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.

 

A valuable proposition

To me, one of the most nebulous words in the sports collecting hobby is “value”. Is value something akin to those halcyon days in the late 1980’s when just opening a pack seemed to guarantee you a profit? Or is value something that you think you can sell for more than the cost of the pack or box on EBay? Or is value the sheer enjoyment of opening a pack or a box and enjoying the contents?

shoppingDepending on who you are, any of those scenarios or countless others seem to indicate value to the end user. Why am I writing about value? Well, you see, I recently opened some “retail” boxes of both Topps Holiday baseball as well as the holiday version of Topps Archives baseball.  The Topps Holiday box promised one relic, autograph or autograph relic card for a $19.95 cost while the Topps Archives box promised one autograph for a $24.95 cost.

Having opened countless review boxes during my time at both Beckett and Sports Collectors Daily, one great aspect was in almost every case one received whatever was promised in the box. In my seven years of writing reviews, only twice did I not receive what was promised and both times Topps Chrome Football was involved. I don’t know why I was jinxed on that issue.  Both times the issue was rectified but it made for some interesting give and take.

So, we will continue with the premise of receiving what is promised in a box with the caveat we know it is possible to miss the promised goal. I don’t know about you but in today’s hobby world one is rarely guaranteed four hits in their $80 box. Now, products such as Topps Heritage which is $74.25 at my local card store promises exactly one hit per box. Now, I grant you there are other goodies in each hobby box such as tough series, variations and inserts but still one hit is far less than four.

shopping-1And I can not think of any product from a major manufacturer which guarantees four autographs for an $100 bill.  Yes, I get that you might get better players from a hobby box but that is not a guarantee. I remember with the review of one Allen and Ginter box, some poster on Facebook lamented how Rich never got anything good. Well, that specific box had two Alex Avila relic cards and some other similar player for a real world value of $5 or so. But I did receive what was promised so the chance for money value was there and Allen and Ginter always has some great quirks and interesting cards so I did not feel so bad about what I received.

But for value, what would rather receive. the enjoyment of opening a box and seeing what interesting cards and players are inside or hoping you get the latest Mike Trout autograph card serial numbered to 25 or less. I don’t know about you, but as long as I receive what is promised, I’m happy with the value of the cards out of the packs.  However, the beauty of the hobby is there is room for me and room for those people who only care about money and even those collectors who only want base cards because they are happy building inexpensive sets. We’d love to hear what your preference is.

Rich Klein is a free lance writer based in Plano Texas and can be reached at Sabrgeek@aol.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Montreal Expos postcards

The abstract below is based on a report that was originally delivered before a SABR-Quebec regional meeting on November 5, 2011. It has been revised and updated to reflect events and accuracies which occurred since that date.

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Modest as their success may have been on the field, the Montreal Expos introduced many innovations in their Gallic interpretation of Major League Baseball. During the early years at Jarry Park, it was not uncommon to see fans dancing in the aisles or attending the game with a pet duck. Wearing tricolour caps – bleu-blanc-rouge to honour hockey’s legendary Montreal Canadiens – the Expos introduced a seemingly indeterminate logo which was actually a stylized letter M. Moving to Olympic Stadium, the Expos and their fans often erupted in a chorus of “The Happy Wanderer” during a rally, usually led by an ursine mascot named Youppi. If an opposing baserunner led off 1st or 2nd base but did not steal, chicken sounds were the order of the day on the scoreboard. The Expos were the first team to play two national anthems and the first to sell mineral water. Although the Expos rarely issued a yearbook, they did produce a postcard set in each of their 36 years in the National League.

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The postcards were sold by the Expos at concessions, first at Jarry Park and then at Olympic Stadium. In addition, a supply of postcards was printed every winter for autograph purposes for the Expos’ annual winter caravan. If a fan wrote an Expos player for an autograph in the mail, it was not uncommon for his or her signed personal items to be accompanied by a signed postcard. Several players, including Steve Renko and Ernie McAnally, were sending signed postcards to autograph collectors long after they retired from baseball.

