Elegance, thy name is … Circle K?

So this was originally going to be a super-short post about an old set – well, nearly a set – that was just sort of laying around, and that I’ve never quite been able to get out of my mind. But then I toddled off for just a tiny bit of research and now this won’t be super-short, probably not even short at all.

You’re welcome!

1985ck-11dAt some point back in the 1980s, I guess, I picked up a set of cards, (probably) sight-unseen because they were inside a box. As I remembered the set, they came from K-Mart and depicted the top 34 home-run hitters of all time.

At the time. Which meant the set included Lee May.

Lee May? Yeah, Lee May. When the set was released in 1985, Lee May’s 354 career clouts ranked 34th on the all-time list.

Now? Poor Lee May’s fallen well more than 100 percent on the all-time list, tied for 88th with Luis Gonzalez. But I remember enjoying the fact that one relatively small set of baseball cards included Hank Aaron and Lee May. Along with other non-immortals like Norm Cash, Frank Howard, and Dave Kingman.

But what I really liked about those cards, even 30-some years ago, was the simple elegance of their design. They did have a border – in those years, it seems that nobody could even imagine designing a baseball card without a border – but otherwise the card was pure image, with the player’s name in tiny print in the bottom-left corner of the border. (So I suppose this is becoming a running theme, as my previous post was about another simply elegant set. At some point early on, that apparently became my design preference, at least with baseball cards.)
41imymdgfclNow, about my research… This set was produced by Topps (as I correctly remembered) but not sold by K-Mart. It was actually Circle K, which surprised me mostly because we didn’t have Circle K stores where I lived.

This should have been obvious, since the back of the cards carry the Circle K logo. But I didn’t recognize the logo because – have I mentioned this already? – we didn’t have Circle K stores where I lived!

Okay, so going through my set, I discovered I was missing a couple of cards. And by looking at that 1985 list of home-run leaders, I realized the missing cards were Ted Williams (#9) and Joe DiMaggio (#31). Cards that (I figured) I had probably misplaced, used as bookmarks, or gave away.

I found about Circle K by Googling K-Mart baseball cards … ‘cause it turns out K-Mart did have their own baseball cards, also in the 1980s. Actually, it turns out pretty much everybody had their own baseball cards in the ‘80s. You might recall the glut. Here’s the description of my set from a Sports Collectors Daily article about all those ‘80s boxed sets:

In a departure from the busy designs that would mar just about every other boxed set during the 1980s, each card in the Topps “Baseball All Time Home Run Kings” set featured a full-color photo surrounded by thin colored piping inside a thicker white border. As the name implies, the cards depicted the top 33 sluggers on baseball’s career home run list at the time and were distributed at Circle K convenience stores.

A mystery, though. Only 33 cards in the set? Lee May is #34. Then again,scan_pic0036 34 is a strange number for a set. Just in terms of printing, don’t you want a number that’s divisible by 3 or 4? In fact, all the other sets discussed in the SCD story were either 33 or 44 cards. So why 34 in this one? And what in hell did I do with my Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio cards?

My answer took a few days. A partial answer, anyway. I was so annoyed by those two missing cards that I purchased a full set on eBay – don’t worry; it was cheap! – and this one arrived today with the original box. And on the back of the box, a checklist.

Or what looks like a checklist. It’s not a checklist. It’s a list of the top 34 home-run hitters, Aaron through May. But right next to the number 31 and Joe DiMaggio, an asterisk. And below the list, in even smaller type, an asterisk with this note:

Picture card not included in series.

We can probably guess why. DiMaggio’s people probably wanted more money than Circle K was willing to spend. DiMaggio’s people were well-known for that sorta thing. So the (self-described) Greatest Living Ballplayer and his 361 career homers are on the box, but not in the box. Oh well. At least now I do have the greatest (then) living hitter.

41qcb3psenlOne more thing about the box… Below the list and the DiMaggio footnote, we’re told that the set is (for some reason) DISTRIBUTED by TOPPS IRELAND LTD. and PRINTED IN REP. OF IRELAND. Which I’ll leave here as a tidbit for the archivists among you.

