Oops

We’ve had a few articles on the blog recently dealing with set completion. Three that come to mind are the one from Jeff on which cards do and don’t constitute a complete set, one from Artie on building modern master sets, and “Set Building 101” from Jim.

What each of the articles has in common is the the informed, intentional, and methodical process by which each author defines his goal and progresses toward completion. Then there’s me. When I’m not busy presiding over my glitter empire or doing my day job, I’m writing articles with titles like “The Funnest Dumb Way to Collect (Almost) the Whole set.

As I prepare to dispense my questionable advice on our SABR readership, I’m reminded of the opening line to the Neil Young song “Hippie Dream.” (I have to imagine you all know the song by heart, but in case you’re having a moment, I’ll remind you: “Take my advice. Don’t listen to me…!”)

A set I’m collecting (or perhaps am done collecting) is somewhat typical of the almost aggressively anti-information approach I take to collecting, despite being someone who at times reads and writes almost manically about cards. Heal thyself, physician, as they say!

Some of you have seen from previous posts here or on Twitter/Facebook that I went from having no pre-1933 baseball cards (I have to say “baseball” here since my son and I have about 80 pre-1933 Sir Isaac Newton cards) to taking on the 1911 T205 Gold Borders Brooklyn team set. Here is a pic I posted back in March, with my dozen cards framed nicely by the Cigarbox Cards display.

Go ahead, ask me what I knew about the set before I started collecting it. Glad you asked! I knew the card were pretty, the only Hall of Famer was Zack Wheat, and almost all the other players were terrible. Of course I’m not an idiot, so I also did a quick eBay search and saw that “some guy” on the team could be had in reasonable shape (imagine the raw equivalent of a PSA 2.5) for $40. Okay, cool, I’m in.

Well, that picture from March is still my picture in August. Little did I know going in that three-time 20-game loser Kaiser Wilhelm is practically Walter Johnson in terms of price tag. Good chance I could take all twelve cards in my display–and even throw in the display!–and try to trade them for a Wilhelm in worse shape than all of them…and be refused.

So how bad do I want the card? I’ll answer my own question with a question. How bad do I want the team set? (And yes, I realize the completists out there are already wondering why I only have one of the two Barger poses.)

Whatever words I might offer in the affirmative, the facts of the case speak for themselves. I’ve been one player short for 6 months–the whole pandemic so far–and I’ve done nothing about it. I don’t even click when my saved eBay search turns up a hit. I don’t love being stuck at 12 players out of 13, but I love even less spending my (hopefully someday) 1960 Lake to Lake Dairy Hank Aaron money on a Kaiser Wilhelm. It’s a common limbo I find myself in often, a purgatory without the purgation. Done but not done.

True, it might be totally acceptable to go 79/80 on Fleer Ted Williams or 239/240 on 1933 Goudey. God knows plenty of otherwise respectable collectors are willing to set the remarkably pedestrian goal of 520/524 for T206, just as many modern collectors are able to settle for only the /5, /10, /25, /50, /99, /199, /400, /999, and /2020 Vertigo Refractor Rainbow Dazzle Tiffany versions of Jasson Dominguez “Move Over, Henry Aaron” Transcendent Museum Edition (Retail), foregoing the 1/1 in a last-ditch effort to avoid mortgage foreclosure.

Hobby orthodoxy permits those collectors to declare victory. Not so for a Kaiser-less Superba set. In fact, many collectors would insist I need two, and let’s not even get started about the factory numbers or tobacco brands!

The rational part of my brain recognizes it would have been prudent to do my homework before jumping in with both feet. Then I never would have gotten started on a set I couldn’t finish. I might have chosen something else, something I could do.

Then again, I wouldn’t have these cards, which are without a doubt among the dozen most beautiful in my entire collection. Yes, it was a dumb thing to do, to go in blind. Every now and then, however, you can be so dumb you’re smart.

So no regrets, that’s where I’m at. None at all. The set collector in me may be “suffe ing” 😃 but the card collector in me is doing just fine. In fact, he just picked up his fourth T206 Brooklyn card! Can the complete set be far behind?

Everything must be considered

Likewise, there is a vocal group of collectors who seek, nay DEMAND, perfection from Topps when it comes to retro sets such as Heritage and Archives. Any deviation from these unwritten rules results in an outcry in the blogosphere, Twitter and the various forums.

Cardboard Jones

I planned to respond to this as a comment but in hashing things out on Twitter realized that it deserved to be a blogpost. First off. I’m not feeling attacked by the statement nor do I even disagree with it. Expecting things like Archives and Heritage to match the originals is the most boring of positions to have. But as someone who frequently comments and calls out where Topps deviates in the retro set typsetting and designs I feel like I need to clarify when and why I do so.

When I approach a retro set it’s impossible for me not to notice changes. My mindset though isn’t “these changes are crap.” Instead I’m asking myself why Topps made them.

One of the chief mantras from my design classes was that “everything should be considered.” In other words, every part of the design should be a conscious choice with a reason behind it. This isn’t to say that you couldn’t leave things to chance, just that you needed to be as aware, if not moreso, of what you weren’t designing.

When it comes to the retro sets, too many of the choices feel like Topps has decided to copy the old design but couldn’t be bothered to do it right. When I cringe at a font choice or shake my head at a color selection it doesn’t reflect that I want the design to be perfect, it reflects that on that card, Topps feels like it’s trying to recreate the card and is doing it badly.

Let’s take a look at the 2020 Archives Luis Robert. In this case, the font used for Robert’s name is super small. 1974 used condensed fonts for long names* but for most names the font matches the font used to the city and position. As a result the font looks off compared to the other fonts on the card** and the space for his name looks super empty because these cards weren’t designed to have a big white space on the bottom.

