Take Comfort

These are strange times indeed. As we all withdraw from social interaction, at least in the near term, and find ourselves at home more often (though I’m home a lot!), there is some solace for those who have stuff – books, movies, and, for all of us present, cards.

 

For all we talk about cards in this space – what to collect, what we need, what we regret, what we envy – the true nature of this collecting business is the chords it strikes within us. There’s a nostalgia, for sure, a somewhat false recapturing of a youth that from today’s vantage point seems unblemished by trouble (though it really wasn’t at the time). There’s also the joy of having, and looking, at these totems that, at the very core, are created to make us happy.

I was once told that “things don’t love you back,” and, while that’s true, it also isn’t. The things we love reflect a kind of love back to us. There’s an emotion that is tangibly true when we look at cards. It’s real and not to be dismissed.

 

There’ll be times in the coming weeks that’ll result in many of us feeling lonesome. I saw a Doctor on TV last night warning that there’s a cost to isolation and we should all make sure to stay in touch, somehow.

Take some comfort in your cards. That’s what they’re there for.

Be safe, healthy and well.

 

Metacards

A couple years ago now, someone was running a Twitter sale and posted a batch of 1955 Bowmans. I hadn’t quite made the jump into pursuing Giants Bowman cards at the time but I looked at the batch anyway and one card jumped out at me that I had to have. So I responded to the tweet and the following conversation ensued.

“I’ll take the Bowman.”

“Which one? They’re all Bowmans.”

“The Bowman Bowman.”

“LOLOL”

The card that jumped out at me and the first 1955 Bowman I ever purchased was Roger Bowman’s Rookie Card. I knew nothing about him as a player* but the silliness of having a Bowman Bowman card was irresistible.

*I would discover that he was a former Giant but by the time his Rookie Card was printed his career was basically over.

And so a collection theme was born. I don’t have all of the cards in this post but they’re on my radar. Sometimes we collect our favorite teams. Sometimes we collect our favorite players. And sometimes we collect cards where the player name describes the card itself.

On the theme of the Bowman Bowman we’ll start with a pair of Johnson Johnstons. As a Giants fan the Johnston Cookies issues aren’t exactly relevant to my interests. But getting an Ernie or Ben Johnson card of those? That’s something I can feel completely fine about adding to my searchlist.

Sadly there aren’t a lot of guys whose names match the card manufacturers. Hank Gowdy, despite playing through the 1930s, never appears on a Goudey card. Score never made a Herb Score card.

Thankfully the Ted Williams company produced Ted Williams cards in its early 1990s sets and the Conlon Collection included a Jocko Conlan card as well. And to bring us back to where we started, Matthew Bowman gives us the modern version of the Bowman Bowman card.

But it’s not just card manufacturers where this checklist is relevant. Player names can match team names whether it’s Dave Philley as a Phillie or Johnny Podres on the Padres. Jose Cardenal almost got aced out since his time with the Cardinals corresponds to when Topps calls them the “Cards”* but his Kellogg’s card, with no team name on the front but Cardinals on the back, doesn’t do this.

*Cards cards are an honorary member of this collection.

Unfortunately guys like Daryl Boston and Reggie Cleveland never played for Boston or Cleveland respectively.

First names can also match in this department. Like we’ve got Angel the Angel who sadly never pitched when the club called itself The Los Angeles Angels. There are plenty of other players named Angel on Baseball Reference but none appeared for the Angels.

Sticking with first names and moving to more thematic cards. We’ve got a Chase chase card and a Rookie Rookie Card. I went with Chase the batdog whose card is a short print in 2013 Topps Heritage Minors but there are also a few Chase Field cards that are numbered to various small numbers. Sadly, images of those are hard to come by.

The Rookie Rookie though I enjoy a lot. I usually hate the RC badge but in this case it really makes the card.

There are also a couple more thematic near misses. Cookie Lavagetto left the Oakland Oaks the year before Mothers Cookies started making its PCL sets in the 1950s and Cookie Rojas, despite managing for the Angels in the 1980s, was on the only West Coast team that did not get Mothers Cookies cards.

And finally, much to my dismay, the 1968 Topps Game Matty Alou Error Card does not contain an error. Although I do keep that card around as one of my favorite Error cards.

Any more suggestions? Please leave them in the comments!

Addendum

A couple cards that came up in the comments the week after this posted.

First a Wally Post Post card which Tom Bowen suggested in the comments. Thanks Tom! And second a green tint* Pumpsie Green that I knew of an completely spaced on when I wrote this.

*We haven’t yet had a post on this blog about the 1962 Topps green tint variants but there’s a definitive breakdown of all the variations over on Flickr.

The Gould Collection: What Johnny Left Behind

Just a few days before the opening of “Home Base,” my exhibition about the history of baseball in New York City, I received an email from a woman who had been steered my way by the esteemed official historian of Major League Baseball, John Thorn. The content of the email was, mostly, something I have seen before. A family had inherited a baseball card collection. They believed it had some value but were looking for assistance as to which way to best navigate a sale.

In the few years I have been assisting people in selling their collections, I am, at best, usually approached with cards from the 1970s. Often, it’s even more recent and pretty worthless. I’ve disappointed many a soul when I told them that the five Wade Boggs rookie cards they hoarded as a kid weren’t going to make them a millionaire. I’ve reached a point where I understand that such collections aren’t worth the many hours that go into what it takes to inventory, organize and sell a collection, and I pass on the opportunity.

But, this email had two distinctive features. The first was the recommendation from John, who has the wisdom to know if something is the real deal. The second was that this family had already done a considerable amount of inventorying and research in the eight months since their uncle died. They sent me a series of handwritten lists they had created, which told me which sets they had and which cards were missing from each. It was intriguing enough that last week I decided to meet with them to see it in person.

I met the three sisters, Karen, Lynn, and Mary, and their mother, Gertrude. They made me a splendid breakfast and regaled me with stories of their uncle, Johnny Gould. Johnny (the handsome fellow whose picture is at the top of this blog) was born in 1940, was single for most of his life, and was living in the home that belonged to his parents when he died. He was remembered by his family as one who was both “salty and sweet,” a kind soul who was a bit of a reclusive loner. He was also a sports fanatic. All sports. He was a Redskins fan who was the quarterback in many a neighborhood pickup game. He liked basketball and was an avid watcher of golf. But, the true passion of his life was baseball.

Because Whalen only served as a scout for the Indians between 1953-’56, Johnny was clearly already on the radar of major league teams when he was a boy no older than 16.

As a youth, he pursued a professional career. Among the things he left behind in his collection were an interest letter from the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the business cards of John Whalen and Walter Youse, scouts for the Indians and Orioles, respectively. He signed with the Indians, as a pitcher, and was in their minor league system when an arm injury derailed his fledgling career. After his dreams of major league glory were dashed, he continued to channel his love of the game into collecting. It was an intense romance that resulted in a collection that has brought me to pen this little missive.

I am in the middle of inventorying the first five fifty-gallon storage tubs, and those represent just a portion of the collection. The cataloging process will likely take me several more weeks and as a result, I can’t accurately represent the sheer enormity of it, not just yet. However, I have seen enough that a story is starting to emerge.

Robinson’s 1950 Bowman image was based on a photograph taken by Barney Stein, the Dodgers official team photographer.

Johnny began collecting baseball cards in 1950, when he was a ten-year-old boy. His timing was synchronous with the explosion of the hobby, which had been mostly dormant during World War II. Johnny began with Bowman, the only real game in town at that point. That 1950 offering included what we now think of as key cards for Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, and Yogi Berra. The nickels that Johnny paid for a pack of five cards (or one-card packs for a penny), resulted in him having multiple copies of those legendary players, and more, in this relatively affordable vintage set.

After he experienced the photo-based, lushly painted wonder of the 1950 Bowmans, he clearly became hooked. For the next 13 years he purchased every set that Bowman and Topps produced, with the seeming exception of 1960. The quantities he bought would vary, year to year. He was missing fewer than 50 cards that were produced by Bowman from 1950-1955. From Topps, he had a complete set of 1957, was missing only one (ironically inexpensive) card from the 1956 set, and was only a couple dozen cards shy of completing the sets from 1952-55.

Among the many, many cards that Johnny collected in his teens are some of the most iconic ones in the hobby. He not only owned the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle, perhaps second only to the famed T-206 Wagner in terms of desirability by collectors, but he had two 1951 Mantle Bowmans. There are multiple rookie cards for all of the biggest names of baseball’s golden age: Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, Eddie Mathews, Al Kaline, and Sandy Koufax are all represented, just to name a few. Johnny also, at one point in his life, started collecting pre-war cards, too. There are 1934-36 Batter Ups and Diamond Stars, 1935 Goudey 4-in-1s, 1933 Eclipse Imports and a fair sprinkling of 1939 Play Balls, including both the Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio rookie cards.

One of two Bowman ’51 Mantles in Johnny’s collection. The other one has much nicer corners, but I chose to use this image for the blog because the other is in a yellow Card Saver, making an ugly scan. Since I don’t want to touch them any more than is necessary, I chose to not pull it out just yet.
The 1939 Play Ball of Ted Williams is one of the most recognized rookie cards in the hobby, and one of the most frequently sought after, even when suffering from water damage.

