Split Season sets (or, how writing a book invariably led to more cards)

The split season of 1981, the year of Fernandomania, the Bronx Zoo and the strike that saved baseball, was Year One in the explosion in card collecting that marked the next decade and more. All of a sudden, there were a lot of choices for collectors.

An important historical note recounted in my book, Split Season: 1981,Fernandomania, The Bronx Zoo and the Strike that Saved Baseball (see how I subtly introduced the title in the opening sentence?) is the lawsuit that ended the Topps monopoly. Here are the relevant paragraphs:

In spring, millions turned to a time honored system of information gathering – baseball cards. The turmoil in baseball, the interweaving of business and sport, of tradition and progress, was mirrored in the collectible world. Topps, the only card company that generations had grown up on, had competition for the first time in 25 years. Like free agency, the decision came from an outside arbiter.

Cards were big business, 500 million traded, collected and clothes-pinned on bicycle spokes every year, generating $10 million in revenue. It was no wonder others wanted in.  When Fleer first challenged Topps in 1959, Topps had nearly every player under an exclusive deal. In 1975, the same year the first free agent, “Catfish” Hunter, was pushed out into an open market, Fleer filed a $13.6 mil suit against the Topps monopoly.

It took almost six years to end. On June 30, 1980, it was ruled that Topps and the players’ association had violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, restraining trade in the card market violation of.  The players’ association, much to Miller’s shock, were sued as well because, they had only licensed Topps. Miller disagreed with Topps’ assertion of exclusivity, but by not granting other companies the same right, the union had helped Topps remain the only cardboard in town. The players’ association was thrilled, for once, to lose. They saw more licensing money on the horizon.

For all of Fleer’s work in the courts, it was a Memphis concern, Donruss, which jumped in first. Fleer, seeing the normal calendar compress, released its full set before the Super Bowl, rather than the customary mid-February date. Statistical errors were numerous, with Bobby Bonds credited with 936 career home runs. The cards came out too early to picture the recent crop of free agents in fresh garb. Winfield as a Padre, Fisk and Lynn as a Red Sox, made the new cards outdated on arrival. Each company had a hard time completely covering the expected top rookies. Topps featured Tim Raines in a triptych of future Expos stars. Fernando Valenzuela got the same treatment. Donruss offered a full, more in focus, solo card of an incredibly young looking Raines, his big Afro pushing his cap skywards, an empty Wrigley Field lower level in the background.  Fleer had the only Valenzuela card, though he was labeled “Fernand” Valenzuela.

The flood of new product, giving every purchaser a free choice, would lead to an explosion of the hobby. By year-end, three times the number of cards were collected. The union garnered an additional $600,000 in revenue. An open market was good for paper images of the players; why not for the real thing?

In those moments during research and writing, while my mind wandered, and needed to, I searched EBay for 1981 sets I didn’t have. Of course, I had the three big base sets, and the Topps Traded set, but there were plenty of new offerings.

1981 Topps Coca-Cola

Topps produced 12 card sets, for 11 MLB teams. (They produced a Yankee set but that was never issued. Only three players are out there – Goose Gossage, Reggie Jackson and Rick Cerone.).

Rather than buy sets team by team, I held out for the full run of 132 cards. It was well worth it. They are very nice and, in some instances, have different pictures than the regular 1981 cards. The Sutton card is the missing link between his base card and his Traded card.

1981 Topps Giant Photo Cards 

1918-giant-burg

Perhaps in the Top 5 (at least Top 10) of most beautiful card sets, these 5” X 7” borderless glossies are a dream. Again, Topps issued team sets, or geographic sets, but the key for me was getting the whole set, all 102 oversized pics. I had a few of these when they came out but 1) only Yankees and Mets were sold in New York and, 2) who has the time to buy one card packs? This is the perfect set for Rob Neyer, who wrote recently for the blog about how much he likes borderless cards.

Tom Burgmeier never looked so good.

1981 Topps Scratchoffs

scratchoff

Perhaps in the Bottom 5 (at least Bottom 10) of ugliest and pointless Topps sets. Three game cards to a card, perforated, the pictures small, players looking at, or averting their eyes from, the 24 black dots as if they were the plague. Not worth the time or money (small though it is at around $10.)

