collection.

1969 Topps Super

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1969 Topps Super 

Apparently the Topps photographer believed Don photographed best while gazing into the upper deck at Yankee Stadium. The image on the Super card is exactly the same pose as the 1968 regular issue card sans hat. The Super cards are on thick stock with rounded edges and measure 2 ¼ X 3 ¼. They were sold three to a pack. The backs are the same as the deckle edge inserts found in the early series of the regular issue packs. One of Topps test issues, Supers were only distributed in Michigan, making the 66 card set extremely rare. Even non-stars are valuable. Tommy Davis is the other Pilots player found in this set.

1969 Topps Team Poster

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1969 Topps Team Poster

Once again Don is gazing skyward but in the opposite direction and without a bat on his shoulder. The team poster measures 11 ¼ X 19 ¾ and came one per pack for a dime. The dimensions are bigger than the 1968 player posters that were also sold one per pack.   The team posters had a wider distribution than the Super cards but didn’t reach all regions.

1969 Topps Stamps

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1969 Topps Stamp
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1969 Topps Stamp Album

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Topps repurposed the 1968 card picture for Don’s stamp. The stamps came 12 to a sheet and each pack contained one album. There are 240 stamps in the set and they have the same thickness as a postage stamp.

1969 Globe Imports Playing Cards

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1969 Globe Imports
1969 Sports Illustrated poster
1968 Sports Illustrated poster

Arguable the worst card set in history, these 1-5/8 X 2 black and white cards were printed on flimsy paper stock with blank backs. Each of the 55 cards represents a standard playing card. Mincher’s card is the same image as found on a 1968 Sports Illustrated poster. The SI promotional poster catalog featured a small version of each poster (image on the right). This may have been the source for the grainy pictures. It would be interesting to know if Global Imports bought the rights or simply pirated the images. Apparently, the cards were sold or given away at gas stations in the south. I found a set in the 1970s at a liquidation store in Yakima, WA.

1969 and 1970 Milton Bradley Official Baseball

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1969 Milton Bradley
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1970 Milton Bradley 

The 1969 game is composed of 296 2X3 cards which came on perforated sheets requiring detachment before playing. The backs contain a list of outcomes (ground out, single etc.). Oddly, there are not enough cards to form a lineup for each team.

In 1970 Milton Bradley issued a simplified version of the 1969 game. The 24 cards in the set measure 2 3/16 X 3 ½ with rounded edges.

1970 Topps Regular Issue and Poster

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1970 Topps
1970 Topps Poster
1970 Topps Poster

Don was traded to Oakland in January of 1970 but not before Topps produced the early series cards and poster inserts. There are 24 posters, one player for each team, and measure 8 11/16 x 9 5/8. Note that the black and white “action” picture is actually Carl Yastrzemski.

1970 Kellogg’s 3-D

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1970 Kelloggs

The 2 ¼ X 3 ½ 3-D cards were made by Xograph and issued one per box of Corn Flakes. Interestingly, Rich Mueller of Sports Collectors Daily mentions that the cards were also distributed in six card packs with an iron on transfer. Don is #75 of the 75 card set. He is depicted in his Pilots regular season home uniform. The background appears to be RFK stadium where the All-Star game was held in 1969 and Don was the Pilots representative. However, Xograph did superimpose players in front of backgrounds unrelated to the location of the photo. Furthermore, the photo appears to be identical to a publicity shot taken at Sicks’ Stadium in September of 1969.

 

Elegance, thy name is … Circle K?

So this was originally going to be a super-short post about an old set – well, nearly a set – that was just sort of laying around, and that I’ve never quite been able to get out of my mind. But then I toddled off for just a tiny bit of research and now this won’t be super-short, probably not even short at all.

You’re welcome!

1985ck-11dAt some point back in the 1980s, I guess, I picked up a set of cards, (probably) sight-unseen because they were inside a box. As I remembered the set, they came from K-Mart and depicted the top 34 home-run hitters of all time.

At the time. Which meant the set included Lee May.

Lee May? Yeah, Lee May. When the set was released in 1985, Lee May’s 354 career clouts ranked 34th on the all-time list.

Now? Poor Lee May’s fallen well more than 100 percent on the all-time list, tied for 88th with Luis Gonzalez. But I remember enjoying the fact that one relatively small set of baseball cards included Hank Aaron and Lee May. Along with other non-immortals like Norm Cash, Frank Howard, and Dave Kingman.

