Sunday, December 3, 2023

Piercing the 1930s Sea of Sameness with Oscar Melillo

People who pursue sets between the world wars notice a certain sameness to what's on offer. Some 1930s companies recycled their limited number of images, year by year, tweaking things just enough to keep their gum moving. Even 90+ years later, hobby malaise can set in.

Think about spending hundreds on this top-tier HOFer. "How do I feel about such similarity? Are two cards twice as good as owning one? Half as good?"

When kids opened penny gum packs in spring 1934, they found a familiar Foxx pose, as Goudey copied series one (#1-24) from existing 1933 cards. Any frustration over these retreads suited newcomer National Chicle, whose Diamond Stars Gum offered colorful images to young fans in an Art Deco style.

Chicle and Goudey each put star Lefty Grove in their first series, a predictable way for two Massachusetts companies to recognize the key Red Sox offseason acquisition. Goudey, perhaps chastened by complaints, changed direction after #24. Their checklist for #25-96 looks like what we now call an "update set" of lesser-known guys and roster changes. Jason Schwartz wrote a lot more about this at SABR's card blog. It included someone they left out of 1933's 240-card set, Oscar Melillo.

1934 Goudey Big League Gum #45

Let's track this popular 1930s second baseman through his lookalike collectibles and rank the best choices for those who like their prewar on a budget. Our first option isn't even a card!

1933 Gum, Inc. Double Header Pins (PX3)

Gum, Inc., who later made 1939-41 Play Ball cards, started in baseball with metal medallions that were meant to be paired front-to-back, hence the name "Double Header." An unopened pack, perhaps unique to our hobby, sold in 2011 via REA.

Their medals cropped Oscar to face alone. He looks friendlier here than on your other 1933 choice, DeLong Gum, a small set published by Goudey's former treasurer, Harold DeLong.

1933 DeLong Play Ball Gum (R333) #3

Metal coin sets remain a gray area and hard to recommend when other options remain. This set's drab and little-known in our hobby.

Cost: As of writing, eBay sellers ask $60-200 Buy-It-Now for graded PX3 coins (example search).

1934 Goudey Big League Gum (R320)

Oscar's first Goudey card shows DeLong design influence with its sketched grass and cartoon diamond. Its photo expands what Gum, Inc. put on its coin to show his batting follow-through and classic bloused uniform.

Oscar played every day at a key position, second base, so it's a mystery why Goudey left him off 1933's set. Just nine Browns got cards that year, well below average for a 240-card set covering 16 teams. The crosstown Cardinals got 14 and Rogers Hornsby appears for each squad thanks to his move from Cardinals player to Browns player-manager in late July.

Cost: 1934 commons like Oscar run ~$5-10 in low grades.

1934 O-Pee-Chee/Butterfinger Premiums (V94)

Here's our prizewinning "complete view" of Oscar, the Oscar for Oscar, at Sportsman's Park in St. Louis. Canadian card maker O-Pee-Chee produced a handful of 1930s baseball sets and V94 stands out for its photo quality and size (6.5" x 8.5").

I think earlier cards cropped away Oscar's background to remove those teammates running sprints.

Cost: It's easy to damage OPC's thin paper stock and most surviving examples are low grade. Common players start about $10 and go up fast for stars and HOFers.

1934-36 National Chicle Diamond Stars Gum (1935 series)

Chicle expanded their Diamond Stars Gum checklist to 84 cards for 1935 and used Oscar's now-familiar pose at #53.

Some Chicle cards include buildings from their player's town, as on #5 Tommy Bridges, so that could be a real 1930s St. Louis structure. If you recognize it, let us know in the comments!

Cost: Diamond Stars commons crept up in recent years, so expect to spend $10 or more, even in low grade.

1935 Goudey Big League Gum (R321)

Goudey stuck with what worked in 1934 and re-cropped Oscar for this 4-panel layout. Each card required an original (small) painting in those days, so reusing art saved time and money.

Cost: As with Chicle cards, Goudey also crept up of late and even those with four common players like this run $15 or more.

1935 Goudey Premiums (R309-2)

Goudey introduced postcard-sized, black-and-white photos on thin paper as an in-store loyalty program in 1935. They packed these premiums with Big League Gum shipments and kids would swap empty wrappers back to the pack seller for their preferred photo. This migrated their 1933 cabinet-style promotion (R309-1, four cards) from mail-in distribution to candy counters, saving Goudey that extra processing work.

