Dodger-Giant double agents

Author’s note: I originally planned this article in two parts, the first of which was published earlier in the week. I’ve since decided it works better combined into a single article, so here it is all in once place. J.A.S.

In the nearly 120 years of the great Dodger-Giant rivalry, more than 200 players have suited up for both sides, either as a player or manager, including 22 Hall of Famers. For most of these men it is an easy undertaking to find cards of them as Dodgers and as Giants.

Most often their Dodger and Giant cards come from different years or different sets, as in the case of the two Frank Robinson cards pictured, eleven years apart. However, it is sometimes possible to find these Dodger-Giant pairings within a single set.

When this happens, the player (or manager) achieves true “double agent” status, turns from hero to villain (or vice versa) among the team faithful, earns the double-takes of many a collector, and most importantly attains immortality with a spot in this article.

In the sections that follow, I will present a chronological list of the nearly two dozen Dodger-Giant double agents I could track down in my research. Please let me know in the comments if I missed anyone.

1903-04

Source: The Evening World (New York, New York), December 14, 1903

On December 12, 1903, the Brooklyn Superbas sent Bill Dahlen to New York for Charlie Babb and Jack Cronin. As a result, Dahlen can be found with both squads in the 1903-04 Breisch-Williams (E107) set and has the honor of being the first ever Dodger-Giant double agent.

1914-15

Here is one that really doesn’t count for several reasons but is interesting enough to include nonetheless. On August 31, 1915, the Brooklyn Robins claimed Hall of Fame hurler Rube Marquard off waivers following his release by the Giants. As such, Marquard has cards with both New York and Brooklyn in the Cracker Jack sets of 1914-15.

Rendering true double agent status doubtful, however, are (at least) three key details.

  • Most collectors consider the 1914 and 1915 Cracker Jack sets to be two separate sets, disqualifying Marquard as a true double agent.
  • Both cards show Marquard in his NYG uniform, which by itself isn’t a disqualification but still detracts from the visual contrast we deserve in our Dodger-Giant duos.
  • Finally, Marquard’s second card does not even place him with the right Brooklyn team. Instead, he is erroneously placed on the Brooklyn Tip Tops, the Federal League squad that shared a borough with the Robins/Dodgers National League team Marquard actually pitched for.

1933

On June 16, 1933, the Giants traded Sam Leslie to the Dodgers for Watty Clark and Lefty O’Doul. Clark had only a single 1933 Goudey card, which depicted him as a Dodger, while Leslie had no 1933 cards at all. O’Doul, on the other hand, had two cards in the Goudey set: one as a Dodger and one as a Giant.

The first card came early in the year as part of the set’s third sheet while his second card, along with those of numerous other Giants and Senators, was something of a bonus card as part of the set’s World Series (sheet 10) release.

1948

In July 1948 Brooklyn general manager Branch Rickey and New York owner Horace Stoneham came to an agreement that allowed Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher to take over the Giants. The 1948 R346 “Blue Tint” set noted the update and may well have inspired future Topps airbrushers with its treatment of Durocher’s cap.

1982

A part of my childhood was destroyed when Reggie Smith left the Dodgers and signed as a free agent with San Francisco on February 27, 1982. A giant (okay, pun intended) setback in my grieving process came when Topps pushed out its Traded set for the year and documented the move in cardboard. But alas, at least we still had Dusty!

As a side note, the Traded card presents an interesting blend of numbers for the man who formerly wore #8 with the Dodgers and would wear #14 with the Giants. His jersey shows him as #60 while his bat has a 30 on it, which I take to mean it belonged to teammate Chili Davis.

1984

No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o! They got Dusty too?! Sadly it was no April Fools joke when the Giants signed fan favorite Dusty Baker as a free agent on April 1, 1984, and this two Traded/Update sets were there to ratify the trauma.

1985

A rare trade between the Dodgers and Giants on December 11, 1985 produced two more double agents. The first was fan favorite Candy Maldonado, who like Baker before him made both the Topps and Fleer sets.

And on the back end of that same trade…

Oddly, neither Trevino nor Maldonado cracked the 660-card 1986 Donruss checklist despite the set including 21 different Giants and 24 different Dodgers. In Trevino’s case, he was San Francisco’s primary back-up catcher behind Bob Brenley played in 57 games. As for Maldonado, he played in 123 games, leading all reserve players and ranking eighth overall on the team.

1991

Fast forward to 1991 and the number of baseball card sets had reached absurd levels. Therefore, it should be no surprise that when free agent superstar Gary Carter signed with the Dodgers on March 26, 1991, he would set new records for cardboard double agency.