1981 Topps Stickers and Album

1981-stickers

Topps obviously decided that the best way to counter the Donruss and Fleer cards that now cluttered the market was to flood the market with more Topps sets. These are kinda nice, kinda silly, this big set of 262 flimsy little stickers features enough fine photography to make it interesting. Plus, it’s ridiculously cheap, less than a ten spot. I bought the album as well but there’s no sticking in my future.

1981 Fleer Star Stickers

1981-bake-fleer

Maybe not as nice as the Topps sticker set, a bit more cluttered in design, a bit smaller set (128) but bigger cards. Plus, a loose-leaf binder is virtually naked without a Bake McBride sticker on the front.

1981 Drake’s

1981-drakes-super-joe

The first Drake’s set since 1950 (the awesome “TV Baseball Series” cards), this 32 card gem was made in conjunction with Topps and is sweet, with great action shots of the “Big Hitters” of the day – and Joe Charboneau.

 

There were a few other sets I picked up – Kellogg’s 3-D (oddly, I had stopped buying those sets in 1980), the O-Pee-Chee Expos/Blue Jays poster set – and I had a few others – the Dodgers Police set and about 22% of all the minor league sets put out in 1981. I have no desire to pursue any more minor league sets, but I will make note of perhaps the best card of 1981. The TCMA Albuquerque Dukes set at first had a Sandy Koufax card, and then didn’t. Koufax was coaching in the Dodger chain that year.

1981-tcma-koufax

As for what’s left, there are some Police sets that don’t grab me (Braves, Royals, Mariners) and MSA/Peter Pan/Sunbeam discs that are bland beyond belief. When I bought the Towne Club disc set in 1976, discs of logo-less players seemed cool. Not by 1981, not now.

I may go after the Granny Goose A’s set, though searching for the short print Dave Revering card feels like an empty hunt. The only set remaining in my sights is the Squirt set. It’s not that big, not that expensive and I feel that not having anything in my collection labelled “Squirt” is a big void.

1981-squirt

Mother’s Cookies Were Cool

When I was in grade school in the mid 1980s, I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. Sunnyvale, California to be precise. Back then, the Silicon Valley moniker was still in its infancy and really wasn’t all that well known outside of California. Before Apple, its claim to fame was the place Matthew Broderick tried to pirate video games from in the movie WarGames. Besides computers though, another hot craze in the area was baseball cards. That was driven by two real good teams, the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants, and young rookie stars on each team to root for. If you were a Giant fan, Will Clark and Robby Thompson were at the top of your list. If you were a fan of the green and gold, those were the days it was cool to love Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. But for many kid fans in the area, the rookie cards weren’t in the Topps, Fleer or Donruss sets. The “true rookies” were the Mother’s Cookies cards. Almost an equivalent to the rookie cards in the “Topps Traded” sets, Mother’s Cookies cards were available before the major companies main sets had been distributed.

cardfrontThe cards had a unique look to them. They had a glossy, sleek finish at a time before Upper Deck existed. They also had distinctive rounded corners which, to a kid’s imagination, made them even more cool. They also were thinner than normal baseball card stock, which gave it that extra amount of “I have to be careful with this, so it must be valuable” vibe.

The backs of each card, curiously, didn’t have baseball statistics on them. However, underneath the miniature biography of each player, there was a line marked “Autograph”. We thought that was a neat way to provide player space to sign without messing up that nice glossy finish.

Not only did those cards look great and were truer “rookie” cards, but they were all the more epic because us kids weren’t quite sure how to get them. I mean, you didn’t just go to the local 7-Eleven and buy a pack. They weren’t even listed in baseball card guides like Beckett’s. Though rumors of their release would start early in the season, there was an air of mystery on if they actually existed, what they would look like once they came out, and who would be in the set.

cardbackI traded for two cards, the Will Clark and Robby Thompson rookie cards from the 1986 set. Before and after games, there was a lot of baseball card trading as we waited for autographs.

 

And then, I got them autographed.

