2013 Bowman Inception

img_4711At the time that the 2013 Bowman Inception series was released I had not yet been on Twitter. I didn’t read the card blogs and was unaware that the product existed. This changed on a trip to my local card shop (LCS). At the time I was at the stage of collecting modern cards where I was solely hit driven. I was in search of the most autographs per box for the money. That is when the shop owner told me about the new autograph-only prospect proimg_4710duct that had just come out. I pulled up the checklist on my phone and decided to give it a try and opened a box, I enjoyed it so much that one box turned into three on that trip and eventually two more.

At five cards per box I was quickly halfway to completing the base set so that is what I set out to do. Over the next year I set out on the quest to complete the set, which I did rather quickly sans redemptions that had not yet been filled by Topps. The final two cards I acquired to complete the set were Alen Hanson who took quite a long time to sign his cards and Yasiel Puig which is the only stated short print of the set and is his first certified aimg_4709utograph card.

Over the three years since this set was released it has held up rather well for a prospect set. 33 of 47 players have reached the majors totaling 101.9 bWAR between them. The group includes three Rookies of the Year winners in Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, and Jose Fernandez. All-Stars include Seager, Fernandez (two times), Puig and Addison Russell. Seager also has a Silver Slugger award to his name. On a somber note two players featured in this set, Oscar Taveras and Fernandez, have since passed away leaving us to only dream on the potential that will forever go unrealized.

Several of the playeimg_4708rs have been involved in major trades this offseason. Jorge Soler traded to the Royals for Wade Davis. Lucas Giolito traded to the White Sox as part of the Adam Eaton trade. Taijuan Walker traded to the D’Backs as the primary return for Jean Segura. For me it is fun to follow a group of players that are linked really only by a set of pictures on cardboard. I look forward to checking back in on this group through the years.

The complete checklist can be found here.

 

“BO”: The History of the Perfect Junk Wax Card

If there was a single athlete who personified the so-called “junk wax” era of trading cards, it was Bo Jackson. Bo was a force unlike anything the sporting world had ever known when he burst onto the scene in the late 1980s. As was the idea of grown men taking over a hobby once deemed the realm of children, the idea that a single freak of athletic nature could be the most exciting player in both baseball and football seemed ridiculous. And, just as with the hobby that promised to turn a stack of Todd Van Poppels into a college fund, Bo Jackson vanished from the scene before his potential could truly be realized. And in the summer of 1990, the forces that were Bo Jackson and the riding-high trading card hobby melded into what might be the definitive card of the junk wax era… 1990 Score baseball #697.

bofront

In 1988, Major League Marketing, the company that had given the world Sportsflics, introduced Score. The brand was a more mainstream play on the Sportsflics concept, which was largely defined by the gimmick of their plastic-coated changing-image obverses. Score was a more tradition cardboard issue, but utilized the underappreciated back-of-the-card features of Sportsflics – color photos and extensive biographical information – to create something truly revolutionary. A year ahead of Upper Deck and a year and a half of Pro Set, 1988 Score was a slick, premium trading card that brought collectors closer to the players than anything else on the market.

By 1990, with Upper Deck having enter the fray, the baseball market was more competitive than ever and brands were looking to differentiate themselves. For their third year of baseball, Score issued their most colorful and rookie-loaded set to date. They introduced draft pick cards – something pioneered by Topps the year before – and robbed Upper Deck of the illustrated card idea with their “Dream Team” subset. They also brought back an old-school concept with a playoff subset, highlighting the League Championship Series and the World Series.

But with card 697, they did something somewhat unprecedented in the hobby. There had been special, one-off cards of players before – honoring accomplishments, recognizing retirements, and the like – but card 697 was a tribute to nothing more than the sheer force that was Bo Jackson. The card itself, even devoid of context, is pretty remarkable. The front featured a black and white, horizontal image of Jackson in shoulder pads, hands draped over a baseball bat resting behind his neck. The photo was taken from a Nike Air poster titled “The Ballplayer” that had been issued the previous year. The image was framed by a white border and inset with the Score logo. The card’s minimalism, the subtle tones of the artful image, Jackson’s effortless pose and impressive physique all melded to form one of the most beautiful baseball cards yet issued. On the card’s reverse side, inside a green border and above the requisite branding and licensing bugs were just two letters – BO – done in black and blue (Raiders and Royals). To anyone who was a sports fan or a collector in 1990, those were the only two letters necessary to convey the power of the card. If you didn’t know BO, you might as well just put down the baseball cards and start collecting stamps.

