Donut hole

I started collecting cards in 1987. Since  my primary purchases were Topps rack packs at Toys R Us I accumulated a lot* of both 1987 and 1986 Topps that year. I also acquired a bunch of repacks—also from Toys R Us—which featured “old” cards back to 1979**

*A lot for a 2nd grader which means a couple hundred or so of each.

**While I found exactly one each of 1976, 1977, and 1978 in those packs, a single 1979 per repack was usually the oldest card.

I say “old” because for me, anything from 1979 to 1984 was old back then. Not only did they predate my being in school* but the relative rarity of the cards in how they didn’t show up en masse in the repacks and how different they looked with their multiple photos, facsimile autographs, or cartoonish caps made them feel distinct.

*Apologies if this post makes anyone feel super old.

1985 though was different. Especially the Topps cards. They showed up more frequently in the repacks and felt similar enough to 1986 to end up being something I never really paid attention to. Not old or different enough to be interesting. Not new enough to be relevant. I accumulated a couple Giants but outside of those I didn’t pay any attention to that set until after I found my first card shop and discovered that there was a super-desirable (especially in the Bay Area) Mark McGwire card inside.

Even with the McGwire knowledge—which I remember feeling at the time as sort of a betrayal of the concept of a rookie card—I never got to know more about the set. I had other newer cards to acquire and shiny things like Score and Upper Deck to covet. All of which left me in an interesting place where to-date, 1985 Topps remained a complete donut hole in my card knowledge.

I neither educated myself about it like I did with older sets nor is it one I had any actual experience with. I did however get a big batch of it last summer and as a result have had a chance to really take a good look at it for the first time in my life.

Looking through that pile was a bit uncanny since, while I’ve mentally treated it as a border between classic cards and junk wax, in many ways it actually functions as this border. Yes I know people draw lines at 1981 and 1974* but the more I looked at the 1985 cards the more I could see the beginnings of what I expected to see in the cards of my youth in a set which wasn’t quite there yet.

*When I periodized this blog I chose to avoid naming eras and just drew lines in places that felt like logical breaks and listed them as date ranges.

1985 is one of those basic Topps designs that so many people wish Topps would return to. White borders. Simple solid colors. A good-sized team set for each team. It dropped the multiplayer cards that marked so many of the previous releases but it still feels like a classic Topps set that serves as both a yearbook of the previous season as well as a marker of the current season.

The photography is mostly the same as previous sets. Action is increasingly creeping in but there’s nothing really fantastic yet. Catchers are clearly leading the way here but there’s nothing like the amazing action shots which we’d see in the coming years. It does however feel that a lot of the action is cropped a bit tighter than in previous seasons. Feet and legs are frequently out of the frame and there’s an overall emphasis on getting closer to the scene.

There are also a few wonderfully casual images which would fit in perfectly with the variety of 1990s photography. We’ve had candid shots ever since 1970 but they really became a staple of 1990s sets.

At a more technical level there’s an increased reliance on fill flash in the posed photos. Skies are underexposed and there’s more contrast between the player and the background. I’ve seen this described as something distinct to 1985 and 1986’s look but the technique itself is something that is used with increasing sophistication as we get into the 1990s as well.*

*This probably helped by cameras becoming much much smarter in the late 1980s. For example the Nikon F4 was released in 1988 and was a game changer in both autofocus and flash photography.

The last part that presages where the hobby would go comes from the multiple subsets. We’re not talking about things like the Record Breakers and All Stars which have been around a long time. Instead we’re looking at the USA Olympics cards and the #1 Draft Pick cards.

These wouldn’t just return in refined forms in later years but would come to dominate the entire hobby. The concept of printing “rookie” cards of guys way before they debuted in Major League Baseball became the tail that wags the dog as Topps, and everyone else, tried to catch the same lightning in a bottle that they caught with the Mark McGwire.

Team USA cards in 1988, 1991, 1992, 1993. #1 Draft pick cards for all teams starting in 1989. Bowman turning into the pre-rookie card set. The flood of non-40-man-roster players in card sets throughout the 1990s and into he 2000s such that MLBPA had to be explicit about what was allowed in its 2006 license. 1985 Topps is patient zero for all of this.

Unoriginality as the norm

Meet the new set, same as the old set. Or something like that.

You know what I’m talking about, right? Or maybe not. You were thinking this was about the new Topps cards? 😊 Don’t worry, we cover that too, courtesy of my friends Nick and Jeff.

Me? I’m here to channel my outrage at a card producer no longer even around to defend itself. Yes, I’m talking to you, Gum, Inc., as if your very name itself wasn’t a dead giveaway that originality would never be your hallmark. Shall we review the evidence?

PART ONE: 1939-41

The first Gum, Inc., baseball sets were released from 1939-41 under the Play Ball name. Here is the Joe DiMaggio card from the 1939 set.

1939 Play Ball Joe DiMaggio

While some collectors might refer to the card design as “classic” or “uncluttered,” let’s call it what it is: BORING!!! Just a black and white image on a nearly square piece of cardboard. No name, no team, no logo, no anything. This Play Ball brand will be lucky to last three years, give or take!

Gum, Inc., tried a little harder the following year, so I’ll give credit where due.

1940 Play Ball “Charley” Gehringer

Though many collectors are lukewarm on the 1940 Play Ball set, I rather like the working of baseball equipment into the design around the nameplate, and I absolutely applaud the level of effort taken to toggle the images of nearly every repeated player from 1939. Ah, and who doesn’t love nearly every first name in quotes?

Of course, just when we thought the good folks at Gum, Inc., were poised to innovate, they go full-on MP & Company on us.

1941 Play Ball “Charley” Gehringer

Yes, it’s a gorgeous card, but really?? All you did was color in the pictures from the year before? LAZY!!

True, conventional wisdom has it that U.S. entry into World War II is what brought Gum, Inc., baseball offerings to a standstill, but all geopolitics aside could they really have lasted another year with such a tepid creative team? I mean, gosh, what was next in line? Returning the 1941 images to black and white? (TCMA imagined a different path for 1942 Play Ball but unoriginality remained a key feature.)

PART TWO: 1948-52

When Gum, Inc., resumed baseball card production in 1948, the world was a very different place, and change can of course be a scary thing for most. Fortunately, card collectors could take comfort in the fact that time had not simply stood still at Gum, Inc., but actually gone backward. For its 1948 Bowman card design, the Gum, Inc., team–either intentionally or unintentionally–brought back 1939 Play Ball.

1948 Bowman Stan Musial

About the only discernible change to the cards was the use of about a third less cardboard, best shown by turning the 1948 card sideways.

The 1949 cards shrunk even more while “innovating” on the 1939/1948 design in swapping a solid color background into each photograph and colorizing certain elements of the player image.

1949 Bowman Ralph Kiner

In later series, Gum, Inc., even went a little crazy and added names.

1949 Bowman Boris “Babe” Martin

Teaming up with the George Moll advertising agency, the 1950 Bowman cards truly did something new and beautiful. I particularly enjoy the detailed baseball stadium scenes on some of the cards, complete with fans or sometimes “fan” as the case may be.

1950 Bowman Duke Snider

With no way to top the 1950 offering, Bowman adopted a “crop, don’t top” approach in 1951 for more than half of the players included in both sets.

1951 Bowman Duke Snider

Just for fun, here is a trio of 1951 Bowman cards superimposed on the same trio from 1950.

The 1952 cards continued the use of full color artwork and included my personal pick for the most gorgeous card of the entire decade. Facsimile autographs replaced the more pedestrian nameplate of the year before. If you couldn’t get an autographed photo of your favorite player, his 1952 Bowman card would have proved a worthy stand-in.

1952 Bowman Roy Campanella

Unfortunately for Bowman, much like the Campanella card’s background, the writing was on the wall.

PART THREE: 1953-1955

While Topps had some baseball cards of their own in 1951 and even 1948, Topps really got serious in 1952 and ready to compete in earnest for baseball card supremacy. While the Bowman cards had their merits in 1952, the Topps cards were much larger, featured lifelike player images, and even included stats on the back.

How could Bowman possibly compete?

“Hey, guys. I have an idea. How about we make our 1953 cards were larger, feature lifelike player images, and even include stats on the back? Am I a genius or what?!”

The result was that in 1953 the Bowman cards looked even more like Topps than Topps did!

While Bowman played catchup in 1953, Topps took their cards in other directions, going with a rectangular nameplate in the corner and a trivia question on the back…

So naturally Bowman did the same in 1954.

Still, the Bowman design proved no match for the near perfect, three-bordered beast Topps put out that year.

Rather than try to imitate Topps or evolve an older offering of their own, Bowman produced their most original (though perhaps imitative) set of cards to date, and this baseball card revolution evidently would be televised.

Creativity at last, emphasis on last. Just as Bowman’s baseball card minds were beginning to think outside the box, the company was gobbled up by a manufacturer of…wait for it…boxes!

But wait, what’s this? Accounts of Bowman’s demise may have been greatly exaggerated? A shocking claim but then again the cardboard doesn’t lie.

1956 Topps, a collector favorite to be sure, but that landscape format…the reused player photos…another year of background action scenes…the facsimile signatures…undoubtedly the least original cards produced by Topps thus far, or to put it another way “the most Bowman!”

Gum, Inc., is dead. Long live Gum, Inc.

EPILOGUE

All kidding aside, Bowman really did make some comebacks in the Hobby after 1955. Topps brought the brand back to life in 1989 with a set that was at once reminiscent of the much acclaimed 1953 Bowman series and wholly despised.

Even today, Topps continues to pump out sets under the Bowman name with the 2021 Bowman’s Best offering even spawning the “Wandergate” controversy.

Certainly, hockey collectors of a certain age will recognize the strong influence of the 1955 Bowman baseball design on the 1966-67 Topps Hockey set.

Finally, readers may be aware of the 1956 Bowman baseball prototypes, which among other things clearly influenced the 1958 Hires Root Beer cards and perhaps even 1957 Topps football and 1960 Topps baseball.

As Faulkner wrote, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Junk Wax Rainbows

I’ve had a running joke on Twitter about how “when I was your age rainbows looked like this” where “this” refers to the multiple different colors of the late 80s and early 90s Donruss releases. From 1985 to 1992 Donruss released smaller—often 56-card—box sets around certain themes like Highlights, Rookies, Opening Day, All Stars, or the more-generic “Baseball’s Best.”

These sets are fun both because they’re often super-focused thematically and because they always presented a color variation on the base Donruss design. Highlights were orange in 1985 and 1986. Rookies were green from 1987–1992 except in 1991. The other themes had no consistent colors.