These days, because of the internet, there are blogs such as cardjunk to help clear up some of the mystery. There’s even a Wikipedia page that lets us glean a few more facts about them. The first two sets had been produced in 1952 and 1953, featuring only Pacific Coast League Players. That was it until the 1983 Mother’s Cookies Giants set came out. Other teams were added over the next decade until sets were being produced for the A’s, Angels, Astros, Dodgers, Giants, Mariners, Rangers and Padres. They also ran some commemorative sets for Nolan Ryan. They were distributed as occasional inserts in Mother’s Cookies or as giveaways at baseball games. The last baseball card set was in 1998 and apparently, Mother’s Cookies went out of business in 2008.

It’s ironic looking it up online decades after the cards were released. Even with modern technology, there are people still struggling to complete their sets. Nonetheless, though they’re still hard to find, they’re still as cool as they were when I was young.

They Literally Don’t Make Cards the Way They Used To

When a collector says that they don’t make baseball cards like they used to they’re saying more than they likely realize. This article shows the unique antiquated methods by which 1800s baseball cards were printed, and how early baseball cards, fine art and photography overlap.

Printed baseball cards as original artworks

Today, we take for granted the photorealistic images printed on and in everything from baseball cards to calendars to posters to magazines. We can even make our own, using our digital cameras, scanners and phones and home computer printers. As many know, this ‘halftone photomechanical’ printing method translates the image, whether it is of a photo for a 1975 Topps card or a painting for 1953 Topps, into a fine minute dot pattern. You can see the dot pattern under strong magnification, and it is this fine pattern that make the images look realistic from normal eye distance.

1700s engraving print shop
1700s engraving print shop

However, in the centuries old history of printing this halftone reproduction of photographic images is relatively modern. It was invented in the 1870s, but not used commercially until the turn of the 20th century. Before then, photorealistic images in ink and printing press prints were not possible. If you look at the pictures in 1800s newspapers, magazines and books, the pictures are often attractive but resemble hand drawn sketches. If you examine them under magnification you will see that they are made up of solid lines and marks.

Original Rembrandt self portrait etching
Original Rembrandt self portrait etching

In the fine arts, antiques and antiquities world, “handmade prints” or “original prints” are prints where the graphics were made directly onto the printing plate by the artist or craftsman by hand or handheld tools. This is the way Rembrandt, Albrecht Durer and modern artists such as Picasso, Renoir and Chagall made their original prints that hang on museum walls. Handmade prints are considered the highest form of printmaking, and are considered as original of artworks as paintings and sculptures.

This handmade way is also the way early baseball cards and related baseball ephemera (posters, tobacco albums advertising signs, Spalding and Reach guide illustrations, etc) were made. With handmade lithography, such as with the 1880s Allen & Ginters and many trade cards, the graphics were made onto the printing stone by brush, pens and special handheld tools. These lithographs resemble little paintings, even up close, and are prized by collectors for their beauty and brilliant colors. With woodcut, woodengraving and intaglio (engraving, etching) prints, such as with the Harper’s Woodcuts, 1885 Red Sox Tobacco cards and numerous trade cards. the graphics were cut or carved into wood blocks or metal plates. This was a long and laborious processes and publishers and card issuers employed professional artists and craftsmen.

So when you own an 1800s Allen & Ginter or Goodwin Champions cigarette card, baseball trade card, advertising sign or Harper’s Woodcut, realize that you own a handmade artwork that pre-dates modern reproduction methods and it is as original as the Rembrandt or Picasso that hangs in the Louvre.

* * * *

1800s real photo cards

Beyond the ink-and-printing press trading cards, the other 1800s baseball cards are actual photographs. This includes the 1880s Old Judges, Gypsy Queens, Peck & Sniders, Lone Jacks, Newsboy Cabinets and other cards with photorealistic images.

Again, this was before printing presses could reproduce photorealistic images. The only way baseball card manufacturers could produce cards with photorealistic images of the players was to issue actual photographs.

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1875 engraved trade card

Real photo images are created via the chemical interaction of sunlight and photochemicals, so there is no printed dot or ink pattern even under the microscope. This is part of the way these baseball cards are authenticated. If an Old Judge or Gypsy Queen image has a dot pattern, you know that it is a reprint.