boback

1990 Score baseball hit the store in January, right around the time Bo Jackson was finishing up an 11-game NFL season in which he ran for 950 yards on just 173 carries – which itself followed up a baseball season in which he hit 32 homers, made the all-star team, and placed 10th in the MVP voting. It was, perhaps, the height of Bo-mania both in the sporting and pop culture realms. 1990 was also near the peak of card-mania and, laughable as it seems today, adults were tearing through fifty-cent packages of Topps, Upper Deck, Score, Fleer, and Donruss baseball – carefully setting aside Ben McDonalds, Pat Combes, and Steve Hosesys with the honest belief that they were something akin to blue chip stocks.

Card 697 was the perfect combination of subject and timing. The oddity of it (I can’t think of any truly comparable card that had been issued to that date) and the hobby obsession with Jackson soon became the card of the season. By February, it was selling for a respectable sixty cents – about the same as the base cards of superstar players. By March, it was going for $4 – an unheard of sum for a new issue card that was not an error or rookie. By April, it had reached $8 and was drawing interest from the media outside of the hobby. Just weeks into the baseball season, with Jackson off to a blistering start, the Chicago Tribune reported that area card shops were selling packs of Score baseball for a dollar each – twice their retail price – and limiting customers to ten packs per day. Rumors flew that the entire 1990 Score set had been short-printed because of the brand’s newly expanded football line. Other whispers had it that card 697 was about to be pulled from production because of a Nike lawsuit. Score denied all the rumors (indeed, the 1990 set was just as overproduced as anything of the era), but that could not stop the furor over the card. In late April, 25-year veteran National League umpire Bob Engle was arrested for shoplifting seven boxes of 1990 Score from a Bakersfield, CA store. He was suspended by the league for the incident and later retired after being convicted and receiving probation. Bo-mania was officially causing strange behavior.

By June, even with Jackson having cooled off at the plate, the card was selling for $15 and Beckett Baseball Card Monthly ran the full-length Bo-in-shoulder-pads image on its cover. That same month, a spree of counterfeit 697s began to appear in Mississippi, Chicago, and New Jersey. They were strictly low-end knock-offs, given away by their lack of color on the reverse (some shady dealers were hocking them as Score “press proofs”). The Associated Press picked up on the story and newspaper coast-to-coast ran the story of the fake cards.

As the season wore on, the card began to cool off. In September, it hit its Beckett price guide peak of $12, and was down to $9 by December. This was due in part, no doubt, to overkill. Only Nolan Ryan had more baseball cards in 1990 than Jackson and, by the season’s end, the market was flooded with Jackson football cards as well. Then came the January 13, 1991 divisional playoff game between Jackson’s Raiders and the Cincinnati Bengals, when a tackle dislocated Jackson’s hip and effectively ended his days as the nation’s most captivating athlete. Many thought his professional careers were over and, the following March, the Royals released him. That summer, as Jackson worked towards his comeback, Beckett listed the card at $4.50 – more of a novelty than an investment (more on that here). I recall that for years afterward, as it remained above common card status, the card was listed as “697 Bo Jackson (FB/BB)…” in price books. And still, everyone knew what it meant.

Today, the card can be had for a few dollars online and can probably be found in dollar binders at card shows across the nation on any given weekend. Certainly a hard fall from the summer of 1990, but it remains a remarkably sought-after card. Take a look on eBay and you will inevitably find a few copies (ungraded) listed at outrageous prices given the marketplace – $10, $20, $30 (the complete 1990 Score set can be had for about $15). It’s easy to mock people who list junk wax era stuff for such prices as ignorant of the hobby, but with card 697, it feels just a little different. I’ve still got my copy of the card, still encased in the top-loader that my shaky little 8-year-old hands slipped it into a quarter century ago. I understand that I could only get a few bucks for it if I ever tried to sell it. But I also know it’s worth a lot more than that.