Occasionally players would appear in all the different sets in a year. The result of this is that you can collect something that appears similar to the modern parallel rainbow collecting where you can see what the base design looks like with different border colors. The only one of these I have in my collection is Pete Stanicek’s 1988 rainbow* but it occurred to me that it would be fun to go through and see how many guys had a proper rainbow each year.

*Yeah he’s one of my PC guys.

For the purposes of this post I’m only looking a years where there are at least three different sets available. This rules out 1985, 1991, and 1992 since 1985 only has a set of Highlights while 1991 and 1992 only have a Rookies set. I’m also not counting small sets like the Grand Slammers or any of the inserted bonus cards. Nor am I looking at sets which use a different design whether it’s the oversized Action All Stars or the close-but-not-quite 1988 All Stars.

1986

There aren’t a lot of rookies in the Highlights set but since two of the Highlights cards each year are the Rookie of the Year winners, those are the two most-likely ones to have rainbows. In 1986 both of these winners also had cards in the base Donruss set (and Worrell even had two Highlights to choose from).

I actually really like the Highlights set concept with all the monthly and yearly awards, other records broken or unique achievements reached, and Hall of Fame inductees. Is a very nice quick summary of that season of baseball and I really wish it had lasted more than just from 1985–1987.

1987

Just a single rainbow available. With four sets in 1987 I wasn’t sure there’d even be one. As it is, Kevin Seitzer is in all three box sets but for some reason doesn’t have a base Donruss card and Mark McGwire apparently wasn’t an Opening Day Starter.

It’s worth noting here that while in 1985 Donruss kept the black borders and changed the red stripe to be orange for highlights, in 1987 Donruss is doing the full border color swap.

Opening Day is one of my favorite sets of all time. The idea of having a set of just the Opening Day starting lineups is absolutely wonderful. It bookends highlights as a “state of the league in the beginning of the season” marker and is the kind of hyper-specific checklist which I’d love to see more of.

1988

In 1988 Donruss stopped making a Highlights set and switched to a larger, 336-card set called “Baseball’s Best.” This was more of a star-based set and the larger checklist combined with the looser specification meant that instead of looking for the on or two rainbows we have fifteen of them. This is more than 25% of the Rookies checklist. Heck, almost half of these guys didn’t even qualify as Rated Rookies.

1989

Like 1987, 1989 features three extra sets in the same design as the base cards. With the rainbow already existing as part of the base design it would’ve been unlikely to be able to build a real rainbow of parallels. The All Star design however did use a completely different color scheme compared to the base cards (not so much Baseball’s Best or The Rookies). Unfortunately there are no Rookies in he All Star set and so there’s no possibility for a proper rainbow.*

*It is however worth noting that every card in the Grand Slammers set this year comes in all five color options available in the base set.

1990

This is the last year where a rainbow is possible and is very much the same as 1988. Twelve of the Rookies are also in one of the two Best sets* though at least most of them are Rated this year.

*For the purposes of this post I’m combining “Best of the AL” and “Best of the NL” into one set since hey share the same color and by being league-specific have no overlap.

One of the fun things about looking at the Donruss rainbows is how they reveal different directions the base design could have gone. A lot of base Donruss designs are very much things you either love or hate and the color choice is a huge part of that reaction. I’m not going to pass judgement on any of the options other than to say that as a Giants fan I prefer the orange versions of 1986 and 1988.

Topps in 1972, Part 8

Editor’s note: SABR Baseball Cards welcomes new member F. Scott Wilkinson with the eighth of his ten articles on the 1972 Topps set, now approaching its 50th anniversary. Click here to start the series from the beginning. The current post shares some of the stories and numbers behind the players on the cards.

I have explained many times that I am, by Profession, a Gambler—not some jock-sniffing nerd or a hired human squawk-box with the brain of a one-cell animal. No. That would be your average career sportswriter—and, more specifically, a full-time Baseball writer.”

—Hunter S. Thompson

While curating the 1972 set to completion I was led through a wonderful treasure trail of baseball lore as familiar, long-forgotten, esoteric, and heretofore unknown and infinitely interesting historical tidbits and statistics bubbled up via innumerable online rabbit hole searches…

“Stormin’ Norman” Cash (#150) never wore a batting helmet during his career and admitted years later to using a corked bat when he won the American League batting title in 1961 with an average of .361 (1961 was also the year when Roger Maris hit his 61 home runs. Hmm.). In 1960 he became the first American League player to not hit into a double play all season. In 1961 he became the first Detroit Tiger to hit a home run out of Tiger Stadium. In 1973 he took a table leg to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning of Nolan Ryan’s second no-hitter, but was not permitted to use it. He popped out using a bat instead.

Ron Fairly “Obvious” (as he was known to some Seattle Mariners fans when he provided color commentary for them from 1993-2006), (#405), holds the record for most career home runs (215) of any major league player who never reached 20 home runs in a season. (He hit 19 once—at 38 years old—and 17 twice.) I loved listening to Ron – he really knew the game because he’d seen so much during his 48 years in baseball (including 21 years as a player and three World Series titles with the Dodgers in 1959, 1963, and 1965) but was still prone to saying things like “You’ve gotta score runs if you wanna win ball games”.

Similarly, Milt “Gimpy” Pappas (#208) was the first pitcher to reach 200 wins (209 total) without ever winning 20 games in a season (later joined by Jerry Reuss (#775), Frank Tanana, Charlie Hough (#198), Dennis Martinez, Chuck Finley, Kenny Rogers and Tim Wakefield). On September 2, 1972, Pappas famously lost his bid for a perfect game when he walked pinch-hitter and 27th batter Larry Stahl (#782) on a full count. Legend has it that the pitch Milt threw on the 1-2 count should have been called strike three. Then he threw two sliders just off the plate and didn’t get a break from umpire Bruce Froemming, even with Stahl’s iffy check swing on ball four. Pappas was happy to have the no-hitter but never forgave Froemming for the call(s).

Dock “Peanut” Ellis (#179), ever the free spirit, did Pappas one better by allegedly tossing a no-hitter on June 12, 1970 while under the influence of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and Benzedrine. Another time (May 1, 1974), Ellis became so frustrated with static and intimidation from the Big Red Machine that he set out to bean every Cincinnati batter he faced. He hit Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Dan Driessen in succession then (unintentionally) walked a ball-dodging Tony Perez to force in a run. After throwing two pitches at Johnny Bench’s head he was pulled by manager Danny Murtaugh with a line of 0 IP, 0 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 0 K. On the plus side, Dock got the start on September 1, 1971 when the Pirates fielded MLB’s first ever all-Black and Latino starting lineup and beat the Phillies 10-7. The Pittsburgh batting order for that long overdue contest: Rennie Stennett (2B), Gene Clines (CF), Roberto Clemente (RF), Willie Stargell (LF), Manny Sanguillen (C), Dave Cash (3B), Al Oliver (1B), Jackie Hernandez (SS), Dock Ellis (P). 

Editor’s Note: All nine players can be found on the Pirates in the 1972 Topps set.

“Beltin’ Bill” Melton (#183) was the first White Sox player to ever lead the American League in home runs (with 33 in 1971) but he missed most of the 1972 season after herniating two discs in his back while trying to break his son’s fall from their garage roof. Familial love triumphed, but Melton’s power was permanently sapped and he never again hit more than 21 homers in a season. Always a liability at third base his play there declined even further and before long he was Harry Caray’s whipping boy. Poor Bill retired at 32 after his 1977 season playing for Cleveland when he had 154 plate appearances and 0 home runs.

Relief pitcher Joe Hoerner (#482) sported a 2.99 ERA over 14 years and held all-stars Bobby Bonds (#711), Johnny Callison (#364), Tommy Harper (#455), Ed Kranepool (#181), Joe Pepitone (#303) and Bill White to a collective batting average of .070 (5 for 71). Even better, he held Hall of Famers Hank Aaron (#299), Ernie Banks (#192), Reggie Jackson (#435), Willie Mays (#49), Bill Mazeroski (#760), Tony Perez (#80), Willie Stargell (#447) and Carl Yastrzemski (#37) to a collective batting average of .101 (9-89).

Jim Grant (#111) was dubbed “Mudcat” by a coach in the minor leagues and never really liked the nickname, but he eventually came to embrace it. He then went on to become the first Black pitcher in the American League to win 20 games in a season (going 21–7 for the Twins in 1965) and later in life wrote a book, “The Black Aces: Baseball’s Only African-American Twenty-Game Winners”, about all 12 (now 15) of the Black 20-game winners in the MLB history. Mr. Grant won the 1972 Mutton Chop Award too.

Jim “Cakes” Palmer (#270) won 20 or more games eight times, never gave up a grand slam or back-to-back home runs, is the only pitcher in major league history to win a World Series game in three decades (1960s, 1970s, and 1980s), was the winningest pitcher of the 1970s (186), is the only man to have played in all six of the Baltimore Orioles’ World Series appearances (1966, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1979, 1983), and has the fourth lowest ERA (2.856) of all starting pitchers who began their career after the advent of the live ball era in 1920 (I’m counting on Clayton Kershaw continuing to stay near his current career ERA of 2.49, otherwise Palmer would be third). Not too shabby!

Bob “Gibby” Gibson (#130) had ring fingers longer than middle fingers, which must have given his grip and pitches something extra. He was so dominant in 1968, with an unheard-of-for-the-live ball-era ERA of 1.12 that MLB lowered the pitching mound five inches (from 15” to 10”) after the “Season of the Pitcher” was over. “Hoot” was so respected (feared?) that Hank Aaron (#299) had this classic bit of advice for Dusty Baker (#764) when Baker was a rookie in ’68:

Don’t dig in against Bob Gibson, he’ll knock you down. He’d knock down his own grandmother if she dared to challenge him. Don’t stare at him, don’t smile at him, don’t talk to him. He doesn’t like it. If you happen to hit a home run, don’t run too slow, don’t run too fast. If you happen to want to celebrate, get in the tunnel first. And if he hits you, don’t charge the mound, because he’s a Gold Glove boxer. I’m like, “Damn, what about my 17-game hitting streak?” That was the night it ended.

If you look deeply enough into every one of these historical snapshots you come to appreciate the oddball one-off players with fleeting one or two year big league careers – guys like Al Severinsen (#274), Stan Swanson (#331), and Ron Cook (#339). They even look like they were in over their heads.