These photo cards were made with an early photographic process called albumen. This was the standard paper photographic process of the day and most paper photos of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, Queen Victoria and such are albumen. As an antique and commercially discontinued process, the following are some of the interesting aspects of the process and baseball cards:

— The albumen photopaper was extremely thin and fragile and would roll up like a cigarette with time, so it had to be pasted to cardboard backing. You will see that the 1800s photocards have cardboard backing and cabinet cards are by definition a photographic print pasted to a larger cardboard backing. As the paper shrank over time (causing the cigarette to roll if unbacked), many N172 Old Judges have a noticeable bow. You will occasionally find “skinned” cards, where the albumen photo was peeled off from the backing. As you would expect, these are graded as poor.

— Albumen means egg whites, and that is what was used to affix the photochemicals to photopaper. Photographic paper needs a clear substance to hold the chemicals to the paper and to allow the images to develop. 1800s photopaper manufacturers owned large chicken farms to produce all that albumen. By the 1900s gelatin had replaced albumen.

1886-red-stocking-cigars
Woodengraving 1886 Red Stocking Cigars Hoss Radbourn

— Albumen photos and baseball cards are well known for their old fashioned sepia tones. This was a product of aging, and the images were originally much closer to black-and-white with some purplish tones. You will occasionally find a well preserved example with the original tones.

— Almost all 1800s real photo baseball cards are posed studio images, either portraits or fake action photos. The posed action shots often have painted backdrops, rugs as fake grass on wooden floors and balls hanging from strings. It is sometimes comical. This is all because it was not possible to to make instant

A pink Old Judge card
A pink Old Judge card

snapshots, much less live game action shots. The subjects had to stay perfectly still or the image would be blurry. In many American Civil War photographs, when the required exposure time needed was even longer, you will often see props and stands behind the standing soldier used to keep him still.

— A rarely used method of adding color dye to the photopaper was invented in the 1880s. Though possible to find blue and yellow albumen photographs, pink was technically the easiest to make and you will see a number of pink Old Judge cards. The down side of this novelty color is that the pink cards are usually underdeveloped.

1888 Goodwin Champions King Kelly
1888 Goodwin Champions King Kelly

— Realize that in the 1800s, many people who lived outside of the big cities followed the big teams and stars in the newspapers and magazines but never saw the games, much less the players, in person. Before television, easy travel and magazines with realistic pictures, pulling an Old Judge or Gypsy Queen photographic card from a pack of cigarettes was often a fan’s first time seeing what a star such as King Kelly or Cap Anson really looked like. It was akin to meeting the player in person.

———–

David Cycleback is an internationally known art and artifacts scholar who grew up collecting baseball cards and following the Milwaukee Brewers. He can be emailed at cycleback@cycleback.com

 

The 1967-68 Player Boycott of Topps

I have written about this subject before, but have not done so here. This remains an area of study for me, and hopefully this post will catch some of you up.

From 1956 to 1980 Topps had a virtual monopoly in the baseball card world. There were exceptions along the way, mainly small specialty or regional sets, but for a quarter century the Topps base set dominated the field.

Topps maintained its monopoly by signing players when they were still in the low minors. They gave prospects five dollars as a binder to lock in exclusive baseball card rights for five years. Topps renewed these binders regularly and then paid players $125 per year if they were used on a card or if they appeared in the big leagues for 31 days. Topps even provided the players with a catalog of items they could choose from in lieu of the cash, like a set of luggage or a television. Topps continually renewed players prior to the expiration of their deals, keeping almost everyone in the fold.

In early 1966 the MLBPA hired Marvin Miller, an economist from United Steelworkers, as their first executive director. Over the next several years, Miller and the players engaged in true collective bargaining, earning increased benefits, larger salaries, an impartial grievance procedure, and, ultimately, limited free agency. What has been mostly lost to history is the role that baseball cards played to solidify the union.

In September 1966, the MLBPA created a group-licensing program—allowing companies to make deals to use any or all players’ names and pictures to sell their products. The union soon had very important and beneficial deals with Coca-Cola and others, but the contract that Miller most wanted remained elusive. Topps had binding agreements with virtually every player in professional baseball, making a group license seemingly impossible.

The player deals seemed inadequate to Miller, who set up a meeting with Topps, whose president, Joel Shorin, told him: “There will be no changes because, honestly, I don’t see the muscle in your position.” This response did not surprise Miller – he knew that he was not going to get a better deal from Topps by appealing to Shorin’s sense of fairness. That is not how labor battles were won. He needed muscle.