* If this were a Vladimir Guerrero Jr. card then the font would be fine.

**Lucky for Topps the condensed font is also in use for “White Sox” else this would look even weirder.

There’s a reason I often refer to the uncanny valley when I critique retro designs. Changes like Robert’s font feel unconsidered and suggest a lack of awareness about how the original design works. The result is something that’s just close enough to the originals to feel incredibly wrong.

I don’t expect Topps to match the originals. I want them to make considered choices about how to honor the philosophy behind the original designs while updating them to the modern game and modern printing.

For example, sticking with the Robert card, 1974 is noteworthy as the first set where Topps tried to use team colors in the design. In 1974 the White Sox’s dominant color was red and as a result, the 1974 design used red.* In 2020, the Sox are a grey and black team and for me, updating the 1974 design to use those colors is the kind of change that I would treat as a considered choice.**

*That Topps stuck with red is yet another push toward reading these cards as remakes instead of updates and justifies critiquing the font choices along those lines. At the same time, that Topps apparently changed the colors on a lot of the cards in this set—e.g Giants in green, Pirates in red, Orioles in white—suggests that my initial reaction to the Robert was maybe giving Topps too much credit for trying to reproduce the original design. No I still have no idea what possessed them to make the Willie McCovey Giants card green and yellow and the overall reaction is still that Topps didn’t think about what they were doing.

**Along these lines, if Topps had had the lead time and creativity to do “Buffalo, Amer’n Lea” cards for the Blue Jays I would’ve been out stalking blasters of Archives at my local Target.

Topps has made considered changes like these before. Going back to my post about 2019 Heritage provides a great example. Where 1970 Topps (on the left) use a 50% black screen for the grey border, 2019 Heritage (on the right) uses a custom grey ink printed at 100%.

I don’t remember anyone complaining about this. I wouldn’t expect anyone to complain about this. Why? Because the change is the kind of thing that involves looking at the old design and consciously improving upon it. It’s not trying to recreate something, rather it’s showing the strength of the original design and how it would be produced today.

If Topps changed the retro set fonts to give the design a little more character* I wouldn’t complain. Same if they took the random colors of the 1960s and made them more team-specific.**

*A reliance on fonts such as Helvetica and Univers throughout most of the Topps’s history means changes like using Gotham in the 1981 design in 2018 Archives is something I was cool with.

**Something they did with some teams like the Astros in 2018 Heritage.

What I want to see is that the changes have a clear and obvious point. Changes that look intentional rather than accidental. Changes that indicate that Topps has truly considered the design and thought about what it’s doing with it.

On Becoming Complete: A Spiritual Journey

What is complete? Who decides that? How do we know when we get there?

Recently, Mark Armour (co-founder of this blog and current SABR President), Tweeted the good news that he snagged a 1956 Yankees Team Card and his 1956 Topps set was finished. But was it?

56

One Tweeter threw out a picture of the unnumbered checklists

Checks

and Jason (our current blog co-chair) said, “yeah, you need those to be complete.” This lead to a series of comments on what makes a whole set whole. Do you need the 24 blue team checklists inserted in 1973 packs, but not numbered, to have a complete set of that year? How about 1974, where you’d need the red team checklists, the Traded set and all Washington variations to be done.

I do think about this a lot. I’m now 3 away from a complete 1961 Post set, having bought a nice Clemente. There are 200 numbered cards in that set and having one of each number is what I’m shooting for. BUT, with all variations (company issue vs. box issue, Minneapolis vs. Minnesota Twins, players with more than one team, transaction notations, and so on), the set runs to 357! That’s almost 180% of the base numbering. Will I be complete at 200? I’m saying yes.

If you need unnumbered inserts to be complete. Do you need all unnumbered inserts? That would be absurd.

Jose-Canseco-(Mini

If you narrow that down to checklist inserts, my thoughts turn to the 2004 Cracker Jack set, which had two separately numbered checklists, which were not made of the same card stock.

Cracker Jack

And, while I don’t know how the 1963 Fleer checklists were distributed, that card is unnumbered.

s-l1600

Furthermore, does being an insert in and of itself make it part of the whole set? Can’t be, right? These were inserted in 1971 packs, but nobody (at least nobody I know) considers a 1971 Topps set incomplete if you don’t also have a complete set of these.

1971 Topps Coins 5

There has to be a right answer, and this is it:

A set is complete when you have all the numbered cards. Master sets are complete when you have all variations, non-numbered cards, etc.

Getting back to 1956 Topps, if you’re not complete without the checklists, then you’re also not complete unless you have all white and gray back variations and the different team card versions. In fact, they’re called variations for a reason; those cards are “a different or distinct form or version of something.” I would argue, in fact I am arguing, that the checklists are also variations – they are different from all the other 1956 because THEY HAVE NO NUMBER and, without a number, they are outside the set as presented.

Obviously, to each his own on this, but there must be a clear standard. Perhaps we all know what it is, and that’s why complete sets tend to be sold by the definition above, and, when variations, unnumbered checklists, etc. are part of the listing, they are given a separate shoutout.

I’m sure there are many thoughts on this, and maybe I want to hear them. I’m not sure. I imagine I will anyway.

 

A Brief Analysis of Baseball Card Prose and How It Makes Us Better Writers (1956-1959)

In the previous installment of this series, I began my journey through nearly seventy years of baseball card history.  I’m examining the prose featured on the backs of one Detroit Tiger for each year of Topps flagship sets.  We’ll learn about culture and technology, but we’ll also find out what this prose can teach us about writing and storytelling.