You begin to realize how many players had short, undistinguished pro careers or spent most of their time in the minor leagues, even though they had to have been damn good baseball players. Here are some other examples:

  • Screwball pitcher Aurelio Monteagudo (#458) began his career in 1961 and by 1972 had pitched 101 innings in MLB, with a record of 1-5 and ERA of 5.35. He actually never played for the Brewers or anywhere in MLB after the Angels in 1973, but soldiered on in AAA (Mexico and Edmonton (PCL) until 1983.

  • Billy Wilson (#587) began his career in the minors in 1962 at age 19 and spent seven years there before breaking in with the Phillies in 1969. By 1972 he had pitched 179 innings in the big leagues and had a 7-11 record.

  • Mike Ferraro (#613) began his minor league career in 1962 at age 17 and by 1972 had a MLB resume of 119 at bats, a .160 batting average and 0 homers. He was done at age 28 after spending 1973 season in Syracuse (IL) and Tacoma (PCL).

  • Paul Doyle (#629) debuted for the Braves as a 29-year-old rookie in 1969 after beginning his career in the Detroit Tigers’ farm system in 1959. It took him ten years and five different organizations to realize his big-league dreams, but 1972 was his last year in the league. This card has Paul looking like he knows he’s going to get the hook.

  • Eventual Hall-of Fame manager Tony LaRussa (#451) began playing minor league ball in 1962 and by the start of the 1972 season had accumulated 176 major league at bats, a .199 average and 0 home runs. After one pinch-running appearance in 1973  (where he scored on a bases loaded walk-off walk!), his career as a major league player was over.

There were also scads of players who had longer and more productive careers…somewhat pedestrian, but all with enough of a skillset to give them lasting value – guys like Vic Davalillo (#785), Ted Kubiak (#23), Darrel Chaney (#136), Merv Rettenmund (#235), Manny Mota (#596) and Rudy May (#656).

Some of these guys were darn good players. Davalillo made an all-star team (1965), earned two World Series rings (’71 Pirates and ’74 Athletics) and won a gold glove (1964). Manny Mota, an all-star in 1973, was a pinch-hitting legend, with a career batting average of .304, though he ‘only’ managed 1149 hits over a 20-year career. Rudy May earned an ERA title in 1980 (2.46) and won 152 games during his 16-year career…while also losing 156. Rettenmund batted .318 in 1971—third highest in the AL that year. Kubiak spun his Mendoza Line utility infielder role into three World Series titles with the Oakland A’s (1972-74). Chaney only had a .217 career average over 2113 at bats, but hung in there for 11 years and got his World Series ring with the Reds in 1975.

These guys played full time for only for a few years, if that—otherwise they stuck around, riding the pine, waiting for another chance as the years trickled by. And there were so many other players in the same position, hanging in there for their next at-bat, start, relief call, mop-up job, pinch-running shot – anything – for a chance to make an impression.

Other players like George Culver (#732), Moe Drabowsky (#627), and Jay Johnstone (#233) were there almost more for their humor and hijinks than their baseball ability. Apparently there’s always been a place for funny in the big leagues.

To wit, Culver had a a mediocre nine year career (48-49 and a 3.62 ERA) and Drabowsky wasn’t much better over 17 years, finishing with a record of 88–105, 54 saves, and a 3.71 ERA. Johnstone stuck around the majors for a full 20 years, platooning in the outfield and pinch-hitting, managing 1254 hits and a .267 career average. Though known more for their antics than their play, Johnstone did have some shining postseason moments with the Dodgers, as did Drabowsky with the Orioles, and they each earned two World Series rings.

So what did these jokers actually do for kicks? Well…apparently Drabowsky had a penchant for making prank calls from bullpen phones and pulling startling stunts with props like snakes and fireworks – you can imagine. Maybe his finest achievement was a “hot foot” he gave Commissioner Bowie Kuhn during the Orioles’ 1970 World Series celebration. Now that takes chutzpah. Tellingly, in his legendary book “Ball Four,” Jim Bouton wrote “There is no bigger flake in organized baseball than Drabowsky”.

Johnstone was a fellow hot foot enthusiast who pulled gags like placing a soggy brownie in Steve Garvey’s first base mitt, cutting the crotch out of Rick Sutcliffe’s underwear, locking manager Tommy Lasorda in his office during spring training, and nailing teammates’ spikes to the floor. Sounds like fun!

Meanwhile, Tommy John (#264) had this to say about Culver: “George didn’t get into a lot of games, but he held a vital role as team comic. His antics kept guys loose and kept us in a good frame of mind. When they [the 1973 Dodgers] released him…it upset the chemistry of the team. We couldn’t believe it. It was like cutting out our heart”.

Behold Johnstone and Culver doing their best to seem serious…but doesn’t it look like Moe D. is just itching to give someone a hot foot?

As interesting as the also-rans are, we mostly end up studying and thinking about the heroics of players who made the biggest impressions during their careers—the all-time greats. One, Gaylord Perry (#285) was ‘only’ 134–109 when he entered the 1972 season at 33 years of age. How did he win another 180 games and make the MLB Hall of Fame? Well, he started by posting his career high wins total in 1972, going 24–16 and winning the first of two Cy Young awards, then he kept on tossing Vaseline balls until he was 44 years old.

Another was Willie “Stretch” McCovey (#280), who in his prime was called “the scariest hitter in baseball” by none other than Bob Gibson. McCovey retired as the second most prolific left-handed home run hitter of all time (tied with Ted Williams with 521, second to Babe Ruth) and held the record for intentional walks in a season (45) for 33 years after breaking the record by a full 12 walks. “Willie Mac” is one of 31 major leaguers who played in four decades (1959–80), but he never quite got over the fact that second baseman Bobby Richardson snared his frozen rope line drive to end the 1962 World Series. On the occasion of his being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988, when asked how he would like to be remembered, McCovey replied: “As the guy who hit the ball over Bobby Richardson’s head in the seventh game.”

The very best players just never stop burning to win, eh?


Part of an ode to baseball and the early 1970s in general, and to the Topps Company and the special 1972 set specifically. Thanks for the memories, Topps—both the old ones and the new ones. Apologies for the pronounced wordiness, but the 50th anniversary of the set warrants indulgence.

Dedicated to my sports-loving mom, Caroline B. Wilkinson, who never threw my cards away, and to all the players from the 1972 Topps Series, especially those who passed during the writing of this article: Henry Aaron, Dick Allen, Ed Armbrister, Glenn Beckert, Larry Biittner, Hal Breeden, Lou Brock, Oscar Brown, Horace Clark, Gene Clines, Billy Conigliaro, Chuck Dobson, Paul Doyle, Ed Farmer, Ray Fosse, Bill Freehan, Bob Gibson, Jim Grant, Grant Jackson, Bart Johnson, Jerry Johnson, Jay Johnstone, Al Kaline, Lew Krausse, Angel Mangual, Mike Marshall, Denis Menke, Lindy McDaniel, Roger Moret, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, Bob Oliver, Don Pavletich, Ron Perranoski, Juan Pizzaro, J. R. Richard, Mike Ryan, Tom Seaver, Richie Scheinblum, Rennie Stennett, Bill Sudakis, Don Sutton, Tony Taylor, Dick Tidrow, Bill Virdon, Bob Watson, Stan Williams, and Jim Wynn.

Special thanks to Baseball-Almanac.com, Baseballhall.org, Baseball-Reference.com, and Wikipedia.com for kindly compiling and sharing their vast treasure troves of data.

Extra special thanks to Jason Schwartz and Nick Vossbrink  for their timely encouragement and warm welcome into the SABR community.

Much gratitude to prince of a man Mr. Larry Pauley, who gave this project direction when there was none.

In which I get insulted by Topps Heritage

With cards only just making their way into retail stores I haven’t been able to procure even a blaster and so I’ve been unable to keep up with my annual dive into the printing weeds. Given the simplicity of the 1973 design I wasn’t expecting to find enough for a post anyway. No obvious things to improve upon or change like 1969/2018’s photography or 1970/2019’s grey borders. No interesting reveals like 1971/2020’s black borders. And no impending trainwrecks like 1972/2021’s typesetting.

I was mainly hoping for clever homages of the best things that 1973 did such as the Jack Brohamer and Mark Belanger pair of cards. I’m hoping the Twitter hive mind will turn up something like that here.

The only cards I got were my Giants team set courtesy of  case break. At first I was extremely satisfied since at an individual card level things looked mostly nice. Some of the usual Heritage photo smoothing and fake trapping shenanigans* but that’s standard with the territory.

*I haven’t really posted about these since I don’t know how to describe them but in short whatever photo processing Topps is doing to make things look older has bothered me for years.

Then I looked closer and realized that of fifteen cards in the base team set, twelve not only use the same background they in fact use the exact same background. This isn’t wholly unexpected since many teams have been posting photo day shots on Twitter than show players posed in front of a green screen. But I also expected a bit more effort from Topps instead of just pasting each player in front of a single stock background image.

I’ve gone ahead and turned my twelve Giants cards into an animated gif that shows how the backgrounds are identical, right down to the exact same cloud formations. I get it. Lead times are short. Creating a complete set is a lot of work. But still this level of templating is the kind of green screen photos that every family attraction used to ambush us with immediately after we entered the front gates.

It offends me professionally as a designer and it disappoints me personally as someone who loves baseball cards. It also shows that Topps is dialing up the worst qualities of their glory days. As much as I like those cards it’s a sad truth that many of them have the same handful of poses in front of the same kind of stadium background.

The difference though is that even with the sameness of location those cards have life to them. There are random dudes in the background. Players are bundled up against the elements. The photographer moves around the stadium so we end up with multiple views of the same place. Heritage instead is completely sterile and once you see how sterile it is you find yourself wishing for the awkwardness of the 1973 George Scott no matter how bad the compositing is.

Error cards

Sometime last year I picked up the last card I needed for my 1980 Topps set, placed it into its nine-pocket, and then took my well earned victory flip through the binder of majestic completed pages…only to find a page with a missing card. Dewey defeats Truman. Defeat from the jaws of victory. Bird steals the inbound pass.

Completing a set without actually completing a set is just one of the many cardboard errors I’ve made lately. Here are three more.

My largest player collection (by about 600) is the 700+ playing era cards I have of Dwight Gooden. For whatever reason, I decided a couple years back that the card at the very top of my Dr. K want list was Doc’s 1986 Meadow Gold milk carton “sketch” card.

I’d seen the card on eBay in the $10 range for a while, but you don’t amass 700+ cards of a guy by paying $10 each. At last one turned up for more like $3 and I couldn’t hit “Buy It Now” fast enough. When the card arrived I was genuinely excited to add it to my binder, only to find…

…I already had the card!

