A Quixotic Quest

Recent trends in the baseball card world have caused me to step aside for the time being. Vintage cards, at least the years I might be interested in targeting, have become too expensive, and recent cards no longer cater to the childlike fun that drew me to the hobby as a youngster. I concede that Vincent Van Gogh would have made fine artwork if asked to use a 2.5 x 3.5 inch canvas, maybe even a classic “card” of Jackie Robinson, but (a) why would we ask him to do this, and (b) how would that help 10-year-olds to fall in love with the game?

So now what?

In recent years I have been very slowly working on completing various oddball sets from my childhood, especially Topps inserts or standalone offerings. The first inserts I remember encountering were the 1968 game cards, which Topps included in 3rd series packs. I’ve written about these cards before. They were fun and attractive, but very much treated as an “extra” in the pack, more important than the gum, but less important than the five included base cards. No one traded their “real” Willie Mays card for his game card.

In 1969 Topps produced two very popular inserts, one a black-and-white deckle edged card, and the other a color decal (which could be peeled off and affixed to another surface). Both very fun extras.

In 1970 Topps replaced their long-standard 5-cards-for-a-nickel packs with 10-cards-for-a-dime. This might seem a trivial difference, but for those of us with a 25 cents/week allowance, it required complex budgeting.

Perhaps feeling somewhat guilty, Topps placed three different inserts into packs throughout the summer. Although there may have been regional scheduling variations, in my neck of the woods Topps used posters in series 1/2, scratch offs in series 3/4/5, and story booklets in series 6/7. I hope to write about all of them in more detail soon, but for today I will focus on the scratch offs.

The 1970 Topps scratch off set consisted of 24 cards, picturing a player from each of the 24 teams.

When folded, the photo of Yaz is the “front”, the scoreboard and rules are the “back”. When unfolded, the game is revealed.

If you follow the rules your card might look like this around the sixth inning.

Truth be told, there are *lot* of problems here.

  1. If you actually play the game, your hands will be blackened by the third inning. Even as a nine-year-old, this was annoying. What if you had to touch your “real” cards?
  2. Once the game is played once, the card is useless. With the 1968 game cards you could collect a big stack (doubles are useful), and play the game over and over.
  3. The scratched “card” looks awful. (This point might be up for debate. I know that @vossbrink, for example, likes checklist cards that have been used for their intended purpose. This is a respectable point of view, and might apply here.)
  4. Even fresh out of the pack, the row on the seam (see picture) was difficult to scratch and read.
  5. Not that kids cared at the time, but the cards were often misaligned or poorly cut.

Although I said above that the players represented each of the 24 teams, the team name is not actually listed–this is just something you would figure out if you placed them with their real team. Presumably “Red Sox” is not specified because Yaz is supposed to be the captain of *your* team. Nonetheless, the players chosen are clearly supposed to stand for the 24 major league teams.

McCarver and Allen played for the Cardinals and Phillies, respectively, in 1969, but were traded for each other (along with several others) in October. Since they appear hatless, and since they both appeared on cards labeled with their new teams in the flagship set, we can assume that these are cards for the Phillies (McCarver) and Cardinals (Allen).

Mike Hegan shows up wearing a Seattle Pilots hat, consistent with Topps use of the Pilots team throughout the summer (though they moved to Milwaukee prior to the season). For Yastrzemski and the other 20 cards the real-life team is obvious.

A discerning observer in 1970 (which, if we are being completely honest, I was not) would have recognized the scratch off set as an uninspired, even lazy, effort by Topps.

But … things would soon get *less* inspired.

In 1971, Topps was fresh out of ideas and chose to use the scratch offs as an insert again. Not just the concept — they used exactly the same players, with identical fronts and backs. The only difference is that the background color on the inside is red instead of white. (One wonders why they even bothered to change the inside?)

There were real-life player shifts that upended Topps’ team symmetry. Dick Allen had been traded to the Dodgers and Luis Aparicio to the Red Sox (changes reflected in the flagship set), which gave each of those teams two “captains” in the 1971 scratch off set. Mike Hegan still donned his Pilots cap, now more than a year after the team’s demise.

Of course, the team names were not listed on the “card”, there was no checklist, and the one-card-per-team rule was not stated anywhere. So, says Topps, “where is the lie?”

But, you might be thinking, “who cares if every team gets a card?”

For one, Topps very clearly cared. In all of their insert sets in the late 1960s and early 1970s they made sure to have least one card for every team. I assume that the people at Topps thought that kids in Cleveland would like seeing one of their heroes on a 1968 game card (Steve Hargan!), and that Seattle tots would get a kick out of seeing a Pilot on a 1969 deckle-edged card (Tommy Davis!). For kids who rooted for other teams, it gave these little sets a bit of character. The lesson we learned, in cards and in life: not every player, or person, is a Hall of Famer.

In 1970, Topps’ took this honorable stance one step further. For the three 1970 inserts sets I mention above, there were 24 cards in each set, one per team, and Topps used 72 different players.

Topps deserves a great deal of credit for doing this, for balancing the top-flight stars between these three sets, but also for serving children across the land. Isn’t that, I asked plaintively, the point of all this? Future Giants collectors hardly needed another version of three Hall-of-Famers to be, but look at those Angels, or those Brewers, or those Padres. Well done, Topps.

The actual point of all of this is to celebrate that I recently completed my 1970 and 1971 scratch off sets (my final card was the 1971 Stargell). This was more challenging than you would think because most dealers have no idea what the difference is between the two sets, so if you order something listed as a 1971 Aaron you might end up with the 1970 Aaron when the mail comes. Also, eBay listings will not reveal that the inside has been scratched so you really need to see an image for both the inside and outside, and dealers are occasionally annoyed when you ask for this. One person asked, in obvious exasperation , “does it really matter?”

Then once you get all the cards, you might put them in nine-pocket sheets and discover the two sets now look identical. Are you really going to pull out the card, unfold it, and stare lovingly at the black-on-red or black-on-white insides? Call me unromantic if you must, but I suggest that you are not going to do this.