In early 1967 Miller suggested to the players that they stop renewing their individual Topps contracts and boycott Topps photographers. This was the only way, Miller advised, that they could get Topps to deal with them. Although the action was voluntary, Topps was able to take no more than a handful of photos during the 1967 season, and, with the dispute unresolved, none at all in 1968. This had an effect on the 1968 Topps set, which was not able to show as many properly attired photos as usual, and a much more dramatic effect on the 1969 set.

Let’s start with 1968.

Most Topps photographs in this era were taken either at spring training, or at one of the New York ballparks during the season, and almost always during the previous calendar year. For their 1968 set, Topps would want photos of the player taken sometime in 1967, in the uniform of their current (1968) team. Topps faced a challenge when a player was traded during the season, as a look at the 1968 Red Sox cards can illustrate.

The Red Sox acquired Elston Howard from the Yankees on August 3, 1967. In order to get a photo of Howard in his new uniform for his 1968 card, Topps sent a photographer to Fenway Park in late August (note the home uniform). Norm Siebern, acquired on July 15, was likely shot the same day.

On the other hand, Gary Bell and Jerry Adair joined the club in June 1967 but Topps used older photos of them in 1968 — both wearing uniforms from previous teams and photographed without a hat (the usual Topps trick in these situations). Why didn’t Topps take these photos in August when they got Howard and Siebern? A plausible explanation is that Bell and Adair were observing the boycott while Siebern and Howard were not. We can’t know for certain — maybe the players were in the bathroom at the time — but we know that by August Topps was having trouble getting players to pose.

More problematically than using an old photo was having no photo at all. Sparky Lyle made his big league debut for the Red Sox on July 4, 1967, and pitched in 27 games for the club in the pennant race. But Topps did not photograph Lyle either, so he did not get his first card with Topps until 1969.

Another interesting artifact of the 1968 Topps set is that the company made “team cards” for only 13 of the 20 teams. If you were a set collector, at some point you would have noticed that the team card you were waiting all summer for, the Red Sox for example, did not exist.

By the spring of 1968 the boycott was universally observed, and there is no evidence that any photos were taken that year. Topps and the MLBPA reached an agreement in November 1968, but Topps still had to put out a 1969 set without having any photos from the previous 18 months.

Making things even worse, Topps had to deal with four new expansion teams (whose players would appear hatless), the Oakland A’s (whose move from Kansas City caused them to be hatless), and the Houston Astros (who were hatless because of a logo dispute). That covers 6 teams, or 1/4 of the players.

Topps skipped the team cards, a staple since 1956, altogether.

If that weren’t enough, Topps used old photos, many of them recycled from previous years. Tom Seaver, Joe Morgan, Hank Aaron, well over 100 in all, used identical images from 1968.

In some cases Topps recropped the image, as they did with Carl Yastrzemski and Ernie Banks. Willie Mays used a recropping of his 1966 card.

On one occasion Topps (presumably accidentally) flipped a negative, confusing school kids everywhere.

(More details from David Sosidka here.)

The Reggie Jackson card, his very first Topps card, stands out because it presumably was taken during the boycott — the A’s moved to Oakland in 1968 and Reggie is shown in an Oakland uniform. I recently learned from Keith Olbermann that Topps purchased this photo, and a few others, from another photographer.

166175

The Johnny Bench card, his first all to himself, used a photo from a few years earlier. Many Topps photos — Reggie Smith is another example — show much younger versions of their subjects.

166325

In November 1968 Topps caved, agreeing to double its annual player stipend (to $250 per year) and to pay a royalty to the MLBPA of 8 percent on revenue up to $4 million, and 10 percent thereafter. In the first year of this deal the Association collected $320,000 from their Topps license, which came out to $500 per player on top of their individual deals. By the early 1980s, the union collected more than 10 times that from the licensing of baseball cards.

One could say that this was the first time the fledgling union used their collective power to effect change. “It was important on two levels,” said Jim Bouton. “One, it showed how powerful Marvin Miller was and how smart he was. It gave him instant credibility. But also, the player’s association became immediately self-funding.” Today’s licensing program, rebranded as Player’s Choice, nets tens of thousands of dollars per player annually, and funds charitable acts all around the globe.

