Monday, March 12, 2018

One for Five : The History of Topps According to 2016 Anthology

Today post follows the spirit of a pair of posts from spring 2016 and give you a head-start on the evolving business of 1950s Topps baseball sets. Feel free to check those out first.

Modern card collectors will know Topps often revisits their past glory with Heritage sets, vintage reprints, throwback inserts, and so forth. Back in 2016, Topps beefed up this tradition by releasing a Topps Anthology series that reprinted many significant baseball cards from their past on pricy, postcard-sized (5"x7") paper in boxed albums.

2016 Topps Anthology, 1951 - 2016

The marketing blurb accompanying Anthology gave me pause, as it mixed facts and errors in pursuit of a kitchen-to-castle story of Topps baseball and the collecting market in general.

2016 Topps Anthology Series One marketing poster

How well did Topps compact their decades of hobby history into two paragraphs? Not great.

Error #1: "...started producing baseball trading cards in 1951..." is three years off.

1948 Topps Magic Photo, George Sisler

Topps first printed baseball cards in 1948 with the sepia-toned Magic Photo set. Today, you'll find type cards on eBay for low money, $10 or less. Magic Photo's gimmicky and ugly as sin, so I don't blame Topps for pretending they never happened.

Fact: "...Sy Berger designed the standard-setting cards at his kitchen table..." 

Sy Berger, 1952 style

Sy Berger garnered a great deal of credit for creating the 1952 set and it sold well, forcing other card makers to play catch-up in both design and set size. Did Sy design this seminal set at his kitchen table? Sure, why not! I'm writing this post at my kitchen table. It's comfortable and it's where the food is.

Error: "By '74...rookie cards are more valued than ever."

That's somewhat true...and yet misleading. First-year rookies didn't drop in value before 1974, so their value was indeed "more than ever." Circa 1974, premium pricing in the hobby went to stars and rarity far more than prospects and rookies. That held true until cards like this came along.

1981 Donruss #538, Tim Raines RC

Unless my memory's faulty, the mania for rookies didn't blow up until Topps' competitors Fleer and Donruss arrived in 1981 and all three looked for ways to outsell and out-promote each other. Tim Raines and Fernando Valenzuela drove high demand in 1981 itself, where Donruss was the only set to put Tim on his own card and Fleer was the only set for Fernando's own card.

1985 Topps #401, Mark McGwire RC

Remember Mark McGwire's 1985 Topps rookie card? People went nuts for it in 1986, when he broke the rookie HR record. This hobby-changer happened because Topps licensed cards for the 1984 Olympics team (made up of college players) as a way to undercut Fleer and Donruss. Anthology misses the "mark" a bit when it pushes rookies-as-savvy-investments back to the 1970s, to when local, informal pricing defined the hobby over annual price guides. (Lest this sound like a critique, I think centralized pricing helped the hobby mature and we'd still be wandering the desert without it.)

Error: "...first Traded series in late '74..." 

Topps introduced Traded in their last series of 1972 baseball by airbrushing players into post-trade uniforms, like #751 Steve Carlton going from St. Louis to Philly. Why introduce this subset in 1972 and not sooner? I credit the early stages of MLB free agency, which promoted freer movement of players. Topps hoped these up-to-date cards sold during pennant races would give fans a reason to keep buying packs in the late season months.

Error: "...stacking [1974 Traded] with rookies called up from the minors..."

1974 Topps Traded, a 44 card late-season insert set

Traded cards in 1974 feature airbrushed players who'd been traded, same as 1972. They did much the same with another Traded set in 1976. No rookies to be seen!

If what you want is vets in new uniforms and rookie phenoms, Topps first offered that in 1981 as Topps "Traded," a tidy boxed set that added 132 cards to the existing regular set, #727-858. As mentioned earlier, this kind of release followed new competition from Fleer and Donruss.

Before 1981, Topps took just three, low-quality shots at "traded" players in 1972, 1974, and 1976. Starting in 1981, they made the Traded series an appealing, annual look at fresh faces and new jerseys. To tie back to my early note about Tim Raines and Fernando Valenzuela, one could argue they created 1981's Traded set as a hedge against innovations Fleer and Donruss would release and hot players they'd miss out on.

.200, The Mendoza Line

How'd they measure up? Topps went 1-for-5 on their own history, batting just .200! I'm a little disappointed, given how easy it is to check these details via Google.

Why do I care in the 21st century about how Topps characterized their first quarter century? Because there's a business history that runs parallel to their baseball history. The financial decisions that Topps made in those years enabled them to create all those great 1950s and 1960s cards that became part of Anthology and I want that business history to be just as visible to hobbyists, even if it risks making the baseball side feel less magical.