Just two weeks later, I “doubled” down by adding a card I thought I needed for my 1972 Fleer Laughlin Famous Feats set.

And again…

On the bright side, it’s not like these cards cost me real money. I’d never make the same mistake adding this Kaiser Wilhelm to my T206 Brooklyn team set, right?

Oops. Think again.

Of course what Hobbyist hasn’t accidentally added the occasional double or two…or three? Probably most, but how many could pull off the feat three times in one month?

In the corporate world, bosses would be calling for a root cause analysis and demanding corrective action. Am I simply getting old? Do I have too many different collections going? Have I gotten lazy at updating my want lists? In truth, probably yes to all three.

As a kid, and I think this was true of most die-hard collectors, I could open a pack and instantly know which cards I needed and which were doubles. I could do the same at card shows, looking through a dealer binder or display case. When it came to cards I had total recall. Evidently such cardboard lucidity is long gone, and it’s probably not a stretch to assume the same degradations have spread to various areas of adulting.

On the other hand, it’s also true that my purchases had much more riding on them back then. For one thing, every nickel, dime, and quarter were precious. Spending $0.50 on a 1963 Topps Ernie Banks (ah, the good old days!) when your entire card show budget (i.e., life savings) was $3.80 “borrowed” from various sources around the house was high finance. Add to that baseball cards being the only thing I thought or cared about, and it makes sense that I always batted a thousand.

An eternal optimist, it’s just not my nature to brand my “triple double” as what some collectors might bill a #HobbyFail. Rather, I’ll take solace in the adage errare humanum est and remember that it’s not the mistakes we make but how we respond to them that defines our true character. As a kid I would have sulked for weeks having committed even one of these blunders. Today I can laugh (and write) about them. Call these senior moments if you will, but isn’t”growing up” just a bit more pleasing to the ear?

Now does anyone wanna trade me a T205 Wilhelm for a T206?

UPDATE: The Wilhelm is no longer available for trade! About an hour after publishing this post the seller contacted me to let me know he’d accidentally sold it to someone else already. I guess I’m not the only one losing track of his cards these days! 😊

Death and Taxes and Baseball Card Litigation [Part II, 1965-1988]

Author’s Note: This is the second in a multi-part series [Part I] that will explore the legal backstories that have shaped (and continue to shape) the baseball card industry. Once considered mere ephemera used to induce children to buy penny confections (or cigarettes!), the industry has been inundated by costly legal battles waged in the name of baseball card supremacy.

Although Fleer had hoped to wield the Federal Trade Commission as its cudgel, the commission ultimately found that Topps’ business practices did not constitute an unlawful monopoly and the matter was dismissed in Topps’ favor on April 30, 1965. Undaunted, Fleer renewed its efforts in 1966 to sign players at spring training camps and issued its “All Star Match Baseball” set, which featured a 66-piece puzzle of Dodgers ace Don Drysdale on the reverse side of the game cards. After this set was issued (and perhaps a result of disappointing sales) Fleer’s resolve faded, culminating in the sale of its entire player contract portfolio—some 3000 players—to Topps later that year for $395,000 (approximately $3.4 million in today’s dollars).

1967 Topps Bill Skowron (#357), Bill Denehy/Tom Seaver (#581), Bob Gibson (#210)

Having dispatched its closest competitor, Topps was poised for sustained dominance in the baseball card market. Indeed, the 1967 set was its largest to date with a checklist comprising 609 bright, colorful cards. Unfortunately for Topps, its newly bought peace would be fleeting. The next assault, however, would be waged not by rival card manufacturers, but by new adversaries—the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) and Major League Baseball (MLB).

Frank Scott and the Proto-MLBPA

A “short, feisty, impeccably dressed man,” Frank Scott was road secretary for the New York Yankees from 1947 through 1950 and developed close relationships with Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and Mickey Mantle. In exchange for a 10% commission, Scott began to represent those players for off-field income opportunities—namely personal appearances and product endorsements—and eventually developed a client list of over 90 baseball stars including Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, and Robin Roberts. At his peak, Scott was earning $250,000 per year (approximately $2.4 million today) pursuing endorsement deals. One of those deals included landing Mickey Mantle a $1500 payment from Bowman for rights to a photo of Mantle blowing a bubble (although no such card was ever issued).

The Sporting News, September 23, 1953

In May 1959, Scott was named director of the nascent MLBPA—an organization originally created to help ensure the players’ player pension fund was being adequately funded. He continued his player representation business and staffed a provisional MLBPA office at a New York City hotel. Although he had been paid $1000 ($9600 today) a year by Topps for his assistance getting players to sign baseball card contracts, Scott ceased all relationships with Topps after becoming head of the MLBPA.

Considered “too smart to meddle in the players’ salary debates,” Scott avoided contract negotiations between his clients and their respective ballclubs. Similarly, the MLBPA was not yet recognized as a union under Scott’s leadership and did not engage in collective bargaining with MLB on behalf of the players. The direction of the MLBPA, however, changed drastically in late 1965 as a search was undertaken to find a full-time director and establish a permanent office.

The Marvin Miller Experience

Though not their first choice, the stars aligned when the players’ landed Marvin Miller, then chief economist for the United Steelworkers. Under Miller’s leadership, the MLBPA saw unprecedented progress for players’ rights and eventually led to his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in December 2019.

2015 Topps Heritage (#NF-9)

Miller’s nomination for Executive Director was ratified by a player vote on April 11, 1966. He was given a two-and-a-half-year contract starting July 1, at $50,000 per year (approximately $430,000 today), plus a $20,000 expense budget. In need of quick revenue to fund association operations, Miller prioritized a group licensing program. With Frank Scott’s help, the MLBPA first inked a deal with Coca-Cola to print player photos on the underside of bottlecaps. The team owners demanded that Coca-Cola pay separately to use of their club logos. Coca-Cola refused, however, so the bottlecaps were printed with blank hats.

At the time Miller took the helm, the players were still being paid $125 per year by Topps to use their photographs, the amount unchanged for over a decade. Miller met with Topps’ president Joel Shorin in the fall of 1966 looking to renegotiate. Shorin was dismissive of the ballplayers’ leverage as he quipped, “I don’t see your muscle.” Miller, however, was ready to play hardball with Topps:

“In early 1967 Miller suggested to the players that they stop renewing their individual Topps contracts and boycott Topps photographers. This was the only way, Miller advised, that they could get Topps to deal with them. Although the action was voluntary, Topps was able to take no more than a handful of photos during the 1967 season, and, with the dispute unresolved, none at all in 1968.”   

(Mark Armour, SABR Baseball Cards)

Around this same time, the baseball club owners established Major League Properties, Inc. looking to monetize the use of their logos depicted in the photos taken of the ballplayers. After initially refusing to engage with the owners for these rights, Topps was warned that future player photos should be taken in “street clothes, or in pajamas or bathing trunks.” Accordingly, uncertainty created by the demands made by the club owners and the MLBPA were the main reason hatless, underbrim, and duplicative photos proliferated Topps’ offerings the second half of the 1960s.

The players’ boycott convinced Topps to pursue further talks with the MLBPA in early 1968. Topps’ opening volley was no olive branch, however. At a meeting on April 23, Shorin presented Miller with a legal opinion stating that the MLBPA’s group licensing program violated antitrust laws. The MLBPA responded with an opinion that Topps’ contracts with the players violated antitrust laws. (Ironically, both Topps and the MLBPA would soon have to defend a lawsuit that alleged that they conspired together to violate antitrust laws.)

Fleer (Briefly) Back in the Mix

In a move designed to enhance the MLBPA’s bargaining position with Topps, Miller proposed giving Fleer exclusive rights, beginning in 1973, to sell baseball cards with gum for up to 80% of the MLB player pool—in exchange for $600,000. Alternatively, the MLBPA offered Fleer immediate rights for all players sold with a product other than gum. Fleer rejected both offers, claiming it was only interested in cards sold with gum, and that 1973 was simply too long to wait.

Detente

Despite the hostile start to their renegotiations, Topps and the MLBPA were able to reach an accord on November 19, 1968 that doubled the player’s annual payment to $250. More importantly, Topps agreed to pay royalties on its annual baseball card sales revenue, resulting in $320,000 (approximately $2.5 million today) paid to the MLBPA in the first year of the deal alone. The deal also allowed the MLBPA to grant a license for any products that were at least 5” x 7” and sold for 25 cents, although Topps reserved the right of first refusal as to any such proposal.

The MLBPA issued numerous trading card licenses during the 1968-1974 period to companies like Beatrice Foods, ITT Continental Baking, Kellogg’s, Pro Star, Inc., Madaras, Inc., Pasco, Inc., and Charles Linnett Associates—several of which were granted over Topps’ objection. In 1969 the MLBPA granted Sports Promotions, Inc., a license to market baseball cards “with cheap novelty rings, iron-on patches, and similar novelties so long as the value of the novelty represented half of the total retail value.” Topps complained to the MLBPA that their rights had been infringed when they learned of the agreement. Topps also objected to Kellogg’s selling baseball cards alone through the mail in 1974. Officially licensed by the MLBPA, Kellogg’s sold sets 54 baseball cards for $1.50, plus a box-top from box of cereal (that typically cost 60 cents). The MLBPA did not revoke Kellogg’s license but obtained a waiver from Topps to allow the continued license for cards sold in that fashion. (Topps could not object to the Kellogg’s cards inserted as premiums in Kellogg’s cereal boxes.)

Despite some occasional complaints to the MLBPA, several years of prosperity followed for Topps and by 1974, its sales of baseball cards and gum approached $6 million annually (approximately $34 million today). Pleased with their arrangement, the contract between Topps and the MLBPA was extended through 1981.

A Fleer in the Ointment

In 1974, Fleer’s president Donald Peck approached the MLBPA seeking approval to market 5” x 7” satin patches to be sold for 25 cents each. The proposal appeared to exploit the product size loophole granted by Topps but appears to have been bit of clever subterfuge in hindsight suggested by Fleer’s paltry $25,000 guarantee on projected sales of $1 million. Moreover, Fleer was likely aware Topps and the MLBPA routinely discussed whether proposed licenses infringed upon Topps’ rights.

Topps took the bait and advised the MLBPA that Fleer’s proposal “was probably not worthwhile.” Without explicitly asking that the license be denied, Shorin warned that the large-format satin patches proposed by Fleer would sit on store shelves and likely depress the sales of Topps’ baseball cards, along with the players’ royalties. Not surprisingly, Topps declined its right to claim the license for the satin patch product.