The first postcard series was produced in 1969 and consisted of two series of 16 cards each. The first series was issued in colour, while the second series was issued with monochrome images. The Expos continued with monochrome images from 1970 to 1976; each photo was underscored, for example, by the announcement of “Greetings from John Boccabella!”

In 1971 there were two Expos postcard sets. In addition to the official set produced by the team, a second set was produced by a Montreal company called Pro-Stars.   The photos were colour images taken in spring training at West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium. There were 27 players included in the set, along with manager Gene Mauch. The Don Hahn card is particularly hard to find, as he was traded to the New York Mets as the cards were going to press. Consequently, the Hahn card was issued in very limited quantities. Although the set was popular with collectors, the Expos did not engage Pro-Stars for additional sets subsequent to 1971.

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Most of the postcards during the Jarry Park era were mugshots, or in the case of the 1969 set, posed shots. However, many of the players who joined the team midway through the 1976 season were immortalized on their postcards with action shots. For example, after Andre Thornton was acquired from the Chicago Cubs in June 1976, he was shown batting during a game at Jarry Park on his postcard. The Olympic patch worn on the Expos’ sleeves that summer is easily visible.

In 1977, after the Expos moved to Olympic Stadium, they issued their postcard sets in full colour. Now the postcards were underscored with each player’s name and position, both in French and English. The position identifications disappeared from the postcards in 1980, which was also the year the Expos introduced red and blue racing stripes on their uniforms. The player’s identity disappeared completely from the postcards in 1984, though it was reintroduced in 1991. That same year, the postcards identified Petro-Canada, a Canadian gasoline retailer, as an Expos’ sponsor.

For the last thirteen years of their history, the Expos wore blue pinstriped uniforms with “Expos” written in a cursive, Dodgers-style script. Postcard photos were taken with a blue background from 1992 to 1996, and a beige background from 1997 to 2004. When it appeared the Expos may have been slated for contraction in 2002, the team issued a black and white postcard set depicting the stars of yesteryear. Some of the players to appear in this postcard set included Steve Rogers, Ron Hunt, Ron LeFlore, Buck Rodgers, and Tim Burke. Although the Expos and Major League Baseball survived the 2002 season, baseball in Montreal had only two more years before the franchise was moved to Washington.

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Most of the photos on the Expos postcards were snapped by Denis Brodeur. The official photographer of both the Expos and the Canadiens, Brodeur had been the goalie for Team Canada who won the bronze medal in hockey at the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. Brodeur was also the father of NHL superstar goalie Martin Brodeur. In 1996, a collection of Brodeur’s baseball imagery was showcased in a French language coffee table book about the history of the Montreal Expos. Many of the postcard photos were reprinted in the definitive history of the Expos, a two-volume set written in French by Jacques Doucet and Marc Robitaille. Brodeur died in 2013, age 82.

The question remained: who got to be photographed on an Expos postcard? Most of the stars and regular players were issued a distinct postcard every year. In 1970 and 1971, as the Expos were marketing Rusty Staub as the franchise’s marquee player, there were several postcard varieties for the affable redhead known as ‘Le Grand Orange.’ Nine players who appeared on Expos postcards were ultimately immortalized with plaques in Cooperstown. Besides managers Dick Williams and Frank Robinson, and coaches Duke Snider and Larry Doby, this roster included Tony Perez, Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Pedro Martinez, and Randy Johnson. The Johnson postcard, issued in limited quantities in 1989 in light of his trade to Seattle in May, is considered to be the most valuable in Expos history. It was the Big Unit’s rookie years and has sold for as much as $250 if it can be found at all.

What about the coaches, midseason acquisitions, or September call-ups? In 1969, since the postcards were not issued until midseason, players such as Manny Mota, Maury Wills, Mudcat Grant, and Donn Clendenon were not included because they had already been traded to other teams. In most subsequent years the postcards were released at the beginning of the season in April. Photos for supporting cast members, including coaches, were often reused the following year. For example, Fred Breining was on the disabled list for most of 1984 and all of 1985, his two years with the Expos. The same photo of Breining was used in both sets.

