Monday, November 30, 2009

1978 Burger King Astros Baseball #5, Joe Niekro

This card's baby blue sky and super-orange everything else reminds me strongly of the classic 1933 Tattoo Orbit set. Joe's door knocker nose and ear-flap hair look so charmingly anachronistic, I can almost ignore the pink script and lime green borders. We heart the 1970s!

This blog already examined Burger King team sets from 1979 and 1980, but didn't say much about the card fronts, as Topps used relatively neutral designs. Their quartet of 1978 issues, on the other hand, revel in a plethora of pinata color combos. (For maximum entertainment, links go to actual pinatas.)

1978 marked Joe's career mid-point, 10 years removed from a 1967 Cubbie debut and 1987-88 swan song for Minnesota. 11 years as an Astro marked his longest tenure for any team; peep the classic "Houston black hat" look at his Wikipedia page.

Joe and brother Phil won a sibling record 539 games, including a shared wins lead (21 each) in 1979. In 1980, Niekro pitched a 10-inning, 1-0 shutout in the NLCS. Houston lost that series, but he went on to win a World Series ring with the Twins in 1987, not long before Jack Morris threw his own legendary 10-inning shutout for Minnesota's 2nd title. On the flip side, Phil never won a title in 26 years of throwing knuckleballs, but did reach Cooperstown in 1997.

Friday, November 20, 2009

1977 Fritsch One-Year Winners #5, Bob Thorpe

Many 1970s oddball sets seem like a Google Image Search for "old baseball photos." The sheer quantity of player images out there, even for obscurities like Robert Joseph Thorpe, would fill out a ton of issues, if actually organized and printed.

Card front

Collector and businessman Larry Fritsch pulled together a bunch of otherwise hard-to-find fellows as One-Year Winners. 1977 was the first of 3 "OYW" series and its 18 card checklist includes Eddie Gaedel and Chuck "The Rifleman" Connors.

Many OYW stories could also be called "one-game wonders," such as pitchers who made a single impressive appearance or batters who went 3-for-3 and never played again. Bob Thorpe didn't blow anyone away for the Cubs, but he did go 69-44 in the minors.

Card back

Against all odds, there's at least one autographed OYW card out there. Mr. Fritsch still offers complete series on his web site and individual cards on eBay, where #5 (and other "commons") cost $2 or $3.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

1976 ISCA Hoosier Hot-Stove All-Stars #5, Amos Rusie

Today' guest made a home state debut in 1889, winning 12 games for the Indianapolis Hoosiers as a fresh-faced 17 year-old. He started 22 games and finished 11 as a reliever, hurling 225 innings total and striking out 109 batters. That's a full season by today's pitching standards, but barely hinted at Amos' next decade as a moundsman, when he'd average over 400 innings and total 245 victories.

Card front

The Indiana Sports Collectors Association published this bicentennial-themed 26-card set in 1976 to honor local players and teams who contributed to baseball's considerable history. The checklist contains plenty of name-worthy guys; Don Larsen and Gil Hodges are 2 of the non-HOFers. I assume sets went out to ISCA members, making them hard to come by today.

Card back

Two things stand out on Rusie's card, "strong candidate for [the] Hall of Fame" and "brief 10 year career." Indeed, the Veterans Committee voted Amos onto a plaque for 1977, validating the ISCA's editorial acumen. Fellow Hoosier (and card #14) Hodges nearly joined him the same year by receiving 58% of the BBWWAA vote.

So is it better to burn out than to fade away? Like previous #5 guest Dizzy Dean, Rusie's career included a block of dominant performance followed by a quick fade. 3 appearances for Cincinnati in 1901 count as a "season," which snuck him past the HOF's 10-year career minimum. It's not clear if anyone remained alive to lobby on Amos's behalf--as former Gashouse Gang members benefited from Frankie Frisch--so his selection's probably deserving, if plucked from a different epoch.

Monday, November 16, 2009

1974 Topps and O-Pee-Chee Baseball #5, Hank Aaron Special

At the end of 1973, Hank Aaron stood on the cusp of breaking Ruth's signature record of 714 homers and it seemed a certainty the Hammer would pass Babe early the next year. Following a tradition of leading their set with a major achievement, 1974 Topps #1 proclaimed him The New All-Time Home Run King and led off a 9-card Hank Aaron Special subset. (Aaron himself confirmed their minor act of prognostication with homer 715 on April 8.)

1974 Topps card front

The front of each Special reprints Topps Aaron cards four at a time--a nice treat for younger collectors--and backs recount his considerable career achievements in 10-year chunks. The front of #5 covers 1966 - 1969 and its back summarizes each year from 1954 to 1963.