But what I really liked about those cards, even 30-some years ago, was the simple elegance of their design. They did have a border – in those years, it seems that nobody could even imagine designing a baseball card without a border – but otherwise the card was pure image, with the player’s name in tiny print in the bottom-left corner of the border. (So I suppose this is becoming a running theme, as my previous post was about another simply elegant set. At some point early on, that apparently became my design preference, at least with baseball cards.)
41imymdgfclNow, about my research… This set was produced by Topps (as I correctly remembered) but not sold by K-Mart. It was actually Circle K, which surprised me mostly because we didn’t have Circle K stores where I lived.

This should have been obvious, since the back of the cards carry the Circle K logo. But I didn’t recognize the logo because – have I mentioned this already? – we didn’t have Circle K stores where I lived!

Okay, so going through my set, I discovered I was missing a couple of cards. And by looking at that 1985 list of home-run leaders, I realized the missing cards were Ted Williams (#9) and Joe DiMaggio (#31). Cards that (I figured) I had probably misplaced, used as bookmarks, or gave away.

I found about Circle K by Googling K-Mart baseball cards … ‘cause it turns out K-Mart did have their own baseball cards, also in the 1980s. Actually, it turns out pretty much everybody had their own baseball cards in the ‘80s. You might recall the glut. Here’s the description of my set from a Sports Collectors Daily article about all those ‘80s boxed sets:

In a departure from the busy designs that would mar just about every other boxed set during the 1980s, each card in the Topps “Baseball All Time Home Run Kings” set featured a full-color photo surrounded by thin colored piping inside a thicker white border. As the name implies, the cards depicted the top 33 sluggers on baseball’s career home run list at the time and were distributed at Circle K convenience stores.

A mystery, though. Only 33 cards in the set? Lee May is #34. Then again,scan_pic0036 34 is a strange number for a set. Just in terms of printing, don’t you want a number that’s divisible by 3 or 4? In fact, all the other sets discussed in the SCD story were either 33 or 44 cards. So why 34 in this one? And what in hell did I do with my Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio cards?

My answer took a few days. A partial answer, anyway. I was so annoyed by those two missing cards that I purchased a full set on eBay – don’t worry; it was cheap! – and this one arrived today with the original box. And on the back of the box, a checklist.

Or what looks like a checklist. It’s not a checklist. It’s a list of the top 34 home-run hitters, Aaron through May. But right next to the number 31 and Joe DiMaggio, an asterisk. And below the list, in even smaller type, an asterisk with this note:

Picture card not included in series.

We can probably guess why. DiMaggio’s people probably wanted more money than Circle K was willing to spend. DiMaggio’s people were well-known for that sorta thing. So the (self-described) Greatest Living Ballplayer and his 361 career homers are on the box, but not in the box. Oh well. At least now I do have the greatest (then) living hitter.

41qcb3psenlOne more thing about the box… Below the list and the DiMaggio footnote, we’re told that the set is (for some reason) DISTRIBUTED by TOPPS IRELAND LTD. and PRINTED IN REP. OF IRELAND. Which I’ll leave here as a tidbit for the archivists among you.

Before letting you go, I do want to revisit a note from that SCD snippet. If you’ve got the stomach for it, check out those other boxed sets from the ‘80s, from places like K-Mart and Woolworth’s and Eckerd Drugs and Revco. The designs of those sets were all busy. And that’s putting it nicely. I would argue that the 1985 Circle K set is the only boxed set from the ’80s that’s not esthetically revolting.

One of the great things about collecting cards is that there is not really a premium for attractiveness. If you want to build a collection that simply looks good, you don’t have to spend much at all. And you could do a lot worse than 1985 Topps Baseball All Time Home Run Kings Exclusively From Circle K (33 Super Gloss Photo Cards).

The Mac Brothers – Willie and Big

I started going to card shows in 1973. There weren’t that many back then, two a year in Manhattan. I’d go with $100, saved up from a birthday or Hanukkah. That money had to be spent wisely and usually was. I stockpiled favorite players (Koufax, for one), bought the occasional Mantle or Mays, but my heart was always with complete sets, especially ones I’d padres-baseballsnever seen before. When I saw the 1974 McDonald’s Padres Discs in their plastic baseball holder, it was love at first sight.