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According to Jacques Doucet, who broadcast Expos games for most of their history, Brodeur snapped most of the player photographs for postcards in spring training. If a player on the 40-man roster spent the season in minor leagues to be recalled in September, his photograph would be ready for a postcard. Take the shortest career in Expos history – one day. That was the extent of Curt Brown’s tenure with the Expos. He was included in the postcard series in 1973. On the other hand, in 1996, Rick Schu’s contract was purchased from Ottawa in August before being outrighted back to the Lynx a week later. Schu was not given a postcard. Similarly, Leo Marentette was recalled from AAA Vancouver in 1969 in time for an Expos’ California road trip. As the team prepared to fly east, Marentette was returned to Vancouver. He never had a postcard either.

As for midseason acquisitions, it often depended on the player and how late in the season he was acquired. After ten second division finishes, the 1979 Expos found themselves in a pennant race with the Cubs, Pirates, and Phillies. Once their division rivals in Pittsburgh acquired Bill Madlock in a trade with the Giants, the Expos had to counter. On July 20, they brought back Rusty Staub in a trade with the Tigers. Considering Staub’s popularity in the early years of the franchise, it went without saying to print batches of a new Staub postcard to be included in the 1979 set. However, the next year, after the Expos acquired John D’Acquisto and Willie Montanez in separate trades with San Diego at a similar juncture of the season, neither player was included in the 1980 postcard set.

75528_14Generally speaking, superstars like Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Tim Raines, Vladimir Guerrero, and in 1984, Pete Rose, have generated the most attention for their postcards. However, this was not always the case. When Bill Lee joined the Expos in 1979, he was depicted on his postcard sporting a Grizzly Adams-style beard. The Powers That Be in baseball, already dismayed by admission to sprinkle marijuana on his organic buckwheat pancakes (as it made him impervious to bus fumes when he jogged), pressured him to shave the beard. He complied early in the season and almost as soon as he shaved, his postcard was replaced. The bearded Spaceman postcard remains a collector’s item.

In 1981, Jerry Manuel’s postcard was at the centre of a different controversy. Unlike Jerry Seinfeld’s proclamation in an episode of “Seinfeld” many years later, Manuel never spelled his first name with a G. However, you would not know that by his postcard, which identified the infielder as ‘Gerry Manuel.’ The postcard was quickly recalled and replaced an orthographically accurate ‘Jerry Manuel.’

75748-25fr1One of the more unusual stories surrounding an Expos postcard involves another members of the 1981 Expos, Steve Ratzer. Although his Expos career was limited to 13 games, the Ratzer postcard remains one of the more popular issues in franchise history. First off, the postcard was printed for only two months of the year as Ratzer was assigned to Denver during the midseason players’ strike, not to be recalled when the rosters expanded.

Further to that, Ratzer is a member of the Jewish faith. According to Vancouver-based hobbyist Ernest ‘Kit’ Krieger, the only two ethnic identities whose members collect cards of players who share their identity are Cubans and Jews. There have been several Cubans to play for the Expos and have a postcard, including Tony Perez, Bobby Ramos, and Nelson Santovenia. By contrast, Ratzer is considered to have been the only Jewish player in Expos history. Everyone with a Jewish collection wanted the Ratzer postcard. Furthermore, until the publication of the Jewish Major Leaguers set by Fleer in 2003, the postcard was the only major league card of any sort Ratzer had. When the author sent Ratzer a postcard to be autographed, his request was returned four months later along with a note of apology – he wanted to hold onto the

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postcard because he didn’t otherwise have one! (Ed. Note. Norm Sherry, who coached for the Expos for four years, is Jewish and appeared on postcards)

The Expos, through the lens of their postcard sets, provided a unique history of the team and its players from the expansion season of 1969 through 2004, the final year for the franchise in Montreal. Not only did the postcards tell the story of the players, but for many fans, they evoke memories of particular game or meeting with a particular member of the team. For example, the first postcard I ever owned was a Tom Foley card from the 1988 set. Foley was distributing them on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa as part of the Expos’ Winter Caravan. Along with Rex Hudler and Brian Holman, Foley took part in a skating demonstration. But Canadian winter sports didn’t come to Foley as naturally as baseball had. “What do they want from me?” he asked rhetorically, “I don’t know how to skate – I’m a Georgia boy!” Sixteen years later, as a coach for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, he was reminded of his winter trip to Ottawa. Do you think he remembered? You bet, he remembered!