The conditions of the cards vary. At some point he trimmed the ’52 Mantle so he could fit it into his wallet, according to the sisters. Most of the wear is more traditional. It’s clear from the ones dating back to the early years that Johnny loved his cards with a little boy’s enthusiasm. But, as he matured, he started to take better care of his collection. The borders of the 1962 Topps, with their dark faux woodgrain, are remarkably sharp and unchipped.

One habit superseded any desire he may have had to keep his cards pristine. Johnny went through a phase in the mid-’50s where he wanted to learn how to sign an autograph, just like his idols. What better arena in which to learn than on the cards themselves, where manufacturers frequently provided a facsimile signature? Johnny had nine copies of Hank Aaron’s 1956 Topps. Five of them feature what I believe are the sixteen-year-old’s florid attempts at replicating the tight signature of Hammerin’ Hank.

The creative autograph stylings of teenage Johnny Gould. Of these, I believe only the faded example on the top right is even potentially legitimate.

His habit of copying signatures almost made me miss a group of 1953 Bowmans that contain, what I now believe to be, legitimate autographs. At first I was working under the premise that they were also fakes, largely because the Mantle autograph looked so different from his more familiar style, with the half-moon M at the front of both parts of his alliterative moniker. Then, I took a second look. On the cards that were obvious forgeries, Johnny’s youthful attempts at copying the signatures weren’t very good. Not only did they look nothing like the real thing, but they were all obviously written in the same hand. The ’53 Bowmans not only seemed to be by different hands, but the cards themselves do not contain a facsimile to inspire his practice. That realization then triggered the memory that Mantle’s signature, like so many others, evolved over the years. With the help of sportscollectorsdigest.com I found a version of Mantle’s autograph from a similar era. I leave the comparison to you.

Top image: Johnny’s 1953 Bowman. Bottom image: Mantle’s 1954 Yankees contract.

Gertrude confirmed that Johnny started taking the bus to Griffith Stadium when he was thirteen. All of the signatures on the ’53 Bowmans, seven in total, were guys who played on American League teams, four of them Yankees. As such, there would have been an opportunity for Johnny to connect with each of them. I’m firmly convinced these signatures are real and will be keeping an eye open for even more examples as I inventory the rest of the collection.

One of three containers filled with hundreds of envelopes. Because he requested autographs for many years, one can observe the evolution of the signatures of players who replied to him more than once.

Autographs became very important to Johnny, ultimately overcoming his collection of baseball cards. While he appears to have mostly stopped buying cards around 1962, that year also marks the beginning of when he started a new hobby. Included in the collection are three boxes of envelopes, with approximately 150 envelopes per box. The dates on the postmarks span the years 1962-’97, and come from around the United States. It seems that Johnny wrote the ballclubs (and later in life, professional golfers), and sent them a SASE filled with blank index cards. The teams returned them, signed, with mixed results in terms of player participation. Often, only one player responded, signing multiple cards. Anyone in need of 12 copies of Charlie Spikes’s autograph?

Some of the envelopes, however, have taken my breath away. One postmarked from San Francisco in 1965 contained the autographs of six Hall of Famers, including Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, Gaylord Perry, Warren Spahn and Willie Mays. Another contained almost the entire starting squad of the 1969 Mets, including Tom Seaver. A third featured many of the 1969 Pirates, including one signed by Roberto Clemente. I had never touched anything that was also once held by Clemente, a personal idol, and the experience left me shaken.

Johnny’s index card from 1969, bearing the signature of The Great One, Roberto Clemente.

The contents of the card collection itself are a rare experience for many hobbyists. A chance to dive into so many of these legendary pieces of cardboard is a precious opportunity indeed, and I expected to be moved by my discoveries along the way. But, I’m normally not an autograph guy. Even as a child, I found something awkward in asking a player to sign something for me. It felt like an invasion of their space, like I was a thief trying to steal their names. So, it is with no small amount of irony that I find myself most captivated by this collection of envelopes. The sisters did not have time to inventory their contents, so each is a surprise to me, and some of the names I am stumbling across are humbling.

The envelopes have also given me a chance to better understand Johnny Gould, the man. It is one thing for a ten (or twenty) year-old boy to spend a few dimes on packs of baseball cards. But to practice a habit for thirty-five years, carrying it through until well past middle-age, speaks to a particular mind. Lynn pointed out that while many of the cards were stored in literal shoeboxes, the envelopes lived in the top drawer of his dresser, always close at hand. Each one of those envelopes, all of them containing the same D.C. return address written in the same, neat, steady hand, is a testament to a passion I readily recognize. For Johnny, those index cards were transformed from simple squares of paper to direct links to the game that he gave his life to, in his most singular way. I, and likely most of you reading this post on this particular blog, can certainly relate.

Once I’m done cataloging all the index cards, I should probably go back and check on the value of the almost 500 stamps that he attached to his requests. The FDR stamp was a part of the USPS “Prominent Americans” series, issued between 1965-’78.

I am excited for what the next few weeks hold. There are still plenty of treasures to discover as I prepare to help the family sell their uncle’s legacy. There’s more I’ve already uncovered that I didn’t even mention this time around. Maybe I’ll have to write more about it as I journey down the path. In the meantime, if any of you might be interested in purchasing items from the Gould Collection, feel free to drop me a line at carhartcards@gmail.com. I’ll be over here, touching history.

The original ERR Jordan

Our SABR Baseball Cards blog and the collecting blogosphere never fail to remind us that a single card can have quite a story. Even still, I was surprised by just how much story this particular card had.

The card in question comes from the 1909-11 American Caramel set known as E90-1. My own non-scholarly take on the set is that it’s what T206 would have looked like if it had one-fifth the cards and were done in watercolor.

So now that you have a feel for the set, I present to you the E90-1 card of Brooklyn’s “guardian of the initial sack,” Buck Jordan. Because his name is spelled wrong (“Jordon”) on the card, we might rightly say this is the very first ERR Jordan card!

This card first hit my radar for two reasons. One, I have a fledgling Brooklyn Superba collection that still has room for a few more cards. And two, I’m a sucker for these crazy sunsets, in real life and on cardboard.

As any astute buyer would be smart to do, I decided to learn a little more about the player before pulling the trigger on my purchase. The name “Buck Jordan” was familiar to me in a way I couldn’t place, and I soon learned why: I already had his card!

The only problem, at least if the Diamond Stars bio was to be believed, was that Buck Jordan would have been about two years old in 1909! Now I’ve heard of players starting young–Campy, Nuxhall, and Ott to name a few–but this was a level of diaper dandy that left even me dubious.

Well, just a little more research was enough to solve the riddle. The player on the E90-1 card was not Buck Jordan at all, as the PSA flip indicated. (Readers skilled at navigating the PSA customer service labyrinth are welcome to report the error.)

This was Tim Jordan, a totally different player who (from what my research could turn up) was never once known as Buck. Interestingly, I did find several articles that used the nicknames “Big Tim Jordan” or “Big City.” Here is one of the more notable ones, from the March 16, 1908, Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

As another quick aside, I’ll mention that there really was a “Buck Jordan” card right around the time the American Caramel card was issued. Card 45 in the 1911 Turkey Red Cabinets (T3) set featured none other than Charles “Buck” Herzog and Tim Jordan, hence could correctly be deemed the very first true Buck/Jordan card.

Now are you ready for another error? I don’t claim to know which player is which on that Buck/Jordan card, but there’s nobody I trust more than Baseball Researcher to get these things right. As you can see by his caption, he has Jordan as the fielder and Herzog as the runner.

If you have good eyes (and feel free to head here for a bigger picture), you might notice that the fielder has his glove on his left hand, i.e., throws right handed. However, Baseball Reference lists Jordan as a lefty. Ditto Wikipedia. (UPDATE: Both sites have now been updated!)

Might the photo simply be reversed? Or less likely, could Baseball Researcher have it wrong? Jordan’s solo card in the same set offers a clue. And once again, Jordan looks to be a right-hander.

Could we have yet another reversed negative? This Paul Thompson photo of Jordan provides a definitive answer. Again, Jordan appears right-handed, and the lettering on his jersey rules out any reversed image. A scouting report from the March 25, 1906, Detroit Free Press (paywall) also notes, “He is a right hand thrower, but bats left handed.”

If you’re keeping score at home that already makes three errors: one by American Caramel (“Jordon”), one by PSA (“Buck”), and one by Baseball Reference/Wikipedia (throws left)!

Enough about errors though! It was time to find out who Tim Jordan really was. For his time at least, he was a low batting average guy who hit a bunch of homers and struck out a lot—a “Deadball Kingman” of sorts. (Feel free to substitute Gorman Thomas, Rob Deer, or almost anyone from any of today’s lineups.)

Lest you think Jordan’s homers were chiefly inside-the-park and the Kingman comparison is off-base, I present one of (very) many articles (New York Herald, March 30, 1919) attesting to Jordan’s power.

Jordan’s tremendous proclivity for the long ball was even remembered two decades after his final big league heimlauf by no less than Pirates magnate and Hall of Famer Barney Dreyfuss, who will very shortly make a second appearance in this story. The scene was the 1930 equivalent of the Winter Meetings, and virtually everybody who was anybody was gathered in New York to discuss the state of the game, including the recent home run epidemic.

“The ball is too lively in my opinon,” Dreyfuss said. “In the two years prior to 1929 only two balls were hit over the right field fence in Pittsburgh for homers. They were hit by Outfielder Stenzel and Tim Jordan of Brooklyn. Now they hit two or three over in a single game.” (Incidentally, homering over the right field fence in Pittsburgh wasn’t the only thing the burly Jake Stenzel, shown below, had in common with Jordan. We’ll come back to this near the end.)