Even if it didn’t contain a complete set of 15 Pads, the cheapo plastic baseball on its McDonald’s logoed stand would have been worth the price. It was the perfect marriage of Ray Kroc properties. Kroc, owner of both McDonald’s and the Padres, found padres-trioperfect synergy in card form. The set is a ‘70’s baseball fans dream – Matty Alou, Nate Colbert, Bobby Tolan, etc. It’s got a beautiful card of Willie McCovey in his new Padres brown and yellow uni, a worthier picture of the original Big Mac than his heinously airbrushed 1974 Topps card. There’s also a Dave Winfield rookie card.

padres-baseballs-openIt was only recently that I came upon the original plastic holder and five player starter set. This type (with a run of 60,000) was given away on at Jack Murphy Stadium July 30, an 8-0 drubbing at the hands of the Dodgers. The cards were great (that’s adorable and terrible Enzo Hernandez in the front of my starter set), the team not so much. They’d lose 102 games.

The ’74 Padres McDonald’s Disc set is a quirky little thing, reasonably priced, and worthy of your time. Where else are you gonna find a Ronald McDonald card, in action no less? And it comes in its own unique container, just like a McDLT.mcdlt-w-ad

DOUG McWILLIAMS: Baseball Card Photographer, Chronicler of Baseball History

You could talk about his 20-plus years setting the gold standard for baseball card photography as a lensman for Topps. Or his incredible collection of ephemera pertaining to the Oakland A’s. Or his friendship with Vida Blue and Willie McCovey. Or his amazing Zee-Nut baseball card collection of Oakland Oaks players from 1911-1939. Or the 11,000 negatives of his non-Topps work he donated to the Hall of Fame.

And you’d still come up short.

Meet Doug McWilliams, chronicler of baseball and American history. The Berkeley, CA, native has been photographing the national pastime since 1950. The trim, bearded 80-year-old (who looks as if he’s in his late 60s) recounted the day he was bitten by the bug in 1948:

doug-m-pcl-cards“I started listening on the radio to the Oakland Oaks baseball games. They had a little feature on there about the baseball cards they are giving away at Signal Oil and if you stop by your local gas station, they’ll give you a new card. They were in full color. I finally talked my father into taking me to one of the games. He wasn’t a fan of sports at all. We stopped by at a Signal oil gas station and I got a baseball card of a Ray Hamrick, who was a shortstop for the Oaks.

ray-hamrick-card259loWe got to the ballpark. It was evening and I got up to the top of the walkway and looked down on the field. It was all lit up. It looked like it was magic and saw down by the fence, there was Ray Hamrick signing autographs. I borrowed a fountain pen from my dad and ran down there and got him to sign it. I was hooked, hooked more on baseball cards than the game.”

I met Doug at a SABR event earlier this year, where I was presenting my last film about writer Arnold Hano. We happened to be sitting next to each other and introduced ourselves. I’m a baseball card hound since 1964, and I found his story fascinating. My latest project, “The Sweet Spot—A Treasury of Baseball Stories” features people from across the baseball spectrum, and Doug’s story fit the bill for an episode.

My cameraman, Otis, and I spent the better part of the day with Doug at his home, and I was awed by the baseball artifacts, relics and photography he had collected during his lifetime. I interviewed Doug extensively, covering his career shooting for Topps and love of the game.

“I got away from baseball when I was a kid because I went away to college and got married, joined the army, although I was a photographer in the army also. I just didn’t have time for it, but the A’s came to Oakland in 1968 and in 69, they had a picture day. I went down the field with my 35 millimeter Leica and flash bulbs and took pictures of the players as they came by. It reminded me of when I was a kid. I started going to the games and shooting out of the stands and got to know the players. Some of them wanted to buy pictures, too. At that point, I had already been a photographer at the University of California for 10 years almost. I knew I could do well because I’d been doing well. I just kept shooting out of the stands and pretty soon a guy came by, named Jim Mudcat Grant, who I had photographed as a kid probably 15 years before. He remembered me, which totally shocked me. He was with the A’s for a while. I did some pictures for him. He got traded to Pittsburgh and then he came back. The A’s told him to get some new PR pictures. He needed to make an appointment with their photographer.