Before letting you go, I do want to revisit a note from that SCD snippet. If you’ve got the stomach for it, check out those other boxed sets from the ‘80s, from places like K-Mart and Woolworth’s and Eckerd Drugs and Revco. The designs of those sets were all busy. And that’s putting it nicely. I would argue that the 1985 Circle K set is the only boxed set from the ’80s that’s not esthetically revolting.

One of the great things about collecting cards is that there is not really a premium for attractiveness. If you want to build a collection that simply looks good, you don’t have to spend much at all. And you could do a lot worse than 1985 Topps Baseball All Time Home Run Kings Exclusively From Circle K (33 Super Gloss Photo Cards).

The Mac Brothers – Willie and Big

I started going to card shows in 1973. There weren’t that many back then, two a year in Manhattan. I’d go with $100, saved up from a birthday or Hanukkah. That money had to be spent wisely and usually was. I stockpiled favorite players (Koufax, for one), bought the occasional Mantle or Mays, but my heart was always with complete sets, especially ones I’d padres-baseballsnever seen before. When I saw the 1974 McDonald’s Padres Discs in their plastic baseball holder, it was love at first sight.

Even if it didn’t contain a complete set of 15 Pads, the cheapo plastic baseball on its McDonald’s logoed stand would have been worth the price. It was the perfect marriage of Ray Kroc properties. Kroc, owner of both McDonald’s and the Padres, found padres-trioperfect synergy in card form. The set is a ‘70’s baseball fans dream – Matty Alou, Nate Colbert, Bobby Tolan, etc. It’s got a beautiful card of Willie McCovey in his new Padres brown and yellow uni, a worthier picture of the original Big Mac than his heinously airbrushed 1974 Topps card. There’s also a Dave Winfield rookie card.

padres-baseballs-openIt was only recently that I came upon the original plastic holder and five player starter set. This type (with a run of 60,000) was given away on at Jack Murphy Stadium July 30, an 8-0 drubbing at the hands of the Dodgers. The cards were great (that’s adorable and terrible Enzo Hernandez in the front of my starter set), the team not so much. They’d lose 102 games.

The ’74 Padres McDonald’s Disc set is a quirky little thing, reasonably priced, and worthy of your time. Where else are you gonna find a Ronald McDonald card, in action no less? And it comes in its own unique container, just like a McDLT.mcdlt-w-ad

DOUG McWILLIAMS: Baseball Card Photographer, Chronicler of Baseball History

You could talk about his 20-plus years setting the gold standard for baseball card photography as a lensman for Topps. Or his incredible collection of ephemera pertaining to the Oakland A’s. Or his friendship with Vida Blue and Willie McCovey. Or his amazing Zee-Nut baseball card collection of Oakland Oaks players from 1911-1939. Or the 11,000 negatives of his non-Topps work he donated to the Hall of Fame.

And you’d still come up short.

Meet Doug McWilliams, chronicler of baseball and American history. The Berkeley, CA, native has been photographing the national pastime since 1950. The trim, bearded 80-year-old (who looks as if he’s in his late 60s) recounted the day he was bitten by the bug in 1948:

doug-m-pcl-cards“I started listening on the radio to the Oakland Oaks baseball games. They had a little feature on there about the baseball cards they are giving away at Signal Oil and if you stop by your local gas station, they’ll give you a new card. They were in full color. I finally talked my father into taking me to one of the games. He wasn’t a fan of sports at all. We stopped by at a Signal oil gas station and I got a baseball card of a Ray Hamrick, who was a shortstop for the Oaks.

ray-hamrick-card259loWe got to the ballpark. It was evening and I got up to the top of the walkway and looked down on the field. It was all lit up. It looked like it was magic and saw down by the fence, there was Ray Hamrick signing autographs. I borrowed a fountain pen from my dad and ran down there and got him to sign it. I was hooked, hooked more on baseball cards than the game.”

I met Doug at a SABR event earlier this year, where I was presenting my last film about writer Arnold Hano. We happened to be sitting next to each other and introduced ourselves. I’m a baseball card hound since 1964, and I found his story fascinating. My latest project, “The Sweet Spot—A Treasury of Baseball Stories” features people from across the baseball spectrum, and Doug’s story fit the bill for an episode.