Just one more aside…I thought it would be fun to find a record of Jordan’s moonshot. Thanks to some great reporting the next day by the Pittsburgh Press (July 23, 1908), I not only found a description of Jordan’s big fly but an apparent record of all such dongs. (No mention of “Outfielder Stenzel” though. In fact, all twelve of Stenzel’s home runs in Pittsburgh were of the inside-the-park variety.)

Further justifying the comparison to the modern power hitter, Jordan is one of only five rookies in MLB history to win the home run crown as a rookie. The other four are Ralph Kiner, Mark McGwire, Aaron Judge, and Pete Alonso. (Another comparison: per the June 9, 1946, Brooklyn Eagle, Jordan “anticipated Mel Ott by a number of years. He lifted that mighty right leg of his when he pointed to the fence at the tee-off.”)

Master Melvin and his famous batting style

Glance at Jordan’s stat sheet, and you’ll see that Jordan played very little of the 1910 season with Brooklyn. As the season approached there was uncertainty whether Jordan would man first base for Brooklyn or whether newcomer Jake Daubert might land the job. It was not until Opening Day when manager Bill Dahlen wrote Daubert into the lineup that either man learned his status, Daubert as the everyday player and Jordan as pinch-hitter.

Many newspaper articles of the era credit Jordan with a rather dramatic end to his career, a three-run, pinch-hit homer in his final at-bat, but Jordan in fact played in one more game six days later, making the penultimate out in a May 2 contest against the Giants. The game was notable in that the official scorer’s controversial decision to credit Pryor McElveen with a single in the eighth denied a certain Hall of Fame hurler what would have been his third and final no-hitter.

After a disappointing and abrupt end to his big league career, Jordan enjoyed a resurgence in the International League, not only continuing to “punish the sphere” but “wielding his willow” for high averages as well. (See “The Player” tab on this page for some of his numbers.)

Jordan’s strong play with Toronto not only earned him a card in the 1912 Imperial Tobacco (Canada) set but also prompted Pittsburgh owner Barney Dreyfuss to offer the team $10,000 (or “simoleons” in the article) to make Jordan a Pirate. The deal never materialized, with Jordan’s own skipper Joe Kelley claiming it would be baseball suicide to part with his prized fence buster. (Source: Buffalo Courier, February 14, 1912.)

By 1915 Jordan was back in New York where he continued to hit the ball hard for the Binghamton nine and generate now amusing headlines like this one.

I’m not sure the pay compared with that of Brooklyn, but this clipping from the June 9, 1916, edition of the Press and Sun (Binghamton, NY) shows at least the benefits “suited” him.

As some readers know, Jordan was more than a ballplayer and kind letter writer. He was also the inventor of the Tim J. Jordan card game.

A 2013 Heritage auction included the game, complete with original packaging.

While some players look ahead at what they might do after their playing days are over, as the 1914 date on the PSA label might suggest, Jordan was looking for things to do instead of playing baseball, as demonstrated by these clippings from 1909, five full years earlier. (Source: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 1, article and April 13, advertisement.)

Knowing that Jordan did play for Brooklyn in 1909, you might assume the game was a bust. Not so, says the September 4, 1909, edition of the York (Pennsylvania) Dispatch!

I mentioned earlier that Tim Jordan and Jake Stenzel had more in common than allegedly clearing right field in Pittsburgh. Now that you know about Jordan’s side hustle selling card games, here is Stenzel the entrepreneur selling “rooter buttons” to fans of the Cincinnati nine. (Source: Robert Edward Auctions.)

Readers of this blog know I could probably go on and on (and on!) about Mr. Jordan, but I’ll simply end with one last error. Here is Jordan’s obituary from the September 16, 1949, edition of the New York Daily News. It didn’t quite make sense to me when I first read it, and then I realized the second and third lines from the end were flip-flopped.

So there you have it! ERR Jordan all the way till the end, even in death! Ah, but rest easy, Tim. Readers of the SABR Baseball Cards blog know who you were and what you did, and your “knock the cover off the ball” approach to hitting is more than alive and well in the game today.

Custom Tim Jordan ERR card (wrong logo) and Pittsburgh Press article (9/29/08)

Simulacra

Dave

Central among my beliefs is that the 1987 Topps set is the finest collection of baseball cards ever produced. There are no hard facts to support this claim, only my personal zealotry, and though I understand that my love is highly subjective, and the product of timing and circumstance as much as it is of accomplishment in design, I’m unshakable: this is the set, this is the year.

Arguments can and frequently are made for the 1952 Topps set, with its bold primary colours, its painterly portraits, and its Mickey Mantle rookie card, and had I been born a generation earlier I’d likely agree. If I’d been alive to see it first, I’d have been aware that the ‘87s owed much to the 1962 Topps, and so might’ve fallen in love with that set to the exclusion of all others. On the other hand the 1915 Cracker Jack set is iconic for good reason, and our impressions of the white border tobacco card set issued from 1909 to 1911 are necessarily favorable both for the design’s simplicity as well as for its inclusion of the famed Honus Wagner card.

But give me ’87.

Each card presents a photo, either action or posed, with the player’s team’s logo in a roundel in the upper-left corner, and the player’s name in a colored rectangular box with a black border in the lower right, the name rendered in an all-caps font that appears to be a kissing cousin to comic sans. But the background is what distinguishes: faux wood, the unstained grain of a Louisville Slugger running top to bottom, with enough subtle variance from card to card to suggest that real wood was used, or at least consulted, at some point during the design process. The overall effect places the cards adjacent to something real, something natural: wood bats swung through thick summer air, connecting with genuine horsehide balls, which are sent skidding across dirt and grass before settling into the soft, worn pockets of leather mitts.

Career stats—often including minor league numbers, if the player in question has only a year or two of big league experience, and so speaking offhandedly of Kinston, North Carolina, or Syracuse, New York, or Visalia, California—listed on the reverse in blue against a highlighter-yellow background, overtop an unbleached cardboard stock.

Beautiful.

In Canada they were branded O-Pee-Chee, and featured what felt like a token effort toward bilingualism, the player’s position in both French and English, as well as the small biographic fun facts, and yet with statistical categories listed only in English. They were otherwise virtually identical to the American originals.

I bought them from convenience stores—Becker’s on Youville Drive, or Mac’s on St. Joseph Boulevard—for thirty-five cents for a wax pack of 17 cards. If my father was sent out in the evening for a liter of milk, sometimes he’d come home with one in hand. My friends collected them, too, and we traded, with an eye toward amassing our favorites. We were not yet victims of the belief that these rectangles of paper would make us rich. This was a couple of years before the hobby became an industry, at least in my part of the world, characterized by conventions and trade shows where children were elbowed aside by grown men with dollar signs where their eyes ought to have been. The card and comic shop down the hill on St. Joseph hadn’t yet opened.

Joe Posnanski has said that baseball is never as beautiful as it is when you’re ten years old. I guess I’m testifying to that—or anyway, to that general time in my life between about eight and twelve. I watched the NBC Game of the Week, scattered Blue Jays games on CBC, TSN, and CTV, and a weekly digest show on CTV called Blue Jays Banter. When a Jays game wasn’t on TV, which was the norm, I listened to the broadcast on AM radio, CFRA or W-1310, on a transistor unit next to my bed.

Around the time that the Blue Jays reported to Dunedin for Spring Training, 1987, I would have started collecting the cards in question, noticing with great interest when the display box appeared on store counters. This was mere months after Boston’s historic Game 6 collapse (“It gets through Buckner!”) and the Mets’ subsequent title; it was two seasons after 1985’s painful memories, which saw Toronto enter the postseason for the first time in their existence, only to lose the ALCS in heartbreaking fashion to the Royals (I have yet to forgive George Brett). Kansas City then defeated their cross-state rivals, the Cardinals, in seven games to earn their first title. Stacked together, along with what would eventually transpire at the end of the ’87 season—Frank Viola and the Twins besting the Cardinals to win their first Series—that might represent the most thrilling three-year run in the game’s history, with three consecutive seven-gamers that’d be hard to imagine if they hadn’t actually happened. It was, I mean to say, a wonderful time to be a baseball-loving kid, and a great time to collect cards.

Darrell

We’d lived on Rivermill Crescent in suburban Ottawa since the late summer of 1984, when we’d arrived to find our newly built house surrounded by mounds of dirt, open foundations, and unpaved driveways. Across the street, behind the houses under construction, was a great thick forest, a ravine treed with mostly deciduous species—beech and birch and maple—and hatched with trails. In the middle of it wended a silty creek cut deep into banks of mud.

As the neighborhood rose around us, the houses filled with families who presented a tribute to the nascent diversity of Canada’s capital. My new friends’ families came from Hong Kong and Pakistan, the boys my age first generation kids who loved Michael Jordan and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. My friend Wil lived across the street. He was a Giants fan—Will Clark, Kevin Mitchell—though what it meant to be a fan of a team on the West Coast, or really of a team from anywhere other than the nearest major market, was not what it means today. Before the internet the scarcity of information, the lack of regular televised games, and the lag between when a thing happened and when it appeared in the newspaper’s sports section, all conspired to illustrate how far away everything was on this enormous continent. Chicago was the moon; San Francisco, and all the West Coast, was Mars. You saw those players in color on rare Game of the Week appearances and then during the playoffs, if you were lucky; otherwise you contented yourself with deciphering box scores, cutting their photos out of glossy magazines, and collecting their cards.

