Is It the Cards, or Is It the Baseball?

“Beatle cards, Beatle cards!”

Beatles

I was a late talker, but somewhere between two- and three-years old, I got it. My Great Aunt used to tell me that I would howl about Beatles’ cards from my crib (Are two-year olds still in cribs?). The love of cards was strong with this one from early on.

Yes, this is a baseball card blog and, partially, this is a baseball card post, but it’s clear from what I gather of my own personal history that my love of cards began with Topps’ Fab Four, not ’64 baseball, cards.

Baseball cards are absolutely the vast majority of my cards. The sets are bigger, I’ve been buying them longer and continuously and, when I became the recipient of the card collections of friends, their shoeboxes were always dominated by baseball cards.

So what came first, the baseball or the card? That I’ve always bought lots of cards, of all sports and some non-sports, means that, for me, it’s always been the cards first, the baseball second.  Cards are talismans, direct memories of the past, but they can also be indirectly evocative. When Munsters’ cards came out in 1996 and 1998, I bought them. When Twilight Zone cards came out from 1999-2002, I bought those sets too. Same for the 2001 Planet of the Apes cards. Though not the original issues ( the 1964 Leaf Munsters and the 1967 Topps Planet of the Apes cards are a tad pricey), the recent sets were good fun, brought back great TV and movie memories, not so much from the time like a 1972 Gary Gentry would, but looking backward. They were definitely as much fun as those year’s baseball cards. The ’96 Grandpa Munster cards were as good, if not better, than the ’96 Derek Jeters.

s-l300

Is this off topic? Kinda, but I’d like to know what is at the core of the card collector. How many readers of this blog only collect baseball cards? How many collect other sports? How many collect non-sports? I want to know who’s harboring a secret Partridge Family set.

These days I am fully immersed in baseball cards, but that doesn’t mean I’m averse to picking up the occasional 1959 Fleer Three Stooges card, if the price is right.

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Momma Took Topps’ Kodachrome Away

Clemente

Anyone who collected cards in 1969 remembers opening a pack and finding a glossy, black and white card that resembled a photograph. Topps “Deckle Edge” inserts were designed to mimic the photo print style of snapshots. This type of print goes back as far as 1930 but was most popular for a 20 year period starting in the ‘40s and concluding in the late ‘60s.*

I distinctly remember a shoe box full of decal edge photos that my grandma kept in cupboard. My brother won a camera as a prize in ’67. The first set of blurry photos it produced were printed on decal edge paper. I mention this background information to demonstrate that most kids in 1969 would have been familiar with this type of photo print.

 

This subset contains 33 cards with two variations and measures 2 ¼” x 2 ¼”. The backs are white with a rectangular box containing the name and card number in blue ink. The cards are ordered alphabetically starting with the American League. The set features 11 future Hall-of-Famers and players representing the ’69 expansion teams. The two variations are result of trades. Card 11b, Jim, “The Toy Cannon” Wynn, was added because the Houston card featured Rusty Staub, who was dealt to Montreal. Joy Foy is card number 22b and was included to represent the Royals after Hoyt Wilhelm was sent to the Angels.

The deckle edge is unique and we should give Topps kudos for originality, but the photos are mostly retreads. As Mark Armour recently detailed, the player boycott of Topps resulted in old photos being used in ’68 and ‘69. Several cards simply had shots from previous regular issue cards. For example, the Juan Marichal picture was used on his ’65, while Rod Carew and Maury Wills are reprised from ‘68.

The insert set depicts several players wearing their previous team’s uniform with the current club’s cap insignia airbrushed on.  Ken “Hawk” Harrelson has a Boston “B” drawn on his cap though he is clearly wearing a KC A’s vest uniform. Tom Haller’s Giants lettering is airbrushed off his chest and an “LA” added to his lid. Frank Howard has the Senators curly cue “W” on a Dodgers helmet. Also Topps put “Sox” on Luis Aparicio’s two-toned Orioles helmet. Since Luis was with the White Sox originally, why not use an early ‘60s photo?