Frankly, there is no good reason to collect either set, let alone both.

Except this. These “cards” were placed in packs in 1970 and 1971, packs that I opened, packs that I loved, packs that made my day on more than one occasion. They remind me of being 9 years old, when baseball cards were everything to me, and when Topps seemed for all the world to be focused on the needs and desires of me and fellow 9 year olds throughout the land. That version of me is gone, and so is that version of Topps.

But with these silly little scratch off cards, 48 in all, I can pretend that we are both alive and well.

And for that reason alone, I have no regrets.

Did Fleer hate the Dodgers?

I probably spent more on packs in 1985 than any other year, and the reason was simple: Dr. K.

Topps, Fleer, Donruss, Leaf, O-Pee-Chee, Donruss Action All-Stars…if Doc was in it I was buying it, and I wasn’t just after one of each card. I was an absolute hoarder that year. In the case of Donruss, it meant I could put together the Lou Gehrig puzzle many times over, and in the case of Fleer it meant I had a ridiculous number of these.

The Fleer team sticker insert had been a fixture in packs since 1982 and even pre-dated Fleer’s (modern) re-entry into the baseball card market, serving as a standalone product in 1980 and on and off years prior to that. Team stickers were even a part of Fleer’s 1960 and 1961 Baseball Greats sets.

What made the 1985 inserts unique was not just that they featured fairly authentic looking team jerseys but also that some of the jerseys bore the uniform numbers of star players, for example Frank Robinson and Johnny Bench.

Here are two others you can quickly identify.

And two others unlikely to give you any trouble.

In all, fourteen team jerseys had uniform numbers, the other twelve being blank like the Red Sox one that opened this post. That five of the jerseys would belong to Hall of Famers, three being the face of the franchise, and another would belong to presumed top shelf Hall of Famer Pete Rose suggests at least some intentionality in selecting these numbers.

One might even add to these “chosen six” this more recent Hall of Fame inductee from the Cardinals and the only MVP (to that point) in Texas Rangers history.

After that, the number assignments become more perplexing. How I would have loaded up on Mets stickers had they featured Doc’s 16 or even Darryl’s 18. Instead, Fleer packs gave us either Joe Torre or Little League me!

Where I would have loved to see Rod Carew and Dave Parker, Fleer delivered Dan Ford and John Candelaria.

In place of Alvin Davis and Andre Dawson, we got Jerry Narron (or A-Rod pre-rookie!) and Doug Flynn.

By far the strangest jersey belonged to my hometown Dodgers, where I would have killed for a 6, 34, or 42. Instead Fleer threw the ultimate curve ball and went with…

80??

Apart from Spring Training, this is a number no Dodger has ever worn. To date, it’s a number that’s only appeared twice in MLB, once with the Twins and once with the Pirates. Current Dodger stars Kenley Jansen (74) and Dustin May (85) are somewhat nearby, though neither was even born when the sticker came out. Curiously, Hall of Famer Ducky Medwick wore 77 with Brooklyn in 1940 and 1941.

So why 80?

To this day I still have no idea how the Dodger sticker ended up with such a strange number. Even if Fleer had someone choosing numbers at random, I imagine the range would have been 1-50 or so. Could it be a nod to the ’80 All-Star Game hosted at Dodger Stadium? Could it be a tribute to the final year of Fleer’s sticker-only packs?

Both theories seem extremely unlikely. At this point, I have to wonder if someone at Philly-based Fleer carried a grudge from the 1977 and 1978 NLCS all the way to the sticker factory.

“Take that, Dodger fans, no Garvey jersey for you! You get an 80 LOL. Oh, and who won the World Series that year? We did, that’s who! We did!”

It’s a paranoid theory, but what else you got? Philly sports fans…God bless ‘em!

Author’s note: If you don’t already know the story of Upper Deck hating the Dodgers, check which team got card 666 in their first five sets!

Otis Nixon Wore Many Hats

Baseball formally required all batters to wear helmets in 1970. Red Sox catcher Bob Montgomery was the last player to bat in a Major League contest without a helmet in 1979. Then in 1983, it became mandatory for all professional players to use a helmet with at least one earflap, although anyone with Major League service time in 1982 or earlier could opt for a flapless helmet like Ozzie Smith, Dave Winfield, Tim Raines, and several others. Raines would be the last player to use a flapless helmet.

1980 Topps #618 depicts helmetless Montgomery

On April 7, 1979 Orioles outfielder Gary Roenicke was hit in the face by a pitch, causing a laceration that required 25 stitches to close. Roenicke returned to the lineup on April 15 at Milwaukee and went 3-3 using a helmet with a modified football facemask attached. Expos outfielder Ellis Valentine had his cheekbone fractured when he was hit by a pitch on May 30, 1980 at St. Louis. Valentine also returned to the lineup donning a similarly designed batting helmet equipped with a sawn-off football facemask. Folks who opened packs of Topps baseball cards in 1981 could find a pair of cards depicting each of these unique batting helmets.

1981 Topps Valentine #445, Roenicke #37

Although no such picture appeared on any cards issued during his playing career, it is generally accepted that the first player to experiment with protective face gear was Dave Parker. Parker sustained facial fractures in a collision at home plate with Mets catcher John Stearns on June 30, 1978. Upon his return to the lineup July 16, Parker experimented with a (downright terrifying) hockey goalie mask and other football facemask designs. Despite his injury, Parker would win the batting title (.334) and be named National League MVP in 1978.

Photo credit: Associate Press, 1978

Most recently, Giancarlo Stanton made news when he returned to the Marlins in 2015 using a helmet fitted with a custom facemask that cleverly incorporated a “G” into the protective design. Stanton had been hit in the face by the Brewers’ Mike Fiers on September 11, 2014 resulting in fractures that ended his season. No longer newsworthy, facial protection is now commonplace with an ever-increasing number of MLB players opting for jaw guards incorporated into their batting helmets.