Collecting Goals for 2016

One year ago, as 2015 was approaching 2016, I was having a conversation on Twitter with some fellow collectors about our collecting goals for 2016. I had not made goals in previous years nor had I made any for the upcoming year. As a disciple of the Yoda-like collecting legend Eric, also known as @ThoseBackPages on Twitter, I have been trained in the ways of #FOCUS and buy the card not the holder so a list of goals was an idea I liked very much.

Following that conversation I scribbled six goals on a sticky note and stuck it on my above my computer screen where I could see it each day. The goals I set for 2016 are as follows.

  1. Acquire a 1967 Topps Brooks Robinson #600 graded in a PSA 7 NM.
  2. Acquire a 1966 Topps Jim Palmer #126, his rookie card.
  3. Reach 65% completion of my signed 1959 Topps set.
  4. Reach 70% completion of my signed 1981 Fleer set.
  5. Reach 55% completion of my signed 1984 Topps and Topps Traded sets.
  6. Reach 50% completion of my low grade 1934 Goudey set.

fullsizerender-5The first goal I was able to complete was the Palmer RC, I picked up a nice example of this card graded PSA 5.5 EX+ in early February. It is an excellent example of buying the card not the grade as the eye appeal is that of a much higher graded card at a much lower price.

The second, third and fifth goals completed were done rather easily as I underestimated the value of the Twitter collecting community in tracking down the people who have some of the tougher signed cards to find available. I reached 65% on the 1959 Topps set in early April with the purchase of signed Billy Consolo and Alex Kellner cards. Nearly two months later I crossed the 55% pole of the 1984 Topps sets with the addition of Gerald Perry and Ron Reed. The 1981 Fleer goal was reached sometime in August, and for the life of me I can’t find the details of which card pushed me over. Looking back as a whole these three goals were undershot by a significant amount as currently stand at roughly 72%, 81%, and 68% in ascending chronological order.

img_4796The fourth and from my view most difficult goal to reach was the 1967 Brooks Robinson in the PSA 7 grade. The card itself is both a high number and short print, and it is also prone to being off-center. Being a tougher card to find in excellent condition, I found it difficult to find one at a price I could live with. Finally after being snipped in several auctions I got a hold of the 67 Robinson in late July.

The often neglected and last completed goal was to reach the 50% mark of my low grade 1934 Goudey set. I completed this goal in late September with a flurry of eBay purchases from a seller I found who did not overvalue these well-loved cards solely because of their age.

Looking back on this journey I feel that it helped me focus and to keep from splurging on cards that didn’t necessarily fit my collections. I have a few goals already in mind for 2017 number one being a 1957 Brooks Robinson rookie card graded PSA 7.

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DEXTER PRESS/COCA-COLA CARDS 1966-68

Despite half a century of improvements in photography and printing — and just as many years’ worth of raised bars for what collectors consider ‘high end’ and what they’re willing to pay for it — it can still be argued that the Dexter Press baseball card sets of 1966-68 are the highest quality baseball cards ever printed. And just to make the set a little more interesting, about 400 unused negatives of photos the company took but never used on cards have just turned up.

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1967 Dexter Press

Dexter is best known for 228 (or by one definition, 229) 5-1/2” x 7” premiums it produced for Coca-Cola in 1967. Collectors opened bottles of Coke, Fanta, Fresca, Sprite or Tab to find black and white head shots of their local players or one of 25 All-Stars on the underside of the bottle caps, then glued them  into matching spaces on a “cap-saver sheet.” When your 35-cap sheet was finished you could trade it in for one set of 12 Dexter photos of your local team, or in non-major league areas, 12 All-Star photos. Even though some of us had enterprising fathers who figured out that the discarded caps from Coke bottles bought from vending machines were collected in a receptacle inside the machine (and that a dollar could get your corner store owner to stash a summer’s worth for you), the promotion still enabled a lot of cavities among eight-year olds (I had seven by September).