And I'm not done with you yet, Anthology ad copy!

For my next post, I'll dive deeper into the phrase, "Selected by the youth of America." Anthology didn't give us more to chew on and, as it turns out, there's plenty of meat on that bone. What should modern collectors know about who the "Youth of America" were? How does it relate to collecting today? More to come soon.

Monday, January 8, 2018

1927 American Caramel Baseball (E126, set of 60) #5, E.T. Cox

Between the 1910s tobacco era and Goudey's landmark 1930s gum sets, candy and toy companies made most of America's baseball cards. Pennsylvania's own American Caramel Company produced several and this #5 comes from their 1927 "set of 60" issue, designated by collectors as E126. There's more to it than meets the eye, which I examine after name-checking E. T. Cox.

Ernest Thompson Cox pitched a single MLB game for Chicago on May 5, 1922. He faced 6 batters, walked 2 of them, gave up a hit, allowed 2 runs, and...that's it. E. T. never appeared in another White Sox game and, according to available stats, didn't play in the minors either following his 1922 big league appearance.

310 Pythian Place, a blog about Birmingham, Alabama history, provides a play-by-play account of Cox's single MLB appearance in "One Game -- One Inning." (It also mentions teammates mislabeled him as "Elmer," which is significant later.)

How and why did Cox pitch just one inning? I compared rosters for that year's AL teams and Chicago shuttled a lot of pitchers through their 1922 staff. The 1st place Yankees used a grand total of 8 pitchers for all 144 games. Cellar-dwelling Boston used 10. The White Sox used 18 and most made less than 5 appearances. All that roster shuffling speaks to oddities in the front office. Chicago endured the Black Sox trial and banning of eight players in 1921, so I imagine player management and finances proved chaotic in 1922. Chicago could've trimmed travel costs or other expenses by signing in-town players to the briefest of contracts. Perhaps something even more obscure was going on.

The 1927 E126 card back promotes their collectors album for "60 of the most prominent baseball players in the country." Since E. T. Cox hadn't played in 5 years, they're playing fast and loose with the truth. In fact, American Caramel's 1927 set is 90% re-cropped player photos from 1922, numbered #1-60. Match names in these galleries and you'll see what I mean.

Could a mistaken name or photo be how "E. T. Cox" ended up on a card? As mentioned above, American Caramel reused many photos and he first appeared in 1922 as "Elmer."

Did American Caramel get the right "Cox?" We have a few other 1920s candidates.

Future MLBer Elmer Joseph "Dick" Cox played outfield for Brooklyn in 1925-26, but toiled in the PCL as a Portland Beaver in the years American Caramel would've obtained this photo. An Oregon-based outfielder wouldn't strike pitching poses for the 1922 White Sox. No real chance that's our guy.

Plateau Preston Rex "Red" Cox hurled three games for Detroit in early 1920, with some minor league years thereafter. I can't find any evidence he played for Chicago.

Leslie Warren "Les" Cox pitched two career games for Chicago, both in September 1926, so he's a peripheral match for someone named Cox appearing in this 1927 set. It's believable an American Caramel employee reused this 1922 card based on Chicago's 1926 roster containing a guy named "Cox."

George Melvin Cox pitched a full 1928 season for Chicago, six years too late to be on a photo from 1922 or earlier. If American Caramel printed E126 in 1928, they could've again picked E. T. based on last names alone.

Back in 2004, collectors on the Net54 baseball card discussion board asked similar questions about E. T. Cox in the thread, "E126: Who is card #5?" They arrived about where we are now, with a smattering of overlapping baseball stats and one enigmatic photo of a White Sox pitcher.

That Net54 conversation hints at another reason American Caramel dusted off their 1922 photos and revamped them for 1927: stars Ty Cobb had just joined the Philadelphia A's, and Tris Speaker, the rival Washington Senators.

Cobb and Speaker weathered game-fixing allegations following the 1926 season (see Cobb's SABR bio for details) and both announced plans to retire. When baseball commissioner Mountain Landis declared them innocent of the gambling allegations, they followed lucrative contracts to new cities for the final years of their legendary careers.

It's a good bet that Pennsylvania-based American Caramel capitalized on Cobb's arrival in Philly to rush out a smaller version of their earlier sets, updating current teams and adding album-based encouragement for collectors to get all 60 cards. I can't find an E126 album online (yet), so expect they adapted these similar E120 albums from 1922.

1922 E120 "set of 240" AL and NL albums

As mentioned earlier, I think E. T. reappeared for 1927 because American Caramel might've referenced a recent White Sox roster with a pitcher named "Cox" (Les in 1926 or George in 1928, depending on actual year of printing) and mistook them for E. T., so he got a second card out of it.