As I preoccupied myself with all this, my older brother and sister wandered the thickets of adolescence, almost completely obscured from my view. Peter is six years older than I am; Robyn seven. For a long time the differences in our ages meant we had very little to do with one another. I sat alone in the backseat on family road trips while Robyn and Peter stayed home and hung out with friends, threw parties, waded neck-deep into teenage dramas.

Robyn had a boyfriend from across the Ottawa River named Yvon. He was dark-haired, stubbly, smoked cigarettes, and spoke with a Quebecois accent. He was always kind to me. Took me fishing once. Yvon drove a 1976 Dodge Colt in a swampy shade of green that had originally been my grandmother’s, but which came into my parents’ possession, which they then sold to Yvon for a few hundred dollars. I remember him paying my father cash, handing over what was to that point the largest sum of money I’d ever seen in my life, thinking that this was the adult world; this was what it was to transact business, to be connected to commerce.

Yvon didn’t know baseball, but he treated me like something other than a child, and he listened to me with patience. On a night in late summer or early fall, he parked the Colt between the street lights on Rivermill, across from the forest, and we lay atop the hood watching the Aurora play across the face of the night. It was astonishing, but what should have made the heavens feel proximate instead made me aware of the terrifying size of the sky under which we huddled.

Juan

I had thought, until quite recently, that I had a complete set of the 1987 O-Pee-Chees, but if I ever did I don’t now. The whole set comprises almost 800 cards; I might have a third of that. My stack seemed so large to my young eyes, but now it looks almost pathetically small. This, I take it, is an example of how things from that point in our lives come to assume outsize proportions. We build our own legends and then accept them as facts.

There are complete sets kicking around on eBay, on Amazon, and it’s tempting to go all in, to fork over a relatively small sum in order to capture in adulthood what tantalized and inspired wonder in childhood. But I guess it wouldn’t be the same. Something about this set tells me I could never actually complete it, not in the most important sense. Maybe the trick, or the lesson, is to be happy with what I already have.

There are cards in this set that I can sketch with my eyes closed, so iconic are they for me, so emblematic of that time. For some, they are in fact what flashes into my mind when a name is mentioned.

Texas catcher Darrell Porter in a pair of ridiculously large eyeglasses that may or may not be back in style now, depending on when you’re reading this.

Jack Morris, in Detroit’s home whites, having just released a pitch, his limbs in unnatural degrees of torque, his face a grimace of effort.

Fernando Valenzuela, fresh off a 21-win campaign, in Dodger roads, his plant leg rigid as while he lunges forward to send a screwball toward whatever unfortunate National Leaguer has dug in sixty and one-half feet away.

The Giants’ Juan Berenguer, a workhorse righty, looking imperiously over his left shoulder, above the camera, beyond the photographer, toward the horizon.

The luxuriously mustachioed Keith Hernandez, recent World Series champion, looking light and pleased with life, on a practice field somewhere in Florida.

Sturdy Floyd Bannister in the White Sox’ beach blanket home uniforms, his shoulders wide, his right leg just slightly recessed at the beginning of his motion.

Marty Barrett, the Boston second baseman, whose name in Vin Scully’s mouth during that ’86 Series is a sound indelibly linked to my childhood—Mah-ahty Bawrhit, Scully sang/spoke, inserting diphthongs and pauses where most of us wouldn’t dream of putting them—and whose ’87 card depicts him in bright sunshine acting as the pivot in a double play in what can only be Spring Training, for why else would there be a basketball hoop immediately beyond the wall just barely visible over Barrett’s shoulder?

A trio of A’s captured by a photographer during the same road game, in Tiger Stadium, I think, wearing Oakland’s ’86 green tops, and bathed in similar light: glowering Dave Stewart, in his windup, staring holes through a hitter, who is out of frame; reliever, and possessor of an all-time great baseball name, Moose Haas, warming up along the first base side, the rows of seats beyond him out of focus, receding into the darkness of the ballpark’s overhang; and still-skinny Mark McGwire, depicted during his ’86 cup of coffee, with no way of knowing all that lay before him.

Dave Stieb looking so uncannily like an old gym teacher of mine—same winged haircut, same mustache—who used to lead us in laps around the gym, playing Beach Boys records on a portable turntable perched on the gym’s stage, and who would reward us at the end of class by walking on his hands around the middle of the floor, finally flopping back down, his face red and bulging.

Ernie Whitt, the avuncular and soft-seeming catcher, whose name still causes my father to reminisce over one of Whitt’s late-career stolen bases, an event so implausible that it warranted a headline in the next day’s write-up, or so recalls my father.

Willie Upshaw who, with apologies to Fred McGriff and, even later, John Olerud, and even Carlos Delgado, remains my favorite Jays first-sacker, for reasons that are spongy and unscientific, but which owe much to this very card, with Upshaw’s pose of readiness, crouched, that huge trapper open and waiting near his right knee, and the lingering scent of bubblegum still borne by the cardboard.

A shoebox full of these, many more forming untidy stacks on my desk, and on the bookshelf to my right as I type this. Still others used as bookmarks. The Marty Barrett card pinned to the wall above my workspace.

Looking over them all now, deep in the pre-Opening Day trough of winter, interspersed with other baseball cards that span a forty-year period, what first strikes me is how unique the ’87s are. Shuffle together a deck of assorted cards—O-Pee-Chees or Topps from 1979, or 1983, with some from 2003, or 2013, and some Bowman cards from any given year, a handful of Upper Decks from the early nineties, a few Donruss, a Leaf or two—and then rifle through the stack.

Most every card is bordered in white, but the ’87s stand out immediately. They’re so unlike virtually any other issue. The second thing which occurs to me about them has to do with that wood grain. I notice not how evocative of natural materials it is; rather what I see is how the wood grain is perfectly in tune with the era’s penchant for simulacra. That faux-wood border, veneered furniture, wood panelling, canned sitcom laughter, drum machines, artificial turf—all suggestive of something real but in their deficiencies creating further space between the manufactured and the real. I see not the proximity to realness, but the distance between the actual and the representational. I see the desire to simulate, to contain, to miniaturize. I see the need to recreate something random and unruly using something inexpensive, convenient, safe.

Fernando

When we weren’t collecting, trading, or memorizing baseball cards, or playing road hockey, G.I. Joe, or DOS-based video games in Wil’s unfinished basement, we were in the forest. We played war there, hiding behind trunks, laying down amid the ferns, using sticks as machine guns. We rode our bikes on some of the trails. We caught frogs and threw rocks into the creek. Gradually, we pushed at the borders of what we knew of the forest, pressing further and further into it, adding clearings and swales to our mental maps, wondering what still lay beyond.

We’d heard of some kids who’d found cattle bones in our woods, and others who’d pushed all the way through to Orleans Boulevard; the edge of the known world. There was a sandpit, somebody told us, where teenagers rode dirtbikes and held bush parties.

Wil and I found a fence one day, or the remains of one. A farmer’s partition, toppled, regularly spaced logs slumping out of their ancient post holes, and strung with rusted barbed wire. I had trouble incorporating this into my understanding of time and space, this echo of a time removed from 1987, the suggestion of a world beyond my own.

Above, nailed to a tree, a sign: NO TRESPASSING, it beckoned.

Floyd

Editor’s Note: For more of Andrew’s award-winning writing, visit his website. Of particular note is his book of baseball essays, “The Utility of Boredom.”

Black Ink and Trapping

The third edition of what’s become an annual tradition where I use Topps Heritage as an entree into writing about how cards were, and are printed. In 2018 I looked at differences in the screening patterns and and attempting to fake a 1969-style screen. In 2019 I was struck by Topps replacing a black screen with a spot grey ink. This year with the 1971 design and all those black borders, it’s time to talk about printing solid blacks.

I’m not going to compare a bunch of cards in this post. Nor am I going to complain about the type changes.* What fascinates me in this year’s Heritage is how differently the black is handled. We’ll just look at these two cards. Heritage Tyler Naquin on the left, a buyback 1971 Ken Harrelson** on the right.

*It’s not the slight differences in font/size/weight that bother me but rather the fact that Topps not only didn’t fix 1971’s kerning problems but proceeded to royally mess up the the word spacing.

**I have very few non-Giants 1971 Topps cards so I chose one that matched a team I got in my solitary pack.

It’s superficially a pretty good match. Slight color differences but those can be attributable to aging or print variances. I noticed some weird stuff going on around the edges of the black areas though which turned out to be pretty interesting.

So let’s zoom in on the edges. Heritage on the left still and 1971 on the right. One of the first things that jumped out at me was that the vertical edges of the black frame were not crisp. To be honest I have no idea why Topps did this. It could just be a mistake where the edges of the artwork were for some reason set to be 50% black and as a result got screened instead of being printed as a solid.

It could also however be an homage to the way that 1971 frequently had a different kind of non-crisp edge around the black border. That little edge of Cyan screening on the top and right side of the white border and white text? It’s what we call in the print shop a bump plate or rich black.

While black is the darkest color of light, with printing you can print other inks with the black ink to make it seem even darker.* In 1971 Topps ran like a 40% Cyan screen under the black borders to make them a bit darker.

*The other benefit of printing a bump plate is that it smooths out the black coverage so that instead a non-white color peeks though if the black is run light in a spot.