Miller presented both Fleer’s proposal and Topps’ criticism to the players’ executive board for consideration. Fleer’s offer was rejected unanimously because of fears “Fleer’s product would remain unsold on store shelves, prompting store owners to cut back on orders of Topps’ baseball cards.” Additionally, the executive board was skeptical of Fleer’s sales projections and inadequate guarantee. Miller suggested several changes that might secure a license for the product, but Fleer declined. By April 1975, Fleer had dropped its 5” x 7” product proposal all together.

Peck met with Joel Shorin on April 17, 1975 and threatened to file a lawsuit unless Topps granted Fleer the rights to sell “stickers, stamps, and decals depicting active major league players.” Shorin refused, so Fleer approached the MLBPA about joining in a lawsuit against Topps. The MBLPA declined.

The Monopoly Defense, Part Deux

Even though it had apparently abandoned a desire to produce baseball cards of current players by selling off its contract portfolio to Topps in 1966, Fleer kept a toe in the water by selling team logo cloth stickers with its gum from 1967 through 1972. While Curt Flood’s antitrust case captured headlines throughout the early 1970s and pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally played out their 1975 seasons without contracts in an effort to gain free agent status, Fleer pursued an antitrust case of its own in July 1975, filing a federal lawsuit against Topps and the MLBPA alleging they were co-conspirators in an illegal restraint of trade under the Sherman Act.

1970 Topps Curt Flood (#360) – Flood never played for the Phillies but appears on this card, a perfect example of the “underbrim” shot favored by Topps’ photographers.

Donald Peck claimed that “Topps’ methods had made it impossible for a competitor to bid for rights to the players’ pictures, that the players had been deprived of a chance to maximize their income,” and “the gum and candy industries had been deprived of open competition.” In its complaint, Fleer alleged that it had attempted to obtain the rights needed to produce a set of current major league baseball 5” x 7” cloth stickers as recently as 1974 and was otherwise equipped to reenter the market, but for its lack of “suitable contracts with baseball players.” 

Now united, Topps and the MLBPA vowed to vigorously defend the case, which made antitrust accusations eerily similar to those Topps had successfully defended just a decade earlier in the FTC matter. Joel Shorin remained confident that Topps “had complied with all relevant laws.” Likewise, Marvin Miller was satisfied with the Topps’ arrangement and “would not like to see it disrupted.”   

In response, Topps filed a motion to dismiss asking the court to find that Fleer was a de facto party in the FTC matter, alleging “Fleer took such an active part in the FTC hearings, and its interests were so aligned with those of the FTC complaint counsel, that it had a “full and fair opportunity . . . to present its evidence and arguments on the claim.” Because the FTC matter had already been resolved in Topps’ favor, they felt it unfair to allow Fleer another bite at the apple.

It seems reasonable to infer that Fleer had no intention of ever issuing a set of 5” x 7” satin stickers, especially when they rebuffed Miller’s attempts to restructure the deal. Most likely, Fleer’s proposal was engineered to be rejected by the MLBPA, both by its puny guarantee and bold expectation Topps would exert its influence to sink the project. By perpetuating this bluff, however, Fleer could allege the requisite intention and capacity to reenter the baseball card market necessary to prove its antitrust case.

The court found that Fleer had undertaken substantial steps to compete in the marketing of current baseball player picture cards and had sufficiently pled that the alleged conspiracy between Topps and the MLBPA prevented them from entering the market. The defendants’ motion to dismiss the case was denied on May 28, 1976; Fleer survived round one.

The Pure Card Set

In late 1974, Topps was alerted that Mike Aronstein and Sports Stars Publishing Company (SSPC) was interested in issuing cards featuring current baseball players. Topps notified the MLBPA, who issued a cease-and-desist letter to Aronstein asserting Topps’ status as the “exclusive licensee for baseball cards sold alone or together with confectionary products” of the MLBPA. Up until Fleer’s request for a license to issue its 5”x7” cloth stickers, the MLBPA had refused but one license request—Aronstein’s—because the SSPC cards conflicted with Topps’ rights to sell cards alone.

1976 SSPC cards: George Brett (#167), Steve Stone (#302), Ron Cey, back (#75)

Undeterred by Topps’ monopoly and after success with Mets and Yankees team sets and a 24-card “puzzle back” set in 1975, SSPC set its sights high for 1976, with plans to issue a massive 630-card “Pure Card Set” inspired by Aronstein’s admiration of 1953 Bowman’s clean design. SSPC partner, Bill Hongach, (former Yankees’ batboy and Renata Galasso’s husband) helped obtain the photographs. A young Keith Olbermann wrote the card backs. The issuance of the Pure Card Set in 1976 (though copyrighted 1975), however, involved a fair bit of daring.

Two of Mike Aronstein’s other partners in SSPC were attorneys who opined the company could legally issue the cards because (1) the current players were public figures and (2) SSPC was simply disseminating editorial information about each player. They believed the SSPC format (despite its dimensions corresponding precisely to those of a Topps baseball card) was not substantively different than a photograph of a player accompanying a magazine article. Regardless, Aronstein said they “waited to be clobbered by Topps” once the set was advertised for sale.  

Distribution of the Pure Card Set—printed and ready to ship as of January 21—was stopped in its tracks when Aronstein received notice that Topps had been granted a temporary restraining order. Despite Topps’ later admission it had no issue with TCMA’s minor league and reprint sets (as long as they did not contain any cards of active MLB coaches of managers under contract with Topps), the order also halted distribution of all TCMA card sets and otherwise attempted to put Aronstein’s Collector’s Quarterly magazine out of business. The SSPC operation was small (i.e., no employees) and had gone $40,000 in debt to print the Pure Card Set.  Topps, on the other hand, tallied $8 million in revenue (approximately $40 million today) on sales of 250 million baseball cards produced in 1976. 

Photos courtesy Andrew Aronstein

Eventually, Aronstein was able to reach a deal that allowed SSPC to distribute the Pure Card Set to anyone who had ordered it on or before February 20, 1976. Aronstein was thrilled—SSPC had sold some three million cards (distributed as complete or team sets), which allowed them to cover the printing costs and claim a tidy profit. The deal also permitted SSPC to produce cards of current players in sizes other than the standard 2½” x 3½” size, which led to SSPC’s creation of fully sanctioned 27-card uncut sheets that the Phillies and Yankees included in their 1978 yearbooks.             

Closing out the 1970s

In 1976, Topps and Fleer began to lose market share with their flagship hard bubblegum products (“Bazooka” and “Dubble Bubble, respectively) due to the introduction of “Bubble Yum,” a soft bubblegum product. Despite its new competition, revenue remained healthy for Topps through 1978, with total sales about $67 million (roughly $290 million today), $9.2 million of which (approximately $40 million today) originated from the sales of baseball cards. With revenue of $15.2 million in 1978 (about $66 million today), Fleer surely salivated at the opportunity to issue baseball cards as a way to close its revenue gap.

In 1978, royalty income for the MLBPA approached $1.1 million (approximately $4.7 million today). Topps’ royalty payments accounted for about $847,000 (approximately $3.65 million today) of that total. That Topps payment comprised more than 75 percent of the MLBPA’s total licensing revenue neatly explains why the MLBPA was reluctant to cross Topps.

The Bubble Bursts

Fleer’s antitrust case against Topps and the MLBPA rolled on for the better part of four years in Pennsylvania without much publicity until the defendants were dealt a massive blow on June 30, 1980. After trial on the matter, the district court issued its decision finding that Topps and the MLBPA had acted in concert to exclude Topps’ competitors and were in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act by having restrained trade in the baseball card market. Damning to be sure.

In order to arrive at its decision that Topps and the MLBPA conspired to monopolize, the court had to find a “specific subjective intent to gain an illegal degree of market control.” As a result, Fleer was entitled to monetary damages and the court was empowered to grant equitable (non-monetary) relief that could levy restrictions on Topps and the MLBPA and/or impose mandatory injunctions that would require defendants to perform specific actions. The equitable relief granted by Judge Clarence Newcomer would change the baseball card landscape forever. 

In order to calculate any monetary damages owed to Fleer, the court assumed that, absent the conspiracy to monopolize, “the MLBPA would have granted Fleer a non-confectionary license for some product” at the market price. The court, however, considered the realities of Fleer’s chances for success in the market, “Fleer has never had a great deal of success marketing trading cards of any type (Topps and Donruss are the leaders in the field), and had it obtained an expensive license, its expertise would have been greatly tested. Fleer’s distribution system is not as effective as that of Topps (Topps uses its own sales force; Fleer works through brokers and wholesalers), and Topps could have been expected to have beaten Fleer to the shelves in the spring. Finally, Topps’ product has a great deal of market acceptance among retailers and consumers.” The court admittedly could not find that “Fleer would have been the company to succeed at the endeavor,” but it at least should have had the opportunity to try.

Damage, Inc.

Generally, monetary damages must be provable in order to be recovered. Unfortunately for Fleer, the court found that trying to quantify Fleer’s losses depended on “an unacceptable amount of speculation,” especially because Fleer was “not a particularly robust company at the moment.” Its sales were roughly a fifth of those of Topps and both companies were suffering loss of market share at the hands of soft bubble gum products sold by larger competitors. Moreover, Fleer had never sold a trading card item that achieved $750,000 in sales.

Even without any conspiracy between Topps and the MLBPA, “Fleer would have faced two obstacles between it and its first dollar of profit. First, it would have had to obtain a license from the MLBPA to market a set of cards. Second, it faced the significant market power of a firmly entrenched competitor.” Because of this uncertainty, the court awarded Fleer symbolic damages of $1 (which was trebled to $3 pursuant to statute). The defendants were also ordered to reimburse Fleer its attorneys’ fees—likely hundreds of thousands of dollars incurred to pursue the protracted litigation.

More importantly, the court permanently enjoined Topps from enforcing the exclusivity clause in its player contracts and prohibited Topps from entering into any player contract that gave Topps the exclusive right to sell that player’s photograph. Wow.

The MLBPA was ordered to carefully consider any applications it received for licenses to market baseball cards and was explicitly required to enter into at least one such licensing agreement before January 1, 1981 “to market a pocket-size baseball card product, to be sold alone or in combination with a low-cost premium, in packages priced at 15 to 50 cents.” Fleer was granted right of first refusal as to any such license. The MLBPA was also cleared to grant as many similar baseball card licenses as it chose to.