 

1953 Topps and Race Relations

53jackieI started getting interested in baseball around the age of 12. The Ken Burns Baseball series grabbed my interest and hasn’t let go since. Around the same time, my father told me that his baseball cards were in the safe deposit box at the bank. My mother took me to the bank a few days later where I pulled out four or five bundles of baseball cards. They consisted mostly of 1950 and 1951 Bowmans, 1951 Topps red backs, a LOT of 1953 Topps, and some 1955 Topps cards. As I flipped through them all I found four Jackie Robinsons, two Roy Campanellas, a Bob Feller, and a Monte Irvin, all from 1953. My father also has a Monte Irvin rookie card from 1951.

Later that night I showed my dad the cards. He looked for a Mickey Mantle card he swore he had. When I showed him pics of Mantle’s 1951 Bowman, and 1953 Topps, my father recognized them immediately. He swore he had those cards. When I asked my parents what might have happened to them, I was told that my aunt probably took them. Long story short, my aunt, who wasn’t the most progressive person, allegedly took the Mantle cards knowing they’d be worth a lot of money in years to come. When I asked why she didn’t take the Robinson too, I was told it was because those players were black. Whether it was because of my aunt’s personal feelings towards blacks, or she didn’t think they’d be worth anything, it made me think about what children across America at the time thought about those same cards as well.

Nowadays it’s not easy to find an original Jackie Robinson card under $100 (at least not one in great shape). His 1948 Leaf rookie card in particular is worth a lot. Last August, I was in a baseball card shop and saw one for $1200, and it only had a grade of 2. Obviously most kids back in the 1950s didn’t think about how much the cards would be worth some day. It’s common to hear stories from old men about entire sets being thrown out after they left for college.

maysBut how many of these kids thought about the black players? Did they value the Robinson and Willie Mays cards as much as Mantle and Duke Snider? Did they care more about completing a set, or only keeping the ones they favored? I wonder how much race played a role in these decisions.

Other questions I think about involve geography. How many baseball card packs were sold in the south vs. the north? My father grew up in New York and didn’t harbor any animosity towards anyone of color in particular. But what about boys who collected cards in the south during the 1950s? Did they deliberately throw out the Robinson and Mays’ cards out of fear their fathers would find them and admonish them? Did they secretly hoard them?

The answers to these questions are very hard to find. Nowadays collectors might be hesitant to discuss such a subject for fear of being labeled. Others probably don’t remember. However, information can be found on eBay, baseball card shops throughout the country (Cooperstown particularly), and eager collectors. They might not have an answer to these direct questions, but their responses might help put pieces of the puzzle together.

Over the next few months, I plan on pursuing this topic to find answers. Not just answers to the questions I asked above, but answers to questions that have yet to be asked about this subject.

 

 

 

“The Baseball Card Song”

Many of you likely know of the great band The Baseball Project.  Their members include several wonderful rock musicians who gained their fame in other bands, including Scott McCaughey, Steve Wynn, Linda Pitmon, Peter Buck and Mike Mills.  I could go and on, and I might at some point, but they write and perform songs about baseball, and they have made four great records.  I have seen them live four times.

Their most recent record (called The 3rd) came out in 2014 (guys, its time), and includes a fantastic song about collecting baseball cards that speaks to my young adult years rather pointedly.

I can’t find a video performance on-line, but here is the audio.  Have a listen, and then buy the CD/record.  Then buy the rest of them.

Yeah, Topps Supers really are

clementeExcept for a fairly brief period in my life, when it comes to baseball cards I’ve always been little more than an interested observer. Oh, I’ve purchased a pack (or two or three) of cards in most years since the early 1980s, I guess. But my “collection” is mundane and I spent only three or four years somewhat insanely buying box after box of cards (with money I didn’t really have) in the pursuit of a complete Topps set. Or Donruss or Fleer or even Score set (which should give you a pretty good idea of when I was in the grips of this particular mania).

But that’s a story for another day (if ever). The above is just a long-winded way of saying there’s a great deal about baseball/bubble-gum cards I’ve never learned, because I’ve never really invested much time or money in the pursuit. And so, somehow I didn’t discover until almost just this moment the splendid delights of Topps’s 1971 Supers.