On April 4, 1998 Twins outfielder Otis Nixon coaxed a first-inning walk but was soon forced out at second. During the play at the bag, Royals shortstop Félix Martínez kicked Nixon in the face. Nixon stayed in the game but later learned that he had sustained a fractured jaw. When Nixon returned to the lineup on April 9, he utilized a batting helmet fitted with a full football facemask to protect his jaw and with hopes he would not need to undergo a surgical repair. This unfortunate injury, however, offered Nixon the opportunity to don the widest variety of protective headgear ever depicted on baseball cards by a single player.

Otis Nixon was not eligible to use a flapless helmet because he first appeared in the Major Leagues in 1983; however, here he is while with Cleveland:

1987 Fleer #255

Nixon also used a single-flap helmet with the Expos:

1990 Donruss #456

As a switch-hitter, Nixon subsequently joined the double-flap helmet trend:

1992 Leaf #255

And with his appearance for Minnesota following the broken jaw incident, here is Nixon donning the helmet with protective face gear:

1999 Fleer Ultra #44

Unlike facial bones, Nixon’s sartorial record appears unbreakable.

Sources:

Retrosheet.org

Baseball-Reference.com

Bill Nowlin, “Bob Montgomery,” SABR Bio Project

Paul Lukas, “Giancarlo Stanton’s Mask Not a First,” http://www.ESPN.com, March 4, 2015, accessed April 5, 2021.

“Interference Rule Amended,” Cincinnati Enquirer, December 2, 1970.

“Parker returns to lineup and Pirates win pair,” The Morning Call (Allentown, Pennsylvania), July 17, 1978.

“Quick Kick,” Kansas City Star, April 5, 1998.

Mike Klingaman, “Catching Up With … former Oriole Gary Roenicke,” Baltimore Sun, July 7, 2009.

Hollywood Stars Were in the Cards: Part 3

Gen. George S. Patton believed fervently in reincarnation—a passion that served as an integral theme in the 1970 Academy Award–winning biopic about him. Often, Patton would declare to colleagues that he had participated in some renowned battle waged centuries before his birth.

Portraying the blustery general in that beloved biopic was, of course, George C. Scott. Few roles have so defined an actor as “Gen. Patton” did Scott—and have so defined a historical figure in the public consciousness (despite its inaccuracies). Scott’s steely-eyed, soldier-slapping performance earned him the Oscar for Best Actor (although he refused to accept it, due to his longstanding scorn for the craft of acting turned into a competition).

Six months after George C. Scott won, and left unclaimed, his Best Actor statuette at the 43rd Academy Awards, the Boston Red Sox consummated a ten-player trade with the Milwaukee Brewers that included first baseman George Scott. Not exactly the reincarnation of Gen. Patton, George Scott was something of a doppelgänger to the actor who so recently portrayed Patton. Known as “Boomer” because of his prodigious power, George Scott’s middle name also began with “C” (Charles). Stranger still, incoming to Boston was right-handed hurler, Marty Pattin. The trade included several other big-name players, among them Jim Lonborg and Tommy Harper, but the headlines in each town could have proclaimed GEORGE C. SCOTT SWAPPED FOR PATTIN. (Pattin, incidentally, began his career wth the California Angels, whose stadium in Anaheim sits about 30 miles from Gen. Patton’s birthplace of San Gabriel.)

Adding a touch of the ephemeral, George Scott’s birthday of March 23 comes one day after that of esteemed actor, Karl Malden, who, of course, portrayed Patton’s real-life colleague and onscreen foil, Gen. Omar Bradley. 

With such “cinematic pedigree,” George Scott would have been fully validated in choosing as walk-up music for his at-bats Patton’s trademark echoing of trumpet triplets.

And “Old Blood and Guts” certainly would have appreciated the brutish bravado of George Scott’s infamous necklace made of “second-basemen’s teeth,” not to mention that Scott’s penchant for donning a helmet in the field would have passed muster with the by-the-book general who demanded that his soldiers wear their helmet practically at all times.

George Scott enjoyed several of his best seasons while in Brewer blue, twice topping the American League in total bases and claiming the home run and RBI crowns in 1975. Similarly, Marty Pattin found instant success in Fenway Park, winning a career high 17 games in his first of two seasons with the Bosox, before Boston abruptly shipped him to Kansas City after the 1973 season. (Scott and Pattin briefly marshalled what remained of their diminishing talents for the 1979 Royals.)

Boomer eventually was reincarnated as a Red Sock, returning to Fenway in the deal that made Milwaukee famous to Cecil Cooper (and vice-versa). In Boston, Scott enjoyed his last big season, slamming 33 home runs and scoring 103 in 1977. He wasn’t able to help Boston shrug off New York in its epic collapse of 1978, hitting .163 once the calendar turned September and the erosion of Boston’s lead over the Bronx Bombers accelerated (although Scott did go 2-4 in the pennant-deciding finale and was twice stranded in scoring position when his run would have proved crucial).

In a bit of a final irony, Boomer moved south of the border when no suitors called on him during free agency, spending four seasons in the Mexican League. Somewhat conversely, Lieutenant Patton, on the way up in his military career, spent nearly a year in Mexico attempting to track down the revolutionary, Pancho Villa, not long before the United States’ entry into World War I would shape his destiny.

Sadly, George Scott lived only until age 69; George C. Scott died when he was 71; and Gen. George S. Patton, of course, succumbed at age 60, two weeks after an automobile accident.

All glory is fleeting…

Cardboard Crosswalk: 1978 Topps and 1990 Pacific Senior League

Some serious nostalgia set in when I read Chris Kamka’s recent post on the 1990 Pacific Senior League set, and the dosage was doubled when I looked up the full checklist on Trading Card Database. The Senior League players, coaches, and managers in the set were not simply players I watched growing up. More importantly, they were the names I collected, sorted, and idolized when I began my lifelong obsession with cardboard back in 1978.

