The first baseball card?

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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

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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?

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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

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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.

80s Oddballs: Milwaukee Brewers Police Cards

The decade of the 1980s in baseball card collecting was one of explosive growth. Fleer and Donruss rumbled onto the scene in 1981 after being victorious in a legal battle to break Topps’s monopoly for issuing a fully licensed, nationally available baseball card set. By the end of the decade, Score and Upper Deck joined the fray and the overproduction/”junk-wax” era was off and running.

The 1980s was also the decade when seemingly every product imaginable started using baseball players and baseball cards as a way to induce consumers to part with their hard-earned money. Certainly this was nothing new — using baseball cards to bolster product sales was the very reason that baseball cards were invented. But the 1980s in this regard was different. Likely because of the escalating interest in baseball cards as an “investment,” everyone from General Mills and Burger King to Mother’s Cookies, Tetley Tea, and Rite-Aid pharmacies issued small sets of baseball cards.

Not only were national retailers and food companies jumping on the baseball-card bandwagon, but local police and sheriff’s departments across the country did as well. Just as was the case with product-based baseball cards, having police officers hand out baseball cards was nothing new. A search on Beckett.com for “Police” provides the answer that the 1967 Philadelphia Phillies had a thirteen-card set issued. The Washington Senators followed in 1970 and 1971 with ten-card sets. But after 1971, police-issued cards went away.

Police cards did not become more regularly issued until the late 1970s, when NBA teams such as the Portland Trail Blazers (1977-78) and the Seattle Supersonics (1978-79) used the idea. In 1979, ten different sets were issued including two from the baseball world — the San Francisco Giants Police and the Iowa Oaks Police.

I grew up in the Milwaukee area. Police cards came to the Milwaukee Brewers in 1982, and they came with a splash: the first ever Baseball Card Day at Milwaukee County Stadium. In a rare show of transparency, the Brewers and the Milwaukee Police Department told kids (and collectors) everything they needed to know through a press release published in the Brewers’ mouthpiece magazine, What’s Brewing?:

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The cards featured a simple design — a photo of the player takes up about two-thirds of the front with the player’s name, uniform number, and position immediately underneath. Below that information, the issuing department’s name and any local sponsors are said to be “saluting” or “presenting” a particular year’s Milwaukee Brewers team.

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As was the case with other police department cards, the Brewers cards always featured safety tips or life advice ostensibly written by the player in question. For Paul Molitor in 1982, he advised kids that they should not steal anything.

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The Milwaukee Brewers cards proliferated in ways unlike any other team. Police and sheriff’s departments across the State of Wisconsin worked with the team and the card sets’ printers to issue their own sets. This got so out of hand that by 1993, the Oshkosh Police Department is listed on The Trading Card Database as issuing four sets with four different sponsors — McDonald’s of Oshkosh, OshKosh B’Gosh, Inc., the Oshkosh Noon Kiwanis, and the Copps Food Center of Oshkosh.

As a Brewers collector, these police sets are both fun and frustrating. They are tremendous fun to try to find, track, and purchase. Most of the time, the sets are not that expensive. Call it the first instances of parallel burnout, but the number of departments issuing sets got so high that people pretty much stopped trying to collect all the variations. That caused demand for all of the sets to decline.

That is also what makes them frustrating. EBay sellers just call them “Milwaukee Brewers Police cards.” While that is true, most of us who are Brewers collectors really are not looking for their fifth set of the Milwaukee Police Department’s 1986 set — we are looking for the cards from Verona, Medford, Hartford, Winneconne, Viroqua, and Mequon. When sellers are vague about what department issued them, it makes it more difficult to determine what a buyer is actually going to get.

In the end, though, they are a boon for me as a player collector in particular. It gives me dozens of variations of cards of Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, Cecil Cooper, Dan Plesac, and others to chase and add to my player collections.

They also have led to a lifelong love for 80s oddballs.

Whither the Astros?

One of the unresolved (to me, at least) mysteries from collecting baseball cards from the late 1960s was how Topps handled the Houston Astros. As you likely know, the Houston expansion team was known as the Colt .45s for its first three seasons (1962-64) before becoming the Astros in 1965, coinciding with their move into the brand new Astrodome that April. Houston tried grass for a year, before contracting with Monsanto to install artificial turf (soon known as “Astroturf”) in 1966. That much we know.

armour-part04-1966-robinsonfrankTopps made a point in this period of trying to never show a player in the “wrong” uniform; if a guy was traded from the Reds to the Orioles early enough in the off-season, Topps could correctly move him to the Orioles but would not yet have a photo of him with his new uniform. Instead they would use a headshot with no hat, or with the hat logo blackened out, or some other solution that would protect young kids from the horror seeing Frank in his old Reds togs. Of course kids could usually tell, but at least they tried. In the 1960s this was a particular problem, because there were 8 expansion teams and 5 franchise moves between 1961 and 1971. This led to a lot of blackened or missing hats.

Which brings us back to the Houston Astros.

In 1965, Topps did not react to the Houston name change right away, referring to the team as “Houston” in the early series (and showing the old .45s hats) and “Houston Astros” (with no visible old logo) thereafter.

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But for the next two years (1966 and 1967) Topps put out two great sets and treated the Astros with dignity — the correct name, the correct hats and uniforms. Problem over?

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Not so fast.

In 1968, suddenly the name Astros was not used on either the front or back of any of the cards, nor were the hats or uniforms shown. (The cards for the other 19 teams used the team nickname, not the city.) I was 7 at the time and an avid collector, but I did not really take notice of the missing Astros name until a few years ago. I spent some time tryi86d0f5e8620b13e1f37a5a5ae38ee092ng to figure out why this happened, contacting Topps, former Topps employees, the Astros historian, Rusty Staub, and several knowledgeable bloggers. The most common reaction was. “I can’t believe I never noticed that.”

The most plausible explanation I have heard is that Monsanto was in a dispute with the Astros over the use of the name — though the baseball team used the name first, it was Monsanto that actually trademarked it (says the theory). Topps, seemingly uninvolved, took the cautious approach and decided to avoid using the name.

When this was going on I was already a rabid card collector — especially the cards of my beloved Red Sox. If I had grown up in Houston following the Astros, collecting an entire team’s worth of bland hatless logoless cards like this Jim Wynn card, might I have turned to other pursuits? Maybe 166083become a productive citizen?

The Astros did not stop using the name, nor the logo, nor did they or Major League Baseball stop authorizing the use of the logo to other entities. Dexter Press came out with a beautiful set of postcard-sized cards in 1968 and had several gorgeous Astros photos (like this one of Joe Morgan). If I was a kid in Houston, I would have found these a better option.

In 1969 Topps again avoided the name Astros, and avoided the uniform in the first three series. Starting with Series Four, sometime around June, the uniform finally returned (though not the name). The dispute, whatever it was, had been resolved, but Topps likely decided to keep the team name consistent throughout the set.

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Topps finally restored the Astros to full citizenship in 1970, giving many of us our first good look at the Astros uniform, especially these gorgeous home unis, in several years. It was great for me, but for the kids of Houston, Texas, it must have been glorious.

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