My cameraman, Otis, and I spent the better part of the day with Doug at his home, and I was awed by the baseball artifacts, relics and photography he had collected during his lifetime. I interviewed Doug extensively, covering his career shooting for Topps and love of the game.

“I got away from baseball when I was a kid because I went away to college and got married, joined the army, although I was a photographer in the army also. I just didn’t have time for it, but the A’s came to Oakland in 1968 and in 69, they had a picture day. I went down the field with my 35 millimeter Leica and flash bulbs and took pictures of the players as they came by. It reminded me of when I was a kid. I started going to the games and shooting out of the stands and got to know the players. Some of them wanted to buy pictures, too. At that point, I had already been a photographer at the University of California for 10 years almost. I knew I could do well because I’d been doing well. I just kept shooting out of the stands and pretty soon a guy came by, named Jim Mudcat Grant, who I had photographed as a kid probably 15 years before. He remembered me, which totally shocked me. He was with the A’s for a while. I did some pictures for him. He got traded to Pittsburgh and then he came back. The A’s told him to get some new PR pictures. He needed to make an appointment with their photographer.

Mudcat said, “Doug is going to do my pictures for the PR.” They said, “Who?”[laughs] I got my foot on the field for the first time through him. When he posed for me, I got the pictures up to the PR people and they approved them and use them. About that same time, Vida Blue was coming up in the September to show what he could do. He stayed with Mudcat. I did some pictures for Vida for his family. Well, the next year, which I guess was 71, I may have my dates mixed up, but he won the Cy Young and MVP both. He came to me and says, “I need postcards.” I’d been doing photographic postcards in black and white for quite a few of the A’s by that time. He says, “I want color.” I say, ”Well, what do you want a 100 or 200?” I was thinking photographically making them. I made my black and whites photographically. He says, “I get a 100 letters a day, I need lots of them.” The upshot was that I did three different printings for him, about 15,000 color postcards. All of them had my name and address down the center of the postcard back. One of them landed on the desk of Sy Berger at Topps in Brooklyn. Soon, I got a call from him, saying, “We like your work. Would you like to shoot for Topps?” I said, “Well, is the Pope Polish? I think I would.” [chuckling]

dm-topps-pass339loShooting for Topps was a side job for Doug, who spent his days working for UC Berkeley as an industrial photographer. But it was baseball that owned his heart, and every spring Doug would appear in Arizona to create the images that would enrapt children, and later, adults, across America. I asked him about the scope of work for those shoots.

“Take six posed pictures, everybody in full color, shoot 16 rolls at 36 exposure action during the games. The posed pictures were shot on Ektachrome, which is very difficult to shoot. You have to be right on the button or you’re in trouble exposure wise. The action film was in color negative, which is not quite as critical. The big problem early on was that lenses weren’t fast enough. They insisted on using 100 ASA film, which they thought gave better color. Also, I was instructed to photograph the player facing the sun with a shadow of the across their face and they told me that showed ruggedness and character. I, to myself thought it showed poor lighting. I never shot my own pictures that way. Why not turn the guy around, use flash film, you got the sun, coming from behind to separate him from the background and you get beautiful portraits of people.”

Did he have an assistant to keep track off all the players he shot? No.

“I devised a system where I had a roster sheet. I printed up my own and I’d have [the team name and] little stickers with all the numbers of the players on it. I could get two players per roll of 120 film on the posed shots and I’d pull off the sticker, put it on the roll when I was through and then put a piece of tape around it. Then, I’d send the roll off. It would have like number 3 or number 10. If they keep track of it at the processing place, then they’d know who’s on that roll.”

 “Some of the managers were extremely good to me. John McNamara and Dick Williams in particular … [Williams] managed about four of the teams that I shot in Arizona. He seemed to have been there my whole career. He would come up to me and say, “How’s it going?” He said, “You got everybody?” I’d say, “No I still need to get a few people.” He’d stand right beside me and call men off the field and make sure I got everybody. Occasionally, I’d have the San Diego Padres or the Seattle Mariners team shot by 11 o’clock and the game starts at 1 o’clock or so. Generally, I had to chase them down for hours and hours and come back another day. It was really nice to be helped that way by several of the people who knew me.”

