Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Worst Set Ever: 1957 Topps baseball (started June 2024)

Friends and fellow collectors from (OBC), a group of low-grade vintage collectors, kicked off something last month that felt inevitible once someone wrote it down. First, know that dozens of us stash duplicates or handfuls of beat-up cards for sets we aren't collecting.

Those cards often sit in boxes for years, waiting for the right moment to pass it along to someone who needs it. Up to now, we dodged the formal question: WHAT'S THE "WORST" SET WE CAN BUILD AS A SINGLE, VOLTRON-INSPIRED GROUP OF COLLECTORS? 

In other words, who gets this masterful collection of rounded corners as their very own and then goes after 49 more just like it?

Each participant picked one set, allowing OBC to focus our inked-up, folded, waterstained, and trimmed treasures into one collection. I went for 1957 Topps baseball, a set I'd last built and then traded for a 1939 Play Ball Joe DiMaggio. It started with one card still hanging around: #400 Dodgers Sluggers, soaked last month to remove paper and make its back legible.

OBC friends moved fast, cards arrived two or five at a time, and my WSE (Worst Set Ever) now sits at about fifty cards. The first duplicate, #67 Chico Carrasquel, also inspired something young collectors used to do all the time: improvement via scissors and glue.

Uno + uno = Chico

My growing set includes all manner of artistic achievement, from Bob Hale's clipped corner... Brooklyn's bevy of bruises... Baltimore's peek-a-boo Schoendienst.

I bet more 1957s will get cosmetic surgery in this quest, since each low-grade card offers its own kind of beauty. Ping me if you're collecting in similar territory and want to swap!

Monday, July 8, 2024

Babe/Baby Ruth and Americana stops on a New Jersey road trip

I bounced between air conditioning and cultural sights for three hot days in New Jersey in my cultural collectors quest to catch 'em all. We focused on Princeton this time, whose cemetery includes president Grover Cleveland and his "baby" Ruth, born in the White House and passed of diptheria at age 12.

That's me, sweatin' to the oldies

Soon after the Babe hit a record 54 homers in 1920, Curtiss Candy renamed their existing "Kandy Kake" bar to "Baby Ruth," hoping to draft off his headline-making swats. They claimed this honored Ruth Cleveland's nickname almost 20 years after her death, a Dom Draper level marketing move.

Thanks to compliant court judges, Curtiss avoided Ruthian compensation and prevented "Ruth's Home run" candy bar on the market. That short-lived product included a small promotional card set and my set profile adds more detail to Curtiss's candy shenanigans. Its "favorite with the kiddies" #5 features Ruth smooching his daughter Dorothy Ruth Pirone.

Surviving "Ruth's Home Run" candy ephemera includes these red wrappers. Given his stature, counterfeits exist, so be wary of buying them unless your dealer knows their stuff.

Princeton Cemetery hosts the shaded grave of Clarence "Pop" Foster, a turn of the 20th century player at multiple levels of organized ball. I appreciated its tree coverage as temps hit 95!

Aaron Burr Senior and Junior lie in state at Princeton, an enduring reminder against "wasting your shot."

The permanent collection of Princeton's Morven House contains this Althea Gibson plaque and photo from a local match onsite, when it served as home to NJ's governor and their family.

More from the Morven House, as their family played some Burro Baseball on a trip to the southwest. I welcome your theories for how one would play it!

Every Princeton visitor should stop by Grover's Mill and its 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast markers.

One of the memorial walk's painted alien stones, so cute

Photo credit Nick Vossbrink for this metal plaque

Pop Foster's pro career included a stop in Quebec, whose Capitales bus I passed at the revived Hinchcliffe stadium in Paterson for a series against its Frontier League rivals, the Jackals.

Atlantic coast residents might know Jersey's Garden State Parkway, which spiffed up its passenger views with sports and cultural honorees. Doby played in Paterson, so merits this spot nearby.

Larry Doby's NJ HOF marker at Brookdale service station

Not pictured, one stop at Popeye's for biscuits and wings! A family dinner there is like $30 for six meals, it's nutty.