As the mind has a way of playing tricks more than four decades later–I could have sworn John D’Acquisto have a 1978 Topps card!–I decided to check my foggy memories against the honest to goodness 1978 Topps checklist. Or in the parlance of the SABR Baseball Cards blog, I did a Cardboard Crosswalk!

John D’Acquisto aside, my memory wasn’t so bad after all. More than half the cards in the 1990 Pacific set (122 out of 220) feature players or managers from 1978 Topps. Leading the way were the Fort Myers Sun Sox, with 22 of the 29 cards in the Pacific set having 1978 Topps predecessors.

While the Sun Sox were clearly the frontrunners, the other seven teams in the Senior League were all represented with 1978 Topps ancestry.

  • St. Petersburg Pelicans – 16
  • Bradenton Explorers – 16
  • St. Lucie Legends – 15
  • Winter Haven Super Sox – 14
  • Orlando Juice – 14
  • West Palm Beach Tropics – 13
  • Gold Coast Suns – 13

I also organized the crosswalk by 1978 Topps team. Most of the 1978 Topps team sets contributed 4-5 players to the Senior League set, paced by the Cleveland Indians with 10 (or 11 if we count Dobson twice).

At the other end of the spectrum, one team from 1978 Topps, the Minnesota Twins, contributed no players at all.

Something that may have already caught your eye from the various graphics presented is the large number of 1978 Indians who were also 1990 Sun Sox.

The 1990 Pacific Senior League set featured additional 1978 Topps reunions, which I’ll define here as groups of at least three players who were teammates in both sets.

The same Sun Sox also included three 1978 Topps A’s (Steve McCatty, Tim Hosley, Joe Coleman) and three Royals (Amos Otis, Dennis Leonard, Doug Bird). Meanwhile, the St. Petersburg Pelicans reunited four players from the 1978 Topps Mets checklist (Steve Henderson, John Matlack, Lenny Randle, and Pat Zachry), three 1978 Phillies (Jerry Martin, Randy Lerch, Bake McBride), and three Tigers (Ron LeFlore, Steve Kemp, Milt Wilcox). Finally, three members of the 1978 Topps Pirates family (Bruce Kison, Omar Moreno, Al Oliver) got back together on the Bradenton Explorers.

However, the reunion to end all reunions came courtesy of the Winter Haven Super Sox, who more than lived up to their name with seven Red Sox from the 1978 Topps set.

This same team included several other players with Beantown ties, among them Cecil Cooper, Gary Allenson, and Mario Guerrero. While the actual 1978 Red Sox won 99 games and missed the postseason by the narrowest of margins (BFD!), their 1990 redux went 29-43, landing firmly in the cellar of the Senior League’s Northern Division.

With the prices of unopened packs of 1978 Topps largely out of reach, the 1990 Pacific Senior League set may well represent my best chance to relive my first year in the Hobby. Sure there’s no Steve Garvey, Reggie Jackson, or Dave Parker, but let’s be honest…neither did most of the packs I opened as a kid. In truth the only thing that would break the illusion would be that the 1990 Pacific set has no Warren Brusstar, a player I seemingly pulled from every single pack of 1978 Topps.

Still, about half the cards I’d pull would have 1978 Topps counterparts, and if my math is correct a pack of 12 Pacific cards would have a (roughly) 50-50 chance of yielding at least one pair of 1978 Topps teammates. (I’m now tempted to buy a box and test this out.)

Of course, this article has only scratched the surface of all the interesting connections between 1978 Topps and 1990 Pacific Senior League, but rather than highlight all of them, only to end up with a SABR Bob Davids Award my shelf has no room for, I’m turning my source data over to you. Good luck in your research, and definitely feel free to write it up for our SABR Baseball Cards blog!

Author’s note #1: The 1990 Pacific Senior League set includes four cards with incorrect photos. My analysis was based on the name on the card rather than the actual player photographed.

Author’s note #2: Okay, just for kicks, I ran a simulation of buying six packs of Senior League cards using the random number generator at random.org. Let’s see if those predicted 1978 Topps teammates showed up.

Pack 1: SUCCESS!

Pack 2: FAILURE

Pack 3: SUCCESS!

Pack 4: SUCCESS!

Pack 5: SUCCESS!

Pack 6: SUCCESS!

Now if you’ll excuse me I’m heading to Bradenton to win some bar bets with a box of 1990 Pacific!

A minor tradition.

I worry about the trainers.

As we start the 2021 baseball season, Minor League Baseball is now firmly under the control of Major League Baseball. This has already brought about significant change.

A few low-level minor leagues – like my sentimental favorite, the Class A New York-Penn League – have been folded entirely. The others have had their time-honored names stripped from them, rearranged and rebranded with bland, waiting-for-sponsors titles. For instance, the century-plus of heritage behind the International League name has been discarded in favor of “Triple-A East.” Minor-league teams are now “licensed affiliates” who make a point to announce that their schedules have been provided by MLB.

It feels to this lifelong minor-league fan like any vestige of the old MiLB could be ripe for elimination, if it doesn’t make MLB money or burnish the parent organization’s brand in some way.

And one of the purest manifestations of the old MiLB is the trainer’s card.

Big-league sets don’t include trainer’s cards; you don’t find them in St. Louis or Los Angeles. (The best a big-league trainer could typically hope for, card-wise, was to appear as a small, golf-shirted dot on the fringes of the team picture.)

Instead, you find trainer cards in Wausau and Pawtucket, in minor-league card sets, adding bulk to the team set alongside the mascot, the stadium, the general manager, the owner, or occasionally even the chaplain. (He bats and throws righty!)

They’re not tremendously sexy cards, from a design standpoint, and they’re certainly not the most sought-after. If you were to sweep through a minor-league ballpark at the end of Team Set Giveaway Day, you’d probably find at least a couple of trainer cards, cast aside by kids whose solitary interest lies with uniformed on-field personnel.