At high magnifications this screen peeks out from under the Black if there’s a slight misregistration between the Black and Cyan inks. It’s possible that this misregistration is something Topps was trying to emulate with the fuzzy black edges.

Anyway, I’ve seen a couple wonderfully out of register 1971 Topps cards that show the bump plate in even more detail. In both of these cards the Cyan is shifted left so far that a huge cyan strip is printed down the righthand side of the picture area. It’s a bit hard to see on the Purdin card but it extends directly below the “r” in “pitcher.” It is super obvious in the Perez card.

While running a bump plate allows you to not have to print the black as heavy as running without one, a design like 1971’s still results in the printer printing the black ink pretty thick. This puts some stress on the photos since black ink there is supposed to be somewhat subtle and only be used to punch a bit of shadow detail.

Which means that another thing Topps did in 1971 was reduce the amount of black ink used in the pictures. This is most apparent in the Senators card since Topps reused the photo in 1972 but re-did the separations with a lot more black details. Most of the shadow detail in the player faces is absent in the 1971 card. It’s all there in 1972.

Next, let’s zoom in on the red and green text. Heritage is still on the left, 1971 on the right. The different colors of red are an example of printing variances. Red is composed of two solid inks* and the absence of any screening in the red text shows that Topps ran them as solids.** The differences in the green though are related to the screening. 1971 has more Cyan and so the slightly darker green is accurate.

*Magenta and Yellow. Refer to the post about 1985 Fleer and 1990 Topps for more information about this.

**Note the Cyan bump screen on the edges of “ken” in the 1971 card.

The fuzzy vertical edges show up in the “INDIANS” but what I want to call attention to here is the weird white edge to the Heritage lettering. One white edge is on the left side of every character in “tyler” and the other is on the right side of the characters in “INDIANS.”*

*A bit harder to see due to the fuzziness of that transition.

Those white edges suggest that Topps isn’t trapping the text. In printing, a trap is small overlap between two differently-colored sections so that in case of any misregistration, no paper shows through. This wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy except for the fact that 1971’s traps are huge.

I’ve gone ahead and re-levelled my Ken Harrelson image so that the traps are highlighted. The red halo around his name and the green halo around “INDIANS” show the overlap of the Black ink with the colored inks.

Normally you’re not supposed to be able to see the traps with your eye unless you zoom way in but in 1971’s case, because of the heavy black borders, Topps played it safe and made giant traps since the black would cover them anyway.*

*Printing Black on top of the other colors, aka “overprinting” is pretty standard and is how all the facsimile autographs are printed. 

I’m not sure why Topps would’ve run the text untrapped on purpose but it kind of looks like it was a choice. Yes a lot of printers default to running small text untrapped* but in a design like this there’s no reason to make that choice plus the team name is larger than what the defaults would be.

*Trapping small text, especially between two different colors, can create an outline effect since with small text the trap thickness can be similar to the thickness of the letterforms.

Anyway it’s time to look at the backs. I was worried for a bit that Topps would try to fake a halftone like they did in 2018 but thankfully the player headshot is a traditional lien screen. It’s a much much much finer screen than Topps ran in 1971 but the dot pattern is the same.*

*I’m tempted to hypothesize that the oddly slick/shiny feel that the backs of the Heritage cards have is due to Topps printing a line screen which is too fine for regular uncoated stock to hold. Uncoated stock soaks up ink and needs a coarser screen  so that the white portions of the screen are large enough to not plug up with ink.

More interestingly, Topps is printing a light Black screen across the entire card back. It’s not enough that the paper is brownish, Topps is applying a faint texture to it to give it even more of an old feel. This is something that Topps is doing on the front of the cards as well* and shows that there’s a vested interest in these cards feeling “old” in addition to just using the old designs.

*The first zoomed in image of Heritage shows a faint yellow screen in the ostensibly white areas of the card.

The Story Behind The Card – Frank Thomas “The Original One” (Chapter Two)

For my birthday last October my son gave me a wood number supposedly from the old Forbes Field scoreboard. My son obtained it from a business colleague who said that his grandfather got it directly from the Pittsburgh Pirates sometime in the 1970s. There was no documentation with the number. Being a huge Pirates fan and having gone to a number of games at Forbes Field I was thrilled with the gift.

Wood scoreboard number from Forbes Field?

A few hours after my birthday party ended, I started a journey to authenticate the number. I scoured the internet for images of the Forbes Field scoreboard. What I found was encouraging. Although there were no close-up shots of individual numbers, the images of the scoreboard with a 2 did seem to match the sharp angles of the 2 that was gifted to me. I also searched on eBay to see if there were any Forbes Field scoreboard numbers for sale, but I came up empty.

My journey then took me to Hunts Auctions in Exton, PA. They are very knowledgeable when it comes to Pirates memorabilia and even have a stand at PNC Park. I emailed them some photos of the number from different angles. One of their experts got back to me with some disappointing news. The scoreboard numbers that he has come across “have been made of thin (but heavy) sheet metal.” He did state to “not give up hope, since there are always anomalies, and this could be number a number used a different part of the stadium.”

Soon afterwards I reached out to the Pirates directly. They put me in touch with their unofficial Forbes Field historian. He actually had a metal Forbes Field scoreboard number which he emailed me pictures of. He was not aware of any wooden scoreboard numbers but did post the pictures of my number to the Forbes Field Facebook page. No one in the group posted any comments about encountering any wooden numbers. However, this exchange did result in a positive outcome. The dimensions of my wooden number were almost identical to the dimensions of the metal number. The unofficial historian also thought that the colors on my number looked correct.

I also contacted the co-chairs of the SABR Ballparks Research Committee, but they did not have any information Forbes Field Scoreboard numbers.

Just as I was about to give up the journey, I found Jeff Barto’s article about the last game at Forbes Field titled – Human Locusts Have Their Day – that was published in the SABR publication – Moments of Joy and Heartbreak – 66 Significant Episodes in the History of the Pittsburgh.

In the article Jeff states that – “They hung from the scoreboard with one hand while flinging the wooden numerals through the air like Frisbees.”

Last game at Forbes Field.

Things were now looking up and it was time to kick it up a notch.

I attended the SABR 2018 Annual Convention in Pittsburgh and remembered that Frank Thomas “The Original One” was a panel member for the “Branch Rickey: The Pittsburgh Pirates Years” session. Frank was a last-minute substitute for Dick Groat who was sick that day. Frank had some stories about dealing with Branch Rickey at contract time that were brutally honest and very entertaining. I also remember him talking about some charities that he was involved with.

Frank came up with the Pirates in 1951 and for the next 4 years played exclusively in the outfield. After being traded by the Pirates 1959 he continued to play for National League teams before retiring in 1966. Frank was definitely someone who was familiar with the Forbes Field scoreboard.

On December 19th I wrote a letter to Frank Thomas that walked him through my authentication journey and asked him if was aware of the scoreboard numbers ever being wood or some wood numbers being used in other areas of Forbes Field. I enclosed a donation for his charities and a self-addressed stamped envelope. I was hoping to get back a short reply. Just a yes or no answer.

The day after Christmas I received a large envelope from Frank. Inside the envelope was a two-page hand-written letter from Frank, along with an autographed picture of when he was with the Milwaukee Braves. Also included was a custom Christmas card with a picture of Frank as a Pittsburgh Pirate with Forbes Field in the background.

Christmas gift from Frank Thomas – Letter, Card, and Autographed Photo

In the letter Frank thanked me for the donation and provided me information on his charities. He also gave me a run-down of the historic game on June 8, 1961, when four home runs were hit in succession in the same inning by four different players (first and only time in major league history). The four players were Eddie Matthews, Hank Aaron, Joe Adcock, and Frank. All four are in the autographed picture.

As far as my scoreboard number goes, he did say – “To your question – I have no idea. All I know that when playing left field all the numbers I have ever seen, even when I would go into the scoreboard, have always been metal. If SABR can’t help you I have no idea who might be able to help you. I’m sorry.”

This past Christmas season there were definitely some positive Frank Thomas vibes out there. On December 26th Sports Collectors Daily published an article about Frank and the work that he does to help kids with cancer. If you are interested in writing to Frank the article contains his address. There was also an article on Frank’s chartable work that appeared in the Crux on December 25th.

The Card

In early January I sent Frank a Thank You note for taking the time to write back to me and sending me the photo and Christmas card. I enclosed another small donation.

Much to my surprise I received another large envelope from Frank. Included in the envelope was a short note thanking me for the donation and an autographed photo of all Frank’s baseball cards. Also included was an autographed 2001 Topps Archives card.

Autographed photo of Frank’s baseball cards
Autographed 2001 Topps Archives Card

For the moment I have hit the pause button on my authentication journey. If anyone has any suggestions for my next destination point please provide directions by way of a comment.

Burdick Award finalists

The Awards Subcommittee of the SABR Baseball Cards Research Committee is appreciative of the many nominations from membership. At this time we are pleased to announce the five finalists for our inaugural Jefferson Burdick Award for Contributions to the Hobby and particularly gratified to see that the process resulted in such a broad range of nominations.

The Award was not designed to honor the biggest or best collection or the person who made the most money through the hobby—not that either of those things would be disqualifying. Rather, it was simply created to recognize individuals who in any variety of ways have made the Hobby better for the rest of us.