Friday, May 24, 2024

1969 Topps Team Posters and A Padre To Be Named Later


In mid-May 2024, Sports Collectors Daily published Roy Carlson's deep dives into 1969 Team Posters, one of my favorite vintage sets for sheer size and displayability. I profiled its #5, the Baltimore Orioles, back in 2012.

12"x20" at full, unfolded size

Each of Roy's articles shares original design mockups and quantifies how Topps coped with an absence of fresh photos for that year's cards.

Close inspection of Roy's work highlights how Topps made the best of an expansion era defined by rapid player movement. 1969 posters impress both in size and breadth of lineup, even for new squads in Montreal, KC, Seattle, and San Diego.

1969 Topps issues: Which came first? The chicken, egg, or team posters?

Topps added every animal to their barnyard in 1969, if you include standard and test issues.

I bet fan interest during an expansion year inspired this burst of marketing enthusiasm, in spite of the players union refusing to pose for new photos in 1968, pending better compensation from Topps. Their boycott led, in part, to infamous goofs like batboy Leo Garcia (left) standing in for Aurelio Rodriguez (right). Check out #653's profile from Collecting 1969 Topps to learn everything worth knowing about this card.

Keith Olbermann shared similar insights into 1969 images for SCD in 2010. If Topps bought their rookie Reggie Jackson and "Aurelio Rodriguez" photos from legendary photographer George Brace, #653's mistaken identity could stem from his own goof.

San Diego's expansion year poster shows further impact from players refusing to pose for Topps cameras: 10 hatless headshots and one airbrushed bill for Ron Davis. The Padres even traded Ron to Pittsburgh on March 28, so a proper hat logo would've been out of date by opening day.

The circled Padre, Bill Davis, achieved a measure of hobby fame by appearing on five straight multiplayer "rookie stars" cards, 1965-69, an unbreakable record given how Topps handles RCs today. Bill remained on the verge of breaking out for years, thanks to minor league power and fan popularity. Read Hope Springs Eternal for a look at every Davis base card.  (Don't confuse 1966 cardmate Tom Kelley with Minnesota's manager of similar name.)

San Diego acquired Bill in October 1968 for the classic "player to be named later" (PTBNL). This 1969 cardmate, Clarence "Cito" Gaston, is the future manager who led Toronto to back-to-back titles in 1992-93.

That Padres poster marked Davis's final Topps appearance, once again sharing the spotlight with (many) others. San Diego waited six weeks before sending former AL MVP Zoilo Versalles to Cleveland as their PTBNL, creating some interesting 1969 checklist anachronisms.


Note Zoilo's 1969 stamp says "San Diego shortstop" and his autograph graces their album, if upside-down. That tells us Topps designed and produced this set before they could react to late 1968 trades.


His first series card (#38) splits the difference, with Padres on the front and trade to Cleveland on the back! This shows Topps locked series one card fronts by December 1968, when San Diego sent him to Cleveland, and back text sometime later. (It should also say "N.L." under league, since Zoilo played for the Dodgers.)

Zoilo's hatless image from his "S.D. Padres" stamp appears on Cleveland's poster, so these came together sometime after that December swap. In echoes of Ron Davis, Cleveland shipped 😮 Lou Johnson to California on 4-April, so his poster and card team became out-of-date by opening day.

Card #367 fails to mention Johnson's trade, so Topps locked their poster layouts and third series of cards sometime between December & April. Zoilo and Lou each appear in multiple 1969 sets as players on teams they never quite played for.

Why did Topps invest in such gaudy team posters?

I think 1969's lack of fresh photos exacerbated a general laziness Topps showed toward their 1960s team cards. This 1961 White Sox card offers one mediocre option. So many shadows! Such red background!

Did someone realize there had to be a better way? Perhaps Topps hoped a larger, headshot format could satisfy fans, at least in regional markets, even as they dropped team cards from 1969's otherwise huge base set of 664 cards.

Also consider how 1969 marked the end of Mantle's career, a mainstay for Topps since 1952. He appears on the Yankees poster, its stamps and albums, rub-on decals, Super baseball, 4-in-1 stickers, and base card #500, all of them released after his April retirement announcement.

I wrote before about how Stan Musial & Ted Williams inspired Topps to launch All-Star cards in 1958. Good odds that they knew Mantle cards sold lots of gum, so wanted this 1969 farewell tour. If you gotta go, these shots serve as terrific salutes!