Still, these cards are a tradition in many minor-league sets. And they serve a purpose, beyond filling out a set. They provide some small token of recognition to men and women whose work is necessary, even crucial, but unglamorous and almost certainly not lucrative.

These people work hard to keep the minor-league armies marching. They deserve these tips of the cap – whether they carry the old-fashioned title of Trainer, or newfangled, health-related handles like Strength and Conditioning Coach or Physical Fitness Coordinator.

I have no difficulty imagining a future in which MLB brings all minor-league card production into a central operation and discards the trainer card. They’ve junked bigger traditions, after all. Plus, trainer cards always have a touch of the podunk about them – and MLB isn’t in the podunk business.

It certainly won’t kill anybody if they do that, but it will be a loss, just as the New York-Penn League is a loss. It will be one less homespun touch, one less glimpse behind the polished facade.

Of course, the pendulum could swing the other way. With interest in cards at an almost absurd high, maybe MLB will want to churn out cardboard on anybody they can think to photograph. Trainers? Groundskeepers? Racing mascots?  That self-appointed superfan in face paint who makes an annoyance of himself blowing a vuvuzela and is thisclose to being banned at the beer kiosks? Bring ‘em all on; someone can be convinced to buy.

If we get trainer cards in chrome or refractor style, with multiple color variants, I might just be convinced to love the brave new world.

Oldies but Goodies

The phrase “Alternate Site” has become part of baseball’s vocabulary over the past year, and it will always sound weird. It’s like there’s an alternate universe where everything you know is wrong. It sort of made me think of when a few years back I found a book on the shelf at a used book store –  Peter Golenbock’s Forever Boys, where the author spent a year with the St. Petersburg Pelicans of the Senior Professional Baseball Association.

I had NO idea this league even existed! I was 9-10 years old, and surely I’d have had some recollection of this league, but nope. Nothing. It’s as if there’s an alternate history of baseball that I was unaware of. It’s too bad, because if this existed today, I’d be into it for sure. A bunch of players I grew up watching getting together again? Let’s go! Anyway, the book was fantastic. Everything was completely new to me.

Fast-forward another year or so after reading the book, and I discovered that there were Senior League card sets too! Looking at the checklist, I had to have them, and eventually I found a set for sale for five bucks at a card shop.

There were a few sets for sale, and I intended to get the one by a company called T&M Sports. Later, I opened up the box and started looking at the cards and realized that they gave me the Pacific set instead. I’m glad they did.

A simple silver border with 22 stars (I counted) along the top and side, with a logo in the bottom corner next to the player’s name. Not terribly exciting, but not horrible. Mostly posed shots, so you can see some of your favorite players from the 60s 70s & 80s up close some 5-15 years removed from their playing days.

Dock Ellis on the St. Petersburg Pelicans? Yep.

Fergie Jenkins & Spaceman Lee on the Winter Haven Super Sox? You bet.

Luis Tiant managed by Earl Weaver, wearing the blue & orange of the Gold Coast Suns? Why not.

Don’t forget about Amos Otis of the Fort Myers Sun Sox.

And what about the power trio of George Foster, Oscar Gamble (sans afro) & Bobby Bonds of the St. Lucie Legends?

Rollie Fingers clearly broke out the mustache wax before being immortalized in his West Palm Beach Tropics duds. Tom Paciorek is resplendent in his freshly squeezed Orlando Juice uniform.

For those scoring at home, the set features four Hall of Famers: players Fergie Jenkins & Rollie Fingers, and managers Earl Weaver & Dick Williams.

My favorite card, though, is Jim Nettles #126. He was a teammate of his brother, who was a star infielder, much like Billy Ripken. Also like Billy Ripken, he is featured with some colorful language on the knob of his bat.

This set came one year after the infamous 1989 Fleer F-Face fiasco, but as the Senior League was on a much smaller scale than the big leagues, this card flies under the radar.

The 220-card set ends on a pretty cool note: a suit-and-tie card of Commissioner Curt Flood. 

It’s too bad the league couldn’t stay afloat; it folded shortly into its second season. It would have been fun to see who else would have given it one last shot. If anything, fans were afforded the opportunity to get one last (okay, two!) Dave Kingman cardboard treasures.

Author’s Note: Pacific also released a 1991 Senior League set (using nearly the same design as its 1991 Football issue).

Editor’s Note: If you’ve never used the Trading Card Database “view checklist by age” feature, these would be the sets for it!

My rookie collecting year

My introduction to card collecting began in the late summer of 1955, when my Uncle Joe—my godfather and a former catcher in Chicago’s high-level semipro baseball leagues—handed me a special gift: four packs of Topps baseball cards. I was seven years old, and my life has never been the same.

Of course I have no recollection of what specific cards I unwrapped on that warm summery night… Jackie Robinson, maybe, or Gil Hodges, or (in honor of Uncle Joe), the White Sox catcher, Sherm Lollar?

Unlikely; as most collectors will tell you, the odds are much more likely that we will unwrap the images of images of journeymen with names like “Corky” and “Bunky.”

No matter whose images were revealed in the packs, I was totally enchanted with their beauty, and quickly locked into the sheer fun that came from collecting these cards. Clever lad that I was, I even gave Veston Goff Stewart a nickname for his nickname… for me, then and now, he will always be known as “Bunk-Bed” Stewart. As for “Corky” Valentine, who got his nickname from a lovable comic-strip character, Hank Aaron would write about his season (1953) in the Class A Sally League, “There were some ornery pitchers in that league, but nobody was as nasty as Harold Lewis Valentine.” But Hank… Corky looked so nice on his Topps card!

I immediately began collecting as many of these beauties as possible. I even picked up a few packs of cards from Topps’s arch-rival, Bowman… but as I noted in my article about the final year of the Topps-Bowman war, the Bowman color-TV design, innovative as it was, didn’t appeal me like the Topps cards did. Even the Bowman card of my favorite player, Nellie Fox, didn’t grab me the way the Topps cards did.