As for the kids of America, in 1969 they were mainly annoyed, or at least confused. I loved the designs for both of these sets, but would have preferred fresh images of my heroes in those very formative (for me) seasons.

In 1969 Topps hustled to spring training sites and took lots of photos of cooperative players, and got many of these into their late series cards that very summer. By July of 1969, we got to feast our eyes on gorgeous cards of players wearing the uniforms of the four expansion teams, as well as the A’s and Astros.

In 1970, Topps showed off some of its best-ever photography. And kids everywhere turned away from their paths toward delinquency.

Death & Baseball Cards

The year was 1964. I was six years old.

The black baseball card in my hands contained the haunting image of a somber fellow wearing a Cubs batting helmet.

hubbsfront“In Memoriam — Ken Hubbs”.

He looked so sad. All the other baseball cards I’d seen were bright and colorful, with the players gaily swinging bats, smiling at their good fortune. I turned the Hubbs card over and learned “the private plane he was piloting went down in a snowstorm near Provo, Utah”. I would later learn that Ken Hubbs was deemed a special player: 1962 Rookie of the Year, and the first ROY to win a gold glove. Set a fielding record the same year: 78 consecutive games and 418 chances without making an error. He played in the Little League World Series as a kid, was recruited to play quarterback for Notre Dame and UCLA to shoot hoops for John Wooden. If there ever was an All-American boy, Hubbs fits the profile. He even died trying to conquer his greatest fear.

hubbsbackFor many of us card junkies, we recall the day we held that black shroud in our hands and felt a small hunk of our innocence ripped away. The real world had intruded into the special place where I’d always felt safe, and, for the first time in my young life, felt vulnerable (I was too young to grasp the enormity of the events of November 22, 1963).

And there was more death on the way.

The Houston Colt .45s had a seductive name and logo, even if they weren’t very good. There was something different about the back of the card of one of their pitchers, Jim Umbricht. It said he was 6’4”, 215 pounds and 389-jim-umbrichtwas “one of the NL’s top relievers in ’63…”. The card also contained an epilogue I’d not seen on any other cards, settling under his stats, where lively cartoons usually appeared if you scratched the surface with a coin:

“Jim Umbricht passed away on Wednesday, April 8, 1964.”

What?! Another player died in the same year? Is this some kind of epidemic?

389-jim-umbricht-backThen came the questions that had no answers: why did he die? How did he die? The card didn’t say (Hubbs died 2/13/64, giving time to make the special card). That was more unsettling, not knowing what took the life of one of the NL’s top relievers. In adulthood, I would learn Umbricht was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in his right leg in March of 1963. His comeback from surgery made national headlines and he had arguably his best season pitching in agonizing pain. Dead at age 33, his ashes were spread over the construction site of the Astrodome.(1)

If my technicolor baseball gods were not impervious to the rigors of life on earth, what chance did the rest of us have? Some spend a lifetime looking for such answers.

One of the problems with mythologizing athletes who die young is getting at the truth about that person: who were they, what did they mean to their friends, family and community, and, most importantly to me, what kind of a person were they?

59-174frI decided to spend some time getting to know Ken Hubbs further. I contacted the Ken Hubbs Foundation in Hemet, CA, and spoke with it’s leader, Ron Doty. The Foundation’s mission is to honor athletes selected from high schools in the area, selecting boys and girls “who display not only outstanding athletic abilities on the field of plays, but also achievements in the classroom, community, in leadership and in community service.” I ordered a DVD of the mini-documentary made about Ken during his playing days, “A Glimpse of Greatness”. It lionized Hubbs further, but it shared perspectives of him growing up in the town of Colton as someone who was a leader and roundly admired. Ron told me of the annual ceremony and invited me to attend, which I plan to do as one of the stories for my new baseball documentary series.

I did more reading on updates of the Hubbs story. The guy was like a cross between a saint and Knute Rockne. Didn’t drink or smoke, had to be dragged off not just playing fields, but PRACTICE fields in his never-ending quest for perfection (Alan Iverson, take note). He was a legend unnamedbefore he became pro, with stories of him hitting a half-court shot to end the first half over a rival high school team AND nailing a buzzer-beating jumper to send the game into OT, eventually leading his Colton squad to victory. Another high school story has him breaking his foot before a big football game, stuffing the casted foot into a size 14-shoe and playing the entire game. (2) If I didn’t know better, Ken Hubbs crawled out of a John R. Tunis story.