First here’s Topps.

Next up are the Kid’s two Fleer cards. Warning: Sunglasses may be required.

Upper Deck was of course also in the act by now.

And finally, Score put out two Carter cards as well, ridiculously similar to each other to the point of almost seeming impossible.

A similar octet of cards belonged to Brett Butler this same year, with Bugsy landing in Los Angeles via free agency on December 14, 1990.

1992

Dave Anderson signed with the Dodgers as a free agent on January 28, 1992, but this time only one company, Score, seemed to take notice.

1993

It was Fleer and only Fleer on the job when Todd Benzinger headed north to San Francisco as a free agent on January 13, 1993.

Meanwhile, Cory Snyder got three times the cardboard love when he took his talents to L.A. on December 5, 1992. Score Select was particularly ambitious, dropping Snyder out of an airplane for their photo shoot.

1994

On June 19, 1994, following his release from the Dodgers, the Giants signed Darryl Strawberry to a cup of coffee. Little used by both teams in 1994, Darryl hit double agent status with only a single cardmaker, Fleer.

1998

On December 8, 1997, infielder Jose Vizcaino signed with the Dodgers as a free agent after playing the regular season with the Giants. However, the baseball card production process was by this time so fast that nearly all of Vizcaino’s base cards already had him as a Dodger. As a result, his double agency was limited to the 1998 Fleer Tradition set only.

2000

On January 11, 2000, F.P. Santangelo signed with the Dodgers as a free agent. While very few companies even had a single card of the oft abbreviated Frank-Paul, Upper Deck came through with cards on both sides of the cardboard rivalry.

2003

The Giants signed Gold Glove centerfielder Marquis Grissom as a free agency on December 7, 2002, leading to a pair of Fleer Tradition cards based on Fleer’s sharp 1963 design.

Curiously, the Fleer Tradition Update cards (not just Grissom’s) omitted the city from team names. If there’s any story to it, let me know in the comments.

2006

On January 3, 2006, pitcher Brett Tomko signed a free agent deal with the Dodgers. If nothing else, the move gave Topps a chance to show off how far they’d come since their drunken airbrush days. Scary good if you ask me.

Tomko’s Dodger card above came from a Dodger-specific team set, but he also earned a card in the Topps Updates and Highlights set for good measure.

2007

When the Dodgers signed all-star right-hander Jason Schmidt on December 6, 2006, no two companies went the same route. First up, Fleer simply turned back the clock to the days of 1981 Donruss.

Meanwhile Topps ventured back to 1983 and the Fleer Joel Youngblood card or Eddie Murphy movie with this special insert…

…while also going full Tomko across their Pepsi and Opening Day releases.

Upper Deck came through with a nice pair of landscape Schmidt cards, though neither is a true Giants card since both go with Dodgers in the header.

Would I be remiss if I didn’t report that the first of the two Schmidt cards is also available in Gold, Predictor Green, and First Edition? Take your pick I guess!

2009

Brad Penny signed as a free agent with the Giants on August 31, 2009, following half a season with the Red Sox and a longer stint before that with L.A. This landed Penny cards on three teams in 2009, including double agent status with Topps Heritage.

2013

The final player (as of 2019) with a Dodger and Giant card from the same set is Brian Wilson, who signed as a free agent with the Dodgers mid-season on July 30, 2013. Lucky for you, Topps was there to document the before and after in pretty much every possible color!

analysis

On one hand, Dodger-Giant double agents reflect an oddball phenomenon of at best passing interest to fans of either of the two teams. However, their distinctly non-random occurrences over the years also point to important changes in the game and the hobby.

Just looking at the graph, it is possible to see all of the following:

  • Prevalence of multi-year issues in the early days of the hobby
  • Increased player movement with the advent of free agency
  • Introduction of Traded/Update sets
  • Increase in the number of companies issuing sets (1981-2008)
  • Reduction in the number of companies issuing sets (2009-present)

I will leave it to others to identify the cardboard double-agents of baseball’s other great rivalries (e.g., Yankees-Red Sox), but I’ll hazard a guess already that a graph of the data would look very much like mine.

Faux Cards

I first started collecting baseball cards, at age 6, in 1967. As I have written elsewhere, this was before I knew anything about the real players and teams. The cards were my baseball school. Although my family was all Red Sox fans, I have no memory of the fabled 1967 season. Did I watch the World Series? I don’t know.