So let’s dip back into the collection that inspired this series and pull out my beautiful…

gromek1956 Steve Gromek #310

Design of the reverse: The typed prose has been replaced by three cartoons.

Text (33 words in captions):  This will be Steve’s 16th year as a major league star. [Three boys seek autographs from Gromek. The rightmost one says, “Gee, he wuz pitchin’ before we wuz born”]

In ’54, he had a brilliant 18-16 record. [Gromek following through after a pitch with a sunburst behind him.]

Steve started as an infielder in ’39, but switched to pitching in 1941. [Gromek standing on a pitching mound. He says, “I like the view from here”]

Sy Berger and his colleagues took a turn away from straight prose in 1956: the first set to eschew straight prose altogether.  (Of course, making such a statement to fellow SABR members makes me nervous; they know everything!)  The cartoons may be out of order, but the authors are still engaging in the identity construction that is such an important part of early Topps card prose. 

Gromek, a member of the 1948 World Champion Cleveland Indians team, did indeed have a very long career as a hurler after switching to pitching.  His major league career began in 1941, just as Indians star Bob Feller enlisted.  A December 25th, 1941 Sporting News article described the competition to take his spot in the rotation in an article with this delightful headline: “Five Young Flingers as Feller ‘Fill-Ins.’”  (The article engages in a fascinating description of how each pitcher qualified for a deferment.)

The authors put the colloquialism “wuz” into the mouth of one of the children.  The Oxford English Dictionary traces the first print usage of the term to the classic 1886 children’s novel Little Lord Fauntleroy.  I’m reminded of “Nuf Ced,” the nickname attributed to Red Sox superfan Michael T. McGreevy.  While the writing teacher in me bristles at such phonetic spellings in popular use, the creative writer in me loves how the children who first opened these packs enjoyed the informal nature of the diction.  Such playful use of language has always been around, and today’s young people certainly make the language their own while texting.  

Perhaps the authors of the captions had more didactic/instructional aims; Steve Gromek’s career teaches us all that we may fail in one pursuit, but the point is that we should dust ourselves off and “try pitching,” whatever that may mean in our specific cases.

bobkennedy

1957 Bob Kennedy #149

Design of the reverse: Full career stats for the first time.  No cartoons.  

Text (21 words): A valuable veteran, Bob is an all around ball player who can take over|first, and third base or play the outfield.

I’m sure Topps had proofreaders, but they must have had the day off when someone approved this card.  (I certainly make my own share of mistakes.)  There should be a hyphen in the compound adjective “all-around.”  That “and” should be an “or.”  And what is going on with that vertical bar?

1957 Topps seems to begin a phenomenon that I noticed as a kid.  When I flipped over a 1987 Topps Nolan Ryan, all I saw was a sea of numbers.  (“He’s been in the majors since my dad was in junior high!”)  There was no room for prose. 

nolanryan

Fifth-year player Tim Hulett, on the other hand, had room on his card to note that he “attended both the University of South Florida and Miami Dade North Community College.”
hulett
Statistics are another form of identity formation, to be sure.  Any kid who checked out the reverse of this card before clothespinning it into his bike spokes would notice that Kennedy had a long American League career and would have understood what a great ballplayer the man was. 

Perhaps the most interesting prose on the card is on Kennedy’s stat line for “‘43-5:” “(In United States Marine Corps).” 

I suppose the lesson of this baseball card is that less can be more, and that a writer can coax a reader into filling in what the writer leaves unsaid or implied.  Kennedy missed three years in the Marines.  One wonders what he saw and did and how it shaped him.  The kid who opened the pack might have been able to relate through his or her own father.  I also wonder if any little kids read the card and realized for the first time that a sentence filled with mistakes is difficult to read and was inspired to be more careful in English class…

sleater

1958 Lou Sleater #46

Design of the reverse: A return to partial stats and cartoons.

Text (34 words): Lou worked exclusively in relief last season. He is specially effective against lefty hitters and his good control makes him tough for any one to hit. A fastball and curve are Lou’s main weapons. 

This will be Lou’s 12th season in baseball. [Lou shows off a number of medals on his chest, saying “A real veteran!”]

He’s been with 4 A.L. and 1 N.L. clubs in his career. [Hands in pockets, Lou asks, “Any bidders?”]

Whoever composed the prose for Mr. Sleater’s card has unintentionally forced me into a dilemma.  Look at that second sentence.  The adverb “specially” applies to the specific purpose of its noun.  (“The logo was specially chosen to bring attention to the indie ball team.”)  Either the author has simply misused the word, or he or she meant “especially,” which is an adverb meaning “particularly.”  If the latter is true, the writer may simply have forgotten the apostrophe that represents the omitted “e.”  

My hunch is that the author simply used the wrong word, but it’s interesting to consider that he or she intended to use “‘specially.”  There is a history of popular writers playing with words beginning in “s” in this way.  It’s not a leap to believe that a baseball card prose composer living in Brooklyn in 1957 was aware of “S’Wonderful,” the Gershwin standard.  The Disney film Song of the South had been released in 1946 and was re-released in 1956.  One of the more prominent lyrics from Allie Wrubel and Ray Gilbert’s “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” goes, “It’s the truth, it’s “actch’ll”/Everything is “satisfactch’ll.”  Perhaps the author of the baseball card was engaging in similar wordplay.

Okay, it was probably just a mistake.

I am also struck by the generic nature of the description.  Aside from Sleater’s pitches, the author only includes details that could be gleaned from Sleater’s stat lines.  (Topps employees must have had more extensive statistics at hand that they later condensed into the lines they included on the cards.)  Maybe the author wasn’t inspired to describe Sleater in more fulsome terms.  Or maybe it was Friday afternoon when he or she was working on card 46, and Sy Berger walked through the bullpen to tell everyone to knock off early once they finished the card they were writing. 

hoeft
1959 Billy Hoeft #343

Design of the reverse: Full(er) stats, cartoon. AND prose.