There are a few interesting poses. The Bill Freehan card shows him in a classic catchers crouch with coach, Wally Moses, hitting “fungos” in the background. The Boog Powell shot has bunting in the background indicating opening day or an All-Star game. The hat style precludes it from being the ’66 World Series.

Black and white photography can be used artistically to great effect, but there is very little artistry demonstrated in these inserts. Dull as they are, the cards are memorable. The images have been etched in my mind for close to 50 years. Then again, I’ve been told I’m not playing with a full deck(le).

1974 Allen front Jackson Back

Topps resurrected the deckle edge design with a “test issue” in 1974. The 72 cards are 2 7/8” X 5.” The set had limited distribution and featured 21 Hall-of-Famers to be. On the back, in script intended to imitate hand lettering on old photos, is the date and location of the photo session. Here is a link to Rich Mueller’s post on “Sports Collector’s Daily” that provides all the particulars of this rare set.

*Krentz, Anna (2014). A Study of the Deckle Edge in the North American Snapshot (master’s thesis).   www.digital.library.ryerson.ca

Like a Broken Record

Of all the junk wax era subsets, I’ve always thought that the Topps ‘Record Breakers’ series was underrated. They don’t carry the prestige of the All-Star Rookies or Diamond Kings, or have the kitsch of Turn Back the Clock, or inspire the misguided investment allure of Rated Rookies, but I love how they represent real events from the previous season – some historic, others not so much.

Topps issued a kind-of precursor to the Record Breakers set in 1961 with “Baseball Thrills,” a subset that honored various baseball highlights – many involving record-setting feats – from the previous 40 years or so. In 1974, Topps issued a special base card for Hank Aaron, proclaiming him as the “New All-Time Home Run King,” even though he hadn’t actually broken the record yet. 1975 saw the debut of the “Season Highlights” set, that honored the homer record, along with Lou Brock’s single season SB record, the first time records from the previous season were so honored.

In 1976, the first Record Breakers set appeared. The series opened up the set, number-wise, and featured Hank Aaron’s breaking of the all-time RBI record on card #1 (the fourth straight year Aaron appeared on card #1). Record Breakers appeared about every-other year through the 1985 set, alternating with the Season Highlights set, which usually contained a few record-breaking moments itself. In 1979 and 1981, the set started with card #200, but otherwise opened with card #1. This led to one of the less-distinguished “first cards” in Topps history, the 1983 opener featuring Oakland’s Tony Armas, the brand new holder of the esteemed mark for most putouts by a right fielder in a single game. Card #2 that year was Rickey Henderson, who had just broken the single-season stolen base record, obviously a much bigger deal. However, the numbering of these sets was (mostly) done by alphabetical order. The lone exception was Reggie Jackson’s 1978 RB, which honored his 5-homer World Series. The card appears at the end of the RB set, card #7, although by the letter, it should have been card #3. One can assume that the card was a late addition to the checklist and Topps chose to bump a base card from the #7 spot rather than reorder the RBs.

The 1983 Aramas #1 card is hardly the only RB to feature a less-than-historic achievement. In 1979, Topps paid tribute to Mike Edwards of the A’s for recording two unassisted double plays in a single game – tying a mark for AL second baseman. They also honored Mets backstop John Stearns that year. Stearns stole 25 bases (against 13 times caught) in 1978, hardly an earth-shattering total, but a new record for NL catchers. The 1981 set paid tribute to a couple of at-bat kings – Willie Wilson for a new single-season mark and Pete Rose for totaling the most consecutive 600 AB seasons.