But there is something about his death that gnaws. Was it the irony of his search for conquering his fear that led to his demise? After taking flying lessons, Hubbs fell in love with it and bought a Cessna 172. Brother Keith recalls watching his Ken make touch-and-go landings in 1963, with his father asking him to talk Hubbs out of flying. He was supposed to fly with Ken and a friend to Provo to play in a charity basketball game, but his schedule changed. The morning of his death, a storm moved in that Hubbs thought he could outrace. It was less than ten degrees and the visibility was terrible when he took off. Hubbs tried to turn back to the airport shortly after taking off, but the die had been cast. He had only 71 hours of flying experience and wasn’t qualified to fly by instruments and lost his bearing. The plane went into a death spiral, crashing into a Utah lake, leaving a ten-foot crater. It took divers two days to recover the bodies. (2)

Right about now is when one starts to hear refrains of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”…”does anyone know where the love of God goes when…”

Hall of Famer Ron Santo was so unsettled by Hubbs’ passing, he had to see a priest. Ken’s brother, Keith, had recurring nightmares so bad he didn’t want to shut his eyes. He had one final dream that snapped him out of it. In that dream, Ken told him, “I want you to stop worrying about me. It was quick and there was no pain. And I’m happy where I’m at.”(2)

Cessnas in the air mingling with snowflakes. A cancer victim blazing a final path of glory. Both spirits refusing to go gently into that dark night. Maybe that is the lessons of the Ken Hubbs’s and Jim Umbrichts’s: play hard, fight through the challenges and maybe then, and only then, we’ll be happy where we’re at.

 

Footnotes:

1 – “Jim Umbricht” – SABR bio project, by Thomas Ayers.

2 – “Fifty Years later, memories of Ken Hubbs still glowing”, 2/13/14 foxsports.com

 

Cutting Cards

There are very few things I remember from my childhood as vividly as I remember the look on my dad’s face when he came home one evening and discovered that my brother and I had taken scissors to our baseball card collection.

It was 1984. I was seven years old, and my brother was eight. We had just recently started collecting baseball cards, heading down to the Circle K every time we got our allowance to buy packs of 1984 Topps. The guy who ran the Circle K was named Dave Stewart, but not that Dave Stewart. Every once in a while he would get Fleer or Donruss in stock, but most of the time it was just Topps, so that’s what we bought.

candelariaThe 1984 Topps cards were pretty basic: team name running vertically down the left side, headshot photo in the bottom left corner, action shot taking up most of the card, with the player’s name and position at the bottom to the right of the headshot. Thanks to nostalgia, it is still my favorite set because it’s the first one I ever collected, but there’s nothing really special about it.

But to a couple dumb kids who just started collecting, there was something special about the design: the headshots! Having two pictures on one card was pretty cool, we thought. Getting to see what the players looked like up close helped us feel like we really knew the players.

So we did what anyone would have done: we cut the headshots out.

I don’t remember our reasoning. Maybe we thought it was cool that once you cut it out, you had a little square with the player’s face on one side and his team logo on the other. Maybe we thought that’s just what people did — why else would they put lines around the headshot if not to guide young hands to safety-scissor them off the card? But whatever the reason, by the end of the night we had a few hundred baseball cards shaped like you took the state of Utah and rotated it 180 degrees.

kershawI was reminded of this over the past few weeks as I’ve worked on a Christmas present for my nine-year-old son. He is a big Dodger fan, and he loves Clayton Kershaw, so I spent a few weeks working trades and minor purchases with people on Facebook and eBay, gathering as many cards of Kershaw and other Dodgers as I could. By the time Christmas rolled around, I had 322 Kershaws, 56 Corey Seagers, 13 Julio Uriases, and about 100 other assorted Dodger cards for him.