Clearly, this is a bright guy with a strong work ethic. But what was it that made his photography so good?

“Well, I went to professional photo school. I went to a place called Brooks Institute doug-shoots-mccovey264loof Photography in Santa Barbara. I was a commercial illustration major, but we had portraiture also and we got the classical portraiture posing and that’s what I used. You just don’t have a guy stand up and look at you. I mean you give them some angle and angle his head and make it look correct, so he doesn’t have a broken neck. You shoot women one way and men another way just to feature them. I always shot a gray scale and a color chart every time I started because the lab could use that. I never saw other photographers doing that and that’s something I used to do at the University of California when I was shooting there. Quality: that’s the whole name of the game. I insist on having the best quality possible.”

reggie-on-deck2-dm114loOver the years, Doug formed friendships with some of the players, like Ted Kubiak, Willie McCovey, Vida Blue and Reggie Jackson. If he has a favorite, it might be Vida.

“I met him when he was a young 18-year-old kid and he was very friendly. I enjoyed that. He came to me to have some work done and he got me going as far as a second job. In an area that I just pinched myself that I actually had 24 years in the big leagues, 23 years actually shooting for Topps, but I made a lot of friends and I still have many friends that were baseball players. I keep in touch. I enjoy that.

Doug ended up shooting Vida’s wedding at Candlestick Park, where Willie McCovey was the best man.

“Willie McCovey was a special one. When he retired, he had a thing and had a special all-star game. He had a big get-together at Palace Hotel. He let me bring my son along and so that was fun. I had some pictures of us together, the three of mccovey-sf-giants-dm164lous and I just covered the whole event for him and made a great big picture book for him. That was special. I did a lot of postcards for Willie also, maybe three different times. I loved his Southern drawl and the way he spoke. He would call the house and Mary, my wife just loved talking to him. He always said [lowers voice], “Doug this is McCovey.” You know who he was way before he even said his name.” [chuckles]

I asked Doug if he ever got any oddball requests from ball players.

“I had one fellow who was a pitcher with the A’s and also the Cubs and I think maybe Seattle too, named Jim Todd. He liked photography and he liked my photography and so he would challenge me to do something different each year and pay for it. He had me take a picture of him going through his entire pitching windup, where he changed colored [jerseys] all the way through. Then, I picked out the best ones and had him change from the start to the end of his delivery as his jersey color changed and that was kind of fun. Then, I mounted it in front of a portrait of him that I did and then mounted it on a wood plaque.”

Like all card collectors, I’m interested in error cards. Was Doug ever involved in an error card?

1981cvox“I had a habit of photographing all the Oakland A’s players when they were in the minors if I could. I happen to have photographed Jeff Cox with Modesto and Vancouver and San Jose, just about everywhere he played. I knew him and he finally got up to the big club, spring training and he was so excited to find out that he might be on a Topps card. That happened several times with the young players and it’s kind of fun. The card came out (1981 Topps #133) and I was so happy to hear about that. I looked at the back and all the statistics were correct and it said Oakland A’s on the front. I looked at the picture and it was Steve McCatty. I don’t think the hobbyists discovered that yet. I had never seen it mentioned, but it was McCatty. It wasn’t Jeff. I felt so bad for him that I made him a custom card — this was before computers — and gave them to him to give to his family and friends.”

I asked if there was a particular set of cards he shot that was meaningful to him.

“I thought when [Topps] came out with the “Stadium Clubs”, those were really well done, attractive. They had full bleed edges and they were on thicker stock and they were glossy, looked good.”

Doug proceeded to take me through his favorite Topps cards from 1983-1993 and some of the stories behind them. [Check out Doug’s episode on “The Sweet Spot” to catch them here for $2.99: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/thesweetspot]

I wondered how Doug was perceived by other baseball card photographers, as well as the industry.