In 1985, the Record Breaker set became an annual feature. That year saw 10 RB cards, the most ever in a single set (that feat alone could have garnered its own card), and featured five future Hall of Famers (Fisk, Morgan, Ryan, Sutter, and Sutton). In 1986, aside from the card honoring Pete Rose’s new career hit record, the pickings were a bit thin, prompting Topps to begin considering being the youngest or most elderly player to achieve a feat as a broken record. The ’86 RBs thus included Doc Gooden (youngest Cy Young winner), Phil Niekro (oldest to toss a shutout), and Tony Perez (oldest to hit a grand slam).

Rose’s 1986 RB card was his fifth, extending his own record for most RB appearances. That mark would be tied in 1992 by Nolan Ryan. Other players with multiple RB appearances include Cal Ripken (2), Carlton Fisk (2), Davey Lopes (2 ), Dwight Gooden (2), Rickey Henderson (3), and Vince Coleman (3). Of the 26 MLB teams that were around during the RB era, only the Mariners and Braves did not appear in the set. The New York Yankees were featured eight times, the most of any team.

The fact that Henderson, Lopes, and Coleman all made multiple appearances speaks to the high-speed era in which most of the RBs came from. Of the 85 Record Breaker cards Topps issued between 1976 and 1992, 13 dealt with stolen base records, more than all but strikeouts (15) and home runs (16). Surprising, Hank Aaron’s ’76 RBI Record Breaker was the only card to ever honor an RBI record.

In 1989, Topps went with a NNOF (no name on front) design for the Record Breakers – the rare occasion in which they issued player-specific cards without IDing them on the front (perhaps the only time they’ve done this, now that I think about it). The 1990 and 1991 sets would be NNOF as well. In 1990, the RBs were bumped back to accommodate Nolan Ryan’s #1 base card and a 5-card Ryan retrospective set honoring his 5,000th strikeout. Ryan also took the top spot in ’91 and ’92, followed immediately by the RBs – which each featured a Ryan card, making him the rare player with multiple “first page” (cards 1-9) appearances in a single year.

In 1993, with an expanded set and a new dual-series format, Topps dumped the Record Breaker subset.

Matthew Prigge has just launched a new card blog detailing his quest to complete a signed 1974 Topps set and his other collecting adventures. Check out Summer of ’74!

Double-knit Double Takes and False Flannels

 

Back in 2015 Rich Klein wrote an article for “Sports Collectors Daily” examining Topps cards in which the player appears wearing their previous team’s uniform and cap. Topps’ didn’t follow the usual practice of using headshots without caps or air brushing out the insignia. Meeting a print deadline seems the most obvious reason for the existence of all these anomalous cards. I could not find any definitive explanation. Mr. Klein concluded the article by suggesting readers send in other examples besides his ’74 Glenn Beckert and Jerry Morales, ’61 Johnny James, ’62 Don Zimmer and ’63 Stan Williams. So, I decided to search for more of these oddities in Topps sets from the ‘50s-‘70s.

I will start with the before mentioned Beckert and Morales cards since they are the first examples I collected. I distinctly remember Jerry Morales being clad in his bright, yellow Padres uniform but shown as a Cub. Beckert is wearing his home Cubs pinstripes. An additional anomaly is the variation card that has Beckert listed as “Washington Nat’l Lea.” This is the year Topps jumped the gun on a Padres possible move to DC. The backs of Morales and both Beckerts include a line indicating the players were traded on November ’73. Since Topps was not averse to airbrush painting whole uniforms in this era, the most likely explanation is the trade occurred too late for the printing deadline. As Mark Armour and others reminded me recently, ‘74 was the first year Topps distributed the whole set at once nationwide. There was no longer an option to alter the cards and include them in a later series.

The backs of the ’64 Don Demeter and Gus Triandos inform us that both were traded in December ‘63. They were both part of the deal that sent Jim Bunning to Philadelphia.  (Bunning, it should be noted appeared that year without a hat but identified as a Phillie, his new team)

The ‘62 Willie Tasby and Bob Buhl each have a variation with the cap blacked out. Topps was able to correct the error in a later print run. The airbrushed variations are worth considerably more, likely due to a shorter print run.