Other legends like Hank Aaron received no such capstone, apart from being a post-retirement figure on 1977's Brewers team card. Just one more way Mantle stands out in Topps history.

In summary

I think 1969 team posters served at least three purposes for Topps.
  • Test alternative looks for team photos in lieu of cards in their base set
  • Help fans in expansion cities get familiar with new rosters
  • Give more Mick to Yankee fans during an otherwise moribund era for their franchise

Peccadilloes of offseason transactions like Bill-for-Zoilo show how Topps did their best to match current lineups to a production schedule that took several months to prepare 1969 releases. All these extra sets helped dust off dozens (hundreds?) of hatless photos from company archives, distinguishing that year from any other in hobby history. Thanks again to Roy's work for inspiring further research. If any other details stand out to you, let me know in the comments.

Friday, March 22, 2024

1956 Topps baseball #171 "Jim Wilson, if that is your real name"

I researched game situations for several 1956 Topps cards in my 17-March post, including #171 Jim Wilson. This post revisits and revises my initial take and then updated it again on 2-May. This might be the most ink spilled about his card since Jim's retirement in 1958.

Baltimore purchased Jim from Milwaukee a few days into the 1955 regular season and he proved their most dependable pitcher, even if going 12-18 meant leading the AL in losses.

I guessed this #171 action photo shows Richie Ashburn running to first, with someone other than Jim catching that high throw. Pittsburgh's Paul Smith, perhaps?

Another writer encourged me to look at the Giants instead, given Topps penchant for photos in New York stadiums, so #25 Whitey Lockman could be a better choice for that fielder. Compare "Jim Wilson" to Whitey's own card of Dodgers #3 Billy Cox trying to beat out a throw to first.

1956 Topps #205, Whitey Lockman

Our runner's sleeve stripe means Brooklyn wore road jerseys, placing us at Giants home turf, the Polo Grounds.

Pittsburgh fielders wore safety helmets in that era, as on #116 Ed O'Brien (left). I think the first baseman reaching behind Ashburn for an errant throw lacks that headgear, so Whitey Lockman seems our guy instead of Paul Smith.

Fielding helmet on Pirates 2B

No helmet on Giants 1B

Lockman and the Giants hosted Philly many times in the 1950s, so picking out a single play will be tough until we locate this card's original photo. Their long undershirts imply a chilly spring evening, making the second game of a doubleheader on April 25, 1954, our possible match.

Topps #171's action shot might indeed be Giants 3B Hank Thompson tossing wide of first on Richie Ashburn's grounder from 1954. Our peripheral evidence supports that location and play result.

One other game, a 6-5 Giants win on May 30, 1955, shows Ashburn legging out a leadoff single to third that became Philly's first run.

Either scoring decision could fit this leaping throw to first, so correcting its players proves more satisfying than nailing an exact moment in time.

Did Topps make twice the error?

My earlier post showed how an artist added anachronistic red details for Pudding' Head Jones. Philly's used sleeve and neck stripes on pre-1950 uniforms, which also featured blue hat and stockings. Topps painted those details in red for his 1956 card.

Consider the action shot for #171 "Jim Wilson" one more time.

Since Topps card editors worked from black and white photos, that could be Brooklyn's #1 Pee Wee Reese (blue sleeves) instead of Philly's #1 Richie Ashburn (red sleeves). Dodgers uniforms would look similar on contemporary pictures, unless dated or described well. They already struck out on player identification, so retain a critical eye.

MAY 2024 UPDATE: Did Topps make thrice the error?

Mea culpa! I missed this lookalike card (#91 Gail Harris) during my initial research into #171 Wilson, which uses our same image apart from its runner wearing a blue cap.

Gail did play first several times for New York during his 1955 rookie season. Our problem comes down to that uniform number, #25 Lockman vs. #15 Harris. Blue cap or not, #91 also got our first baseman wrong.

Confusion conclusion

1956 cards #91 and #171 feature a Hall of Fame cameo either way, with Ashburn or Reese dashing past Giants first baseman Whitey Lockman.

Thanks to several resources for research help.