Dr. Robert Fitts

Our first finalist is Robert Fitts. Dr. Fitts, our committee’s featured speaker at #SABR49, boasts an impressive resume of accomplishments and scholarship including the 2006 Sporting News-SABR Research Award, the 2012 Doug Pappas Award for best oral research, the 2013 Seymour Medal for Best Baseball Book of 2012, and the 2019 McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award.

He is best known in the Hobby for his unmatched expertise and research in the area of Japanese baseball cards. While this committee has primarily focused on U.S. card releases, Fitts’s expertise and enthusiasm for Japanese cards and the way they interact with the hobby in the U.S. expands our understanding of what cards can be. This is not just a US-centered thing and baseball is a worldwide game.

Bert Blyleven and Mike Noren

Our second finalist is Mike Noren, the artist behind Gummy Arts and Cecil Cooperstown. Mike’s whimsical baseball card creations are currently featured in the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s “Shoebox Treasures” exhibit, and his set of 1919 White Sox strip cards were a crowd favorite at SABR’s Black Sox Scandal Centennial Symposium.

Mike’s cards have inspired many collectors to reconnect with the Hobby, and his daily posts to social media platforms have inspired numerous other baseball card artists. He references designs from the entire history of baseball cards and in so doing, transforms old designs into wholly new and modern creations. Meanwhile his pop-culture creations hint at the long history of collecting photos and cards and confirm how the concept of a Baseball Card™ transcends the sport.

Dr. James Beckett

Our third finalist, Dr. James Beckett, has a name nearly synonymous with the unprecedented growth of the Hobby in the 1980s and 1990s, though his continuing contributions to the Hobby span nearly half a century. In the tradition of our award’s namesake, Dr. Beckett has contributed to the identification and cataloging of numerous sets, and his publications such as the Sport Americana Baseball Card Price Guide (with Dennis Eckes) and the Beckett Monthly brought both checklists and price guides to the mainstream of the Hobby.

For the generation of collectors who came of age in the 1980s, Beckett is their Burdick. It is impossible to imagine the hobby without him and his publications were not merely price guides but captured the zeitgeist of an entire collecting generation.

Keith Olbermann

Our fourth finalist is broadcasting legend Keith Olbermann, whose contributions to the Hobby began while he was still in high school as an editor for “Collectors Quarterly” and the writer for the card backs of the 1975 Sports Stars Publishing Company (SSPC) baseball set. He would go on to contribute photos to 1981 Donruss while amassing a world class collection of cards and memorabilia.

Keith has used his collection as reference material for his encyclopedic knowledge of the Hobby, which he frequently shares in articles and social media posts. Whenever we have a question about the Topps photo archive or who produced a set of cards, he is our resident expert. Keith was our committee’s featured speaker at #SABR47 and represents how baseball cards can turn someone into a baseball fan.

Mike Aronstein with son Andrew

Our last finalist and the winner of the 2020 Jefferson Burdick Award for Contributions to the Hobby is Michael Aronstein. Best known as the “MA” in TCMA, the company he co-founded with Tom (the “TC” half) Collier in 1972, Mike’s Hobby resume also includes:

  • Card show pioneer, having arranged and hosted (in his basement!) one of the very first “conventions” in 1970 and having gone on to co-organize the biannual American Sports Card Collectors Association shows in New York City;
  • Publisher of Collectors Quarterly magazine;
  • One of the Hobby’s first full-time dealers, providing collectors with alternatives to mainstream sets along with collecting supplies such as plastic sheets before they were widely available anywhere else;
  • Producer of hundreds of minor league team sets, including the “pre-rookie cards” of Rickey Henderson, Cal Ripken, Jr., and Wade Boggs, and re-launching the minor league card industry in the process;
  • Challenger of the Topps monopoly with his Sports Stars Publishing Company (SSPC) 660-card set consisting almost entirely of current players;
  • Exclusive distributor of the 1981 Donruss set (but we won’t hold that against him!);
  • Founder of Photo File, supplying the Hobby with high quality 8×10 photos to be signed by athletes.

More importantly, TCMA cards were touchstone for many, if not all, of us as the only cards we could find/afford of baseball legends. In a way that no book can touch, TCMA cards taught kids about baseball: who the legends were and why, what they looked like, etc. If Topps is the card of record representing which players were relevant for the current season, TCMA were the cards of history and how we learned about baseball itself.

We look forward to honoring Mike at our national convention, SABR 50, in Baltimore. We hope you’ll make plans to join us as we celebrate Mike’s lifetime of contributions to the Hobby. Over the next couple months we’ll share more information about this and other baseball card happenings planned for SABR 50.

Spontaneous regeneration

I’ve never been much of a believer in signs or fate. Sometimes, though, happy coincidences can lead to a feeling of slight disbelief and a raised eyebrow. 

Over the past month, there have been a couple of events here in Pittsburgh that I was fortunate enough to attend, They commemorated the centennial of the founding of the Negro National League (NNL). It’s altogether fitting that institutions in the region mark the anniversary, as this area was home to two famous franchises in black (or any color) baseball history; the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays.

A few weeks ago, the mayor and some other folks gave short speeches at the City-County Building at the opening of a temporary Negro League display located there. Then, on Thursday, February 13th (100 years to the day that the NNL was founded), a panel including former Pittsburgh Pirates star Al Oliver and Josh Gibson’s great grandson Sean, spoke at the Heinz History Center about the leagues in general. The discussion was pretty free-form, covering the impact and influence on baseball that the players and owners had, as well as a wide range of other topics. It was here where the card collecting angle comes in to play.

One member of the panel, noted Black Baseball historian Rob Ruck, made mention of 1988, when the Pirates organization officially apologized for their role in baseball segregation. While I’d be loathe to truly praise them for this action (first of all, segregation, secondly, it took 40 years!), the club was one of the earliest, if not the first, to own up to the injustice.

That night’s ballgame included a pennant raising in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Homestead Grays’ 1948 Negro World Series victory.  Ruck mentioned that, also that season (may have been the same night), the Pirates held a card set giveaway. The cards were printed in sheet form and showcased a number of images of famous Negro League characters. Professor Ruck had played a role in the set creation back then, providing info for the backs in the age long before Wikipedia and Ancestry.com were a few clicks or taps away.

Professor Ruck’s mention of the card set reminded me that I was at the giveaway game with my family, because, as I immediately mentioned to my buddy sitting next to me, I fondly remembered having that set. They were somewhere in the mix with my junk wax collection, conciously purged around the time when my parents moved a dozen or so years ago. 

So, two days after the panel event, I visited my parents’ (current) place. No sooner did I walk into the house than my mom mentions, “I was cleaning and found some old cards for you.” As some of you may have foreseen in the amount of time since I finished the first sentence of this paragraph, laid out on the guest room dresser were three sets of 1988, Pirates team issued Negro League cards, uncut and neatly folded. 

Somehow, they weren’t cast out along with my collection. Likely because they were stored elsewhere. My memory is limited, but I’m willing to guess that these belonged to my parents and sister, landing outside of my eight year old reach. Mine were probably systematically separated and made into standard card form. I’m not 100% positive, but they probably disappeared with those thousands of other cardboard sports ephemera of my youth years ago.

Having these appear again is both neat, and a little spooky. It’s as if a passing mention of the set caused the cards to materialize out of thin air. I’m excited to be able to add these into my collection (haven’t checked with the others in my family, but confident they’re not interested). It’s an ‘oddball’ collection of true historical interest, and a great group of early card examples of many of the biggest names that never had the chance to play in the majors.

Also, if anyone is looking for a set…you now know who has two duplicates.

Venezuelan Topps and the Pirates of the Caribbean

When novice collectors hear the phrase “Venezuelan baseball cards,” they may picture something like this.

More seasoned collectors are more likely to identify Venezuelans as those hard to find, harder to afford, condition-sensitive cards that keep their player collections from the upper echelons of the PSA registries.

Hey, at least the shipping is free!

Other collectors, like this author, simply ignore such gaps in their collection based on most Venezuelan cards being so similar to their U.S. counterparts that there is not enough “there” there to pay through the roof for something you (mostly) already have.

In this post we will look very quickly at the years from 1959-1968 when the Venezuelan cards were nearly identical to their North American brethren and then spend my traditional very long time on the single year when they most certainly weren’t.

But first…1952-1958

My understanding is that Topps was selling cards in Latin America as far back as 1952. From 1952-1958, the cards were produced in the United States and then shipped to other countries to be sold. It was not until 1959 that Topps was not just selling but actually producing cards in Latin America.

1959

The 1959 U.S. and Venezuelan cards appear nearly identical, though in hand you would quickly detect two differences: a flimsier card stock and a less glossy finish. The backs of some of the cards would also replace the standard copyright line along the right edge with “IMPRESO EN VENEZUELA POR BENCO C.A.,” roughly translated as “Printed in Venezuela by Benco, Inc.”

As for the checklist itself, the 198-card Venezuelan issue simply followed the first 198 cards on the 1959 Topps U.S. checklist.

1960

There was even less differentiation in 1960. Again, the 198-card Venezuelan set mimicked the first 198 cards on the U.S. checklist, but this time there was not even a different copyright line. From a design perspective there was no difference between the North American (top) and South American (bottom) cards. From a production perspective, there is still a flimsier feel to the Venezuelan cards.

1962

More significant changes came to Caracas in 1962. The first is easy enough to spot: multiple elements of the card back are now in Spanish!

The second is one perhaps best known to collectors of a certain Latin American infielder. While the Venezuelan and U.S. checklists mirror each other for the first 196 cards, the Venezuelan issue skips U.S. cards 197 (Daryl Spencer) and 198 (Johnny Keane) and instead jumps to cards 199 and 200.