1933 R309-1 Babe Ruth with mail-in promotional strip

The fifteen known R309-2 premiums cover just five metro areas (New York, Boston, Detroit, Cleveland, Washington), with good odds each city received premiums for its local guys.

R309-2 contains three composite photos, Boston, Cleveland, and Washington. Their Red Sox premium shows our Melillo pose and pitcher George Pipgras, an intriguing combo considering these mid-1935 team transactions.'s 1935 Red Sox transactions (excerpt)

Does this mean Goudey printed their Red Sox composite in that one-week window? I bet they just added Oscar following his trade and failed to remove George when released, dating Boston's R309-2 to "sometime after May 27."

Goudey also gave Oscar a personal photo and tweaked the cap to "B," as Beantown expected great things on his arrival. Melillo delivered excellent defense and modest hitting, holding down second base until Bobby Doerr's much-hyped arrival in 1937. This feeds Melillo into Doerr's own significance to Goudey's unusual 1938 "Heads Up" set.

Cost: R309-2s prove scarce, so availability means more than price. I'd pay $20-25 for common, low-grade players.

Summary: "...and the Oscar goes to..."

What did you think of all these sets based on one Melillo image? This happens often with 1930s players and can cut into your enjoyment as a collector. I think four float atop this sea of sameness.
  1. Diamond Stars Gum for balanced art quality, availability, and hobby familiarity. This set produced a lot of best-of-career player cards.
  2. OPC/Butterfinger for its big, detailed images. Rank this first if display quality matters most to you.
  3. 1934 Goudey is comparable to Diamond Stars, if lesser in image quality most of the time.
  4. R309-2 Goudey remains interesting, if tough to find. OPC/Butterfinger looks better and you avoid competing with team collectors over a scarce issue, the Red Sox composite in particular.
Hope you enjoyed Oscar's parade in (St. Louis) brown and red (Sox). If you'd go after something else in this situation, sound off below!

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Top Five Vintage Team Cards for Player Collectors

Say Hey! What did I send you again?

In November 2023, I mailed some vintage Giants to a collector friend. When they arrived, he said, "thanks for the Willie Mays card!" That gave me pause. Did I package up a key card, a top-tier HOFer, and then forget about it? Is age catching up with me in a way that benefits others? (That'd be my preferred outcome for aging, to be honest.)

In truth, I sent a sort-of Willie Mays, and he clarified receiving my 1960 Topps Giants team card in the name of its biggest name.

1960 Topps #151: Say Hey! (lower right)

My own player collections (Spike Owen, Jamie Quirk, Steve Garvey, David Segui) focus on named cards 99% of the time. It's rare, if possible, for team cards to show off someone you need.

One "team card" that does belong in a Spike (or Wade) PC

If you collect specific players, do you try to fill every niche, including team cards with hard-to-identify faces? I've avoided group photos myself, since many vintage team shots came out indistinct, 1960 Topps included. Half of your battle as a player collector comes down to confirming your guy is on the card at all.

The new expert in vintage team cards

In 2023, hobby researcher Roy Carlson wrote a pair of exemplary 1951-1980 Topps team card overviews for Sports Collectors Daily. He's done the legwork to prove whether your collecting obsession did or didn't appear on any vintage Topps team cards.

Want a standout surprise? I had no idea Ted Williams kept popping up on 1959-64 Topps Red Sox team cards despite his exclusive 1959-1962 trading card contract with Fleer and after retiring as a player. Topps reused their 1958 photo each year and Fleer missed complaining about it. All these team cards for Ted fans!

  • 1959 Topps #248
  • 1960 Topps #537
  • 1961 Topps #373
  • 1962 Topps #334
  • 1963 Topps #202
  • 1964 Topps #579

I used Roy's excellent work as inspiration for five team cards that player collectors should know about.

Stan Musial: 1956 Topps #134 St. Louis Cardinals team

I propose two reasons that Topps first added team cards to their main set for 1956.

  1. Topps designed much of their 1956 set prior to Bowman's post-1955 collapse and wanted to test whether a group photo would violate exclusive contracts for stars like Mickey Mantle. Would a Yankees team shot gratify his fans, even if Mick's smaller than a thumbnail?
  2. Topps hoped to knit holdouts like Stan Musial, who refused all pre-1958 Topps contracts, into group shots that players wouldn't take seriously as "stealing their image."
The 1956 Cardinals card mentions Musial by name twice and he's easy enough to find at lower-right.