“Two years ago, I and two other Topps photographers were inducted into the Cactus League Hall of Fame as photographers for Topps. It was really pretty nice and one of the other photographers was the person who was just starting when I was finishing up [in 1993]. We were in Tucson, shooting the Cleveland Indians and before the game, the posed stuff and action during the game, and it was very hot. This fellow, he kept looking over at me. In his speech at the Hall of Fame induction, he said that he kept looking over at Doug to see if he was ready to go because he was thinking about going back to the hotel and jumping in the swimming pool.” He kept looking over at me and I was still there. Then, the game got over and he says, “Wow, now I can finally head off to the hotel and go swimming.” He looked around and there I was, out on the mound, grabbing players and taking pictures of them. He said, “Now, there’s a baseball card photographer.”

I recently happened on some of Doug’s work as part of the Hall of Fame’s traveling photo exhibit at Dodger Stadium’s current “pop-up museum” [open weekends now through March 5- http://dodgerblue.com/dodgers-pop-up-museum-dodger-stadium-dec-2-vin-scully-items/2016/12/01/%5D

doug-m-hofHis photo of Bert Blyleven, along with the supporting curatorial text, tells us he was not only a world-class photographer, but a baseball historian of note. His contributions to the game, and baseball history, are immeasurable.

But, there’s a couple of problems for Doug:

“Baseball has become a problem to me because I’m so immersed in it. Photography has become a problem with me because I’m continuously looking at everything and making a picture out of it.”

 What’s next for Doug?

I still have 15,000 [negatives] to send [to the Hall of Fame], 35 millimeter and digital and keeps me busy, keeps me alive, keeps me going. I’ve got plenty to do!

 [note: I will be presenting Doug’s episode and my project “The Sweet Spot—A Treasury of Baseball Stories” at the Lefty O’Doul Chapter’s SABR Day meeting in San Leandro on January 26, with Doug in attendance).

Doug was not unlike that kid in the neighborhood who had the coolest toys and baseball card collection and who enjoyed sharing them.

The first baseball card?

BKNAtlantics.jpg

Above is the team photo of the 1865 Brooklyn Atlantics, the proud Champions of Baseball. The reproduced photograph is considered by some to be the first “baseball card.”

The Atlantics formed in 1855 and were one of the founding members of the National Association Of Base Ball Players. They quickly established themselves as one of the dominant teams in the game. After winning the Championship in 1864 the Atlantics sat down for a team photo for photographer Charles Williamson. The club had the photo reproduced and gave copies away as souvenirs before each game to fans and opponents alike. This little piece of self promotion and braggadocio was backed up by a 23-0 record and another NABBP Championship.

The Championship Nine included: John Galvin-SS, Dickey Pearce-C, Fred Crane-2B, Charlie Smith-3B, Frank Norton-CF, Joe Start-1B, Jack Chapman-LF, Tom Pratt-P, Sid Smith

Is this really the first baseball card? Who cares?

My take on this card is one of complete and total awe. I would like to thank the pioneers and inventors of the art and science of photography for making this photo possible. More than 150 years ago ten men sat down for a photographer to proclaim themselves the Champions Of America. Starched collars, black ankle-high shoes and no gloves. Just one baseball, two bats and nine players.

The proud progenitors of a great game.

Confessions of a Baseball Card Thief

I have a confession to make. My first addiction was to baseball cards. Like all good miscreants, I’ve found someone else to blame: my brothers, Tim and Steve.

The year was 1964, and I was an impressionable lad of six. My brothers brought home colorful wax packages containing treasure: cardboard gods swinging their weapons of destruction bathed in Technicolor glory. Each pack came with a special collector’s coin of a player. The whiff of gum ran up my tiny nostrils, grabbed hold of my brain, and I was officially hooked.

armour-part05-1964-floodcurtOnce the hook had been inserted, I became a demon obsessed. I wanted to collect every damn card, but there was a problem. Topps released the cards in series from March through September, and many retailers would see baseball cards moving sluggishly through the end of summer and start of school, so they wouldn’t place further orders. Which left crazed fools like me in the lurch, with incomplete sets.

Crazed doesn’t begin to describe my mania. Raised as a good Roman Catholic boy, all the religious teaching went out the window when my allowance money dried up and a new series of cards had hit the stores. Theft was the answer. While my mother was out of the house, I’d rifle through her purse collection, scooping up what change had been left behind. Whilst visiting my pal Kevin Farley’s house, I stole a pile of cards while he went to get me a popsicle. I was a terrible person, but this is why God created confession, right?