Text (41 words): A good fastball, a baffling curve and expert control spell success for Billy Hoeft. In ’56 he was one victory shy of teammate Frank Lary and the A.L. Win Crown. Billy’s 7 shutouts in ’55 were tops in the Junior Circuit.

Billy is a dedicated fisherman. [Billy dozes with a fishing line dangling from his big toe.]

Although the author has omitted the Oxford comma (the one before the last item in a list), I love the construction of that first sentence.  The adjective “good” could apply to “fastball, curve, and control,” but look how much more powerful and specific when each noun gets its own modifier.  Better yet, the adjectives improve.  Which sounds more complimentary to you?  “Good?”  Or “baffling,” and “expert?”

Again, the author has turned away from some of the specifics and identity building that was present in the first few years of Topps baseball card prose.  The reader certainly gets the idea that Hoeft, who once struck out all 27 batters in an American Legion game, is a good pitcher, but who is he, really?  Would a little kid look up to Hoeft and mimic his windup because the man is a “dedicated fisherman?”

And then there’s the matter of the missing comma in the second sentence.  It should read “In ‘56, he was one…” because the introductory clause must be joined properly to the independent clause.  There’s a non-blahblahblah way to think about it.  If you read the sentence like a newscaster–deep voice, clear articulation–you will want to pause after “In ‘56.”  That’s my rule of thumb for those who have comma anxiety. 

 

It’s been interesting to see how the prose changed from the early to late 1950s.  Next time, I’ll look at the same player in consecutive years and a right-hander who looks even more like an accountant than Greg Maddux!


Series: A Brief Analysis of Baseball Card Prose and How It Makes Us Better Writers
1952 – 1955,
1956 – 1959
or the posts can be found under the “CardProse” tag.

2000 Skybox Autographics

Cards from 2000 are old enough to legally drive and vote, and almost old enough to legally drink. I want that to sink in – they are 20 years old. I think that qualifies them as vintage according to some definitions of the word. To a 10-year-old collector starting today, they are as old as 1966 Topps cards were to me when I “seriously” began collecting in 1986 (meaning I had a binder and some 9-pocket pages).  Yes, production and collecting has changed over time, but I didn’t have a lot of cards from 1966 as a 10-year-old.

Pack inserted autographs have been available since 1990, when Upper Deck inserted Reggie Jackson autographs into its product. Perhaps the “signature” product is 1996 Leaf Signature, with its one autograph per pack insertion rate.  There are great topical subsets, like the 1997 and 1998 Donruss Significant Signatures, which are essentially all HOFers … and Don Mattingly.  And of course, there are “vintage” autograph sets, like the Topps Stars run of rookie reprint autographs in the late 1990s. There have been a few posts on autographs on the blog but I think only Jeff has a similar type of post on pack inserted autographs with the Sports Illustrated Covers Autographs.

I want to focus specifically on the 2000 Skybox Autographics set. In an earlier post on master set building I mentioned that 2000 Skybox Dominion was one of the first master sets I attempted to put together. Some of these cards were part of that master set building process. However, the Autographics set was a multi-product set, with only a subset of players available in Skybox Dominion. Others were available in E-X, Impact, Metal, and Skybox. Some players were available in multiple products. Eventually the master set building of Skybox Dominion morphed into trying to build the complete Autographics set (Jeter and Pedro being the pricey remaining autographs to that quest).

First, let’s clear up some confusion. Here are fronts and backs from three different years (1999, 2000, and 2001) of autographics cards:

1999-2001 Skybox Autographics - both

The 2000 set is the one in the middle. The 1999 copyright date on the back is the source of confusion, as is the 2000 copyright date on the back of the 2001 card. That was the time period when companies would sometimes release next year’s products this year (a 2000 product would be released in 1999), sometimes last year’s product this year (a 2000 product would be released in 2001), and sometimes, if a product had multiple series, one series would be released in one year and the other in the next year.

To me, the 2000 set is the best looking. The big block “Skybox” running diagonally across the 1999 cards detracts from the photo, and the smaller photo on the 2001 cards, likely to leave more space to focus on the autograph, minimizes the focus on the player.  Also, I’m a bigger fan of vertical cards than horizontal cards.  The 2000 set is borderless, with bright color backgrounds which generally match a primary color of the player’s team (orange for Orioles, blue for Dodgers, etc. – I have no idea if inspiration for these colorful backgrounds came from T206s). There are a variety of shots: some action, some posed, and some in-game shots that I wouldn’t really call “action” shots. The shadows also add a nice effect. There’s some white space for the on-card autograph, which tends to be preferred to sticker autographs. There’s also an embossed Skybox logo that stays fairly well hidden on most of the cards. Granted, the backs of the 2000 and 2001 cards are weaker than that of the 1999 cards, but I’ll trade off a weaker card back to remove that big block diagonal logo from the front.

The set is 132 cards with players ranging from Hall of Famers to prospects who never made the majors.  The checklist is reasonably deep, particularly when one considers everyone was either active or potentially active that year.

2000 Skybox Autographics HOFers

Hall of Famers (or likely HOFers): Beltre, Boggs, Vladimir Guerrero, Gwynn, Hoffman, Jeter, Randy Johnson, Maddux, Edgar Martinez, Pedro Martinez, Mussina, Ripken, Thomas

Guys with HOF numbers: Bonds, Palmeiro, A-Rod, Beltran (I would have had him as a likely HOFer but who knows how the Astros sign stealing scandal will affect his candidacy – does anyone remember the sign stealing scandal with everything else that has happened in the past few months?)

