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.