56 doby60 Cash

61 Klu

63 Perry64 Alou

The most prominent players to escape the airbrush treatment are: Larry Doby in ‘56, Norm Cash, Johnny Callison and Frank Thomas in ’60, Ted Kluszewski in ’61, Jim Perry in ’63 and Felipe Alou in ’64. Notice that in many of the ’60 cards Topps did paint the correct emblem on the hats in the black and white “action” shots.

57 Ditmar 60 Hadley and Siebern

57 Ditmar60 Hadley60 Siebern

The late “50s and early ‘60s saw a flurry of trades between the Yankees and Kansas City Athletics in which the Yankees often got the better end of the deal. The ’57 Art Ditmar, ’60 Kent Hadley and ’60 Norm Siebern were part of the KC/NY shuttle.

 

Here are the rest:

53 Groth

’53: Johnny Groth

’54: Johnny Lipton and Al Sima

58 Aspro

’58: Ken Aspromonte

60 Dailey60 Foiles60 Lepecio

’60: Pete Dailey, Hank Foiles and Ted Lepcio

61 Farrell

’61: Dick “Turk” Farrell

’64: Willie Kirkland and Julio Navarro

If you are aware of other examples, please mention them in the comments or on Twitter. Also if you know of an explanation besides printing deadlines for the existence of these cards, please let us know.

The Me Decade: Results

Thanks to the 135 of you who participated in our first poll, to determine our favorite card set of the 1970s.

Click here to read about the poll and to see images of the fronts and backs of all of these cards.

This was so successful (read: heated) that we will be running more polls in the future. Hopefully you all know that there is no correct answer (except mine), just as there is no correct answer on the best LP of the 1970s (London Calling) or the best movie of the 1970s (All the Presidents Men). This poll says as much about us as it does about the Topps card sets.

One of the requests I could have made, but did not, was that people try to discount their “nostalgia” biases — the first card sets from the childhood, etc. The reason I did not request this is because it is impossible. Nostalgia colors everything, especially baseball cards. And why shouldn’t it? Bring it, nostalgia.

What follows is the composite score of all of us poll takers. As I noted on Twitter last night, all ten card sets received all ten possible scores — our “favorite” set got last place votes, and our “least favorite” got first place votes. Which is a fantastic result.

What follows are our results, with my comments. The average score is computed as a 10 for a first place vote, 9 for a second, etc.

1. 1971 (average score 6.72, first place votes 26)

This set got the most first place votes, and the least last place votes, so it would have won no matter how I framed the poll.

Personally I love the front of the cards, maybe as much as any set ever. As a ten-year-old, the backs were very bad, both for the content and because this was the year Topps switched from the white card stock (gloriously present from 1963 through 1970) to dark grey (used for the next two decades), making reading the text much more difficult. If you came to cards a few years later, you missed this sensation.

A few people commented that they disliked cards with signatures on the front (like 1971). If you like to get your cards autographed, the card will have two signatures on it, making for a mess (As someone who dislikes my cards being defaced, I never really thought of this before. But it makes sense.) I was fascinated with the signatures — especially Fred Wenz.

2. 1970 (6.52, 21)

I voted this number 1. A lot of people dislike the “boring” grey border, or the scripted name. The backs are spectacular, of course. Personally (warning: nostalgia ahead), this set was powerful as a kid because Topps had used so many old/repeated photos the previous two years (because of the player boycott).

3. 1975 (6.21, 19)

Sets with “loud” borders tend to split the group, with many people thinking it was the best, but many (14) thinking it was the worst. This was the first set I ever finished — I shudder to think how many packs of cards I opened when I only needed 20 more cards. The math was brutal, and I was old enough (14) that I didn’t have many collecting friends to trade with. The next year I bought a complete set in the mail, saving myself a lot of money.