Stars/Semistars/Minor Stars: Abreu, Alou, Berkman, Mike Cameron, Carpenter, Eric Chavez, Will Clark, Damon, Carlos Delgado, J.D. Drew, Jason Giambi (and Jeremy too), Helton, Tim Hudson, Andruw Jones, Kendall, Konerko, Lankford, Magglio Ordonez, Rolen, Rollins, Salmon, Soriano, Tejada, Billy Wagner, and probably a few others I’m missing.

Of course, there’s also Glen Barker (197 plate appearances), Orber Moreno (50.2 IP), and Angel Pena (206 plate appearances), who wound up with limited MLB action. And Norm Hutchins, Cesar King, and Aaron McNeal, who wound up with no MLB action.  And Matt Riley – if you don’t remember him, look up his minor league numbers early in his career. But that’s what makes this set interesting – an autograph set of all HOFers (or almost HOFers) like 1997 Donruss Significant Signatures is great, but the variety of players in this set is more representative of the game.

2000 Skybox Autographics Favorites-busts

The semistars also add to the appeal of the set.  Ray Lankford was a really good baseball player, yet he only has 10 different autograph cards from manufacturers (that is counting the three versions of his 1997 Donruss Signature autograph as three distinct cards and his two versions of the 2000 Skybox Autographics as two distinct cards – more on that in the next paragraph).  Tim Salmon has 110 different autograph cards, and many of those have small print runs (under 100). Lest you think that is a lot, Wade Boggs has at least 1,400 different autographed cards; Cal Ripken has at least 3,700 (these numbers are probably outdated at the time of the post – they are taken from Beckett’s online guide).  Lankford has fewer cards than Boggs has autographed cards; Salmon has fewer cards than Ripken has autographed cards.

2000 Skybox Autographics Purple Foil-semistars

In addition to the regular version of the card, there is also a purple foil version numbered to 50. The words Skybox Autographics running along the side of the card are the text that is in purple foil. I have seen Purple Foil cards without the numbering, which I believe were back-ups to be used as replacement cards. My understanding is that those cards made their way into the hobby through some liquidation sale, but I’m not sure how credible that story is. I have seen other cards (2002 Fleer Triple Crown parallels) without some of the numbering that are claimed to have entered the hobby the same way. I have also seen some numbered versions without the purple foil. I am more skeptical of those – I think they are just the regular cards that someone numbered after the fact. The numbers on the purple foil versions are hand-numbered, which allows that to happen. As always, education is the key.

Overall, the set appeals to me from both its look as well as its player selection. The design was also used in basketball and football sets around the same time and has been used in “retro” sets in 2012 for those sports.

An Unnecessary Premium

I’ve been selling my pre-war cards. Most of them anyway (there’s a few that I want around). In recent years my collecting has shifted, in ways that bring me great pleasure and, while it’s slightly odd selling off cards that are one of a kind in my collection (selling doubles is so much easier on the emotions), I’ve gotten enormous pleasure from the turnover.

I’m not sure why I have one 1934 Butterfinger Premium, (R310s for you scoring at home) let alone two. The Lloyd Waner made sense at the time, and in retrospect. I was looking for cards of Hall of Famers from their playing days. (Now that I have another “Little Poison,” a 1936 Goudey Wide Pen Type 1, I can let the R310 go).

1934 Butterfinger Waner front253

Bob O’Farrell? I have no idea.

1934 Butterfinger O'Farrell front251

These premiums really aren’t even cards. Large, 7 ¾” X 9 ¾”, paper thin (though there are cardboard backed displays with red ad copy letting a bunch of Dead End Kids and Little Rascals of the decade know they could get their very own Lew Fonseca with the purchase of a nickel candy bar),

s-l1600

and fragile, they’re more like posters (which often make it into the Standard Catalog anyway). The checklist is a nice representation of the player pool, from Ruth, Gehrig and Foxx (spelled both “Fox” and “Foxx”) to Al Spohrer and Ralph Boyle.

The cardboard displays are rarer, selling, according to one Standard Catalog, at four times the paper. There’s even a Canadian version, smaller in size, at 6 ½” X 8 ½”, and checklist, less than 60. (These are given a different designation, V94).

They’re nice items, perfect for team and type collectors, and not very expensive, depending, of course, on condition. A lot of them have suffered paper loss from various tuckings and gluings into albums. You can even get a low grade Al Spohrer for $10!

But the biggest mystery to me is why anyone needs a premium to buy a Butterfinger. They’re delicious and worth each of those five pennies.

Hawaii Six-1

Just when you thought you would never have to endure another vintage, minor league set profile, here is yet another gas station sponsored set.  This time we are examining the 1961 Union Oil Hawaii Islanders. This set is special in that it chronicles the first year Hawaii was a member of the Pacific Coast League.

On December 17, 1960, a Salt Lake City businessman-Nick Morgan-purchased the bankrupt Sacramento Solons from the Pacific Coast League.  Mr. Morgan set up shop 2,500 miles from the nearest opponent at Honolulu Stadium. The park served as a home for amateur baseball and the University of Hawaii football team.  College bowl games were played at the facility as well.  Known as the “Termite Palace” the ramshackle, wooden structure would serve as the home of the Islanders until Aloha Stadium opened in 1976.

In 1961, Union Oil produced a total of 67 different cards for six of the eight PCL teams (Vancouver and Salt Lake did not participate).  Only the cards that corresponded with the team in a team’s area could be found at the Union 76 gas stations.  Due to smaller population areas, Hawaii and Spokane cards are considered short prints, making them more valuable and harder to come by.