Bowman would have one more arrow in its quiver, however. Uncle Joe did not present me with his gift of Topps cards until fairly late in the summer, and both the Topps and Bowman baseball cards disappeared from the stores long before I could attempt to put together a set. In their place were the companies’ football-card sets: a 100-card all-time greats college set from Topps and a 160-card NFL set from Bowman; that would turn out to be Bowman’s final card set before being bought out by Topps.

Flushed with collecting mania by then, I bought cards from both sets, but with a strong bias toward Bowman, whose lovely design would be a fine tribute to the company’s glorious run. One of my early collecting memories involves walking proudly into the Nordica Store, our card-collecting headquarters, with 75 cents—three whole weeks’ allowance!—and buying a staggering 15 packs of Bowman football cards. I had to assure the owner of the store, a woman my friends and I knew only as “Mrs. Nordica,” that this purchase was OK with my parents… which it was, I guess, since they never told me it wasn’t. As for the cards, I have to admit that a major part of the appeal was those crazy football names.

Royce Womble? Dorne Dibble? Pudge Heffelfinger? Football must have been invented by Charles Dickens.

When winter set in, the football cards disappeared from the stores as well. By now my collecting urge had reached the point where the cards didn’t even need to be about sports. A short-term diversion for my older brother Phil and me was the 80-card Topps “Flags of the World” set, whose backs included tips on how to pronounce a few terms of the native language.

It was a fun and moderately educational card set, but I was a baseball guy even at the age of seven. And as spring arrived in Chicago, Flags of the World card No. 49, Poland—the Zminda family’s native land—would have been more useful had it taught us how to say, “Gdzie są nowe karty baseballowe?”… which is Polish for, “Where are the new baseball cards?”

Our home base, the Nordica Store at Nordica Avenue and Grace Street, was one of those tiny mom-and-pop operations that would later be driven out of business by the Seven Elevens and their like. In the 1950s, however, the store had plenty of customers—including my best friend Tom, my older brother Phil, and me. The candy counter where we bought our cards and treats was stocked by a man with a red truck named J.J. We would check the store for the arrival of the baseball cards on a daily basis once spring came. If the card racks were bare but J.J. was still on his way, we would sit outside and wait for his arrival. He knew what we were waiting for, and he’d stop before unloading his truck and say, “No boys, not today. But soon.”

Our agony continued for a couple of weeks, until the big day finally arrived: the first series of the 1956 Topps baseball set was here!

I have written about my love for this set—both the attractive fronts and the clever backs, with three cartoons about the player—in a previous article; I was blown away from the moment I opened my first pack, as were most of my friends. The first series included such greats as Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, and Hank Aaron (and Ernie Banks and Roberto Clemente and Al Kaline and Warren Spahn), along with the usual Topps supply of Babe Birrers and Rudy Minarcins. We wanted them all. I was a five-pack man myself, blowing my whole allowance on all the cards (five cards for five cents) that my money would buy pretty much every week.

Completing the series within our limited budgets was a challenge, but that’s where our neighbor Dave (I’ve changed his name) came in handy. Dave, who lived across the street from Phil and me, had contracted the dreaded disease polio in the days before the Salk vaccine became available. While he still bore some scars, he fortunately was able to recover without suffering the crippling paralysis that affected many polio victims. Dave’s grateful parents were happy to comfort him in various ways—including giving him what appeared to be an unlimited budget for buying baseball cards. If you needed cards to complete a series, Dave was more than happy to trade… although there weren’t many cards that he needed. We’d hand Dave a stack of duplicates, and he would begin riffling through them…

“Got him.”

“Got him.”

“Got him.”

“Got him…”

This would continue for several minutes, until—if you were lucky—Dave would finally stop and say, “Need him,” and a trade would be made. Your best bet was to have some New York Yankee cards in the stack, as Dave was the neighborhood’s resident Yankee fan… not the most popular allegiance in Cubs/White Sox country, but Dave was a good guy, and besides, we needed his cards.

With Dave’s help we had at least a fighting chance to complete a series… and soon we would be sitting outside the Nordica Store, waiting for J.J.’s truck, and his announcement that he had the next series in hand. We quickly learned that J.J. wasn’t the most reliable source. One afternoon he got out of his truck and told us, “New pictures, boys, new pictures!” We eagerly bought several packs apiece—only to discover, as my friend Tom put it, “Yeah, new pictures. Old cards.” After that when J.J. announced, “new pictures,” one of us would go to the rack of one-cent cards—those were the days!—and invest a penny to see if he was correct.

When the second Topps baseball series finally arrived, it was Christmas in May (or was it June?) at Nordica Store. Series 2 mysteriously switch the card backs from white to gray (at least in our neighborhood) and included the likes of Roy Campanella and Willie Mays and Duke Snider and my hero, Nellie Fox, along with Mickey Mantle in his Triple Crown year. Even in 1956, we knew that card had some value.

But then it was back to sitting outside the store, waiting for the third series to arrive. Wily devil that he was, J.J. had something to tempt us with in the interim: Davy Crockett cards. The Disneyland TV show had begun broadcasting episodes based on the “King of the Wild Frontier” in late 1954, and they were a sensation from coast to coast… by the summer of 1956, there was as many of us wearing Davy Crockett coonskin caps as there were sporting baseball caps. (Not to mention the legion of Davy Crockett lunch boxes.) Trading cards were a logical next step to cash in on Crockett mania, and when my friends weren’t lining up to buy baseball cards, Davy filled the bill pretty nicely. So who was a bigger hero in the kid world of 1956… Mickey Mantle or Davy Crockett? Let’s say it was close.