Several people commented that they loved this set because of all the great rookie cards, or because they loved the mini set, both of which sort of violate the “rules” I advised yesterday. But, so what? This is a fine set, and here we are.

4. 1972 (6.08, 23)

Speaking of “loud” — 23 first place votes, 15 last place votes. In early voting I thought this set might actually win. The border, it is almost hard to notice, is actually white. Inside of the border is a large multi-colored (team-specific) frame. Inside of that, if you look real close, you will notice a small photo of a baseball player. I kid, 1972, I kid.

As a child this set got me to stop collecting. I was 11 years old, and it was time to move on with my life. (I started collecting again the next year). My biggest critique at the time, besides the frame, was the lack of position on the front. I “used” my cards — sorting by teams, making rosters, moving players around as they changed real teams. I really disliked this experiment, which Topps junked the next year.

5. 1976 (5.69, 10)

A personal favorite, with its nice clean border and cool position icon on the front. Let’s say you have something you want to frame — wedding photo, Escher print, child’s painting, college diploma, etc. Would you wrap that puppy in a 1972 Topps frame, or 1975? You would not, no. For elegance, how can you beat 1976?

The backs, it must be said, were brutal — the stats are literally black text on dark green. (Also used in 1974.) Seriously, Topps? I was looking at my set a few weeks ago, and tried reading them with my regular glasses, my reading glasses, or bare-eyed up-close. Nope, nope, nope. Even as a teenager it was tough.

6. 1973 (5.67, 9)

A huge about-face after the past two years, with Topps going to the height of simplicity. They put a position icon on the front (yeah!) but made team sorting harder by de-emphasizing the team name for the first time in several years (boo!). This seems to be a fairly uncontroversial set, with few huge proponents or detractors.

7. 1974 (5.51, 15)

11.2 percent of us voted this #1. This surprised me — I don’t dislike the set at all, I am just surprised that it rose to that level for people. I am glad it did, as it helps cement in my mind the idea that all of these sets are great in their own way.

On other hand, one guy on Twitter responded to my request for opinions on these ten sets: “Hate ’em all. Topps haven’t got it right since 1967… 50 years!” That is … something else.

8. 1977 (4.86, 6)

I worry about the age bias of our group, since our favorite three 1970s sets are the “oldest”, and the bottom three sets are the youngest. This set is 40 years old, sad to say, but many of us are even older.

I put a lot of sets above this one but there is a lot to like. The position pennant, the big team name — I preferred the team name to be prominent on the card. The backs were a big step up from 1976 because they made the stats background grey, making them more readable. It was not 1969 level awesomeness, but a welcome improvement.

9. 1978 (4.47, 5)

I like this set. The fronts are pretty simple, which I tend to prefer. The backs used orange as the primary color. Viva la change!

10. 1979 (3.43, 1)

Although one respondent placed this set first, its status in last place is pretty clear. 33 tenth place votes, and 28 ninth place votes — the two highest totals in the grid.

The design is a bit boring to most people, and many commented that they did not like the Topps logo, perhaps predating the coming end to their monopoly.

As I have said many times, I have all of these sets and I like all of them. I have my favorites, to be sure.

We will run more of these polls in the future. Feel free to contact me if you have any ideas of things you want the group to weigh in on.

The Best of The Me Decade

The fine folks at Baseball Prospectus recently polled their staff to determine the best Topps design of the 1980s. Which annoyed me because … what a great idea! I have been meaning to do some polls over here, but hadn’t gotten around to it yet. So, better late than never …

Rather than copy BP completely, I thought we’d run our first poll using the 1970s. See? This is different!

I would like to ask all interested observers to rank the 10 Topps set designs, best to worst.