I became a real fan — watching games, following the standings — sometime during the 1968 season. I again collected cards, probably from the start of the season, and gradually learned what was up. The 1968 Red Sox were my first “team”.

Carl Yastrzemski was the big star, the most famous person in New England, but several Yaz teammates had excellent seasons. Ken Harrelson led the league in RBI and Ray Culp and Dick Ellsworth won 16 games each, decades before we learned that those stats were bullshit.

I might not have been bright enough to tell you that my heroes were wearing the uniforms of the Senators, Cubs and Phillies, respectively, and certainly not enough to have told you why. The reason, since you asked, is that all three men were recent acquisitions — the two pitchers joining up in the off-season, and Hawk the previous August. The photo boycott killed whatever chance Harrelson might have had to be donning Hub togs.

All of these guys were sorted with my Red Sox, and when I made batting order and pitching rotations I had to deal with all of this. Honestly, how I didn’t turn to a life of crime is a mystery.

Looking ahead to the 1969 season, baseball had become a full-blown obsession. I bought all the preview magazines I could, and even wrote my own essays about all the Red Sox players that forecast their seasonal statistics. (Spoiler: they were very bullish.)

Because of the MLBPA Topps photo boycott (of which I knew nothing), I still did not get Red Sox photos of my heroes. Topps provided some variety by using a different previous team for two of the three players. Complicating things further, a week into the season Harrelson and Ellsworth were traded to the Indians — Ellsworth’s late-series card reflected this change, so that his Cubs uniform was actually *three* teams ago by the time the card hit the shelves.

Culp remained in Boston for a few years, but Harrelson (an extremely popular player) and Ellsworth never did get a Topps photo showing their Red Sox days. I am not blaming Topps here, just illustrating that this was a frustration that kids used to go through, especially during the 1968-69 years.

As I will always believe you should “play with” your baseball cards, in the same way you should “play” your record collection and not just leave it sitting alphabetically on the shelf, I still keep my cards by team. So this issue remains.

In recent years, a number of people have been creating what I call “faux cards”. The card at the top of this post is a faux 1967 card of Rod Carew.

The late Bob Lemke was one of the first to make these seriously — he called them “Cards That Never Were” — creating fronts and backs and selling them on his web site. I am unaware of anyone today doing faux cards with both a front and a back, although I could be wrong. Today you can find a lot of people selling “front-only” faux cards, with blank backs. There are also a lot of great artists creating electronic versions of the cards, so you can create your own with a good printer and paper cutter.

Here are a few.

I am fairly certain that I would have had a happier childhood, and a happier adulthood for that matter, had I pulled these cards out of my wax packs in 1968.

Of late I have been dabbling in these faux cards, and it has reminded me of why I fell in love with cards in the first place. It wasn’t to find a VG-EX card of someone who played before I was born; it was to find a great photo (with accompanying cartoon/quiz/stats) of Dick Ellsworth, or Julian Javier, or Roy White.

I should mention here that I have certain criteria for what makes a good faux card. These are rules for me, so you can feel free to make your own rules. (Including: they are all bad. You be you.)

  • Players who, for whatever reason, did not have a Topps card that year. When I was creating imaginary games involving the 1968 Oakland Athletics, I got tired of pretending that Reggie Jackson had the flu.
  • Players who were on Topps’s multi-player “rookie cards”, always inadequate but especially when you are one of the key players on the team. This Thurman card would have been badass. I should mention here that I also want the photo to have been taken either during or prior to the relevant season. This faux 1968 card of Bench (which Lemke made) shows a photo from 1969 which is a mistake in my view.
  • When you have a Topps card, but it shows you on the wrong team. This is not Topps’s fault, you got traded too late, but Alex Johnson won the 1970 batting title for the Angels so it is nice to see him in his correct livery.
  • When Topps gave you a card with the right team, but because of a recent trade or franchise move you are shown without your proper uniform.

For me, I don’t really have any need for a 1975 Mickey Mantle card, or the like. I am not passing judgment, it’s just not my thing. Similarly, I don’t need a faux card of Willie Mays in 1970 — Topps already made a perfectly good Mays card, I don’t need a new pose. The vast majority of Topps cards need no improvement.

I realize that most people don’t get the same joy out of using the 1970 Topps cards as a conduit to the 1970 baseball season, that they think of the cards as mere checklists to be completed. And that’s cool. The faux cards that work for me complement the Topps cards, and are a similar nostalgic teleport.

At the moment, I am considering taking that faux 1968 Aparicio and putting it in a sleeve with the Topps Aparicio “back” to create the perfect card that this wonderful player deserves. I have not done this yet. I am awaiting the right moment.