However, the Venezuelan issue didn’t simply jump to U.S. cards 199 and 200, both of which we recognize today as among the key cards in the U.S. set.

Rather, Venezuelan card 199 went to Venezuela-born second baseman Elio Chacon of the Mets, who would not be seen until card 256 in the U.S. set. (Side note: Frank Robinson sighting!)

Finally, card 200 went to an even more prominent Venezuelan infielder, whose card was number 325 in the U.S. set.

As a final note, the 1962 Topps U.S. set is famous for its variations. For example, all five (!) of these cards are number 139 in the U.S. set.

From what I can tell, “Babe on dirt” is the only one of the five variations present in the Venezuelan set, though (as in the U.S.) “Reniff portrait” can be found at slot 159 on the Venezuelan checklist.

Okay, I lied. I’ll say one last thing about the set. It involves a feature that would become commonplace across many Venezuelan and Canadian (O-Pee-Chee) sets during the decade.

As it came straight over from the much larger U.S. set, Venezuelan “3rd Series” checklist must have disappointed or at least baffled young collectors such as the one who this card belonged to. More than half the cards it listed were not in the set!

“¿Dónde está Daryl Spencer (197)? ¿Dónde está M. Mantle (200)? ¿Cuántos paquetes tengo que comprar?”

We know about sets with “chase cards,” but (counting the back of the checklist too) here was a set with 68 of them!

1964

Following the more significant changes of 1962, the 1964 release represented a return to the original formula, only with more cards. The set included 370 cards that mimicked the first 370 cards on the U.S. checklist. Moreover, the card backs reverted to English once again.

From a design standpoint, the most evident difference across continents was the black background color used on the Venezuelan backs as compared to a salmon color used on the U.S. card backs. (I am also speculating that the trivia answers came already revealed rather than requiring scratch-off, but I would love it if a reader can provide definitive information.)

1966

The next release was an awful lot like the one before it but with even less variation. The 370-card Venezuelan offering again matched cards 1-370 on the U.S. checklist and featured English-only card backs.

Flimsier stock and some subtle color differences provide the main means of recognizing these cards, and I have encountered quite a few tales of collectors thinking they bought a stack of ordinary Topps cards only to discover some number were Venezuelans.

1967

We’ll skip this one for now as it’s actually the main focus of the article!

1968

We have now reached the final year that Topps produced a parallel set for the Venezuelan market. The formula followed that of 1964 and 1966, a 370-card set matching up card for card with the first 370 cards of the U.S. issue. From a design perspective, about the only distinguishing feature was the nearly invisible (at my age) minuscule white lettering at the bottom of the card backs that read, “Hecho en Venezuela – C.A. Litoven.”

And finally…1967!

Hobby consensus, if not established fact, on every one of the sets from 1959-1968 is that Topps produced the cards expressly for the Venezuelan market to take advantage of baseball’s popularity and hopefully make a few extra bucks. As has been shown, the cards were essentially flimsier versions of the U.S. issues with the only interesting differences coming in 1962.

All this stood in stark contrast with what the kids of Caracas lined their pockets (or more likely their albums) with in 1967. Rather than a low-grade imitation of some early portion of the U.S. checklist, one could argue that Venezuelan collectors ended up with a better set of cards than their North American neighbors. Let’s take a closer look at the set, and you can decide for yourself!

While numbered consecutively from 1-338, there are three very distinct groupings of cards. In fact, the Standard Catalog lists them as three different sets, though most collectors I’ve talked to think of them as a single set in three parts.

Winter Leaguers

Cards 1-138 feature the players and managers of the six-team Venezuelan Winter League. This averages to 23 cards per team, which means this was less a “best of” and more an “almost everyone” sort of checklist.

Though they present at least some visual similarity to the 1967 Topps set, the Venezuelan Winter League cards are immediately identified as distinct by their distinctly non-U.S. team identifiers and their lack of facsimile signatures. (Or you can just flip the card over and see what number it is!)

Two particularly notable cards in this subset are those of nine-time National League all-star Dave Concepcion and Hall of Fame manager (then third baseman) Bobby Cox, whose Venezuelan cards beat their U.S. rookie cards by four and two years respectively.

RETIRED GREATS

Cards 139-188 featured retired (“retirado” in Spanish) greats of the game. Believe it or not, at 50 cards, this was actually one of the larger sets of retired greats produced to this point. While most of the players would have been at home in a U.S. issue, this subset also included a number of Latin American legends such as Alex Carrasquel, Alfonso Carrasquel (more on these two later), and Connie Marrero. There is also one of the more unusual Ted Kluszewski cards you’ll ever see!

ACTIVE MLB PLAYERS

Cards 189-338, a block of 150 cards comprising almost half the set, feature near replicas of 1967 Topps (U.S.) cards, at least as far as the fronts of the cards go, but these cards for once do not simply mirror the first 150 cards of the U.S. set. If that were the case, the top stars would have been limited to the following players:

  • Whitey Ford
  • Orlando Cepeda
  • Al Kaline
  • Roger Maris
  • Tony Oliva
  • Don Drysdale
  • Luis Aparicio
  • Ron Santo
  • Frank Robinson
  • Willie Stargell
  • Mickey Mantle

In fact, the 150-card subset included every one of these players except Ford (more on him later) AND also included Carl Yastrzemski, Harmon Killebrew, Brooks Robinson, Willie Mays, Eddie Mathews, Bob Gibson, Pete Rose, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron, Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, Lou Brock, Billy Williams, and many, many other top stars of the day.

To my eyes, the player selection represents a hand-picked “best of” that not only fully encompassed every major star from the Topps set but sprinkled in a disproportionate number of Latin American players to boot. (It’s important to note here that I’m placing us back in 1967 where Seaver, Carew, and the like were not yet established superstars.)

A quick aside to quantify the “best of” nature of this subset a bit more. In at least an approximate manner we can associate the best players in the original Topps set as the ones with “hero numbering,” card numbers that ended in 0 or 5. I’ve highlighted in green the “hero numbers” from the Topps set that have cards in the Venezuelan MLB subset. Cells in red (e.g., Whitey Ford, #5) reflect cards not selected for the subset.

The chart shows at least three interesting things about the MLB subset–

  • A very high proportion (89/121, or 74%) of hero numbers were selected vs the 20% that either random selection or any consecutive block of 150 cards would have yielded.
  • All multiples of 50, generally associated with the superstars in a set, were selected.
  • And finally, it shows that more than half the cards in the MLB subset (89/150, or 59%) were chosen from the Topps hero numbers.

“How very unlike Topps to build a set around the players kids actually want!” you say. And don’t worry, we’ll get to that soon enough. For now, just recognize that the full Venezuelan set now includes just about the entire Venezuelan Professional Baseball League, a huge selection of all-time greats, and all the best active players from MLB. How do you beat that!

1967 Card Backs

Diverging from the other years we examined, the 1967 card backs look nothing like Topps. This Mathews card is typical for the entire set, with the note that its blue background is (almost always) red for the Winter Leaguers and green for the Retirado subset.

What are these anyway?

For a variety of reasons including the similarity of the final 150 cards to the U.S. issue, the full 1967 release has frequently been referred to as “1967 Topps Venezuelan” or “1967 Venezuela Topps,” the name suggesting (as truly was the case in 1959, 1960, 1962, 1964, 1966, and 1968) that Topps was the company behind the set’s issue.

However, conventional Hobby wisdom seems to be that the 1967 Venezuelan set (or sets if you prefer) were produced completely apart from and without the blessing of Topps. The cards were bootlegs, “pirates of the Caribbean” if you will.

More than likely the cards were produced by Sport Grafico, essentially the Venezuelan equivalent of Sports Illustrated or Sport magazines in terms of content and equal to Life or Ebony in terms of size.

From the author’s Hank Aaron collection

Before proceeding I’ll offer that the pirated nature of these cards is great news for all the collectors out there who avoid anything unlicensed. That said, I’d have a hard time imagining too many collectors who couldn’t find even one spot in their binders for beauties like these. (And feel free to click here for the most amazing 1967 Venezuelan collection I’m aware of, online or otherwise. Or click here for another amazing collection covering even more years.)

One of the best pages for learning more about the 1967 Venezuelan cards is here, though you will either need to remember your high school Spanish or use a translation feature on your browser. Among the fantastic information shared on that site is the actual album designed to hold all 338 cards. If you go to the site you can even see what the pages inside looked like.

Among other things, the album seems to all but confirm that the cards were produced by Sport Grafico. After all, their logo is prominent in the upper left corner. Though one might be tempted to regard the cartoon parrot as a nod to the pirated nature of the set, each cartoon character actually represents one of the six teams in the league:

  • Leones del Caracas (lions)
  • Tigres de Aragua (tigers)
  • Cardenales de Lara (cardinal)
  • Tiburones de la Guaira (shark)
  • Navegantes del Magallanes (sailors/mariner)
  • Pericos de Valencia (parrot parakeet)

Most online sources on the Venezuelan league refer to the name of the Valencia team as “Industriales” or the Industrialists! Fortunately, we have baseball cards to set the record straight.

You can even make out the parakeet logo on the Luis Rodriguez card!

When did the 1967 set come out?

On one hand this probably reads like the joke about who’s buried in Grant’s tomb. On the other hand, the Hobby has more than a few sets that came out later than their name would seem to suggest (e.g., “1948” Leaf).