I also have a theory about why E126 cards prove so scarce today. That on-card (IF)S copyright by Cox's foot stands for International Features Service, a William Randolph Hearst-owned source of news wire photos and publisher of baseball strip cards from the 1910s and 1920s. (IFS also appears in my W516 post about Cobb and Speaker.)

When American Caramel printed their 1922 E120 "set of 240," photo attribution appears on every card, some for IFS and some for other photo sources. None of their re-cropped 1927 E126 "set of 60" photos show these attributions, which could've raised legal issues and cut short the distribution of cards.

Value: 1927 American Caramel cards don't come along very often. Legendary Auctions sold a graded set for $15,000 in 2007 and low-grade commons go for $50. This fair-good Cox card cost me $40 on eBay.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

1946-49 W603 Sports Exchange Baseball series #5, Charlie Grimm and Billy Southworth

Back at the end of WWII, the closure of wartime industry meant the return of resources key to the making of baseball cards: paper for cards and plastic for gum. While the better-known Bowman and Topps didn't issue baseball sets until 1948, an interesting publisher tried their hand at war's end, on the strength of returning servicemen and America's boom for baseball: The Sports Exchange of Youngstown, Ohio.

This little-seen hobbyist newsletter, The Trading Post, featured articles similar to what you still see in modern publications, with allowance that almost all research and writing came from enthusiasts, not baseball professionals or sports critics. Here's a testimonial of sorts from the above issue, written by a cousin of HOF slugger Ralph Kiner.

Issues of The Trading Post are a collectible in their own right today and I plucked those scans from this 2014 auction. When hobbyists talks about "Sports Exchange" cards, however, they mean the photo packs sold to subscribers from 1946-49 and catalogued W603.

These Sports Exchange packs cost 50 cents and arrived in manilla envelopes. Their notepad-like, looseleaf pages used photos from International News, a major supplier of photos of all kinds. (The Sports Collectors Daily wrote this guide to identifying their work and that of other news agencies.) Many seen today include handwritten notes in the blank Facts and Figures footer.

Scan from Dave's Vintage Cards, as the watermark says

"Set Number 5" contains eight MLB managers of the time, each numbered as such on the lower-left corner.

  • Eddie Dyer
  • Charlie Grimm
  • Billy Herman
  • Ted Lyons
  • Lefty O'Doul
  • Steve O'Neill
  • Herb Pennock
  • Luke Sewell
  • Billy Southworth

The Veterans Committee inducted Billy Southworth in 2008, raising his profile among Hall of Fame collectors. I stand ready to accept your high-dollar offers for this hard-to-find collectible! :-)

Bought this on eBay for $10

The Sports Exchange printed 13 different photo packs between 1946 and 1949, with varying players and teams. Old Cardboard hosts a nice checklist of them all.

Some issues of The Trading Post came with a flyer hawking 36-player sheets of smaller, card-sized photos inside colored borders that buyers could cut out by hand. Due to these sets' relative size, they're catalogued as W602 Sport Exchange Miniatures (2.5" x 3").

Available for $10K OBO!

While both Sports Exchange set checklists include many great players, these pre-Bowman, pre-RC Stan Musial and Warren Spahn shots stand out as collector keys.

Spahn's wearing an early 1940s Braves uniform from his stint in Boston before spending 1943-45 in the service. By his 1946 return, they switched to block-letter BOSTON jerseys.

TRIVIA: The Old Cardboard mislabeled cards checklist notes that W602's photo of Ted Williams is, in fact, Bobby Doerr.

Value: Billy Southworth cost me $10 on eBay, as would many lesser-known players in VG-EX condition. Thanks to this set's scarcity, expect the bigger names in decent condition to cost bigger dollars.

Fakes / reprints: Haven't seen any in the marketplace. Cards use thin paper stock and low-quality photo reproduction, so be wary of counterfeit stars offered for cheap prices. They'd be easy to fake if you set your mind to it.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Top Five Bowman Vintage Sets

Back before my dad's time, one Philadelphia company served as America's premiere gum card maker, creating a multitude of sets spanning the WWII era. Sport sets included baseball, football, and basketball. Non-sports included pop culture, war machines, and law enforcement. Kids liked all kinds of things, so they made all kinds of cards.

Founded as Gum, Inc. and later renamed Bowman Gum after founder Jacob Warren Bowman, the brand name ("Bowman, Home of the Rookie Card") lives today under the Topps umbrella. This post covers five vintage Bowman sets that proved key to card history and design. Baseball and sports cards didn't dominate the vintage gum card market like they do today, so I try to show how non-sport and sport blazed trails for each other.