My Dad was (and still is) a great guy. He kept a Mercury head silver dollar from the year he was born, 1924, on his dresser. One day I was on the prowl for card money, and I’d sucked up all the loose change I could filch around the house. A new series was out, and I was behind the other neighborhood kids in collecting. The 1924 coin slid into my pants pocket and a bee-line was made for Ray’s Toy Village in nearby West Portal.

I stormed into the toy store, grabbed a fistful of cards and slammed them onto the counter with the coin from 1924. The nice lady behind the register pawed the relic and examined it closely. “Oh, my! Are you sure you want to use this wonderful old coin to make this purchase?” Now I was getting irritated. She was standing between an addict and his drug. I nodded quickly and she shook her head in bewilderment as I snatched the bag like Smeagol clutching the almighty ring to his breast. All that was missing was a sinister cackle.

There was a kid on the block who was wise to other kids stealing cards from him, so he took a pen and colored the left corner of the card. He’d found a place to purchase cards from the 1969 sets 6th and 7th series, of which I had precious few. A mission was launched to his house under the pretense of a playdate, and the cards were stolen. I cut the left hand corner of the cards to issue my own statement of ownership, wiping out his previous brand. He accused me of theft and I was no longer welcome in his house, but that was secondary. I had the cards!

As I grew into adulthood, I realized some of the cards in my vast collection were obtained by ill-gotten means. It was time to right some wrongs. I ran into my pal Kevin Farley at our 20th grammar school reunion, admitted I’d stolen the cards 25 years previous, and made arrangements to return them to him. This was in 1992, and the cards were vintage baseball and football cards from the mid 1950s and early 60s. He was shocked and thrilled at getting the cards back after all this time, which represented probably $100-$200 dollars in value.

My children had an interest in coin collecting, and we began putting numismatic books together. We turned a page, and there it was: a Mercury head dollar. Guilt poured into my head and I seized a teachable moment. It was nearly Thanksgiving, and we were going to visit my Dad for the holidays. I took my kids to a coin shop, told them the story of how I stole that dollar from my Dad, and purchased a 1924 Mercury head coin for him. I presented it to my father on Thanksgiving, told him the terrible story and how sorry I was for being a rotten kid. He smiled and laughed, “I always wondered what happened to that coin!”.

Flash forward to today, and I’ve purged most of the cards in our collection, save for the Mantle, Mays, Aaron and other star cards. The bulk of the collection went to a good home: the Baseball Reliquary, and are used in a variety of exhibit displays. None of my three children took much interest in baseball cards, but my mania remains, abetted by technology. I found a sub-culture of baseball card geeks on YouTube and began trading for cards from the 50s and 60s with other guys. Once you get established in the group, people send you “just because” packages of cards they think you’ll appreciate. The levels of generosity are astonishing.

s-l225I have to thank my mother, for she never threw out the cards of my youth. She knew how incredibly important they were to my brothers and I. Oldest brother Steve gets an assist, because while I was away at college, he took possession of the cards and moved them to his home, possibly sparing them from a terrible death.

So here I sit, a reformed baseball card thief. My latest mania is to collect all 165 coins from that 1964 set, allowing me to recapture that moment when I first I held a red all-star coin featuring Ken Boyer of the St. Louis Cardinals, swinging a bat. Thanks to eBay, I rounded up all but 20 of them, but ran out of money. Now, where is my wife’s purse?

 

Death of a Museum

caseclosedFor Christmas in 1968, my grandmother gave 8-year-old me a green plastic baseball card “locker” to hold my growing collection. There were “slots” for each of the 24 teams, the American League alphabetical on the left, the National League on the right. To this day, if you ask me to list the major league teams I will recite them in the order I learned from this locker: Baltimore, Boston, California (now LA), Chicago, etc. Assuming I remember to add the newer expansion teams at the end, it takes me 20 seconds, tops.