We were baseball guys at heart, however, and Topps still had two more series coming out. To be honest, the third and fourth Topps baseball card series weren’t nearly as spectacular as Series 1 and 2. Bob Feller, who would retire after the 1956 season, was probably the biggest name in Series 3. The fourth and final series was definitely rather humdrum—even the quality of cartooning on the backs of the cards was pretty second-rate—but my friends and I still wanted every last card—down to the final card in the set, No. 340, Mickey McDermott.

While I came fairly close, I did not quite complete the 1956 set by the end of the baseball season—even with Dave’s help. It was a little frustrating, but there was always a new card set to collect (including football cards, to be honest). Then in 1959, my family moved to the suburbs, and a lot of things got tossed out… including most if not all of those wonderful ‘56s. “You don’t need all those old cards, do ya, Donnie?” “Um, er… well, I guess not.” Such is life. In the new neighborhood there was no Nordica store, there was no one like Dave to trade with, and after a year or so I stopped trying to collect the new baseball card sets… much less trying to recover the sets I had had lost.

But I hadn’t forgotten those ‘56s. One day in the early 1970s—by which time I was out of college and working fulltime—I got a call from a friend whom I had lost track of after we moved to the ‘burbs. It was good old Dave; he had somehow tracked down Phil, and now me. When we got together, I was not surprised that Dave was still collecting, but he had a new passion: collecting 45 RPM records. Was I shocked that Dave had a room with a copy of pretty much every top 40 hit since 1960? I was not. But what about his old baseball cards, I asked, my voice trembling.

“Yeah, still got ‘em,” he said. “You interested in anything?”

A couple of hours later, I was driving home with a big box full of ‘56s, most of them in near-mint condition… I think he charged me some ridiculously low price like fifty bucks. There were a few Yankees missing including Mantle (no surprise), but I could—and did—get those later. I was back into card collecting, for good.

My rookie collecting year was over at last.

Girl Power

In honor of Women’s History Month, I wanted to shine a light on some notable female baseball card artists, past and present. I make no claim that my list is exhaustive, so please use the Comments area to let me know about the artists I’m missing.

2021 Topps Project 70

Though Topps seems to shy away from regarding it as a sequel, Project 70 follows in the footsteps of the prior year’s Project 2020 while opening up the selection of players and years and increasing the number of participating artists to 51. Notably, five of the artists in Project 70 are women. Here is the Topps bio of each, along with one of the first two cards released by each artist. (Check back soon for a full-length SABR Baseball Cards interview with Lauren Taylor!)

Brittney Palmer

Claw Money

Distortedd

Lauren Taylor

Sophia Chang

2020 Topps Project 2020

Five female artists out of 51 total may or may not feel like a big number to you, but either way it represents a significant jump from Project 2020, in which Sophia Chang was the lone female creator.

Chang’s cards cracked the coveted 10,000 print run threshold three times, led by Mike Trout at 14,821 and followed closely by Roberto Clemente (12,077) and Willie Mays (10,480).

When Sophia released her debut Project 2020 card, Mariano Rivera, I wondered how many female artists had preceded her. As it turned out, I didn’t have to look back very far.

2019 Montreal Expos

Montreal-based sports artist Josée Tellier, who may well be the world’s biggest Montreal Expos and Andre Dawson fan, created her own set of Expos greats in 2019 to honor the 50th anniversary of the franchise.

While the set was not an official release, her cards spread quickly on social media and became one of the Hobby’s hottest underground releases. Definitely don’t be surprised to see Josée take part in an official Topps product sometime in the future.

2018-present Topps Living Set

The Topps Living Set, which began in 2018 and continues to this day, combines current and former players into a single set based on the 1953 Topps design.

For the first three years of the Living Set, all artwork was done by Japanese artist Mayumi Seto. Beginning this year, Jared Kelley will join the Living Set team and share the artwork duties with Seto.

2016-2018 Various other sets by Topps

As the back of Seto’s 2019 Allen & Ginter card shows, Living Set was not the first baseball card set to feature her artwork.

You can also see her art in at least three other sets: Museum Collection (2016), Transcendent (2018), and Gallery (2018).

2000 Upper Deck

In 2000 the Upper Deck Company, still riding high, held a promotion where collectors could submit their own artwork to be used in the Upper Deck MVP “Draw Your Own Card” subset. Ultimately, 31 cards were chosen, with this Frank Thomas by Joe Dunbar, age 36, leading off the subset. As the card back notes, Mr. Dunbar was one of ten artists in the 15 years and over category.

This particular age category featured three female artists in all: Linda Marcum (age 34), Kat Rhyne (age 23), and Melina Melvin (age 32).

Linda Marcum

Melina Melvin

Kat Rhyne

Alexandra Brunet

The set’s most notable creator–man, woman, or child–was Alexandra Brunet. At age 6, she was the youngest artist in the set, beating out her brother and a few other 8-year-olds by two years, so there’s that. However, Brunet’s card was particularly noteworthy for reasons wholly unrelated to her age.

Where other artists gravitated toward established MLB stars such as Sosa and McGwire (hey, it was 2000!), Alexandra chose instead to feature…herself (!) as the Yankees first basemanwoman of the future.

In lending her artistry to a baseball card set, Alexandra was also continuing a tradition that began at least 25 years before she was born. However, before we get to the oldest cards I’m aware of, we’ll look at some wonderful postcard series issued from 1988-91.

1988-91 Historic Limited Editions

Some of the most attractive cards of the 1980s and early 1990s came from the brush of Susan Rini. Her artwork was featured in multiple series of limited edition (usually 10,000) postcards from the appropriately named Historic Limited Editions brand. The earliest set I’m aware of is a 1988 set of Brooklyn Dodgers (ultimately the first of four Brooklyn Dodger releases), and other work included the 1961 Yankees, 1969 Mets, and various player sets including Nolan Ryan, Thurman Munson, Roberto Clemente, and Lou Gehrig.

Backing up 20 years more, we come to a set that was not only pioneering in terms of “girl power” but also for its place in the history of one of the Hobby’s great enterprises.