Fleer and Donruss Enter the Fray

1981 Topps Bill Buckner (#625), 1981 Fleer Mark Fidrych (#462), 1981 Donruss Pete Rose (#131)

Following the court’s decision in June 1980, Fleer scrambled to assemble its 1981 set. At 660 cards, it was by far the largest set the company had ever produced. President Donald Peck was downright giddy, “I don’t know why we succeeded this time. I guess our case was just presented better. . .We’re just having a lot of fun competing in this area.” He predicted Fleer would sell less than Topps, but “more than Topps thinks.”

In 1980 the standard Topps wax pack contained 15 cards and a stick of gum for 25 cents. Topps included 15 cards and a stick of gum for its 1981 set but increased the price to 30 cents per pack. It also added “The Real One” tagline to its boxes and wrappers for the first time.

1981 Topps Wax Box

Fleer tried to outdo Topps by inserting 17 cards and a stick of gum in its 1981 wax packs, sold for 30 cents. It also included two extra packs in each wax box, promising retailers “60 cents extra profit”! Fleer’s 1981 issue was the first to market.

Donruss was an experienced player in (mostly non-sport) trading cards but had to scramble to produce a set once it was granted a license by the MLBPA in September 1980 (reaping the rewards without having to engage in expensive litigation. Although not a party, Donruss personnel was involved in the Fleer case only as witnesses).

Donruss’ president Stewart Lyman reached out to New York sportswriter Bill Madden, who was hired to write the backs for the 1981 set. Mike Aronstein was granted the exclusive right to sell complete hobby sets that year. Donruss sold its wax packs, 18 cards and a stick of gum, through its established distribution channels.

Unfortunately, the 1981 Fleer and Donruss issues were plagued by errors as they rushed to produce their sets, prompting collectors to question whether the errors were included intentionally to stimulate publicity. Fleer corrected some of its errors in its second printing, some more in its third. By June 7, Donruss was in its third printing and had made corrections to most of the errors that dogged its hastily assembled set. Lyman denied Donruss had intentionally included the error cards as a way to increase sales, “I’m embarrassed we made any errors, but I’m proud so few were made considering the timetable we had to put out the set.”

Can you spot the errors?
1981 Fleer Fernando Valenzuela (#140) and Graig Nettles (#87), 1981 Donruss Bobby Bonds (#71)

Interestingly, the district court observed that as of 1980, “no baseball cards are marketed which include statistics on stolen bases or fielding percentage, game winning hits, successful sacrifice attempts, or any number of other statistics which a competitor might choose to offer to attract baseball card purchasers.” Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Topps and Fleer both included stolen bases on their card backs in 1981.    

The Appeal

Despite having prevailed, Fleer was not fully satisfied and appealed the district court’s decision. Fleer wanted the court to bar Topps from the baseball card market for at least one season and to require Topps to deal only with the MLBPA rather than through its exclusive individual player agreements. In addition, Fleer sought reconsideration of the award of nominal damages ($3). Topps appealed as well, seeking a reversal of the court’s findings of liability, damages, and injunctive relief.

In a bit of déjà vu, the Third District Appellate Court found that the agreements in place between Topps and the MLBPA “were neither unreasonable restraints of trade. . .nor monopolization of the relevant market.” Topps had won the appeal (again). The court held that just because Topps had managed to obtain licensing agreements with the overwhelming majority of major league players “did not make the aggregation of these contracts an unlawful combination in restraint of trade.” They noted further that Fleer chose to leave the trading card market in 1966 and sold all its existing licensing agreements to Topps.

In addition, Fleer had admitted it could compete against Topps for license agreements in the minor leagues, but it would take several years before it could produce a marketable product. The court found that this argument simply “identified a characteristic of Major League Baseball, rather than an illegal restraint of trade” or “an indictment of Topps’ licensing agreements.” While a Fleer may not have been able to sign major league players already under contract to Topps, it could still compete for player licenses at the minor league level. That this might take six or seven years to bear fruit did not make Topps’ agreements anticompetitive.

An examination of licenses granted by the MLBPA for the sale of trading cards with non-confectionary goods demonstrated that the fear of decreased royalty payments did not stop the MLBPA from licensing products competitive with Topps. As a licensor, “the MLBPA is free to grant licenses to any competitor, or none at all.” Ultimately, appellate court held that Fleer had not proven any intent on the part of Topps and the MLBPA to monopolize the trading card market.

In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Fleer’s appeal, which made final the Third District’s decision.

Restitution in Delaware

No longer free to market their cards with gum, Fleer and Donruss set about to distribute their cards in 1982 with a non-confectionary premium to exploit the loophole in Topps’ exclusive rights to market cards alone or with gum, candy, or confectionaries. (Fleer did not resurrect the cookie packed with cards in 1963.) Though Topps presumably protested to the MLBPA that Fleer’s team logo stickers and Donruss’s Babe Ruth puzzle pieces were simply “sham” products tantamount to selling cards alone, the MLBPA continued to officially sanction Fleer and Donruss, presumably content with the fruits of the royalty arrangements with each.  

In May 1982, shortly after Fleer’s appellate recourse was exhausted, Topps filed a lawsuit in Delaware’s chancery court alleging Fleer was unjustly enriched by “sales of products to which Topps had the exclusive rights to manufacture and sell.” Topps sought to recover the profits Fleer realized on its $4 million in sales (approximately $12.4 million today) of 1981 cards. Fleer president Donald Peck dismissed the charges as meritless and assured that Fleer had no intentions of pulling its 1982 cards from the market. Regardless, in the course of the lawsuit Fleer acknowledged that did owe some amount of restitution but urged that disgorgement of its profits was unreasonable.   

While the Delaware case was pending, Topps filed a separate lawsuit against Fleer in the Southern District of New York on March 29, 1983 seeking to recover all of Fleer’s profits for 1982 and 1983—along with $3 million in punitive damages—claiming that Fleer’s team logo sticker was a “sham product.” This lawsuit was settled confidentially in 1985, with Fleer given consent to “continue with the baseball cards and team logo stickers, as before.”

Back in Delaware, Fleer filed a motion asking the chancery court to declare that Topps was not entitled to recover Fleer’s profits “because those profits were earned under the protection of a court order and not as the result of any illegal infringement of Topps’ exclusive contract or licensing rights.” The court denied Fleer’s motion, finding that even though Fleer had legally marketed its 1981 cards in accordance with the Pennsylvania district court’s order—once the decree was reversed by the appellate court, it was as though Fleer had infringed on Topps’ exclusive rights all along.

In 1988, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling that Fleer had issued cards in 1981 under a wrongfully issued injunction and were responsible to reimburse Topps damages equal to the “net profits received by Fleer arising out of Fleer’s use of Topps’ previously exclusive license agreements.” The matter was returned to the lower court for an accounting. It is unclear how the chancery case ultimately resolved, but it seems likely that the parties reached confidential settlement. (No newspaper articles reporting on the resolution of the case have been located and no information is available remotely from the court.)

1988 Topps Jose Cruz (#278), 1988 Fleer Edgar Martinez (#378), 1988 Gregg Jefferies (#657), 1988 Sportflics Wade Boggs (#50), 1988 Score Bo Jackson (#180)

Otherwise, the MLBPA began preparing in 1988 for a potential work stoppage in 1990 when the collective bargaining agreement with MLB expired. At the time, baseball card royalties paid into the MLBPA garnered each player roughly $18,000 per year in additional income (approximately $43,000 today). The MLBPA used those royalty payments (only $5000 of the $18,000 total was distributed to the players) to fund a war chest, which proved a savvy move when the owners implemented a 32-day lockout that delayed the start of the 1990 season.

Also in 1988, newcomer Score joined Topps, Fleer, Donruss, and Sportflics (who began producing sets in 1986) as a major set manufacturer. Deep in the throes of the junk wax era, Dr. James Beckett expected some five billion cards would be manufactured in 1988. Predictably, more industry players would mean more fighting.

To be continued…

Sources/Notes:

Websites

www.baseball-reference.com

www.retrosheet.com[JS27] [JR28] 

www.tcdb.com

www.mlbplayers.com

Cases

  • In re Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. 67 F.T.C. 744 (1965).
  • Flood v. Kuhn, 407 U.S. 258 (1972). In January 1970, Curt Flood filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of New York against the Commissioner of Baseball (Bowie Kuhn), the presidents of the two major leagues (Joe Cronin and Chub Feeney), and the 24 major league clubs after he refused an October 1969 trade from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood’s complaint alleged violations of federal antitrust laws, civil rights statutes, and the imposition of a form of peonage and involuntary servitude contrary to the Thirteenth Amendment, which had abolished slavery. Flood refused to report to the Phillies in 1970, despite a $100,000 salary offer, and sat out for the season. He appeared in 13 games for the Washington Senators in 1971 but left the club, and organized baseball, for good on April 27 unsatisfied with his performance. On June 19, 1972, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in the Flood v. Kuhn matter, holding that, in accordance with Federal Base Ball (1922), the business of baseball—including the reserve clause—was exempt from antitrust laws. No other business (i.e., vaudeville, professional boxing, National Football League) that had sought antitrust exemption in reliance on Federal Baseball had been successful. Accordingly, MLB had (has) the only legally sanctioned monopoly in the United States. Despite candidly admitting that “professional baseball is a business and it is engaged in interstate commerce,” a majority of the Supreme Court ruled against Flood, imploring any change to the law be had “by legislation and not by court decision.” 
  • Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 415 F.Supp. 176 (E.D. Pa. 1976).  With regard to the FTC matter, “Fleer’s representatives were star witnesses and, in proportion, carried the burden of making the record in this proceeding. They were in constant attendance throughout the hearing. . . In retrospect, much of the struggle for contracts with ballplayers seems to be Fleer’s private struggle with Topps . . .The Hearing Examiner is, however, of the opinion that the delegation of the Commission’s ‘adjudicative fact-finding functions’ does not embrace a policy question going to the public interest.”
  • Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 501 F.Supp. 485 (E.D. Pa. 1980). The only trading card product ever to outsell baseball cards was Wacky Packages in 1973-74. The court noted that the slab of gum weighed “4.30 grams” in 1978. Fleer had a net operating loss in 1978 and its net income (loss) was as follows: 1977—$346,621; 1976—$502,257; 1975—$720,274; 1974—($309,261); 1973—$382,354; 1972—$268,926; 1971—$148,494; 1970—($200,016). Roughly two thirds of baseball cards purchased are purchased by “heavy” buyers (i.e., those who purchase more than 200 cards per year.)  
  • Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 658 F.2d 139 (3rd Cir. 1981). The number of players included in each licensing agreement varied. Some contracts, like those with Coca-Cola and Kellogg’s covered all the players, while others included “not less than 72, and not more than 300.”
  • Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., cert. denied, 455 U.S. 1019 (1982).
  • Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. v. Fleer Corp., 547 F.Supp. 102 (D. Del. 1982).
  • Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. v. Fleer Corp., 799 F.2d 851 (2nd Cir. 1986). Fleer’s contract with the MLBPA required that the production cost of the logo sticker had to be “not less than 15 percent of the production cost of the baseball cards in a package.” No evidence was presented to show the production costs for the team logo stickers.
  • Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. 539 A.2d 1060 (Del., 1988). “Restitution serves to ‘deprive the defendant of benefits that in equity and good conscience he ought not to keep, even though he may have received those benefits honestly in the first instance, and even though the plaintiff may have suffered no demonstrable losses.’”