Truth be told, this locker could not really hold my collection, which already required a few shoe boxes. Instead, each team’s slot held the most recent cards I had of everyone on the current roster. If I got a 1968 Willie Mays card, I would place it in the Giants’ slot, removing the 1967 Willie Mays card (if I had it). When the Red Sox made a 10-team deal with the Brewers in 1971, I transferred each of these players, so that George Scott could immediately join his new mates in Milwaukee. When the Yankees released Johnny Callison in 1973, he was moved into a shoe box until he got another job.

I did not have to wait for a newspaper to tell me what the new Red Sox lineup might look like–the cards in my locker were completely up-to-date, and I could immediately use them to envision Tommy Harper in left field, and Marty Pattin as the number 2 starter. I could do this in June, and I could do this in January. Baseball cards were a useful (and awesome) tool for obsessing about baseball 365 days a year. This locker was a fixture in my house until I went away to college.

s-l1600During the 1980s, as the card market was booming and I was becoming an adult, I went along with the growing trend of putting cards in plastic sleeves, nine to a page, sets stored numerically in thick three-inch binders. And not just for old cards–you could buy a brand new set of Topps, Fleer, or Donruss, and within minutes, barely touched by human hands, all your cards could be preserved in pristine plastic. Perfect condition, someday I will be rich! What more could you ask for?

s-l1600-1Soon more products were available to keep you from ever touching your cards. For my old Jackie Robinson and Ted Williams cards, plastic sheets would simply not do. No, they needed thick plastic screw cases. Every card worth more than $50, no better make it $10, got its own screw case. And keep your paws off of them, by the way. I might need a safety deposit box.

By the early 1990s I was no longer buying new cards, and my older cards were all properly sealed, safe from all humans (or oxygen). Like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, they were to admired from a distance, no flash photography please. For the next 20 years I occasionally added to my collection of 1950s and 1960s cards, filling those empty sleeves in my notebooks, completing long ago sets. A few cards would come in the mail, I would pull the correct notebook down from the shelf, insert each of the cards into their proper place (or into a screw case), and then put the notebook back on the shelf for another month or two. It was … kinda fun?

caseopenSeveral years ago I was on eBay and I saw that old card locker for sale and, I gotta be honest, it called to me. As my childhood version was long gone, I made the purchase and the locker showed up at my house a week later. On another whim, I took my 1969 set out of its notebook, sorted the cards by teams, and placed them in the locker. And what do you know, I discovered that I was riffing through these cards every evening, revisiting the season.

I will now spare you the gory details and bring you up to the present.

My screw cases are all gone. Thankfully, I avoided (and continue to avoid) the grading services that have blighted the hobby, so I didn’t have to worry about taking apart their ugly slabs. My plastic notebooks filled with plastic sleeves? Gone.

My lone concession to “taking care” of my cards is that every one of them (pre-1980) is in its own thin plastic “penny” sleeve, but otherwise all of them can be held and “played with” just as they were when I was a child. My cards are all in cardboard boxes, sorted by year, and can be arranged into lineups, or culled for Hall of Famers, or sorted alphabetically, or arranged by height. My maintenance is democratic–the 1952 Jackie Robinson and the 1975 Bob Heise are accorded the same level of protection.

img_0851Pictured to the left is the cardboard box I use to hold my 1969, 1970, and 1971 sets. At the moment they are sorted into teams, though that might change tomorrow. I could instead arrange my 1969 cards based on each team’s actual Opening Day roster, and use them to imagine the season ahead. I don’t think this Mets lineup is going to hit, but the Seattle Pilots sure look good, don’t they?

One important point. My cards are in great condition and well taken care of. I am not bending, folding, scuffing the edges. My 1957 Mickey Mantle, in Near Mint condition 25 years ago in its screw case, is in Near Mint condition today in its thin plastic sleeve, only now the Mick is filed with Bobby Richardson and Hank Bauer, where I think he would want to be and was meant to me.

My museum is dead, but my cards have never been more alive. Cards were meant for kids, and I shall never forget that again.

Sandy Koufax Regional Issue: 1959-1961 Morrell Meats

When you think of Sandy Koufax cards, which one comes to mind?

Most hobbyists would likely quickly envision his 1955 Topps rookie card. After all, that issue is iconic and one of the most valuable baseball cards in the entire hobby.