CLICK HERE FOR POLL

Rules:

  1. I would like you to consider the design of the set, both front and back. If you don’t care about backs at all, ignore it. If you are someone who grew up memorizing card backs, like I did, please consider the back heavily in your ranking.
  2. Ignore issues of set content (too many rookie cards, no league leaders, etc).
  3. Please consider the set’s “peak value”. Do not judge it by the ugly airbrushed cards that all these sets have to some extent. Ask the question: How nice are the best cards? With this in mind, I have included an example of an attractive card from each set. Feel free to consider these (or your own favorites) when scoring.

The purpose of these rules is not to steer you in one direction or the other. The purpose is simply to ensure that all of us are judging the same thing.

OK. Use the below as an initial guide, and send me your votes.

1970

ARMOUR PART07 1970 BenchJohnnyFrontARMOUR PART07 1970 BenchJohnnyBack

1971

ARMOUR PART07 1971 CarewRodFrontARMOUR PART07 1971 CarewRodBack

1972

ARMOUR PART08 1972 MorganJoeARMOUR PART08 1972 MorganJoeBack

1973

ARMOUR PART08 1973 FiskCarltonFrontARMOUR PART08 1973 FiskCarltonBack

1974

ARMOUR PART08 1974 RosePeteFrontARMOUR PART08 1974 RosePeteBack

1975

ARMOUR PART08 1975 MunsonThurmanARMOUR PART08 1975 MunsonThurmanBack

1976

ARMOUR PART09 1976 BrettGeorgeFrontARMOUR PART09 1976 BrettGeorgeBack

1977

ARMOUR PART09 1977 SchmidtMikeFrontARMOUR PART09 1977 SchmidtMikeBack

1978

ARMOUR PART09 1978 RyanNolanFrontARMOUR PART09 1978 RyanNolanBack

1979

ARMOUR PART09 1979 SmithOzzieARMOUR PART09 1979 SmithOzzieBack

 

Update: The Results!

 

Amazing Stuff

In the wake of the Mets winning the World Series in 1969, a flood of cool items hit the market -buttons, records, Daily News portraits (“A Portfolio of Stars,” drawn by cartoonist Bruce Stark), ugly Transogram action figures, even an IHOP placemat (which I have, which is remarkable considering I’ve eaten at an IHOP maybe three times in my life).

IHOP Mets Placemat 1970

The one that grabbed my interest the most was a gas station giveaway that came out during that championship season.

Nostradamus-like, Citgo put out an 8 card set BEFORE the Mets won the World Series. Way to get on the bandwagon before the bandwagon even existed! At 8” X 10”, are they cards? I don’t know. They’re card-y enough to make it into the Standard Catalog. The fronts of the cards have both portrait and action shots, the eight lucky Mets featured were Tommie Agee, Ken Boswell, Gary Gentry, Jerry Grote, Cleon Jones, Jerry Koosman, Ed Kranepool and Tom Seaver. No Jack DiLauro? No Bobby Pfeil? For God’s sake, where the hell is Nolan Ryan?

IMG_2447

The backs have brief bios of the players (Cleon Jones, football star), some statistics, and a longer bio of the artist, John Wheeldon. Wheeldon gets some pretty heavy duty coverage here. Clearly he was a big deal – he painted Gene Kelly! There’s solid PR for him on the back, as well as for Citgo. “A nice place to visit” – really? I can’t think of a place more dirty and sad than a 1969 era Citgo gas station. Only your local porno theater was more gross.

IMG_2446

I didn’t collect these when they came out. I was six- years old, going on seven, in the summer of ’69, and didn’t have my card collecting and gas station promo game down. By 1972, when Sunoco issued NFL stamps, I was all over it.

Years after the Citgo Mets were issued, I found a nice set at a Chicago National and, having completely forgotten about them, was consumed by a flush of warm nostalgia when I saw them. I was instantly brought back to the Canarsie of my youth and the pure heaven of the Mets World Series win. I stopped being a Mets fan years ago (mid-1977 to be exact), but 1969-70 has a special place in my heart, as does this set, which was yours for $0.35 per gallon.