Feats Don’t Fail Me

Last year (a year and a month to be exact), I posted about my Laughlin regrets, how I missed my chance 40 years ago to buy those wonderful card sets of the ‘70’s. While I did finish my 1972 Fleer Famous Feats set, that seemed to be the end of it. No way I was going to get any of the other sets I wanted, prices being what they are. [NOTE: COMC lists the Fleer set as 1973. I think it may have been both years, based on shaky memories of buying them in candy stores and ice cream trucks.]

Still, I never gave up, keeping a futile eBay search alive for Laughlin sets. Last week, I finally succeeded, with the 1972 Laughlin Great Feats set for less than $50. I assume these came out before the Fleer ones though I’m not sure [Editor’s note: Correct!], and I was fascinated by both the slight differences in the cards that appear in both sets, and the fantastic drawings of players/events that I’d never seen before.

First of all, there are two versions of this set. One is in red, with simple black and white drawings. The other, in blue, has flesh tones colored in. Here’s the different looks (yes, my blue Mize is signed.)

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The cards common to both the Laughlin and Fleer sets are identical, save for color. At first I thought there were cropping differences, but it was an optical illusion brought on by the Fleers being oversized. The art space seems the same size.

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Some of the feats in the Laughlin set are obvious, and, in retrospect, it’s hard to believe DiMaggio’s hit streak and VanderMeer’s two no-hitters didn’t make the Fleer issue.

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Others are of lesser renown, though the all-time pinch-hit record used to be a big deal. Smoky’s record has long since been surpassed (I had to look up who’s first – Lenny Harris with 212), but Burgess is still fourth on the list. Glad he topped the record book in 1972, because this card rocks.

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These three are spectacular as well…

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…and prove that Laughlin would have made an excellent Simpsons animator (check out Casey’s hand).

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I was struck by the Mantle card. It’s wonderful, for sure, but it stands out as being the only card signed by the artist. I wonder why? Did he need to make his mark on one card to stake his claim, or was he a big Mantle fan and wanted to be associated with The Mick? Perhaps Mike Aronstein or Pete Henrici at Baseball Nostalgia know. I’ll have to check.

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The last six cards of the set, all unseen in the Fleer issue, stand out. They make for a perfect page.

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There are other Feats sets: a 40-card Fleer set from 1980 with blank backs and a 22-card Fleer set from 1986 with logo/sticker backs. A good idea is hard to leave behind.

Editor’s note: More history on the connection between the Laughlin set and the Fleer set is available here, including this Laughlin ad that explains how his first Great Feats set came to be self-produced.

Chrome, Finest, Reversed Printing, and Opaque Whites

Last December fellow print geek @robbyt86 tweeted an astute observation about someone else’s printing plate rainbow when he noticed that the rainbow consisted of both regular and Chrome cards and that the Chrome cards were printed in reverse. The top two printing plate cards in the image are regular paper printed right-reading (as can be seen in the jersey logo and number). The bottom two are Chrome printed wrong-reading.

This got me thinking and I hypothesized that Chrome was printed in reverse on clear plastic and then fused to the foilboard. This would explain the difference in the printing plates as well as the mix of foil and non-foil finishes. Opaque white ink isn’t usually the best thing to print on top of but this technique would lay it down last, on top of the other inks, which is a perfect use for it.

The more I thought about this the more I realized that this was also probably how Finest was made in the mid-1990s* and that I wanted to do some digging to confirm whether or not this was indeed the case.

*and that there was a decent chance that the protective coating on Finest is still on the clear layer of these Chrome/Finest cards today only it’s getting peeled off after printing but before packing.

So I decided to soak one of my excess Chrome cards to see what I could find out. I selected a 2015 Topps Chrome Hunter Strickland for this since I had gotten tired of him after the 2018 broken hand debacle. 2015 is a good design for this since the colored border meant there was, presumably, some opaque white right there on the edge.

Soaking went well. Card came apart as expected except for the surprise Tide Pod marks inside the card stock. After cleaning everything up I was left with just the front of the card and a literal foil backing.

The next step for me was to start sanding each side to confirm what side the ink was on and see if I could find a way to remove just the foil. This didn’t work super well but I did confirm that the ink is indeed printed on the inside layer of the plastic. You can make out the scuff marks on Strickland’s face and how they stay on the surface of the card rather than removing any ink. Compare this to where I sanded on the back by the Giants logo. The foil and image both start to disappear—especially along the edge.