As a diehard Koufax collector, though, I tend to really enjoy some of his lesser-known cards. They’re harder to find. And they’re more challenging to find in high grade. So, for me, that gives them a boost in appeal.

Take his 1959-1961 Morrell Meats issues, for example. These cards are fairly rare–specifically the 1959.

Part of a three-year run as promotional cards released by the Morrell Meats company they were generally only available in the Southern California area. They were also served exclusively at Dodgers games at the Coliseum in during their pre-Chavez Ravine days.

Along with his Bell Brand Potato Chip cards (which I’ll write about separately in the future), they’re arguably his most recognizable regional issues.

Condition-sensitive doesn’t begin to describe these cards. If the full-color, borderless photos on the front weren’t fragile enough, the fact that the cards were packaged with hot dogs and sausage left them even more vulnerable to wear and tear.

Let’s take a look at each one and see what makes them different from each other:

1959 Morrell Meats Sandy Koufax

The 1959 Morrell Meats series included 12 players in total with Koufax being the most important card in the set (the same can be said for the ’60 and ’61 issues). Koufax is pictured in his legendary #32 uniform posing as if he’s delivering another one of his famously terrifying fastballs. At the time, though, his fastball wasn’t exactly as terrifying as it was known for seeing as how he only struck out 173 that season and really didn’t become dominant until the 1961 season. As you’ll see in a bit, the photo used in the 1959 issue is the same as the 1961 issue, so the back is the easiest way to tell the difference between the two. The 1959 back doesn’t contain any statistics at all. It does, however, give a clue as to which products the cards came with:

  • Wieners
  • Cheesefurters (what’s a cheesefurter?)
  • Smokees
  • Polish Sausages

1959-morrell-meats-sandy-koufax

1960 Morrell Meats Sandy Koufax

Another 12-card set, the 1960 Morell Meats cards were identical in size to the 1959 set, each measuring 2-1/2″ by 3-1/2″. But, as you can see, the photo of Koufax was different than the year before. A nice full-color image of Koufax is shown right where opposing hitters liked to see him: smiling and nowhere near a pitcher’s mound. Morrell included his statistics on the reverse, below his team, his name and personal information (height, weight, etc.). A 1960 Morrell Meats Koufax graded in PSA 9 mint condition sold for over $30k in 2007. An incredible price. Who knows what it would sell for today?

1960-morrell-meats-sandy-koufax

1961 Morrell Meats Sandy Koufax

As mentioned previously, Morrell went with the same photo on its 1961 issue as it had used on the 1959 card. Again, the back is the key to telling the difference between the 1959 and 1961 issues. The layout of the 1961 back is almost identical to that of the 1960 issue except:

  • his personal information is missing
  • the coloration is different
  • there is a symbol instead of the word “Japan” in the corner
  • and 1959 World Series stats are included

1961-morrell-meats-sandy-koufax

So just how rare are all three of these cards? This should give you some perspective:

As of this writing, according to PSA’s pop report, the following number of each card are currently in the grading company’s population:

  • 1959: 9 copies (yes, only nine)
  • 1960: 79 copies
  • 1961: 93 copies

By comparison, PSA has graded 5,436 of his 1955 Topps rookie cards.

So, obviously Morrell Meats cards don’t pop up too often. And when they do, you better jump on them. Take my word for it.

I own both his 1960 and 1961 Morrell issues in PSA 8 condition. But the 1959 issue continues to elude me…

Earlier this year, Heritage Auctions auctioned off a copy of the 1959 Morrell Meats Koufax in PSA 5 condition…the highest grade currently in their population. So this was big news in the Koufax collecting community.

Too bad I found out about the auction in July. I am still kicking myself for not paying closer attention to each auction house’s schedules. (Side note: if you don’t know about Auction Report, their website can solve this problem for you. They do a great job at listing out most every major auction house’s schedules so you don’t make the same mistake I did and have a card you need slip by you).

Ugh…I’m still kicking myself over missing out on that ’59 Morrell Meats Koufax auction. I’ve been searching for this card for years. It ended up selling for $4,063 with buyer’s premium, though, so I guess I don’t feel too bad. There is no chance I would’ve been able to go that high.

Oh well, the search continues. Which is one of the best parts about this hobby in my opinion.