#1: 1938 Horrors of War (as Gum, Inc.)

In the mid-1930s, fascist-led conflicts (Spain's Civil War, Italo-Ethiopian War, Sino-Japanese War) brought death and destruction onto headlines and into wax packs. Gum, Inc. led that effort by selling kids over 100 million colorful and shocking war cards on a size and card stock similar to Goudey's well-known baseball sets. Every card shows something happening, like this pilot thrown from the fuselage of his exploding plane.

1938 Horrors of War #5, China & Japan at war

Horrors of War's first series (#1-240) proved popular enough to spawn a second series highlighting the threat of Nazi Germany (#241-288). All cards professed, "To know the HORRORS OF WAR is to want PEACE."

"War Gum," as kids called it, sold so well that it remains available and popular today. Goudey Gum, their top 1930s competitor, responded with two middling sets of military themes. Based on what's available in the market today, neither matched the popularity of Horrors of War.

#2: 1939-41 Play Ball Gum (as Gum, Inc.)

Buoyed by the success of Horrors of War, Gum, Inc. soon pushed into the baseball market. I've profiled the Play Ball sets before and my Collecting Joe DiMaggio in Yankee Pinstripes post shows all three. They're clean and popular, best known for early cards of Ted Williams and the Clipper. My favorite card's another DiMaggio, "Patchwork Vince."

1941 (or 1942?) Play Ball Gum #61, Vince DiMaggio

1941 Play Ball's checklist numbers 72 cards, but modern researchers believe Gum, Inc. added 49-72 as a new series for 1942, reflecting the fan fever Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio generated in 1941. That makes Vince part of its second series and reflects the practice (also used by Goudey & National Chicle) of selling and adding to the same set design across multiple years, rather than a single baseball season. See this article by Rich Mueller for more.

Mid-1940s: WWII and a change of name

Bowman's founder endured multiple lawsuits thanks to Gum, Inc's success and its drive to cut production costs. I suspect that for both legal reasons and wartime production needs, it made sense to rebrand as Bowman Gum, distinguishing them from other gum makers. When they reentered the market in 1948, Bowman's name appeared on all card backs: baseball, football, basketball, and non-sports.

From "1948 Bowman Baseball Packs Sell for $521,180"

The company's return to baseball in 1948 showed the same black-and-white look as 1939, dropping their hand-colored 1941 style. As the recent find of unopened packs show above, Bowman continued to use the "Play Ball" name in 1948. They changed to "Base Ball Bubble Gum" for 1949 and beyond.

#3: 1949 Wild West / 1950 Wild Man / 1951 Red Menace

I'm combining these sets into one sequence, given their evolutionary design impact. Like many vintage collectors, I discovered Bowman baseball through the artistic excellence of their 1950-52 sets. Unlike 1952 Topps and Sy Berger's kitchen table, Bowman's design didn't emerge whole cloth from a single source.

1950 Bowman baseball #19, Warren Spahn

Bowman's non-sport gum packs sold best during baseball's offseason and they developed this artistic look starting with 1949 Wild West, itself inspired by the post-WWII popularity of 19th century Western nostalgia.

1949 Bowman Wild West #C-5, Calamity Jane

Wild West used the same 2¹⁄₁₆ by 2½ size as their 1948 and 1949 baseball cards, with hand-painted art that mimicked existing Western art and photos.

Next up, the history and retrospective 1950 set "Wild Man." In the same way Bowman's 1948 baseball set harkened back to their 1939 design, Wild Man looked back to 1938 Horrors of War. Card fronts show humanity's history of murder, danger, and conflict. Card backs once again emphasize the need for peace.

1950 Wild Man #29, Concentration Camps

Third, there's 1951 Red Menace. Thanks to America's entry into the Korean War, the era didn't feel peaceful. Fear of the Communist "Red Menace" inspired Bowman to sell a set by the same name. Slightly larger (2½ × 3⅛) than their 1949-50 sets, this would be their last squarish design before making cards longer and rectangular.

1951 Bowman Red Menace, #2 General MacArthur

It's worth noting Topps competed with Bowman in war before they competed in sports. Red Menace came about in part because Topps struck a candy store hit with Freedom's War in 1950, a 203-card set of military hardware and figures active in WWII and Korea.

Topps used high quality art on Freedom's War and tested innovations like die-cuts to create tanks that could stand up. While this didn't push baseball design forward yet, it did push Bowman design forward.