Coke and Dexter made sets of caps and photos for 18 of the 20 major league teams. The 1967 Angels and Cardinals were skipped for whatever reason, which is odd given that Dexter had gotten into the baseball card business the year before with a series of different-sized sets of Angels players. The best-known were slightly larger than a standard postcard (4” x 5-7/8”) and included 16 players plus a shot of brand new Anaheim Stadium, but Dexter also made smaller and larger versions of the player photos for sale inside the ballpark and in other unknown ways. At least one 1966 Angel, Paul Schaal, was produced in exactly the same size that would be used nationally a year later and is usually included in the 1967 checklist as a 229th card, although technically it’s debatable as to why it would belong with the ’67 set.

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1968 Dexter Press

The company also made a 4” x 5-7/8” set for the 1967 Yankees, duplicating 10 players and images from the Coke set, which I can remember seeing on sale individually at the souvenir stands at the old Yankee Stadium. Dexter would also reprise the premium role for Coke in 1968, but with smaller (3-1/2 x 5-1/2), fewer (77), and less attractively-published postcards featuring a dozen players from each of six teams and five other players scattered among four teams.

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1967 Dexter Press

The quality of the 1966-67 printing is so good that the cards almost glow. This was evident even to us collectors of 50 years ago. You kept the Topps cards in boxes. You kept the glossy, shiny, richly colorful Coke cards displayed on a shelf or a bulletin board. It would later prove that this was Dexter’s selling point. Mention the company name to collectors of souvenirs from the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair and you’ll get nods of appreciation: Dexter was the official postcard supplier to the Fair, and those cards also glisten. Do an eBay search for “Dexter postcard” and you’ll find that the company based in the New York suburbs did high-quality work for restaurants and stores and businesses of all sort around the country, and came back in 1971 with another Yankees set and, later, the official postcards for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

As to 1967, counting the All-Stars there are cards of 32 Hall-of-Famers and many more greats of the era. One of the only complaints you could make is that all the poses are the same: portraits to the waist with the player’s hands at his sides or seemingly crossed near the belt, and his autograph superimposed over his head. Even that monotony earns style points when you see all of the cards together. Then as now, the repetition of the poses somehow made the photos look official.

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Rocky Colavito

The other complaint would have been that even if you lived somewhere where geographical definitions overlapped — say in New Jersey — and had access to trading in the right 140 bottle caps to get the sets of the Yankees, Mets, Phillies, and All-Stars, you would still have only 48 different cards compared to the 609 Topps would make that year. It bothered me then and it bothers me now and it made an item in a recent auction even more appealing to me: a collection of production materials from the Dexter sets, including dozens of the actual player autographs used (and many not used)

Jim Gentile
Jim Gentile

on the cards, still more autographs transferred onto clear plastic overlays, and what turned out to be about 500 negatives, around 400 of which showed players not included in the various Dexter sets.

In the last few days I’ve tweeted about a dozen of the rarer finds for the sake of other hobbyists like me who hunt the arcane combinations of obscure players

Alan Schmelz
Alan Schmelz

with teams they only spent a little time with: Rocky Colavito with the White Sox, Jim Gentile with the Phillies (he was cut during Spring Training) and the like. There are literally dozens of these, plus just as many minor leaguers who got no closer to the big leagues than spring training and the Dexter photographer. The company probably grabbed everybody who would agree to stand still for them, and so the image of Arizona State star and two-game Mets pitcher Alan Schmelz comes complete with a couple of Alan Schmelz autographs on ordinary note paper.

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Bruce Howard
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Nick Willhite

And as always when the production materials for any card set are revealed there are inexplicable and/or rewarding quirks discovered. For instance, a Dexter negative showing Nick Willhite with the 1967 Angels implies that even though the company didn’t make a set of the Halos that year, they were seemingly prepared to. The variety of images from 1968 suggests that the second Coke Premium set was supposed to be much bigger: Dexter shot players from the A’s, Mets, Phillies, Reds, Senators, White Sox, and Yankees — and made no cards for any of those teams. And perhaps best of all, photo after photo shows why so many players look like they’re clasping their hands at their stomachs. They are holding ID slates with their own names on them!

Joe Rudi
Joe Rudi