Mudcat said, “Doug is going to do my pictures for the PR.” They said, “Who?”[laughs] I got my foot on the field for the first time through him. When he posed for me, I got the pictures up to the PR people and they approved them and use them. About that same time, Vida Blue was coming up in the September to show what he could do. He stayed with Mudcat. I did some pictures for Vida for his family. Well, the next year, which I guess was 71, I may have my dates mixed up, but he won the Cy Young and MVP both. He came to me and says, “I need postcards.” I’d been doing photographic postcards in black and white for quite a few of the A’s by that time. He says, “I want color.” I say, ”Well, what do you want a 100 or 200?” I was thinking photographically making them. I made my black and whites photographically. He says, “I get a 100 letters a day, I need lots of them.” The upshot was that I did three different printings for him, about 15,000 color postcards. All of them had my name and address down the center of the postcard back. One of them landed on the desk of Sy Berger at Topps in Brooklyn. Soon, I got a call from him, saying, “We like your work. Would you like to shoot for Topps?” I said, “Well, is the Pope Polish? I think I would.” [chuckling]

dm-topps-pass339loShooting for Topps was a side job for Doug, who spent his days working for UC Berkeley as an industrial photographer. But it was baseball that owned his heart, and every spring Doug would appear in Arizona to create the images that would enrapt children, and later, adults, across America. I asked him about the scope of work for those shoots.

“Take six posed pictures, everybody in full color, shoot 16 rolls at 36 exposure action during the games. The posed pictures were shot on Ektachrome, which is very difficult to shoot. You have to be right on the button or you’re in trouble exposure wise. The action film was in color negative, which is not quite as critical. The big problem early on was that lenses weren’t fast enough. They insisted on using 100 ASA film, which they thought gave better color. Also, I was instructed to photograph the player facing the sun with a shadow of the across their face and they told me that showed ruggedness and character. I, to myself thought it showed poor lighting. I never shot my own pictures that way. Why not turn the guy around, use flash film, you got the sun, coming from behind to separate him from the background and you get beautiful portraits of people.”

Did he have an assistant to keep track off all the players he shot? No.

“I devised a system where I had a roster sheet. I printed up my own and I’d have [the team name and] little stickers with all the numbers of the players on it. I could get two players per roll of 120 film on the posed shots and I’d pull off the sticker, put it on the roll when I was through and then put a piece of tape around it. Then, I’d send the roll off. It would have like number 3 or number 10. If they keep track of it at the processing place, then they’d know who’s on that roll.”

 “Some of the managers were extremely good to me. John McNamara and Dick Williams in particular … [Williams] managed about four of the teams that I shot in Arizona. He seemed to have been there my whole career. He would come up to me and say, “How’s it going?” He said, “You got everybody?” I’d say, “No I still need to get a few people.” He’d stand right beside me and call men off the field and make sure I got everybody. Occasionally, I’d have the San Diego Padres or the Seattle Mariners team shot by 11 o’clock and the game starts at 1 o’clock or so. Generally, I had to chase them down for hours and hours and come back another day. It was really nice to be helped that way by several of the people who knew me.”

Clearly, this is a bright guy with a strong work ethic. But what was it that made his photography so good?

“Well, I went to professional photo school. I went to a place called Brooks Institute doug-shoots-mccovey264loof Photography in Santa Barbara. I was a commercial illustration major, but we had portraiture also and we got the classical portraiture posing and that’s what I used. You just don’t have a guy stand up and look at you. I mean you give them some angle and angle his head and make it look correct, so he doesn’t have a broken neck. You shoot women one way and men another way just to feature them. I always shot a gray scale and a color chart every time I started because the lab could use that. I never saw other photographers doing that and that’s something I used to do at the University of California when I was shooting there. Quality: that’s the whole name of the game. I insist on having the best quality possible.”

reggie-on-deck2-dm114loOver the years, Doug formed friendships with some of the players, like Ted Kubiak, Willie McCovey, Vida Blue and Reggie Jackson. If he has a favorite, it might be Vida.

“I met him when he was a young 18-year-old kid and he was very friendly. I enjoyed that. He came to me to have some work done and he got me going as far as a second job. In an area that I just pinched myself that I actually had 24 years in the big leagues, 23 years actually shooting for Topps, but I made a lot of friends and I still have many friends that were baseball players. I keep in touch. I enjoy that.

Doug ended up shooting Vida’s wedding at Candlestick Park, where Willie McCovey was the best man.