The 1956Topps blog notes just 13 of these 30 gentlemen appeared on individual cards in that year's set and exclusive Bowman contracts no doubt limited who Topps could include.

Its back text claims, "Later, Stan Musial made the Cards the number one team of the 1940s." Indeed, their .642 decade winning percentage outpaced all other franchises and they won three titles in five seasons (1942-46). I believe that Stan's reticence to sign with Topps or Bowman in 1954 explains why pitcher Memo Luna garnered a late season replacement card (see Memo to The Man for full details).

Musial appeared on two more Topps team cards, 1951 and 1957, prior to signing an individual contract in mid-1958, which triggered their first All-Star subset.

1951 Topps team cards, St. Louis Cardinals

I circled Musial (center) for context and a youthful Joe Garagiola (right) for fun. Look close and see how St. Louis cut-and-pasted their backup catcher into its second row after he missed its original team photo. 

1957 Topps #243, St. Louis Cardinals team

1957's muddier photo quality make this a tough card to love, with or without the circled Musial. I borrowed this image from Roy's first article to show how Musial's Topps on-card appearances continued beyond his retirement as a player. Topps reused a 1962 team photo (with Musial) for their 1965 set, a real twist of the knife considering St. Louis won the 1964 World Series!

While I consider 1965 #57 a curiosity with some Musial appeal, the 1956 team card's a great option for player collectors who want mid-career cards of The Man.

Carl Yastrzemski: 1965 Topps #403 Red Sox Team

The 1959-64 reuse of Boston's 1958 team photo that created extra Ted Williams cards also delayed Yaz's first appearance to 1965, years after his debut. (This kind of Topps laziness also postponed team photos with Pete Rose and several other 60s stars.)

Yaz sits at front right, between bullpen coach Al Lakeman and outfielder Lou Clinton.

Boston traded Lou Clinton to the Angels in June 1964, so this serves as his sole Red Sox team card, thanks to those 1959-1964 shenanigans. While 1965's flat backgrounds make individual faces tough to discern, it remains a decent choice for Yaz collectors as his first cardboard pose with teammates.

Hank Aaron: 1977 Topps #51 Milwaukee Brewers Team

By 1977, Topps improved print clarity enough to make Hank's legendary #44 visible without squinting.

I think most Hammer collectors know about this post-career appearance already, so consider this my bona fides for anyone seeing him there for the first time. It should be part of Aaron collections and costs little to acquire.

Yogi Berra, Jim Hegan, & Thurman Munson: 1980 Topps #434 New York Yankees team

This card meets three goals, two hobby-related and the other humane, each circled in red.

The two hobby-related details come from Roy Carlson's second article, where he shares that Yogi Berra (right circle in sunglasses) appeared on more vintage team cards (24) than any other HOFer, leading Red Schoendienst (23) by one. This card pushed him over the top! To build on that achievement, Jim Hegan (center circle) leads everyone in team card appearances with 28! Zounds.

Last but not least, vintage fans will remember Yankee captain and star catcher Thurman Munson (left circle) died in an August 1979 plane crash. Topps chose not to produce his individual 1980 card, so 1980 #434 capped his career cardboard appearances.

Many modern collectors made custom Munson cards in that double-banner style to recognize his personal importance to them. This is my favorite.

1980 Munson by When Topps Had Balls

Munson collectors should grab that team card if you missed it up to now.

Tim Raines: 1980 Topps #479 Montreal Expos Team Card

1981's most exciting rookies included Fernando Valenzuela and Tim Raines, just in time for Topps, Donruss, and Fleer to battle for the first competitive card crown in decades. Donruss won my heart with its strong borders, bold team names, and unusual back highlights. Rock's performance that year can claim real influence on our hobby's enthusiasm for rookie cards.

...but did you know Raines appeared on 1980's Expos card, circled in red? I suspect they considered him for the major league roster late enough in spring training to attend team photos. My young head woulda popped off to know this card connection back then.

What's your take on team cards, do you include them in player collections? If so, does your guy need to be in the photo itself?

Thursday, November 9, 2023

Baseball's Best Fifth Round Draft Picks 1975 - 80

Here's my third post on the best players from fifth rounds of MLB's "Rule 4" amateur draft. Previous iterations covered 1965-69 and 1970-74.