Now, there are a couple of obvious reasons why I’d never even heard of the Supers, which were actually produced in 1971 and ’70. The first is that I wasn’t even in kindergarten yet; I don’t remember seeing any cards until a few years later. The second is that the Supers just weren’t popular (as you’d expect, considering their short run in the marketplace). Maybe more to the point, they’ve never become popular. There was never anyone saying, “Rob, you should covet these bits of cardboard.”

And yet, now I do covet them, and recently picked up a dozen or so on eBay (for cheap).

gibsonThe cards are massive: 16.4 square inches, compared to 8.75 square inches for a standard card of that (and today’s) era. But even that understates the difference. The Supers are all image, zero border. Meanwhile, the oft-beloved ’71 regular set, with its black borders, winds up with an image of just 6.2 square inches, meaning the Supers actually give you 264 percent more player per card.

How do you turn down 264 percent more major leaguer?

Well, I can guess why the kids in 1971 turned it down. For one thing, there were only 63 Super cards, compared to a whopping 752 in the regular Topps set. For another, a regular pack cost you a dime and got you eight cards; your same 10 cents got you only two Supers. And finally … kids in 1971 had small hands! Those regular cards probably seemed plenty big enough!

Come to think of it, kids today probably still have small hands. Baseball cards were designed for baseball fans with small hands and sharp eyes. But my hands are big and my eyes … well, I’m getting fitted for bifocals this week.

mccoveyI can’t be eight years old again. What I am is fifty years old with a few of the enthusiasms, or at least the capacity for enthusiasm, of an eight-year-old. And I gotta tell you, right now there are few things that bring me more joy than holding 16.4 square inches of rigidly thick, vividly colored cardboard featuring Willie McCovey’s young, smiling, handsome, BIG face.

The Supers lasted for just those two years, and I understand why it was only two years. Doesn’t mean I have to agree with it.

One Man’s Garbage

If you’re reading this post you’ve probably bought at least 1 pack of baseball cards, if not 100’s of packs of baseball cards, in your life. Well, my experience was just a little bit different.

As a child growing up in the 60’s and early 70’s, Topps baseball cards were the gold standard, and for four years they were all mine. Every card and every insert were mine for the taking, and I do mean taking.

I grew up just six blocks from a Topps manufacturing plant and from 1967 to 1971 I got every single card for free. During that time, before the baseball card boom of the 80’s it was the practice of Topps to toss any cards that hit the floor into the garbage. At 5 or 10 cents a pack they weren’t worth much, and were treated as nothing more than litter. By pure luck I happened to live only a couple of blocks from the private garbage hauler that had the contract to take away Topps’s garbage. They picked up the garbage every Friday, and they wouldn’t take the trucks to the dump until Monday, so the trucks would be parked for the weekend loaded with Topps baseball cards, packs and packs of unopened cards. Every Saturday morning myself and a couple of friends would go “shopping”. It was dirty work, but when you’re 10 years old, it wasn’t much dirtier than a typical summer’s day.

Each week would yield anywhere from 75-100 packs of cards. Baseball card nirvana. Mantle, Mays, Aaron, Clemente, Rose, all mine for the taking. Rookie cards of Reggie Jackson, Johnny Bench, Nolan Ryan, and Thurman Munson. I had dozens of them.

After 4 years it was all over. Topps must have changed to another garbage hauler, because no more cards showed up on Saturday morning. It sucked at the time, but hey, I had several thousand baseball cards, in near-mint condition that I got for free, and in 15 years those cards would be worth thousands of dollars…….if I had only held on to them.

All the cards were faithfully placed into boxes, every set complete, from 1968 to 1971, along with 100’s of doubles. Being a Yankee fan I had a bunch of Yankee cards including at least ten 1968 Mantles. All “safely” tucked away in my closet.

High School, girls, college, girls, work, and girls took up a lot of my time and when I moved out in 1981 after I got married, I failed to take my cards with me. It never crossed my mind to do so.

A couple of years later the baseball card industry exploded, and I realized that I had a small fortune “safely” tucked away in a closet. As you can probably guess, the cards were not “safely” tucked away. My Mother had “thrown them out years ago.” No Mantle, no Mays, no Clemente, not even a Danny Cater. All gone, no small fortune, no new car, no Hawaiian vacation…..nothing…nada….zip…..or so I thought.