So I was stuck both because Chrome is impossible to scan and because I hadn’t really produced anything interesting. And then Artiezillante commented on my previous post where I dove into the patent archive. I’ll just reproduce it in full here as well.

So in addition to cards I have a fairly extensive collection of wrappers from the 1980s-today because you never know when you’re going to need to go to the wrapper to answer a question. On the 1997 Finest Series 1 and 2 wrappers they have the following language:

Topps Finest is a registered trademark of The Topps Company, Inc.
SGW US Patent #4933218, #5082703, #5106126, Chromium (R), Holochrome (R), #5223357, Skin Protector TM, ClearChrome (R), Pat. Pending

I don’t have a 1996 Finest wrapper, but I do have one from 1995 and none of that language is there. The 1998 Finest wrapper is nearly impossible to read (the wrapper is clear so the print on the back gets jumbled with the design on the front) but it also mentions US & Foreign patents for Chromium, Holochrome, Skin Protector, and ClearChrome, though there are no patent numbers. The earliest Topps Chrome wrapper I have is from 2002 and it has the same language as the 1998 Finest wrapper.

This was fantastic and turned out to be exactly what I was looking for. Patents 5082703, 5106126, and 5223357 in particular describe exactly what’s going on with Finest and Chrome.

Patent 5082703 describes the clear layer,* how it’s printed on the back side, and how the thickness of the ink printed can be changed so as to create textural effects. The pictures in the patent show a generic image in Figure 1 with Figures 2, 3, 4, and 7 representing different cross sections with the clear layer always being labelled 12 and the different ink layers on the back being shown in profile.

*Patent 4933218 that Topps also mentions is an earlier version of 5082703.

Patent 5106126 meanwhile covers the opaque masking of portions of the printed image so that multiple finishes are available after a metallic layer is added to the piece. More specifically it builds on printing on a clear substrate (what the previous patent covers) by depositing an opaque layer behind select portions of the image before layering reflective/metallic material on the back of the entire piece. This results in some portions of the printed piece having a metallic sheen and other pieces being dull and paper-like.

One key point here is that metallic layer is laminated or sprayed on to the substrate. This is not how cards are produced so the key takeaway here is the custom opaque ink sections.*

*Compare this to the custom foil stamping detailed in Upper Deck’s hologram card patent I mention in my previous post

The last patent, number 5223357, covers the assembly of the cards. The patent specifies holographic film but the key takeaway for me is that it discusses adhering together two distinct sheets—the clear layer (labelled 12) and the metallic/holographic layer (labelled 14)—rather than the single sheet that the other two patents discuss.

The cross-sectional drawings in this patent also distinctly show how the ink is located between the two layers and confirms that my hypothesis about how these cards are assembled is correct.

It also explains why the Chrome printing plates are wrong-reading since, once they’re printed on the the clear substrate, they become right-reading when viewed through the plastic.

When you look at a Chrome card you’re looking at the back of the printing through the clear plastic sheet that it’s been printed on. The non-shiny sections have opaque white ink printed on top of the colored inks (remember you’re looking at the back of the printing). The shiny sections are from a foil sheet that has been glued to the plastic sheet. The rest of the card is regular paper card stock* on which the card backs are printed just like traditional paper cards.

*The plastic/paper dual composition is why Chrome cards tend to curl so much. Paper responds to humidity much more than plastic and so depending on conditions in the Topps plant vs conditions in your home it will expand or contract a little and result in curling.

Patent dive

When I wrote my post about Collect A Books, I stuck my nose into Google Patents because it was the easiest way for me to produce a citation for Bouton actually being the inventor. Once inside though I couldn’t help myself and started looking around at other patents related to baseball cards.

I should’ve realized the danger here. As someone with a mechanical engineering background, patents and patent drawings are always something I enjoy looking through. So without further ado, a handful of patents which correspond to cards that we’re somewhat familiar with. Since this blog doesn’t keep a patent attorney on retainer I’m merely going to note the patents and what cards the correspond to.

US Patent 5517336 is held by Upper Deck and involves mixing printing with holograms. While the patent is dated 1995, that the initial filings date to 1993 feels about right to me. 1993 is when the Denny’s Holograms switched from being all-hologram to a combination of hologram and print. It’s also when Upper Deck released the Then and Now insert set which did the exact same thing.

Patent number 5328207 dates to 1991 and describes sticker autographs. I don’t remember these existing at all in the early 1990s so it’s interesting for me to see this showing up so long ago. I do like that the patent application is clearly a baseball player rather being a more-generic person.