Evaluating talent must feel like fishing. You cast into the sea hundreds of times, hoping for one good hit that'll make all that time on a water's edge worthwhile. Fifth rounds of the late 1970s continued to impress me as 1-in-20 long shot picks, as history shows just one team took home a big fish.

1975: Lou Whitaker (75.1 WAR, 5x All-Star, 3x Gold Glove, 4x Silver Slugger, 1984 World Series ring, 1978 ROY)

I consider Whitaker baseball's best fifth-round pick for the 1965-75 decade, as many think Lou should be in Cooperstown. Keystone infielders with such consistency prove hard to find in any age, let alone paired with a teammate like Alan Trammell.

Love that "Sweet Lou" autograph on his 1982 Topps and cards like this convinced me every good hitter wore fielding caps under their batting helmet.

1976: Jack Morris (43.5 WAR, 5x All-Star, 1984/1991/1992 World Series rings, HOF)

An easy pick for his year and yet tough to write about, since Jack's relative career value (in WAR, anyway) falls well short of Sweet Lou. The 1991-92 rings with Toronto made a big difference for Hall of Fame voters.

As a young Seattle fan, I remember Detroit's 1984 maulers came into the Kingdome at 35-5 and left 35-8, swept by an otherwise nondescript Mariners squad. I trimmed shortstop Spike Owen's newspaper highlight photos from that series for my baseball scrapbook and assume it inspired my own player collection that continues today. Stuff it, Jack!

1977: Tim Raines (69.4 WAR, 7x All-Star, Silver Slugger, 1996/1998 World Series rings, HOF)

Tim Raines fed the enthusiasm for rookie cards with his own powder blue Donruss card, jockeying with Fernandomania for 1981 collecting supremacy. As an eight year-old, I knew a dedicated card, even for far away teams like les Expos, felt three times better than sharing space with two other "future stars."

A late-career (and still productive) Raines won two rings with the dominant late-1990s Yankees. Did those titles cement his case for Cooperstown voters? I think they did. Bobby (Roberto) Ramos, 0.1 WAR, and Bob (Bobby) Pate, -0.1 WAR, made the rest of their card a wash.

1978: Dave Stieb (56.4 WAR, 7x All-Star)

This longtime Toronto ace must be wondering if a better early-career personality would've also meant a spot in Cooperstown, given favorable comparisons to guys like Jack Morris. His excellence came with irritability, something the writers who vote for your HOF plaque tend to notice.

Dave's autograph evolved a bit over the years, even though it remains tough to remember I before E when spelling his name. Do you like long-form video journalism? S-T-I-E-B garnered his own series on Secret Base, the pinnacle of modern analytical baseball success.

1979: Greg Gagne (26.3 WAR, 1987/1991 World Series rings)

Gagne spent ten seasons in Minnesota as their everyday shortstop and backed up Jack Morris for 1991's series win over Atlanta. Several of those World Series moments pop up in his highlight reel.

Gagne delivered consistency at a position known for its variance and finished his career in the top 100 players all-time for defensive WAR. Hard to ask for more than that.

For all Greg's fielding prowess and the many cards that show him turning a double play, I prefer these two bat-in-hand shots.

1980: (tie) Mike Fuentes (0.1 WAR), Roy Johnson (-0.5 WAR)

1980's fifth round offered our slimmest pickings since the Rule 4 draft started in 1965. Mike and Roy rank highest in WAR for players with MLB time, which damns with faint praise. The former earned his tenth of a WAR in just nine career games (six in 1983, three in 1984), while the latter suited up in 36 (17 in 1982, 16 in 1948, three in 1985).

With so few games to choose from, did these fifth-round teammates ever play together in Montreal? Let's focus on those three 1984 appearances for Fuentes and see if he crossed paths with Johnson.

  • Sept 14: Mike pinch hits a single (off Steve Carlton!) in the 5th inning. Roy Johnson pinch hits a single in the 8th inning.
  • Sept 20: Mike starts in LF and is lifted for pinch-hitter Wallace Johnson in the 9th. Two batters later, Roy Johnson pinch hits and flies out to end the game.
  • Sept 21: Roy Johnson pinch hits in the 7th, but Mike Ramsey takes over on defense. Mike Fuentes pinch hits in the 9th.
In other words, yes, Roy's in the box score for all three of Mike's 1984 appearances. Like ships in the night, they never quite fit in the active lineup together, given their pinch hitting usage.