Looking at the album cover again, we see the years 1967-1968 in the bottom right corner. This is no surprise given that the typical Venezuelan Winter League schedule ran from mid-October through early January. This alone makes me think a designation like 1967-1968 would make more sense for the cards than simply 1967. (Collectors of basketball and hockey are already quite used to this convention for dating their sets.)

One card that quickly tells us the Venezuelan cards could not have come out until (at best) very late in 1967 is the Brooks Robinson (pictured earlier) from the MLB portion of the set. In the U.S. set, this was card 600, part of the seventh and final series (cards 534-609), presumably released around September 1967. (This same series also produced 11 other players for the MLB portion of the Venezuelan set.)

I don’t claim to know all the steps and turnaround times involved to go from a stack of Topps cards to a full-fledged Venezuelan set (or even just the final third of one), but I would imagine at least the following things would all need to occur:

  • Select the players
  • Capture images from the Topps card fronts
  • Write bios and other info for the backs
  • Print, cut, and pack the cards
  • Get the cards to the stores

I’m sure I’m leaving out some important steps, but I’ll still say all of the above feels like at least two months of work. I’d be surprised if at least this final third of the Venezuelan set was out in time for Winter League Opening Day, and it definitely wouldn’t shock me to learn this final subset might not have hit the shelves until early 1968.

“Okay, but that’s the final portion of the set,” you say. Might the other portions have come out much earlier?

I’ll start with the Winter Leaguers since at least their numbering suggests they would have been the first out the door. We can gather some clues about timing from some of the players who made their Venezuelan Winter League debut during the 1967-68 campaign. One example is Paul Schaal, shown here with the Leones del Caracas team.

As 1967-68 was Schaal’s first year playing in Venezuela (also noted by the last line of his card bio), it stands to reason that the photo on the card could not have been taken before October 1967. Ditto for Jim Campanis (yes, the son of Al), who also made his Venezuelan debut in the 1967-68 campaign but is already shown in his Cardenales de Lara cap.

As these two players were still with their Major League teams (the Angels and Dodgers respectively) through the end of September, their cards would be a good month or so behind Brooks Robinson in how soon they could hit the shelves. I don’t want to underestimate the production team at Sport Grafico, but Christmas actually feels optimistic to me here.

Another interesting example here is Jose Tartabull, who remained stateside with the Red Sox all the way through the seventh game (October 12) of the 1967 World Series. However, as a returning player to the Leones del Caracas, it’s certainly possible his photo could have been a holdover from an earlier year.

We have now looked at cards in both the MLB and Winter League portions of the Venezuelan set that suggest either an extremely fast production process or at best a very late 1967 (e.g., December) release. What you probably wouldn’t expect is that even a card in the Retirado subset tells us something about the release window. His card also puts a bow on a minor mystery you might be hanging onto from a previous section.

Recall that Whitey Ford was the one big star from the 1967 Topps set not present in the MLB portion of the Venezuelan set. Given Ford’s retirement on May 30, 1967, it actually makes perfect sense that he would A) be excluded from the set of active MLB stars and B) find himself included in the set of retired greats. Perhaps the only thing that doesn’t make sense is why he’s posing with what I assume is Joe Pepitone’s jersey! (UPDATE: A reader provided an excellent explanation in the comments section.)

Ford’s retirement was early enough in 1967 that it wouldn’t have exerted any real pressure on releasing the Retirado cards by the opening of Winter League. Nonetheless, it takes the one subset that at least theoretically could have come out the soonest and probably pushes it back to August/September at the earliest.

Yes, one certainly could argue that the team at Sport Grafico simply had a feeling in advance that Ford would retire. However, the back of the card shows that he had in fact already retired.

Translated into English the last sentence of the card reads, “The lefthander’s career was shortened by muscular pains and although he underwent surgery he could not recover his effectiveness, so he voluntarily retired in 1967.”

Ultimately, the question of when these cards came out, if not established by the distinct memories of contemporary collectors, might be settled by a thorough enough review of Sport Grafico magazines from late 1967 and early 1968. Assuming the cards genuinely were the work of the magazine, then perhaps there would be an ad dedicated to their release.

That said, the bulk of the ads in the issues I have (early 1970s) are primarily targeted to adults who would not have been the target market for cards, at least not back then! Still, I’d enjoy the search if I ever found the right issues, and depending on what I found I might annoy my fellow collectors by referring to the set as 1968 Sport Grafico rather than any of the various names it goes by today.

“VEN” diagrams

Everything I’ve offered thus far is simply a curation (but with less accuracy or authority) than what you’d find on the Web if you spent a dozen or so hours trying to learn everything you could about these sets. Of course the reason I’m the highest paid blogger at SABR Baseball Cards (okay, fine, tied for highest with all the other guys making $0.00) is because I try to bring something new to the table whenever I can.

In this case I’m talking about my trademark needlessly detailed analysis of the set’s checklist. Since we’re talking about a VENEZUELAN issue, it stands to reason that I will be employing VEN diagrams. (And yes, I know I spelled it wrong. Work with me, please, work with me.)

This first VEN diagram looks at the 338 subjects in the set, organized by which group(s) they appear in. The main thing to notice is that five of the subjects have cards in multiple groups.

Since the numbers are small, I’ll show each of the cards that land in the overlapping sections of the VEN diagram.

First here are the three players represented in both the Winter League (1-138) and the MLB (189-338) portions of the checklist. Probably not coincidentally, the three players are all Venezuelan-born and were assigned to the first three cards in the MLB subset (i.e., 189-191).

Next up are an uncle and nephew who are both Winter Leaguers (coaches, anyways) and retired greats.

Collectors in Peoria, Illinois, may wonder how either Carrasquel managed to join the hallowed list of retired greats otherwise populated by the likes of Babe Ruth and Satchel Paige. In fact, Alejandro was the first Venezuelan to play MLB, and Alfonso was the first Venezuelan MLB all-star.

Now that we’ve made it through the VEN diagram of the full Venezuelan set, we can now compare each part of that set to the (real) 1967 Topps set. The first VEN diagram I’ll look at compares the Retirado portion of the Venezuelan issue with the full U.S. set.

If you were paying attention just a few minutes ago, you already know the player in the overlap is Whitey Ford, so I won’t rehash any old explanations. I’ll just note that another good candidate would have been Gil Hodges, who had a manager card in the 1967 Topps set and at least in my book would have fit every definition of a retired great.

The next VEN diagram compares the Winter League portion of the Venezuelan issue with the full U.S. set. From previous work, we already expect to see Davalillo, Tovar, and Aparicio within the overlap, but these three players represent just one-seventh of the total number.

Here is a complete list of all 21 overlappers. As you can see, nearly half were confined to multi-player rookie cards in the Topps set but now had solo cards they could show off to their families and friends.

And while the money wasn’t as good in Winter Ball, at least you got to wear your hat on your baseball card and have your uniform match your team!

The final Venezuelan subset to compare against the 1967 Topps (U.S.) set is the collection of 150 pirated Topps cards at the very end. A VEN diagram here would be dull since all 150 of the cards are drawn from the U.S. set. Therefore, what I’ll do instead is show how the U.S. versions of these 150 cards match up with the U.S. checklist.

As the barely readable plot shows, the 150 cards came from all areas of the Topps checklist, including the dozen already noted from the final series.

Postscript: North of the border

As a guy who gets paid by the word, even if my rate is $0.00 per word, I’ll do anything to make my articles longer. (Editor’s note: Even adding superfluous editor’s notes when he’s not even the editor!) In this case that means the one last comparison nobody would have presumed relevant (and probably still won’t even once I’ve presented it).

While Topps most likely had no hand at all in the 1967 Venezuelan set, aside from having their images ripped off, it’s not like Topps was ignoring the rest of the world. As had been the tradition for the previous two years, Topps once again issued an O-Pee-Chee set up in Canada.

Much in line with how the (true) Topps Venezuelan sets went, this 196-card set simply mimicked cards 1-196 from the U.S. set and would be indistinguishable (at least to me) from their American neighbors if not for the “Printed in Canada” line at the bottom of each card’s reverse.

What this means is that multiple players had cards from not one or two but THREE different countries in 1967, even if for most players the variation from card to card to card was fairly uninteresting. (And yes, this was true in 1966 and 1968 as well, bu my focus here is on 1967.)

To support your internationally diverse collecting interests I now bring you my final VEN diagram, one that will allow you to triple up on the cards of some of your favorite players. Among the 49 three-country sensations are these star players.

  • Orlando Cepeda
  • Al Kaline
  • Roger Maris
  • Tony Oliva
  • Don Drysdale
  • Luis Aparicio
  • Ron Santo
  • Frank Robinson
  • Willie Stargell
  • Steve Carlton
  • Mickey Mantle
  • Eddie Mathews

Aparicio collectors, it should be noted, can score the four-point play by adding his Winter League card to their binders also. (Ditto, Vic Davalillo.) And of course Ford collectors just miss the cut but can still rep all three countries by “settling for” his Retirado card as the Venezuelan piece of the trio.

Of course I know some of you will not be satisfied even with a three-country collection and are demanding four! Well, good news! I’ve also crosswalked the 1967 U.S., Venezuelan, and Canadian sets with the 1967 Kabaya-Leaf cards out of Japan, and I did manage to find a single hit…as long as you’re okay with the “Japanese Mickey Mantle!”