The set features borderless, sepia-toned photos that measure 3” X 4”.  The backs have an advertisement for the radio station that held each club’s broadcast rights.  There are 10 Islanders in the set.

The 1961 Islanders were affiliated with the Kansas City Athletics. The bottom dwelling status of the parent club meant that the Hawaii team was not stocked with top prospects.  Only a handful of the players had success at the major league level.

Perhaps the best of the lot is Diego Segui, who forged a long and productive career. His card photo-along with all the other Islanders-was shot at Sicks’ Seattle Stadium.  Segui had no idea that eight years hence he would be playing in the big leagues with the Pilots in the same stadium.

Rachel Slider shows up in the set.  “Rac” never played in the majors, but he was a long-time coach with the Red Sox.

A player who did log major league time was Bill Werle. The hurler was in the Pirates starting rotation in 1949-50.

Another player with a big-time pedigree is Ray Jablonski, who played for the Cardinals, Reds, Giants and A’s. Ray’s poor defense served as a counterweight to his batting prowess, which derailed a promising career after a promising start.

This photo of Dave Thies features a clear look at an advertisement for the 1962 Century 21 Worlds Fair in Seattle.  This exposition put Seattle “on the map” and left the city with its signature structure, the Space Needle.

The Islanders wore colorful uniforms, which foreshadowed those adopted by Athletics owner Charlie Finley. The solid green vest uniforms were used on the road and accessorized with yellow undershirt sleeves and caps.  The club donned white vests at home with green undershirt sleeves and caps.  Perhaps, Finley remember these togs when he shocked the staid baseball world by decking out the A’s in green and gold for the 1963 season.

 PCL players would no longer get a paid, week-long vacation in paradise after the 1987 season.  Dwindling attendance and rising travel costs forced the Islanders’ relocation to Edmonton. But you can virtually feel the gentle breezes of paradise by collecting this set and downing a few mai tais. 

Aloha!

A Little Treasure Chest

Brace, Conlon, McWilliams, McCarthy. McCarthy? Most card collectors and hardcore baseball fans have heard of, or encountered, the photography of George Brace, Charles Conlon and Doug McWilliams. For some reason, J.D. McCarthy has slipped through the cracks.

He shouldn’t have. McCarthy, from near Detroit, was a top level photographer, clicking away product that players used as postcards to answer fan mail or promote their bowling alleys and pizza parlors (McCarthy entries are scattered throughout the Standard Catalog), and that Topps used on a freelance basis. McCarthy archives had made it through various hands, and the bottom of the collection ended up with Bob Lemke, formerly of Krause Publications and one-time editor of the Standard Catalog. He wrote about it here.

Bob makes the point that the collection went through multiple owners, and, by the time it got to him, had been picked over, the Hall of Famers and big stars had disappeared. Which leads me to this post.

Back in 1986, I was visiting Cooperstown and, of course, Baseball Nostalgia. The shop, co-owned by inaugural Burdick Award Winner Mike Aronstein, was in its old location, at what is now the batting range. I picked up my usual odds and ends, like the current San Francisco Giants yearbook, and this little gem. (I’d always been under the impression that Sports Design Products was an Aronstein company, but Andrew Aronstein assured me it was not.)

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I had never heard of McCarthy, and had no idea of what would be contained within this plastic box, but, man, what’s inside was a marvel then, and still is now. It’s a 24-card set, matte-finish (if not matte, non-glossy), with brilliant photos and a simple, 1969 Topps design. SDP clearly had some big plans for the superstar portraits of McCarthy, hoping to get on board the card boom. Seemingly those dreams were never realized.

Here’s the entirety of the set:

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An up close look at these two beauts:

(The backs have little to offer, but I know you “card back” guys care.)

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While still cheap in price, the McCarthy set is high in aesthetic value. Track one down.

1977 and the Hirsute Hardball Hero

Nothing captured the zeitgeist of the late 1970s better than the mustache—an exceedingly visible symbol of assertive manliness. No collection of cardboard depicted our hirsute hardball heroes better than the 1977 Topps set.

My first flashes of baseball consciousness were as a kindergartener in 1977. My earliest memory of peeling open a pack of baseball cards occurred that season. It was about this time my dad grew an exemplary handlebar mustache. These mustaches were not so fashionable just a handful of years earlier in baseball, however.

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In 1917, Athletics catcher Wally Schang caused quite a stir when he announced he would wear a mustache—the only one in the major leagues—because it made him “look more dignified and less like a ballplayer when off the field.” When Philadelphia visited the Yankees at the Polo Grounds on April 9, New York teased Schang mercilessly for daring to sport that “bit of shredded wheat” upon his lip. When Schang hit a go-ahead three-run home run in the top of the ninth, his mustache got the star treatment, “Schang’s mustache quivered defiantly as he dashed toward first base. It twitched noticeably as he turned second, and bristled as he rounded third and followed two runners home…never again will the Yankees be so reckless as to kid a guy with a soup strainer under his proboscis. Never again will they tempt the fates that keep watch over three or four misplaced wild hairs.”

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Schang eventually shaved the mustache in a show of team unity—his clubmates judged the mustache a jinx. The papers eulogized the whisker loss, but the gesture was of no consequence as the Athletics ended the 1917 campaign in the cellar with a dismal 37-81 record. It would be some nineteen years before another player would boldly sport a mustachio.

Outfielder Stanley Bordagaray showed up at Brooklyn Dodgers spring training in 1936 with a mustache he had grown for a cameo role in a film named The Prisoner of Shark Island. As he entered the April 14 season opener as a seventh-inning defensive replacement, his magnificent mustache conjured an “advertisement for bock beer” and sent “feminine hearts fluttering.”