“Willie McCovey was a special one. When he retired, he had a thing and had a special all-star game. He had a big get-together at Palace Hotel. He let me bring my son along and so that was fun. I had some pictures of us together, the three of mccovey-sf-giants-dm164lous and I just covered the whole event for him and made a great big picture book for him. That was special. I did a lot of postcards for Willie also, maybe three different times. I loved his Southern drawl and the way he spoke. He would call the house and Mary, my wife just loved talking to him. He always said [lowers voice], “Doug this is McCovey.” You know who he was way before he even said his name.” [chuckles]

I asked Doug if he ever got any oddball requests from ball players.

“I had one fellow who was a pitcher with the A’s and also the Cubs and I think maybe Seattle too, named Jim Todd. He liked photography and he liked my photography and so he would challenge me to do something different each year and pay for it. He had me take a picture of him going through his entire pitching windup, where he changed colored [jerseys] all the way through. Then, I picked out the best ones and had him change from the start to the end of his delivery as his jersey color changed and that was kind of fun. Then, I mounted it in front of a portrait of him that I did and then mounted it on a wood plaque.”

Like all card collectors, I’m interested in error cards. Was Doug ever involved in an error card?

1981cvox“I had a habit of photographing all the Oakland A’s players when they were in the minors if I could. I happen to have photographed Jeff Cox with Modesto and Vancouver and San Jose, just about everywhere he played. I knew him and he finally got up to the big club, spring training and he was so excited to find out that he might be on a Topps card. That happened several times with the young players and it’s kind of fun. The card came out (1981 Topps #133) and I was so happy to hear about that. I looked at the back and all the statistics were correct and it said Oakland A’s on the front. I looked at the picture and it was Steve McCatty. I don’t think the hobbyists discovered that yet. I had never seen it mentioned, but it was McCatty. It wasn’t Jeff. I felt so bad for him that I made him a custom card — this was before computers — and gave them to him to give to his family and friends.”

I asked if there was a particular set of cards he shot that was meaningful to him.

“I thought when [Topps] came out with the “Stadium Clubs”, those were really well done, attractive. They had full bleed edges and they were on thicker stock and they were glossy, looked good.”

Doug proceeded to take me through his favorite Topps cards from 1983-1993 and some of the stories behind them. [Check out Doug’s episode on “The Sweet Spot” to catch them here for $2.99: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/thesweetspot]

I wondered how Doug was perceived by other baseball card photographers, as well as the industry.

“Two years ago, I and two other Topps photographers were inducted into the Cactus League Hall of Fame as photographers for Topps. It was really pretty nice and one of the other photographers was the person who was just starting when I was finishing up [in 1993]. We were in Tucson, shooting the Cleveland Indians and before the game, the posed stuff and action during the game, and it was very hot. This fellow, he kept looking over at me. In his speech at the Hall of Fame induction, he said that he kept looking over at Doug to see if he was ready to go because he was thinking about going back to the hotel and jumping in the swimming pool.” He kept looking over at me and I was still there. Then, the game got over and he says, “Wow, now I can finally head off to the hotel and go swimming.” He looked around and there I was, out on the mound, grabbing players and taking pictures of them. He said, “Now, there’s a baseball card photographer.”

I recently happened on some of Doug’s work as part of the Hall of Fame’s traveling photo exhibit at Dodger Stadium’s current “pop-up museum” [open weekends now through March 5- http://dodgerblue.com/dodgers-pop-up-museum-dodger-stadium-dec-2-vin-scully-items/2016/12/01/%5D

doug-m-hofHis photo of Bert Blyleven, along with the supporting curatorial text, tells us he was not only a world-class photographer, but a baseball historian of note. His contributions to the game, and baseball history, are immeasurable.

But, there’s a couple of problems for Doug:

“Baseball has become a problem to me because I’m so immersed in it. Photography has become a problem with me because I’m continuously looking at everything and making a picture out of it.”

 What’s next for Doug?

I still have 15,000 [negatives] to send [to the Hall of Fame], 35 millimeter and digital and keeps me busy, keeps me alive, keeps me going. I’ve got plenty to do!

 [note: I will be presenting Doug’s episode and my project “The Sweet Spot—A Treasury of Baseball Stories” at the Lefty O’Doul Chapter’s SABR Day meeting in San Leandro on January 26, with Doug in attendance).

Doug was not unlike that kid in the neighborhood who had the coolest toys and baseball card collection and who enjoyed sharing them.