Patent number 7413128B2 is another one owned by Upper Deck and concerns relic cards. There are a bunch of relic card patents out there, each with different methods of enclosing the pieces. I like this one since it’s held by Upper Deck and because it’s got the best images about how the relic cards are assembled and how they can accommodate different kinds of enclosures.

That this patent dates to 2004—a decade after relics had been out in the wild—shows how companies have been trying to improve and update the relic card to be more than just a small swatch of material. This patent isn’t just relics, it’s any insert from cut autographs to manufactured non-card materials and it doesn’t even have to be flat.

The last patent from this dive is number 20080202947, held by Topps. Yup, this is the Allen and Ginter Rip Card patent. The patent text references prior art from Pinnacle but there doesn’t appear to be a patent for that in the citations.

It’s interesting to me how so much of the patent application concerns the gambling aspect of the rip card and emphasizes how the outer card is intended to be destroyed.

I plan to continue digging through the archive and seeing what else I find. I’ve found some cool-looking stuff that doesn’t look like it was ever turned into a product. There are also a few products which I’d love to find patents for (Topps Chrome I’m looking for you) since I’ve been reverse engineering their production for a while as part of future posts. And if anyone else wants to start digging (even just starting with the related patents in the citations here), the more the merrier.

2001 Topps blows up the record book

Thumb through your collection of 2001 Topps and these nine cards might not jump out at you unless you know your baseball record book backward and forward.

Yessir! You are looking at 2001 Topps cards (counting Josh Fogg from the traded set) of pitchers 1-8 and 10 on the list of baseball’s all-time ERA leaders (min. 1000 IP since 1900).

Confused? My fault. I should have mentioned I was talking about all-time highest earned run averages. But still, 9 of the top 10 all in one set? That’s kind of nuts, ain’t it!

Then again, a the logjam of gopher feeders around the turn of the century isn’t entirely unexpected. Baseball had expanded to 30 teams in 1998, and the Steroid Era was by then in full force. Still, a graph of MLB average ERA by season reminds us that this wasn’t MLB’s only era of extended offensive fireworks. The first two decades of the Live Ball Era at least appear to be another breeding ground for ERA overachievers.

I suspect there is more to the story, but perhaps the main reason the leaderboard is so heavily skewed around the latter of the two high-offense eras is that sample sizes are so much bigger. Some quick math shows us there were more than twice as many starting pitchers in 2000 vs 1930, and I suspect the ratio would be similar for long relievers or other arms likely to hit 1000 IP over their careers.

Full-time starting pitchers

  • 1930: 4 (or so) man rotation × 16 teams ≈ 64 or so
  • 2000: 5 (or so) man rotation × 30 teams ≈ 150 or so

But I digress. I suspect you’re dying to know who the missing pitcher is in this most dubious Top Ten. The remarkable thing is our mystery pitcher, known only as #9 to this point, almost certainly would have landed in the 2001 Topps set also had he not stopped to play another sport along the way.

With the Top Ten now complete and consisting entirely of 21st century hurlers, you might wonder whose records these guys broke. Who sat atop (or abottom) the ERA leaderboard before all these young whippersnappers crashed the party? You probably already know the decade to look in.

Just missing our Top Ten by a fraction of a decimal point is southpaw (“relief specialist,” no less!) Chief Hogsett, who had no major issue cards during his playing career, hence earned “first card” status in the 1993 Conlon Collection. (Minor point: His card shows a career ERA of 5.02, but Baseball Reference puts him at 5.03.)

Lining up just behind the Chief with lifetime marks of 5.01 and 4.97 are two other 1930s arms: Roy Mahaffey (1926-36) and Jack Knott (1933-46).

The first pitcher to turn up entirely outside the two eras noted (roughly 1920-1940 and 1990-2010) comes in at 25th overall, and the empty bleachers on his 1951 Bowman card may stem from the 4.88 ERA he compiled from 1943-54.

It is right around this time, if not earlier, that many of you are thinking, if not screaming, “But this is exactly why we invented ERA Plus (or Minus…or WAR…or…[insert favorite semi-era-neutral advanced pitching measure here]!!”

Sure enough, a look at the all-time worst ERA+ leaderboard identifies six pitchers even better at lighting up the scoreboard than any of the pitchers thus far mentioned and introduces only one new 2001 Topps card to the collection.