#4: 1951 Jets, Rockets, and Spacemen

More great art appeared on new, bigger (2¹⁄₁₆ × 3⅛) Bowman cards in Jets, Rockets, Spacemen. You won't find any static, stoic poses in this set. #5's alive with the thundering moment of launch.

Jets, Rockets, and Spacemen told a story about Capt. Argo and his crew that covered nearly the entire 108-card set. Read them all via scans in the JRS section of Lowell's Place.

Their elongated look carried over to 1951 baseball -- or maybe the sets coexisted as nerds and jocks of the candy counter.

Even when Bowman's 1951 baseball cards reused 1950 pictures like Warren Spahn above, the different dimensions brought you closer to the player.

#5: 1952 Baseball

Bowman used hand-painted art again in 1952, swapping in autographs instead of block letter names. By this point, all those artistic innovations from 1948-1951 result in a beautiful finished product. You've got a card that fits in a kid's palm, looks great, and only suffers in comparison to Topps' larger breakout set. (There's no question Topps made a groundbreaking set in 1952; I like looking at the Bowman set more.)

My dad became a baseball fan in the 1950s because of this guy, Duke Snider, shown with his original photo, and I've been lucky enough to inherit some of his own Snider cards. Bowman's artist added clouds and tweaked the fence to accentuate Duke's placement in the top 2/3 of the card.

Topps' huge success with their 1952 set ended Bowman's baseball self-determination. They shifted to competing with Topps for player contacts and overextended financially trying to print bigger cards with better photos. Just four years later, they called it quits and sold all player contracts, designs, and trademark assets to Topps.

I'd like to see the alternative timeline where Bowman's artistic sets survived in the market alongside photo cards. Today, that might happen, given the age range and varied tastes of collectors. The nickels and pennies 1950s kids spent on chewing gum just couldn't support both.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Collecting Joe DiMaggio in Yankee pinstripes

Back in 2013, on the occasion of Joe Dimaggio's 99th birthday, I looked at the "rookie" cards stemming from his November 1934 trade and move from San Francisco's Seals to the Yankees. Those of a certain age will remember the hobby once considered 1938 Goudey the "definitive example." (1938 has since proved not so definite.)

Two years after the 1934 trade, Goudey used the above snap (itself a SF Seals photo from 1934) as both his 1936 "wide pen premium" and (head only) for 1938 Goudey #250 & #274, cards with identical design apart from the surrounding cartoons.

1938 Goudey #250 & 274, Joe DiMaggio

By 1938, that crop-top made it impossible to know you're looking at a 1934 Pacific Coast League photo. Between those years, some sets did show Joe as a "real" Yankee.

First issue: 1935 National Chicle fine pen photo premium ("Joe DiMaggio slams it") shows Joe's first spring training with New York, debuting as #18 before adopting his famous #5.

Second issue: Canada's 1936 World Wide Gum #51, which serves as Joe's first bubblegum card. It's seldom seen outside elite collections today, given comparative rarity to American sets and baseball's enduring demand for the Clipper.

1939 Play Ball #26

1939 Play Ball was the first American company to pack Joe D with slabs of gum and they gave him a nice, sharp photo for our patience. But no pinstripes.

Play Ball followed up by giving Joe their #1 spot for 1940. That on-card "1939 Pennant" hints that their card fronts wrapped up before the conclusion of 1939's World Series, while the back text wrapped up after the Yankees won their 4th consecutive title. Printing cards must've been a time-consuming business circa 1939-40.

1941 Play Ball repeated 1940 Play Ball's road gray jersey in hand-tinted color.

1941 Play Ball #71

In fact, Play Ball never showed Joe in pinstripes, perhaps because the Gum, Inc. photographers only saw him when the Yankees played the A's in Philly, as AL opponents of that era.

Chicago-based Leaf hit a similar obstacle in 1948: DiMaggio's wearing road gray again. By this point, it occurred to me that without a New York-based Topps card, which Joe never had, there'd be almost no "playing career" cards showing him in home field pinstripes. And then...

...there it was, the 1948 R346 "Blue Tint" (set profile) a checklist heavy with New York teams and stars. Given the prohibitive rookie price of 1936 World Wide Gum cards, this deadpan DiMaggio's your best shot of getting a home pinstripes Joe from his 1936-1951 career span. If only he'd played 3 or 4 years longer, imagine all the classic Topps cards you'd have to choose from!

Value: Based on eBay results, R346 DiMaggio sells for $200, pushing Gehrig for top billing in that humble two-color set.

Fakes / reprints: DiMaggio's counterfeited in almost all of his vintage sets, so know your dealers if you're collecting type cards or go for graded examples to minimize risk of fakery.