Articles

  • “Mickey’s Bubbles Busted by Ol’ Case,” The Sporting News, September 23, 1953: 17. Mantle was redressed by Yankees manager Casey Stengel for having the audacity to blow a bubble while playing in the outfield.
  • Dick Young, “Young Ideas,” (New York) Daily News, December 2, 1967: C26.
  • Richard Wright, “Off-Season Paydirt for Pro Stars,” Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan), December 8, 1968: 59.
  • “Lawyer Probed on Ballplayers’ Complaints,” Detroit Free Press, November 2, 1970: 30.
  • Don Lenhausen, “Lawyer Linked to Tigers Is Accused of Misconduct,” Detroit Free Press, December 17, 1970: 16.
  • “Bad Check Charge Lawyer Sentenced,” Detroit Free Press, July 28, 1971: 17.
  • “Competitor Sues Topps Over Players’ Pictures,” Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) Times Leader, July 10, 1975: 4.
  • “Gum Firm to Pop Rival’s Bubble,” Detroit Free Press, July 10, 1975: 25.
  • “The battle of the baseball cards,” The Record (Hackensack, New Jersey), March 10, 1976: 62.
  • Mike Aronstein, “The Great Card War,” Collectors Quarterly, Summer 1976.
  • “The Topps-sponsored Bubble Gum Blowing Championships of 1975,” The Tampa Tribune, September 5, 1976: 118. In 1976, Topps issued a card honoring Milwaukee Brewers infielder Kurt Bevacqua as the “Joe Garagiola/Bazooka Bubble Gum Blowing Champ.” The win netted Bevacqua a first prize of $1000 ($5200 today) for his 18¼” bubble. Phillies catcher Johnny Oates was second with a 14½” bubble that won him $500. 
  • Andy Lindstrom, “Kids still trade their baseball heroes,” News-Pilot (San Pedro, California), September 10, 1976: 11.
  • Michelle Mitkowski, “Baseball Card Collectors Have Field Day at Show,” Daily Record (Morristown, New Jersey), January 12, 1981: 19.
  • Paul Marose, “Just like runs and cards, errors part of the game,” The Dispatch (Moline, Illinois), June 7, 1981: 13-14.
  • “Bubble gum game goes into extra innings,” Baltimore Sun, June 1982: 38.”
  • “No Hits, Runs, Errors Yet in Chewing Gum Lawsuit,” Scranton Times-Tribune, March 30, 1983: 11.
  • “Topps gum firm agrees to buy-out,” Philadelphia Inquirer, November 17, 1983: 121.
  • “Gumming up the works,” Santa Fe New Mexican, April 8, 1985: 11.
  • “Investment in Baseball Cards is Topps,” Record-Journal (Meriden, Connecticut), April 18, 1988: 14.
  • Claire Smith, “Players saving for strike in ’90,” Hartford Courant, June 18, 1988: 191, 194.
  • Frank Litsky, “Frank Scott, 80, Baseball’s First Player Agent,” New York Times, June 30, 1998: Section B, Page 9.
  • Mark Armour, “The 1967-68 Player Boycott of Topps,” SABR Baseball Cards Committee Blog,  https://sabrbaseballcards.blog/2017/01/03/the-1967-68-player-boycott-of-topps/, January 3, 2017.
  • Michael Haupert, “Marvin Miller and the Birth of the MLBPA,” Baseball Research Journal, Spring 2017.

Interview

Mike Aronstein, telephone interview with author, March 10, 2022.

Miscellaneous Notes

  • The players’ first choice for Executive Director was Milwaukee County Judge Robert Cannon, who turned down the offer because his request to place the MLBPA office in Milwaukee or Chicago was refused and the association would not guarantee him a pension equal to what he would have received as a county judge.  Cannon was later instrumental in moving the Seattle Pilots franchise to Milwaukee. The licensing deal with Coca-Cola was $60,000 per year for two years and was instrumental in securing funding needed to keep the MLBPA solvent until dues were first collected in May 1967. Topps agreed to pay an 8% royalty on the first $4 million in sales and 10% thereafter.
  • The MLBPA group licensing program applies to any company seeking to use the names or likenesses of more than two Major League Baseball players in connection with a commercial product, product line or promotion must sign a licensing agreement with the MLBPA. The license grants the use of the players’ names and/or likenesses only and not the use of any MLB team logos or marks.
  • Presumably a deal was reached between Topps and Major League Properties considering team logos appear in every set of the 1960s, but the terms of this deal have eluded the author.
  • The author has been unable to identify any products marketed under the name “Sports Promotions, Inc.” although this appears to be a company linked to Livonia, Michigan attorney Edward P. May, who along with Tigers pitcher Joe Sparma sold Tiger player caricatures in 1968 and had attempted to “merchandise bubblegum cards on a nationwide basis.”   May had represented Al Kaline, who complained to the Wayne County prosecutor’s office that May had defrauded him out of $14,000 tied to a health club named for the slugger.  Denny McLain complained he lost $100,000 on an ill-fated paint company venture May arranged. The MLBPA complained May had not paid royalties on baseball cards sold and accused him of forging the signature of a printing company executive on a document that guaranteed those royalties. In 1971, May was placed on three years’ probation for writing bad checks and suspended indefinitely from practicing law in Michigan.
  • Before 1981, Topps had only included stolen base statistics on the backs of its 1971 cards.

Special Thanks

Special thanks to Jason Schwartz for reviewing this article and offering several helpful suggestions.

CTB: 1994 Ted Williams #112 Toni Stone

In this edition of Covering The Bases (CTB) we are discussing one of the few cards that have been produced of Toni Stone, subject of the February 9th Google Doodle.

1994 Ted Williams #112 Toni Stone

There are not many Toni Stone Cards, This is from the 1994 Ted Williams Set. The picture is one of the most commonly used photos of Stone, and also serves as the anchor image for the Google doodle.

The photo overlays another image of Toni Stone – this one is a 1954 publicity photo of her with the Kansas City Monarchs.

Likely an appeal to show the feminine side of Toni Stone, the Monarchs photographed her applying makeup.

B-Side

The flipside of the card gives a synopsis of Stone’s career concluding with a line summarizing her NAL stats.

1994 Ted Williams

The 1994 Ted Williams is a 162 historical card set largely composed of Hall of Famers and prospects, including a minor league Derek Jeter.

In a nod to Williams Hall of Fame speech advocating for the induction of Negro League players the set contains a 17-card subset of Negro Leaguers, produced with the assistance of noted author and historian Phil Dixon:

While all the players listed are highlights of the set, some names that jump out at me beyond Stone include Bud Fowler, Double Duty Radcliffe, and Leon Day.

Cards On Stage

in 2019 Team Phungo got to see the stage play “Toni Stone” loosely based on the life of Stone. There was a small but well curated exhibit in the lobby, among the items displayed was today’s card:

It was displayed in a glass case like a T206 Wagner. All cards should get this treatment!!

Here is an installation view of the case with a couple of pennants that represent Stone’s Career.

Baseball Cards also factored into the script of “Toni Stone.”

I believe the card Stone (portrayed by April Matthis) is looking at is 1934 Goudey #61 Lou Gehrig – although I am guessing this is a reprint or prop card.

I have no guesses on the other cards. If there is a card sleuth out there they can try and see more in this montage from the play – The cards show up shortly after the 35 second mark.

Editor’s note: Also shown are 1941 Play Ball cards of Arky Vaughan and Mel Ott as well as a 1935 Diamond Stars Hank Greenberg.

There you go, Today’s covering the bases takes us from Toni Stone to Ted Williams to Lou Gehrig.

Monique Wray

Google documents background on many of their doodles which includes information on the artist. The Toni Stone doodle was created by illustrator/ animator Monique Wray.

In the interview Wray had a couple of key observations:

Q. Why was this topic meaningful to you personally?

A: Toni was a trailblazer, a Black woman doing things she’s not expected to do, whether the world likes it or not, speaks to me.

Q. What message do you hope people take away from your Doodle?

A: Inspiration to persevere. Toni played with men, a lot of whom did not want her there. But almost every photo I see of her, she has a massive smile. She lived her life through adversity and did what she wanted to do.

The interview also contains a display of Wrays sketches for the doodle.

The Google synopsis includes a link for more info at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

Sources and Links

Topps in 1972, Part 7

Editor’s note: SABR Baseball Cards welcomes new member F. Scott Wilkinson with the seventh of his 10 articles on the 1972 Topps set, now approaching its 50th anniversary. Click here to start the series from the beginning.

I have explained many times that I am, by Profession, a Gambler—not some jock-sniffing nerd or a hired human squawk-box with the brain of a one-cell animal. No. That would be your average career sportswriter—and, more specifically, a full-time Baseball writer.”

—Hunter S. Thompson

This post concerns those ’72 Topps cards that lack a certain…uh…standard of quality…

It’s fair to say that for all my raving about how awesome these cards are no doubt many folks hated them back then and continue hating them to this day. They’re garish and have a comic book quality about them. The colored portion is extravagant and intrudes on the player pictures, almost crowding them out…and why all that gaudiness just for the team name? I get it. But as the saying goes, “there is no accounting for taste” and in any case I wouldn’t be the one to write a review disparaging these beauties.

Still, to be fair let’s point out a few questionable efforts —not all 787 cards can be great, right? I wouldn’t even say these are bad cards, but they are bewildering and a bit off compared to the rest of the lot. Or maybe they just lend more depth and nuttiness to the whole unwieldy series…

Take Astros players Rich Chiles (#56) and Roger Metzger (#217). Please! They’re noticeably off-center, with tiny unfocused coaches in the background that distract…if you even notice them. It makes these guys look like unimportant players…afterthoughts. Chiles is ignoring his little suspended toy coach and Metzger is bent over, ostensibly fielding a grounder while a tiny man walks out from his hindquarters. Both cards are a swing and a miss…but still endearing somehow.