I watched the thrill in his eyes as he looked through the cards, and then I glanced up and noticed Grandpa — my dad — watching too. It was probably my imagination, but in my mind my dad was thinking, “Gosh, I sure hope your son is smarter than mine was.”

cut-cardsI thought back to the exasperated, disbelieving look on my dad’s face that night in 1984, and the way he asked, “Why in the world would you cut up your baseball cards?!?” Those cards cost 45 cents for a pack of 16 and came with free gum, and we walked to Circle K and bought them with our own money. But our dad was still pretty upset at what we had done. What would I do if I came home and discovered that my son had blacked out the teeth on a Clayton Kershaw rookie card or scribbled a fake autograph across a numbered Corey Seager card?

The end result was the same conclusion I’ve come to hundreds of times before: collecting baseball cards has changed since I was a kid. In the end, my 1984 Topps Bruce Bochy is worth about the same with the headshot cut out as it would have been otherwise, because the cards from my childhood have very little value. They were overproduced and lousy quality. They were also perfect and my main source of happiness growing up, and that remains true no matter how defaced and destroyed the cards are.

bochyI want my son to have the same joy of collecting cards that I had, but I don’t know if that’s possible. Inflation on allowances has not kept up with the cost of baseball cards, and there are subsets and special sets and premium sets that he could never hope to afford on his meager “income.” I opened a “box” of Topps High Tek last night — I put “box” in quotes because each box contains exactly one pack of eight cards. I happened to pull out a Kershaw card, and it is a thing of beauty. But my son would have to save many months of allowance and pick up some paid chores around the house to afford an eight-card box of Topps High Tek. Unless I subsidize his habit, he will never know the joy of pulling that card from a pack.

So far, I have subsidized the habit. I learned math and reading and trivia from baseball cards, and I like the idea of my boys having a similar experience. But there may come a time when I say enough is enough. It might be related to the money, or it might come when I least expect it, perhaps when I walk in the door one evening and see my son holding a pair of scissors.

Gosh, I sure hope my son is smarter than my dad’s was.

A F*ck Face Story for the Holidays

Soon after the 1989 Fleer baseball cards were released, word spread that there was an obscenity on Billy Ripken’s bat. In those pre-Internet days, every article, whether in the hobby mags or regular newspapers, spoke of the “obscenity,” but what that obscenity was was a mystery to me. The mainstream press wouldn’t actually use the term, and there was no way to find out. At least I didn’t know how to find out, unless I got the card.

Getting the card seemed harder than you’d think. I couldn’t find packs anywhere and it was clear that when the set came in the mail (I’d order all the base sets back then), I’d end up with a corrected card. It was pretty frustrating.

Karen and I were already living in Buffalo Grove, Illinois in the spring of ’89. We’d moved to Chicago in early ’87 and headed to the suburbs the following year. It must’ve been a Saturday morning that I had to drive to the Jewel. On the way home I stopped for gas at the Amoco (I’m pretty sure it was an Amoco) at the corner of Buffalo Grove and 83 (McHenry Rd). I filled up and went inside to pay. No futuristic credit card readers at the pumps, kids, these were primitive times.

Before paying I scanned the candy racks and there, with the lid torn off, was a full box of 1989 Fleer! What the hell? Of all place to find some cards, let alone a full box. I grabbed it and brought it home.

Maybe I’d already told Karen about the Ripken card. Maybe I explained the whole story as I put the box on the dining room table. Either way, my idea was that we’d both open all the packs, the quickest route to finding out what the fuss was all about. We started.

Pack after pack was opened, wrappers placed in a pile between us. Early hopes led to sudden fears and, as the amount of unopened packs dwindled to the last few, I was getting nervous and angry.  I have no idea what a single pack of cards went for in 1989 but a whole box of them was a pretty big waste of money if the Ripken didn’t turn up. I was already getting the set. I didn’t need a pile of doubles.

I opened one of my final packs, head down, shuffling through the 15 cards (and sticker).

_3“F*ck face?” Karen said with equal bits of surprise and smile.

She’d gotten it! Yup, f*ck face. Of all the obscenities, f*ck face? What a ridiculous thing to write on the knob of a bat. It was hysterical to see – f*ck face. Karen did it!

By the time the set arrived in the mail, f*ck face had been obscured in a variety of ways – black box, black scribble, white scribble, white out. I think I have a black box variation. Who cares though, it was f*ck face that mattered.