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Bordagaray shaved the mustache shortly thereafter but was apparently beset with regret. He grew it back, sporting a “second-growth” mustache as he pinch ran in the ninth inning at Ebbets Field on May 22. His status as the only mustachioed player did not last, however. It was still newsworthy when Bordagaray shaved his mustache for good sometime in June—at least in Lincoln, Nebraska.

 

By all accounts, Major League Baseball did not see facial hair on a ballplayer again until Dick Allen in 1970. As a member of the Cardinals, Allen’s mustache was documented in the St. Louis Cardinals Picture Pack and Photocard sets. After his postseason trade to the Dodgers, Allen’s facial hair made its first national appearance in Topps’ 1971 high-number series, with card number 650 depicting a smiling, mustachioed Allen—the only card in the set to feature a bewhiskered player. Perhaps this was not surprising considering prevailing attitudes about baseball and facial hair at the time. That summer, an American Legion team from Orlando chose to forfeit after the tournament director ordered eight of the players to get haircuts or shave.

The 1972 set contained roughly five mustaches, including Reggie Jackson, who is often credited, incorrectly, with bringing the mustache back to baseball. Jackson, however, did inspire Athletics owner Charlie Finley to offer a $300 facial hair bonus to the Oakland players who had grown a mustache by his June 18 “Mustache Day” promotion that season.

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As the mustache gained more popular acceptance in baseball, the numbers of players sporting mustaches in Topps baseball card sets began to grow wildly. The 1973 set featured 17 bewhiskered players. There were 87 in 1974 and 144 in 1975. The 1976 and 1977 sets saw 195 and 190 mustachioed players, respectively. There were 232 mustaches in 1978 and the decade ended with a downright shaggy 1979 set that included some 259 mustached ballplayers.

Of all these sets, however, 1977 best captured the essence of mustachio and chronicled the finest pogonotrophy of the decade. Here are the best mustaches of 1977 in the Topps set:

Honorable mention: Wayne Garland, #33; Willie Horton, #660; Dave Tomlin #241.

10. John Lowenstein, Topps #393/O-Pee-Chee #175

After the 1976 season, Lowenstein was traded by Cleveland to the Blue Jays. Before the 1977 season, he was traded back to the Indians. [Despite never having appeared in a regular season game for Toronto, his 1977 O-Pee-Chee card shows him in a Blue Jays uniform.] Even if you squint and look at this card, Lowenstein’s mustache is unmistakably prominent. Not sure this is a requisite yardstick—but it is a good start.

9. Rollie Fingers, Topps #523

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Fingers grew his mustache to cash in on Charlie Finley’s “Mustache Day” bonus offer in 1972 and has sported his trademark handlebar ever since. In his first season with the Padres in 1977, Fingers led the league in games, games finished, and saves. And probably mustache wax.

8. Bill Greif, Topps #112/O-Pee-Chee #243

Bill Greif’s exemplary horseshoe and crap-eating grin belied the challenges of his personal life. As a healthy 27-year-old, Greif left baseball before the Expos broke camp in order to focus on his child’s medical condition. He never appeared for the Expos or any other team in 1977 and a brief comeback attempt in 1978 fizzled at Tidewater.

7. Bill Buckner, Topps #27

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Despite being pictured on a Dodgers card, Buckner has been traded to the Cubs in January. Subjectively, this card would have ranked much higher if Billy Buck was shown in a Cubs uniform – he was my first favorite player ever. Regardless, the hypnotic draw of his mustache is enough to render the card’s uncomfortably askew background imperceptible. (Seriously, did you just have to take another look?)

6. Phil Garner, Topps #261/O-Pee-Chee #34

Composition is everything with this card—a profile shot that allows one to fully appreciate Garner’s prodigious whisker depth. Even half of this walrus mustache is enough to demand more. Having been traded to the Pirates before the 1977 season, Garner’s O-Pee-Chee card features an alternate photograph with probably one of the most perfectly lit mustaches ever.

5. George Hendrick, Topps #330/O-Pee-Chee #218

Hendrick is utterly regal while donning a satin warm-up jacket, crisp visor, and horseshoe mustachio. Hendrick posted his career year by bWAR (5.8) in 1977 as a member of the Padres. His O-Pee-Chee cardboard is unusual in that the airbrush artist used the visor as the basis for Hendrick’s Padres “cap,” resulting in an oddly squat crown.

4. Al Hrabosky, Topps #495

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Deemed the “Mad Hungarian,” Hrabosky’s demonstrative mound demeanor was only accentuated by his impressive whiskers. Bonus points in this card for the pillbox hat, too. Hrabosky is the only player in Major League history whose last name started with “Hr” to surrender a home run.

3. Ramon Hernandez, Topps #95/1968 Topps #382 

Hernandez appeared in just six games for the 1977 Cubs before he was shipped off to Boston. His time in Chicago is certainly best remembered for his most gentlemanly walrus. [Hernandez looked decidedly different on his 1968 Topps Cubs card.]

2. Dennis Leonard, Topps #75

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There’s a new sheriff in town. Looking as though he just stepped of the set of a Western soundstage, Leonard led the league with 20 wins in 1977, the first of three times he would win 20 or more. And how could you not love a guy with two first names or two last names or one of each?