As a kid I disliked my multiples of this Corrales card (#706) and today it still doesn’t bring me any joy. Where is the “action” exactly? Is Pat C. tanning that beefy forearm? Looks more like “Still Life With Tools of Ignorance”.

Another lousy In Action catcher shot (#570) – it looks like Ed’s trying to shake a spider off of his face mask…or maybe he’s confused about how the dang thing even works?

Yet a third catcher in crisis – Bob Barton (#40), looking like he’s trapped in a cage and maybe contemplating a career change.

Here’s Ron Theobald (#77) in a bunting pose, appearing almost grandfatherly, even though he was only 29 years old at the time.

Similarly, Bill Rigney (#389) is only 54 years old here, but could easily pass for 80 – maybe it was all that sun they got playing ball?

There’s Fred Patek (#531) off-center and in fielding-a-grounder pose, all 5’ 5’’ of him crouched over, looking about 14 years old—not his fault, just questionable staging or editing maybe. I hate to say it, but Billy and I laughed out loud at Freddie P. for this card. Many times. But he was a legit player who made three All-Star teams, so he does get the last laugh. At one point in his career when asked how it felt to be the shortest player in the major leagues, Patek took the high road, opining that it was “better than being the tallest player in the minors.” And who am I trying to kid—this is actually a pretty cool card!

Here we have bespectacled Fred Gladding (#507), looking like he’s just been jumped by paparazzi after posting bail for some petty crime. Or maybe it’s just the look of a guy who would end up with a career batting average of .016 (1 for 63).

What about Rich Reese (#611), with the barrel of his bat swung way out in front, huge and blurry, taking over the picture, like it’s about to smash the camera lens? This one actually has a neat perspective, one of the better examples of a theme that shows up in other ’72 cards and other years too. Fine.

There’s the unfortunate close-up of Jim Beauchamp (#594), highlighting too much of his fleshy face with half-mast eyes, making him look like a sleepy plumber who might be hungover.

And get a load of pitcher Dennis Higgins (#278), pictured at the top of his wind-up with a foggy gray background, looking like an apparition or a full on translucent wax statue.

Another one I never liked or understood – why is Bobby Bonds (#712) laughing so hard at a meaningless pop-up? We will never know.

I hate to keep picking on the In Action cards, but will anyway – here’s another questionable effort.

The only way we can sort this one out is by knowing that Ron Santo (#556) never played catcher. Looks like another toothless pop-up.

The final three cards are not “bad” at all but they are outliers, so a reasonable way to wrap this up. How about this beauty? It’s the one and only team card in the ’72 series with disembodied heads and for that I am thankful. Some folks love these things and they are better than conventional team cards in one big way – you can actually make out the faces. But honestly, the signatures are tiny scribbles and those heads just look silly.

The best thing we can say about this one is that it features Hall of Famer Ernie Banks (in the center, just below the logo). Mr. Cub’s last year as a player was 1971 (the year seen within that logo), but he made the ’72 set (#192) as first base coach with the Cubbies. There’s Joe Pepitone’s big mug too, (#303), to the right of the logo…Manager Leo Durocher (#576) on top and Don Kessinger (#145) to the left. Is that you too, Burt Hooton? (#61)

Meanwhile, Tigers manager Billy “The Bird” Martin (#33) purportedly got so mad at the photographer who came out to take pictures in spring training that for his shot he furtively flipped off the camera, middle finger extending down the shaft of a bat so it blended in and cleared censors. You go, Billy! Turns out this one’s much more brazen than the 1989 Fleer Billy Ripken, and easily wins the prize for Naughtiest 1972 Topps Card.

Finally, there’s the one we’ll amiably call “The Billy Cowan Card” (#19). What is it with the Billys? Probably a fair amount has been written about The Billy Cowan Card, and rightly so—the card is ridiculous looking, even for the time. It features the Angel outfielder in a relaxed batting pose, photo taken from around home plate looking toward the outfield, with the halo of Anaheim Stadium perched perfectly over Cowan’s head so that he looks like an enormous bat-wielding angel with burly sideburns. One has to wonder if Cowan was in on the joke—surely he was— he at least reportedly autographed this card for many a fan after his playing days were over. A classic.


Part of an ode, fifty years on, to baseball and the early 1970s in general, and to the Topps Company and the special 1972 set specifically. Thanks for the memories, Topps—both the old ones and the new ones! Apologies for the pronounced wordiness, but the 50th anniversary of the set warrants some indulgence.

Dedicated to my sports-loving mom, Caroline B. Wilkinson, who never threw my cards away, and to all the players from the 1972 Topps Series, especially those who passed during the writing of this article: Henry Aaron, Dick Allen, Ed Armbrister, Glenn Beckert, Larry Biittner, Hal Breeden, Lou Brock, Oscar Brown, Horace Clark, Gene Clines, Billy Conigliaro, Chuck Dobson, Paul Doyle, Ed Farmer, Ray Fosse, Bill Freehan, Bob Gibson, Jim Grant, Grant Jackson, Bart Johnson, Jerry Johnson, Jay Johnstone, Al Kaline, Lew Krausse, Angel Mangual, Mike Marshall, Denis Menke, Lindy McDaniel, Roger Moret, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, Bob Oliver, Don Pavletich, Ron Perranoski, Juan Pizzaro, J. R. Richard, Mike Ryan, Tom Seaver, Richie Scheinblum, Rennie Stennett, Bill Sudakis, Don Sutton, Tony Taylor, Dick Tidrow, Bill Virdon, Bob Watson, Stan Williams, and Jim Wynn.

Special thanks to Baseball-Almanac.com, Baseballhall.org, Baseball-Reference.com, and Wikipedia.com for kindly compiling and sharing their vast treasure troves of data.

Extra special thanks to Jason Schwartz and Nick Vossbrink  for their timely encouragement and warm welcome into the SABR community.

Much gratitude to Mr. Larry Pauley, who gave this project direction when there was none.

The Collecting Gene

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a collector as someone who collects objects because they are beautiful, valuable, or interesting.  While all of that is true, I argue that an alternate definition is someone who collects objects because of an inherited trait, specifically the collecting gene.

My introduction to baseball came at a very young age.  I attended my first ballgame at age 2 ½ and suspect I would have gone sooner if not for my father being in the service.  But my first visit to Yankee Stadium was not my introduction to the greatest sport on earth.  The broadcast of a Yankees game would often be heard coming from a radio in our Brooklyn apartment.  And the rare treat of a televised game shone on our wood-encased television set.

Once my father was sure I was hooked on baseball, he introduced me to baseball cards.  I was immediately smitten.  There was no “What’s the point?” or fleeting attraction, only “When can I have more, Dad?”  That question wasn’t asked in a greedy or spoiled-child kind of way.  Neither would have been tolerated.  I was simply a five-year-old fascinated by those beautiful 3.5” x 2.5” pieces of cardboard!  They were a window into the larger world of baseball.  The photos, the statistics, the player facts – all helped tell the story of the game with which I had fallen in love.  Dad was thrilled that my interest in baseball extended beyond the stimulating sights and sounds of a game.  He told me that we’d add to my collection a little at a time.

My first storage box

In those early collecting days, before any baseball chatter tied to newly acquired cards, there was always a lesson about the importance of treating my cards with respect and keeping them safe.  I didn’t even hear of flipping or putting cards in bicycle spokes until my family moved to a new neighborhood and I met friends with older brothers.  And of course, I was horrified by both practices.  By the time I was six, we were examining Hostess boxes to find one with cards I didn’t already have.  Even earlier than that came the blind hunt for Kellogg’s cereal cards.  New packs were always the most fun, though.  Whether they were picked out during a trip to buy the Sunday newspaper on the way home from church, or left by the Easter Bunny or Santa, packs were (and still are) bundles of wonder waiting to be unwrapped.  Dad and I would open them together and discuss.  The conversations ranged from interesting facts about the players or a ballpark or a team’s history to math lessons using the stats on the card backs.

Some of my early acquisitions
(Yes, the Winfield rookie is signed.  There’s a funny story about that encounter here.)

Dad would often springboard from discussing a current player to a story about someone he saw play when he was my age.  So, it was inevitable that an inquisitive child like me would eventually ask “Dad, where are your baseball cards?”  His face changed.  My father explained to me that he kept his cards in excellent condition with each set neatly arranged.  All were organized in shoe boxes – no rubber bands, no miscellaneous junk – and they were always put away safely on the shelf in his closet.  He left them there when he left with his newlywed bride for Puerto Rico to serve in the United States Navy.  When he and my mom returned three years later with a toddler daughter in tow (me), they temporarily moved in with my paternal grandmother.  As Dad was unpacking he noticed the empty shelf in his closet.  He didn’t panic at first.  He thought that my grandmother had relocated his treasured baseball card collection to make room in the closet for some of my mom’s things.  (You know what’s coming, right?)  Sadly, he was wrong.  My grandmother put the entire collection out with the trash because she didn’t think that a grown man with a family would still be interested in his childhood toys.  My heart sank.

I’m certain that Dad would have introduced me to baseball cards even if his collection had survived.  And I don’t think I could love baseball cards any more than I already do.  But I wonder if I might love them differently had I been able to hold Dad’s ’51 Topps Monte Irvin or ’50 Bowman Gil Hodges or ’52 Topps Mickey Mantle.  I’ll never know.

What I do know is that I spent many memorable hours with my father building my baseball card collection.  Whether it was searching for a team set at a minor league ballpark or sorting cards at the dining room table, there was always joy in baseball cards.  Some of my most memorable card-hunting experiences are tied to the plethora of card shows my dad and I attended in the 1980s and early 1990s.  Not only were there players to meet (from Hall of Famers to current stars), but these were my first chances to see the cards from my father’s childhood in person.  I still get goosebumps when I’m in the presence of 1950s cardboard.

Last year I started building a 1950s baseball card collection of my own.  My first three acquisitions were Gil Hodges cards.  Hodges was my father’s first favorite ballplayer and I could think of no more fitting way to start my vintage collection.  (It’s difficult for me to identify cards I obtained new as a child as “vintage!”)  I still love my Topps Allen & Ginter and my annual factory set and Heritage Minors and so many other modern cards, but I’ve learned that no baseball cardboard can give me the same warm fuzzies as the cards that were ultimately responsible for my collecting gene’s orders being followed exactly as they were.  Here’s to my dad and to my new vintage baseball card adventure!