Thursday, January 29, 2009

1910 Tip-Top Pirates Baseball #5, Tommy Leach

A century-spanning star for 4 of the sport's oldest franchises, Tommy Leach played third base and outfield from 1898 to 1918. This 1910 set marks his only championship, but he also appeared in baseball's first modern World Series (1903), collecting its first hit and scoring its first run.

Card front

The fact that Tommy lived to age 91 says something good about his habits—probably that he didn’t drink or smoke too much. It's hard to remember now that Prohibition (and its undoing) came about after a century of alcohol-related cultural tumult. By the early 1900s, plenty of folks considered booze an absolute evil and demonstrated in the streets to that effect. Without its influence (so claimed their rhetoric), the poor would be unshackled and we’d have little reason for prisons and reform schools. It’s enlightening to compare that language to any number of social issues today! (Temperance organizations eventually delivered the political pressure necessary to pass the 18th Constitutional Amendment, which lasted from 1920 to 1933.)

Card back

Value: I picked up this antique from eBay about four years ago for $225. Check out a Robert Edwards Auctions listing for the whole set to see more pictures, including the anachronistic apron-wearing Tip-Top Boy Mascot.

Fakes / reprints: The set's valuable enough to fake, so don't make it your first early 20th century purchase--research others from the era first and get familiar with how authentic paper and ink looks. Buying from a reputable dealer also helps.

UPDATED: Paragon Auctions posted the original studio shot for this Tommy Leach card and probably others from the same era. Note that Tip-Top's artist added PITTSBURGH to his otherwise unadorned uniform.

Monday, January 26, 2009

1951 Topps Blue Back Baseball #5, Johnny Pesky

Today’s guest, John Michael Pesky, played for the Red Sox from 1942 to 1954, excepting 3 years in WWII service, and has worked for them in a advisory or promotional role ever since. He appears in 2 of Topps' earliest issues, in portrait on the 2" x 3" 1951 Blue Back and full-size as 1952 Topps #15.

Card front

A few years back, my first trip to the Baseball HOF coincided with promotional showings of the movie companion to the book The Teammates, which features Boston's own Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, and Dom DiMaggio. I live nearby, so am slightly biased, but the show’s collection of film, interviews, and chronology really pumped my enthusiasm for the game’s Golden Age.

Card back

Like the more common Red Back set, Blue Back cards portray player busts hovering above a baseball diamond like disembodied gods. They’re also known as “Doubles,” as Topps joined two cards with a perforated edge for each penny pack. Set collectors could use the play results, like the “OUT” shown here, to hack out a tabletop game of baseball. This theme recurs throughout card history, starting as far back as the 1910s and continuing to my own childhood play, put into action with 1978’s card backs. When my vintage collecting group gets together, sometimes we bust out the 1951s—typically the easier Red Backs—for nine papery innings.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

1953 Mother’s Cookies #5, Fletcher Robbe

Check out that purple background! I’m trying to imagine where a Portland Beaver would find that kind of cloudless, blueberry sky. A subtle plug for their state’s Growers Association, perhaps?

Card front

You see a lot of one-note card backgrounds in the late 40s and early 50s, as makers lurched shakily forward into the world of full-color photography. Mr. Robbe’s actually a hand-tinted black-and-white photo, not far removed from 1949 Bowman or 1952 Berk Ross. At least Topps’ own sets distinguished themselves with extra “features” like team logos and player positions.

My own collection includes a number of “modern” Mother’s Cookies cards, primarily Mariner sets from the early 1980s. I lived in Seattle throughout the decade and at least once per year, the team’s baseball card day gave kids a crack at glossy, round-cornered players of Seattle’s own minor league team. (They played like it, anyway.) Check out eBay for complete sets, which usually run $5 or less. You can’t have too many Matt Young cards!

This 50s PCL card (with an extra rounded corner) cost me about $5, a pretty affordable sum compared to what they run in really nice shape. Most of the “better” cards have smooth arcs or slightly angled corners. See this store page for two grizzled-looking examples, including Lefty O’Doul. The California sun clearly took its toll on some people!

Friday, January 9, 2009

1967 Topps Red Sox Baseball Stickers #5, Hank Fischer

Today’s guest is one severe, disembodied dude. The preponderance of hair, almost meeting twice on both the middle and sides of the forehead, makes me think of dark alleys and unpaid loan sharks.

Card front (blank back)

Henry William Fischer came out of Yonkers just before World War II and the lightness of his Wikipedia article testifies to the relatively small impact his career made on 1960s baseball. He pitched for Boston in parts of two seasons and (surprisingly) threw the best ball of his life there, despite going 3-5 with 1 save in only 15 games. He only batted in 9 of them, so probably served as a spot reliever and emergency starter, and didn’t appear in the postseason.

Unrealized potential aside, Hank does appear in one of Topps’ more interesting 60s oddball issues. They printed two teams’ worth of paper-backed stickers in 1967, one of the Red Sox (who finished 9th in the AL in 1966), and another picturing the Pirates (who finished 3rd). Fischer's a good example of the Red Sox design, which screams “it's just a test issue, don't spend more than 10 minutes on each sticker.” Bodiless players float, smirk, and grimace over paste backgrounds and primary color shapes. Three stickers portray a boyish rooter with an art style usually seen on card backs. It’s amazing that this amateurish look preceded the 1969 Topps Supers (Yaz image linked) by only two years. I assume they circulated in their team-specific markets, both a short truck ride from T.C.G. headquarters in New York City.

Kids probably slapped these stickers on folders, wrapped them around bike frames, and otherwise made the set hard to finish. Most hobby examples come in decent shape, if only because collectors prefer unstuck versions. Lower grades often still possess a back, but exhibit stains, pen marks, or creasing. Mr. Fischer, around G/VG, came to my collection from eBay for $5. I recommend that type collectors get a hat-wearing player with a decent looking photo, even if it limits your selection somewhat. Joe Foy, George Scott, and Rico Petrocelli all look like sharp fellows you’d take home to Mama Binder.

Friday, January 2, 2009

1931 W517 Baseball #5, Chalmer Cissell

Anything prefaced by “W” in the card catalog means a strip card, so the W517s originally came in attached rows ready for cutting by a vending machine or scissors. Many examples, even the hatchet job that I own and picture here, show a vestige of dotted line along the edge.

Card front (green tint, blank back)

The 54-card, blank-backed set features real photos, a vast improvement over typical hand-drawn 1920s strip cards. You can find three forms of this set, large, small, and (what I've got) large-trimmed-to-small. The “mini” versions use the same image and proportions, but printed on a smaller paper strip. This probably made them cheaper to produce, a key consideration in the lousy 1930s economy. Multiple print runs created a handful of variations, including Mr. Cissell listed on both Cleveland and Chicago.

Chicago version (green tint)

The W517s present a decent, collectible group of newspaper-like player photos. A recent Robert Edwards auction shows off both an original photo (of Babe Ruth) and the final product. While its overall quality lacks refinement, the set compares well to the dearth of interesting cards (and poor card stock) from that era. The rising cost of all the HOFers makes it pretty hard to finish, but at least you only need a few dozen cards to do so.

UPDATE: Thee more scans of a Cleveland version and tint variations.

Cleveland, green tint

Chicago, purple tint

Chicago, red tint