1968 Sports Cards for Collectors

The prehistory of TCMA begins with another four-letter acronym, SCFC: Sports Cards for Collectors. While Hobby pioneer and SABR Jefferson Burdick Award Winner Mike Aronstein was the originator and distributor of the 1968 SCFC set, the artwork fell to two other relatives: Mike’s Uncle Myron and Aunt Margie.

Per Mike’s son Andrew Aronstein, the drawings initialed MSA were done by Myron S. Aronstein, and those initialed MA were done by Margie.

Was Aunt Margie the very first female baseball card artist? Our Hobby has a long history, so just about any time the word “first” is used, it ends up being wrong. What I will say is that Margie Aronstein is the first female card artist that I’m personally aware of. I will also offer that the industry is sufficiently male-dominated that any female card artist–first, last, or anywhere in between–is a pioneer of sorts.

The combination of artists and baseball cards is experiencing quite a boom these days. Congratulations to today’s female artists leading the charge and the past artists who paved the way!

Related:

  • Read about photographer and SABR member Donna Muscarella and her baseball card set honoring Hinchliffe Stadium
  • Read about the “Decade Greats” sets issued by megadealer and card producer Renata Galasso

What about Blob?

In case you missed it, SABR Baseball Cards Research Committee co-chair Nick Vossbrink published his “On Thinking about What Makes a Card a Card” piece a couple weeks ago, offering readers and collectors a framework for thinking about cardness.

In the comments I referenced a particular card (or non-card) genre likely unknown to much of our readership, so I thought a full blog post might be a better way to keep up the “what makes a card a card” (WMACAC) conversation.

Last year Topps launched Project 2020, in which twenty renowned artists, typically from the non-sports universe (e.g., fashion, jewelry, street art) put their spin on twenty classic Topps rookie* cards.

Brooklyn-based muralist and artist Eric Friedensohn, better known as Efdot

I put an asterisk because the Ted Williams, Willie Mays, and Jackie Robinson cards were simply first Topps cards (FTC), the Nolan Ryan was his first solo card, and the McGwire has its own debate surrounding it. One could perhaps quibble over Update set XRCs as well, and of course the Mariano Rivera is a Bowman. Still, you get the idea!

Early cards in the set tended to stay very true to the original RC, as shown by my Tyson Beck card of Dwight Gooden, which was card 12 of the 400 cards that made up the set. Later cards tended to drift a bit more as the artists took greater and greater license. For example, my Efdot Dwight Gooden, which was card 137 overall, retains none of the design elements of the 1985 Topps set but more than makes up for it with its timely tribute to healthcare workers.

One of my favorite cards in the set is the Efdot Sandy Koufax card, which deviates considerably from the layout and design of the original Topps classic but retains enough elements to be clearly derivative. (In general, this was my personal “sweet spot” for the project: very different from the original but not wholly unrelated.)

If we stop here and ask, “Is this a baseball card?” I have to imagine a nearly universal answer of yes. Granted, it might not be a card you collect personally, and it’s clearly not a card from Koufax’s playing career. However, it checks off nearly every category of cardness.

  • Standard baseball card dimensions of 2-1/2″ x 3-1/2″ (though it’s thicker than your typical card at 130 points, or roughly the same thickness of a pack of 1982 Topps)
  • Professional baseball player depicted on the front, along with name, position (it’s there, trust me!), and team
  • Issued by Topps and fully licensed
  • Non-blank back, though no stats are provided. Instead, we get a small write-up of the set itself and the artist who designed the card.

Where baseball cardness gets more interesting is with the collections of art pieces many of the artists issued independently as companion cards to their Topps releases. Unlike their official Project 2020 cards, these cards were neither produced by Topps nor licensed by MLB, MLBPA, or the representatives of any retired players.

As an example, here is Efdot’s Left Arm of Blob, based on a turtle-like Blob character Efdot uses in his murals and other designs.

This companion card has many features suggestive of Sandy Koufax. Among them are the left-handed pitching motion, the stylistic nod to Jewish artist Marc Chagall, and a healthy dose of Dodger Blue, even if non-exact. On the other hand, I don’t think many baseball fans would regard Blob as a dead ringer for Mr. Koufax. Furthermore, there is no name, team, or logo to assist.

If we accept the idea that even a generic baseball player is enough to establish baseball cardness then Left Arm of Blob definitely gets my vote for being a baseball card, even lacking the imprimatur of a card-making goliath like Topps, Upper Deck, or Panini. However, I believe a more fun question to ask is whether Left Arm of Blob is a Sandy Koufax baseball card.

While the answer is likely no on a technical level, I have always been of the mindset that the collector is always right. As such, I do consider Left Arm of Blob a welcome addition to my Sandy Koufax collection, primarily for two reasons. First, the card is clearly Koufax-inspired (or at least Koufax card-inspired). Second, the card was specifically designed to go right next to the real Sandy.

I know many collectors these days who prefer not to decide such matters for themselves but prefer to see how the Hobby establishment opines. For example, will we see Left Arm of Blob in PSA’s Koufax “super set” or as an entry on Trading Card Database’s Koufax pages? And before you say, “No chance!” to the former, here is a Babe Ruth card from PSA’s Bambino master set, batting righty no less!

Though there is precedent for nearly everything new in the Hobby, I’ll offer that the idea of a companion card is at least new enough in today’s consciousness to preclude consensus. However, many of this year’s Topps Project 70 artists are producing and distributing companion cards, meaning we will soon have a much larger sample size on which to equivocate. We will also be forced to reckon with companions as “a thing” rather than some flukey one-off that only happened in the weirdest year of our lives.

In the grander scheme, what we do know is that Left Arm of Blob is simply one of many novel card-ish objects that will continue to defy or at least challenge classification as the Hobby evolves into the future. Whatever boundaries we establish, save none at all, will be pushed for at least as long as imagination and innovation continue to assert a place in the Hobby. Any fuzziness and inconvenience that arise should be considered far better than the alternative!