When I moved out I did take my books with me, mostly baseball books, but many classics as well. Catcher In The Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, All Quiet On The Western Front, among others. A couple of years after what I like to refer to as, “Baseball Armageddon”, I watched Fahrenheit 451 on TV, and decided to reread the Ray Bradbury classic. This happened to be one of the books I brought with me when I had moved out 10 years before and when I opened the book out popped this 1971 Thurman Munson card. I had used it as a bookmark over 20 years before when I first read the book.

munson

It reminded me of all that I had lost, but it also reminded me of some of the best times I’ve ever had. 4 summers of baseball card heaven, 4 summers of playing non stop baseball, 4 summers of childhood innocence and joy.

I’ve continued to use this card as a bookmark for the last 20 years. It’s creased and bent in 15 different places, and not worth a nickel.

Check that, ……it’s priceless, and every time I look at it, it makes me smile.

The Other Mike Cameron: A 2009 Topps Mini-Mystery Sorta Solved

Like many card collectors, I have a touch of what R. Crumb called “compulsive series syndrome.” That is, the need to create a collection that is not only complete, but organized in a specific way. As a Milwaukee Brewers collector, that means lining up the flagship team set every year – base cards arranged by last name followed by subsets by number, then the traded or update series organized in the same fashion – in nine-pocket bindered pages. It’s a nice way to capture a season, but the last decade or so of Topps flagship sets has often been frustrating. Series one usually contains  handful of guys no longer with the team while series two begins to roll out off-season additions. Unlike the clean single-series sets of yore, it leaves a sort-of two-season amalgamation of players. It also resulted in one of the true quirks of my flagship Topps Brewers collection – the twin 2009 base cards for Mike Cameron that sit side-by-side in my “2004-Present” binder.

cam

Before the 2008 season, the Brewers signed Cameron to a 1-year deal with an option for a second. Cam was to take over in center field for an over-matched Bill Hall and, after serving a 25 suspension for amphetamines, was one of leaders of a team that won 90 games and broke a quarter-century playoff drought for the Brewers. Cameron had a good season, but he wasn’t an all-star, got no MVP votes, and led the league in nothing. He was certainly significant enough to get a spot in the upcoming Topps set… but two? So far as I know, the only other player honored with TWO base cards with the same team in a single set was Ted Williams, who was both the first and last cards in the 1954 set. (I need to make clear here, there may be other examples of this… I just don’t know of or know how to search for them. If you know of others, please mention them)

cam2

So what gives? Well, the series one Cameron card is unremarkable. But the series two card offers a clue. While the series one entry correctly states that Cam was acquired as a free agent on 1-11-08, the second series card says “ACQ: TRADE WITH BREWERS, 12-15-08.” On December 11, 2008, it was reported that the Brewers were very near to a deal to send Cameron to the Yankees for Melky Cabrera. The Brewers had just picked up Cameron’s option year, but were looking at cheaper alternatives in center. Meanwhile, the Yankees were seeking a veteran upgrade from the 23-year old Cabrera. The deal was nearly official before the Yankees asked the Brewers to help pay part of Cameron’s salary. By December 17, it was reported that the deal was dead.

Piecing all this together, we can assume that Topps was finalizing its series two checklist right around the time of the rumored trade and prepared a Cameron-as-Yankee card. When the deal fell apart, they inexplicably kept Cam on the checklist as a Brewer, forgetting to change the ‘how acquired’ line. Why he wasn’t replaced altogether on the checklist remains a mystery. Several players who changed teams around the same time Cameron nearly did appear in series two in their new uniforms, so it’s not as though Topps did not have the time to make significant alterations to the series. And then there is the matter of CC Sabathia, who, like Cameron, was featured in the first series as a Brewer. Sabathia was the that off-season’s top free agent prize, and signed with the Yankees on Dec. 20. While Topps included a number of players who changed teams after Dec. 20 with their new clubs, they ignored the Sabathia signing – and any other player in series one who changed teams – until the update series. So, again, we’re left with to wonder what was so special about Mike Cameron.

So, in my quest to learn why my perfectly-aligned 9-pocket page had two Mike Cameron cards right next to each other, I ended up with as many questions as answers. Can anyone think of other two-base card players in Topps history? Does anyone have any similar petty-yet-maddening card mysteries?

Follow me on Twitter, @mjpmke and check out my blog on Brewers history.