Of course we can still marvel at just how loaded the 2001 Topps set was in nearly running the table on one of baseball’s most hallowed stats, even if the running was in the wrong direction. And if you happen to have this Mudville Nine just sitting around in a box somewhere, why not acknowledge their historic nature by immortalizing the cards in a nine-pocket Ultra-Pro?

Such a binder page would cost almost nothing, bring some forgotten cards back to life, and serve as a tangible reminder of the extent to which ERA is sometimes just era in all caps.

* * * * *

ERA Fun Fact: Of the 50 all-time lowest career ERAs since 1900, there is only one starter who made his living outside the Deadball Era! In fact the Top 100 has only five such pitchers.

Data for active pitchers (Kershaw and DeGrom) accurate as of July 26, 2019

Don’t Ruin the Blog, Jordan! – Don’t look now but as I sit here typing current Pirates starter Jordan Lyles has a career ERA of 5.29 through 851.0 innings pitched. Another couple years at this pace and my article’s toast.

Update – The Pirates traded Lyles to the Brewers the day this post went live. Coincidence? 🤔

Positions, Positions, Positions

Name, Team, Position. Those are the three most standard pieces of information conveyed on the obverse of a baseball card. Of the three, position is the one that is most often left out. While it is certainly isn’t hard to find examples of cards not bearing the name or team on the frontside, position is the only piece of this trio that feels kind of optional. Player positions were included on many of the earliest cards sets ever issued and remained a staple of card design until the fabled T206 set – which listed a player’s name and team home city only – seemed to put the designation out of style. Over the next few decades, many of the most iconic sets – Goudey, Cracker Jack, Leaf – ignored the position as an element of design. Bowman hit the scene in 1948 and went even more minimalist, rarely going so far as to even include the player’s name on the front of the card.

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1972, the only Topps set between 1953 and 1986 not to indicate a position on the front.

But then Topps took over, aside from their 1951 and 1952 issues, included a position on the front of each of their sets until 1972, and again for each set between 1973 and 1986. The indicator vanished between 1987 and 1990 and was an on-and-off feature until 2014, when it returned for seven straight sets (including 2020) – Topps’ longest run of position-indicating since the 1980s. Donruss included a position on every one of its designs until 1998 and Fleer did the same, using the indicator on every flagship set the brand issued. Upper Deck ignored the position on just two of its flagship sets (1992 and 2004).

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This is not information that most collectors would have at the ready. Most collectors probably take the position bug for granted. I know I usually do. But being so ubiquitous (even in its absence), an unusual position indicator can make for a pretty memorable card. Herb Washington’s 1975 “Pinch Run.” is probably the most famous of these. But there are others that I recall standing out to me as a kid – Pete Rose cards where he was listed an “MGR-1B” seemed other-worldly, the 1990 Score John Olerud listed him as an “OF-P” (all while shown playing first base) made him seem like some kind of top-secret government project, and the 1989 Topps Kirk Gibson All Star that listed him as a “PH” was as jarring as it was confusing (this was done, I assume to give the NL team a DH player without using the league-inappropriate term).

A particular player’s position listing can also convey some emotion. Robin Yount listed as a shortstop or George Brett as a third baseman make them seem as though they’ll be young forever. But finding Reggie Jackson or Henry Aaron or Dave Winfield listed as a DH will bring a note of sadness that the end is near.

But of all the weird positional quirks that have happened over the years, there is nothing so fascinating to me as what happened with Paul Molitor in 1991. That was the year the versatile Brewer was listed at FIVE different positions on various cards and appeared with SEVEN different position indicators. This is, I believe, the greatest positional variety for a player in a single year ever (ignoring THIS, of course). So what happened here?

Well, Paul Molitor had historically been a trick player to pin down position-wise. He came up as a shortstop, getting his first change in the bigs when Robin Yount left the Brewers during Spring Training 1978. He only played 33 games at short that season, but it was enough to have him listed as a pure SS on his 1979 card. He played 10 games at short in 1979 and 12 in 1980, but maintained a dual listed as an “SS-2B” on Topps 1980 and 1981 issues. After spending all of 1981 in the outfield, Topps gave him the rare “2B-SS-OF” listing on his 1982 card. Molly moved to third base in 1982, and played there primarily for most of the next five years. Topps reacted in kind and listed his as either a 3B or 3B/DH through the end of the decade.

Donruss and Fleer, entering the market in 1981, both listed him as a 2B in their debut sets. Fleer gave him a pure (and accurate) OF tag in 1982, whereas Donruss went with the very broad “OF/IF” brand. Both brands followed suit with Topps and used 3B and DH marks exclusively through 1990. Upper Deck and Score did the same.