Mike's story went quiet until 1995, reemerging for the Marlins when they prepared replacement lineups for striking players. Florida paper The Galveston Daily News highlighted his college power in its look at each National League team's "Imposter Roster," a preseason profile that anticipated scabs taking the field for opening day.

The Strike meant even more to The Streak. Baltimore felt so connected to Ripken's feat that replacement Orioles never materialized, even with forfeits on the horizon.

The strike's human story grew fraught as several union players, who'd endured seven months of lost pay, broke with their union to play alongside replacement players.

As days ticked by, pressure from all sides pushed baseball players and owners to resolve things in front of a name who later joined the US Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor.

Justice meets Judge

"By 'caliber,' I refer to both the size of their guns and the high quality of their characters... Two meanings... 'caliber'... it's a homonym..."

I'll pick up the post-1980 fifth round in future posts. For now, enjoy how even guys with three career appearances can connect to something meaningful for the whole pastime.

Friday, November 3, 2023

Baseball's Best Fifth Round Draft Picks 1970 - 74

Thanks to Immaculate Grid game #212's new category (first round draft pick) for inspiring me to bone up on MLB's Rule 4 amateur draft, which kicked off in 1965. Baseball Reference's statistical history includes Rule 4's complete record, broken down by draft phase and pick. I already covered 1965-69 in my prior post and will keep looking at five-year blocks until we run out of steam.

Two of these names from the top of 1970's fifth round found similar overall success, right around WAR's break-even point.

Pat Scanlon, who shares his name with an uncle of mine, played parts of four seasons for Montreal and San Diego. He appeared on a pair of standard cards, one SSPC...

...the other, 1978 Topps, airbrushed his Montreal cap and uniform with a foreshortened SD.

Thanks to dedicated blogger and image updater WthBalls, we can enjoy one more Scanlon, based on a real Padres photo.

As good as those three cards turned out, Pat's -0.3 career WAR sits well below our best choice for 1970.

1970: Rick Waits (14.2 WAR)

Rick turned into a Cleveland innings-eater for five years before slowing in 1982 and closing his career as a Milwaukee reliever. His first appearance (September 17, 1973, for Texas) gave him a save that might not be granted today. He pitched the ninth, gave up one run, and finished ahead by seven runs.

Easy to pick my favorite Waits card, a "waiter" card, as marked up by

1971: Charlie Moore (10.3 WAR)

Charlie's name feels more familiar than most, as a Wisconsin native and 1980s card collector. Milwaukee's "tools of ignorance" looked great in blue and gold, with Moore wearing them on cards at least twice.

Moore also spent a lot of time in right field and batted well during a 1982 postseason that brought his Brewers to the World Series against St. Louis.

1972: Randy Jones (17.8 WAR, 1976 NL Cy Young, 2x All-Star)

Randy fell a few votes short of back-to-back Cy Young awards, finishing second to Seaver in 1975 before winning the following year. His flip side Jim Palmer managed that feat, joining the cadre who won at least two in a row.

These two cards show the significance of a great mid-1970s hairdo, whether you're feeling Randy or feeling Jim.

1973: LaMarr Hoyt (12.1 WAR, 1983 AL Cy Young, 1985 All-Star)

Hoyt also led the AL in wins twice (1982-83) and picked up a Cy Young of his own. He followed Randy's example with lofty curls and classic, vintage uniforms.

As inscribed by his own hand, LaMarr started that 1985 All-Star Game (for San Diego) and took the win-plus-MVP in a 6-1 NL victory.

1974: (tie) Steve Henderson (11.5 WAR), Jim Morrison (12 WAR)

For my first time so far, two players vie for the trophy. While Henderson remains closer to my heart as a former Mariner, I prefer his Buntin' Cub 1983 card's more interesting composition.

Jim Morrison started his teen years about when the famous Jim Morrison peaked and I bet he rode a rollercoaster of seeing that name in the papers, for reasons good, bad, and ugly. In an echo of Mr. Mojo Risin's animal magnetism, Topps used portraits of Jim's handsome mug on several cards.

I give the "best pick" edge to Jim over Steve for his three scoreless pitching appearances as a 1988 Brave. Remember his name the next time IG asks for an Atlanta Brave with season ERA under 3!