1. Luis Tiant, Topps #258

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This is a stunner that has only gotten better with age. Amid his twisty windup, Tiant faced fully away from the batter. As he turned back, batters were mesmerized by his reemerging horseshoe mustache. Tiant is one of only 22 pitchers to amass 2400 strikeouts and post a career ERA of 3.30 or less. (All but Roger Clemens, Max Scherzer, and Sam McDowell from that list are in the Hall of Fame.) Tiant belongs there. Until then, he is a charter member of the Baseball Mustache Hall of Fame and caretaker of the best mustache in the 1977 Topps baseball card set.

Overall, my favorite mustache in 1977 belonged to my dad. But there were some other great ones out there, too.

Notes:

Counting mustaches was a surprisingly hairy task. Topps cards of the 1970s often used photos of dubious quality and odd perspectives that made identifying mustachioed players challenging. Additionally, shadows sometimes created potentially illusory mustaches. Judgment calls were made, especially when no conclusive determination was possible with the assistance of magnification.

For this exercise, only single-player/manager cards were counted. I did not include action cards, leaders, highlights, multiple-player rookie cards, or cards from any other subsets.

I was not able to find any baseball cards of Wally Schang or Frenchy Bordagaray in which they were depicted with a mustache.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com
http://www.retrosheet.org
http://www.tcdb.com
• King, Norm. “Frenchy Bordagaray,” SABR Baseball Biography Project, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/frenchy-bordagaray/, accessed July 14, 2020.
• Wolf, Gregory H. “Bill Greif,” SABR Baseball Biography Project, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/bill-greif/, accessed July 14, 2020.
• Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), March 31, 1917, 17.
• Photo of Schang, Buffalo Courier, May 24, 1917, 10.
• “Schang Wears Mustache, Only One in the Majors,” The Washington Post, May 28, 1917, 6.
• “Induce Schang to Remove Mustache but Team Loses,” Buffalo Evening News, June 21, 1917, 18.
• Hughes, Ed, “Since Bordagaray Intends Sporting a ‘Soup Strainer’!,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 9, 1936, 18.
• McLemore, Henry, “Some Odds and Ends as Dodgers were Taking their First Beating,” The Brooklyn Citizen, April 15, 1936, 6.
• Brietz, Eddie, “Sports Roundup,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, April 15, 1936, 17.
• Photo of Bordagaray, Detroit Free Press, April 19, 1936, 48.
• Diamond Dust, Daily News (New York, New York), May 23, 1936, 240.
• The Lincoln Star (Lincoln, Nebraska) June 19, 1936, 16.
• “In Hair Dispute: A Team Cuts Itself,” The Morning News (Wilmington, Delaware) August 10, 1971, 22.

The Journey to Authenticate My Wooden Number is Over!

“Until another example, with some very solid provenance/history, surfaces that is made of wood to compare yours to I would think it a bit difficult for anyone to state with certainty that it was used in Forbes Field.”

Hunt Auctions – from email dated October 29, 2019

1961 Topps Card #312

I stated at the end of my blog post on March 1st that I had hit the pause button on my journey to try and authenticate the wood number 2 that was supposedly from Forbes Field that my son had given me as a gift for my birthday last October. 

With the arrival in late April of an issue of Sports Collector’s Digest I hit the play button again. In that issue was a Man Cave article that mentioned Stadia dealer Richie Aurigemma, who has an impressive inventory of seats, signs, railings, and other artifacts from past and current ballparks for sale.

I emailed Richie and received a reply back that he concurred with the other people that had weighed in so far that he had never seen a wooden scoreboard number from Forbes Field.

Things were looking bleak, but then on May 3rd someone wrote a comment on my March 1st blog that they had seen a wooden number 9 from Forbes Field and that it was in the Baseball Hall of Fame!

The person who commented also added that he thought the wooden numbers were used on the “Next Game Here” sign that was adjacent to the larger scoreboard during the 1969 and 1970 seasons. He also included a link to a photo the included the “Next Game Here” sign.

Next Game Here sign at Forbes Field

I emailed the Research Department of the Baseball Hall of Fame on May 4th (HOF was closed at the time due to the pandemic) and they confirmed that they indeed did have a wooden scoreboard number 9 from Forbes Field and that it was still on display.

I also posted an inquiry on the Forbes Field Facebook page to see if anyone had information on the “Next Game Here” sign. Someone did reply that they have a wooden sign that reads JUNE on one side and AUG. on the other side, and also posted a photo that was probably taken in 1963 of the Scoreboard – see photo below. At the bottom of the scoreboard is a “Next Game Here” area. From the photo it looks like wooden numbers were used earlier than 1969 as well. I identified the players and coach from the Dodgers in the photo and have included their names.

Left to Right – Joe Becker (Pitching Coach), Ron Perranoski, and Larry Sherry

The Baseball Hall of Fame has recently opened and a friend of mine took his family there over the 4th of July weekend. He took photos of the wooden number 9 that they have on display in the Sacred Ground exhibit area and it does match up well with my number 2. He eyeballed the dimensions of the number on display and again these are consistent with my number.

Number 9 Photos are from HOF. Number 2 Photo is my wooden number.

It has been 9 months since I received my birthday present and I can now say with a very high degree of certainty that it is an authentic number from Forbes Field. I would not be able to make that statement without the help from a number who not only took the time to respond to a stranger on a baseball journey, but in many cases also did additional research to help me with my quest.

A shout out and thank you to all the following people and organizations for their help – Hunt Auctions, The Pittsburgh Pirates, Len Martin (the unofficial Forbes Field historian who has written books on Forbes Field and Fenway Park), Frank Thomas “The Original”, the co-chairs of the SABR Ballparks Research Committee, Richie Aurigemma, Matt (who commented on my blog), members of the Forbes Field Facebook page (who commented on my post), the Manager of Reference Services at the Baseball Hall of Fame and my friend who took the number 9 photos.