But Molitor had returned to his utility player roots by the late 1980s. He appeared in 19 games at second base in 1987 and 16 in 1989. Late in 1989, regular second-sacker Jim Gantner suffered a devastating knee injury on a wipe-out slide by the Yankees Marcus Lawton and Molitor took over regular duty at the position until Gantner was able to return mid-way through the 1990 season. Molitor, who suffered a number of injuries of his own that season, ended up playing 60 games at second base in ‘90, 37 at first base (the first time he’d manned that spot), and a handful at third and as a DH. Gantner ended the season as the regular second baseman and Molitor at prime man at first. After the season, the Brewers traded Dave Parker, who had been an All Star for them in 1990, opening the door for the now-34 year old Molitor to become the team’s regular  DH for the first time.

So, the long-time third baseman who had been playing second but was also being used at first, where he was now expected to see more time when he wasn’t DHing. Got all that? Card makers sure did.

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By my count, Molitor appeared on 21 different base cards in 1991 (I’m ignoring sets like Topps Micro and OPC here that merely reproduce other sets). All but Classic listed a position on their cards. He was most commonly listed at 3B, a dubious claim considering he’d only played two games there in 1990. But strong is the power of tradition. Topps listed him there, using that mark on the Bowman, Stadium Club, and OPC Premium sets as well. Fleer also considered him a 3B, as they had at least in part since 1983. Even Score listed him at the position, despite taking the rather bold stance of being the only card maker to declare him a pure DH on a 1980s issue (1988). Those two games in ’90 got a lot of mileage, I guess.

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Five cards listed him at 1B, a nice compromise between his audition there in 1990 and his projected role in 1991. Magazine cards were fond of this mark, as Baseball Cards Magazine, Sports Collectors Digest, and Sports Illustrated for Kids all used it on their in-mag cards, as did Donruss and (curiously) Fleer Ultra, which ran against the flagship’s opinion that Molitor was still a 3B.

Three cards gave him a generic IF designation: two Brewers-issued sets (which used the frustrating device of considering anyone who played in the infield an IF) and the Score Superstars stand-alone set, which also broke with its parent brand and made its own positional distinction.

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A pair of sets were forward-looking enough to list Molitor as a pure DH, Leaf and Studio. I recall these as later-year issues and were probably a reaction to Molitor’s role early on the 1991 season, in which he only appeared in the field once before late May.

Then, we have some true outliers. Upper Deck, showing that rebel streak that remade the hobby, boldly listed Molitor as a 2B in their set, and even used a photo of him playing the position. The semi-obscure Petro Canada Standup set also listed him as a 2B, but you had to actually stand the card up to discover this fact. Panini, in its sticker set, was the only brand to use a hybrid mark, listing Molitor was a “1B-2B,” his only 1991 card to accurately reflect upon his 1990 season.

And then there is 1991 US Playing Card set. In here, Molitor (as the Eight of Hearts) is listed as a centerfielder.

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Hmm.

At this time, Molitor hadn’t played the outfield since a handful of games in 1986 and hadn’t been in center since 1981. Were they boldly expecting Molitor to take over in center for Robin Yount in 1991? My guess is that this is probably just an outright error. None of the other outfielder cards in the deck are given a specific OF spot (LF, CF, RF), and I can’t find anything that indicated they were acting on some of weird rumor of an unexpected position change. But nonetheless, the card exists and only adds to the positional confusion.

Oddly enough, all this positioning and repositioning for Molitor quickly became a moot point. Following the end of the 1990 season, Molitor would play first base and DH exclusively. His cards reflected this. For the most part. For 1992, Topps again branded him at a 3B across most of its sets despite his not having played there regularly since 1989. And, not to be outdone by their 1991 goof, the US Playing Card company issued two decks with Molitor cards in 1992 – one listing him at 2B and the other at SS – where Molitor hadn’t appeared since 1982 (his 1993 USPC card has him mercifully listed as an IF). At least it’s a consistent decade-long lag time, right? For 1993, only the Post Cereal Company still listed him at 3B. Card makers had finally accepted him for what had become – a DH and part-time 1B.

For his career, Molitor was listed on cards as a 1B, 2B, SS, 3B, IF, OF, CF, DH, 1B/DH, 2B/SS/OF, 2B/SS, SS/2B, 3B/DH, OF/IF, DH/1B, and DH/3B – not to mention post-career cards as a coach and manager. That’s 18 different listings (and perhaps more that I have missed) to describe a single remarkable career.