1974 Topps card back

Montreal-based candy maker O-Pee-Chee (OPC) continued to license Topps baseball sets for distribution in their Great White North, but did some extra legwork for the Hank Aaron Specials. Pursuant to Canadian law, card backs had to include both English and French. Two languages meant less room for commentary, so they chopped the specials down to 2 front images and backs listed bilingual 5-year highlights (instead of blocks of 10).

1974 OPC card front

Both sets cover the same ground at different "speeds," so OPC #5 gets Topps 1962 and 1963 on the front and 1954 to 1958 highlights on the back.

1974 OPC card back

Topps covered the Hammer's 20 years of service in five cards and then switched to "regular" players, so the first 9 cards include 3 other guys. (Checklists courtesy of
  1. Hank Aaron Home Run King
  2. Aaron Special 54-57
  3. Aaron Special 58-61
  4. Aaron Special 62-65
  5. Aaron Special 66-69
  6. Aaron Special 70-73
  7. Jim Hunter
  8. George Theodore
  9. Mickey Lolich
OPC's 2-images-per-card approach took 9 cards to cover fully, displacing Hunter, Theodore, and Lolich to later numbers in the set. Including those players, in turn, bumped other cards from the set entirely.
  1. Hank Aaron Home Run King
  2. Hank Aaron Special 54-57
  3. Hank Aaron Special 58-59
  4. Hank Aaron Special 60-61
  5. Hank Aaron Special 62-63
  6. Hank Aaron Special 64-65
  7. Hank Aaron Special 66-67
  8. Hank Aaron Special 68-69
  9. Hank Aaron Special 70-73

Short story, the loser in this game of musical chairs is Jim Fregosi, dropped from OPC in favor of HOFer Catfish Hunter. Sorry, Jim, you'll have to blame Canada!

These scans show all the 1974 OPC Aaron Specials, #1 at upper right. (Click them for the full-size images.)

OPC #1 - 9 card fronts
OPC #1 - 9 card backs
Value: Aaron cards from the 1970s remain affordable. I picked up each #5 on this page for less than $10.

Fakes / reprints: Hank Aaron cards turn up in plenty of Topps retro sets, but I haven't seen any fakes of his 1970s cards.

Friday, November 13, 2009

1936 National Chicle "How To" Baseball (R344) #5, How To Run Bases

Massachusetts-based National Chicle Gum published their 192-card Batter-Up set in 1934 and 1936, as explored in more depth by Jason Schwartz on SABR's baseball card blog. Packages of their high series (#81-192) contained today's promotional bonus, a 20-booklet insert of "How To" pamphlets. At 3" x 4", they're larger than the actual cards, so came folded in quarters. Collectors folded it along the vertical spine to make a tiny book. Check the scan's vertical "guide," with back page to the left and title on the right.

National Chicle attributed this series to HOFer Rabbit Maranville, who played 23 seasons of energetic middle infield and chipped in 1 partial season as Cubs player-manager. While not a superior player, his firecracker personality and showmanship made Rabbit widely known. My second scan shows its interior pages and the meat of Rabbit's advice.

These 20 booklets (Old Cardboard gallery here) cover basic playing skills, but include interesting esoterica like "how to pitch the out-shoot," "in-shoot," and "drop." (In modern parlance, those are the slider, screwball, and sinker.) "How to Run Bases" covers the main points for any level of player: run everything out, move with the pitch, and watch your coaches.

Base running remains a major issue for teams, fans, and baseball writers. Today's era of more powerful lineups mean that managers worry less about scratching out single bases, yet team performance suffers if they neglect the station-to-station basics. (I will consider offers from MLB front offices hunting for Rabbit's helpful guide on base running. :-)

Value: Scarce premiums like this vary by seller. I picked up my #5 for $15 on eBay several years ago and now add to the set of 20 when I can find them for under $40.

Fakes / reprints: While it would be easy enough to photocopy National Chicle's "how to" set, limited collector demand also makes it a poor choice for fakery. Even so, be wary of a complete set of high-grade examples. Most booklets in the market today will be lower grade, since they were folded for packaging.

One legitimate reprint set does exist. Goudey acquired these instructional illustrations as part of National Chicle's bankruptcy sale in 1937 and added "how to" diagrams to the back of their 1938-39 R303 baseball premiums. Card sellers offered these to kids as a post-purchase promotion.

Can't blame the kid for gluing that back to something when R303 fronts look this good.

1930s cards feature a lot of leaping fielders and I'm here for it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

1916 Sporting News M101-4 #5, Leon Ames

Venerable magazine The Sporting News (aka TSN) distributed a pair of 200-card sets in 1915 and 1916 as promos for their weekly publication. The 1.5" x 3" cards feature players from their photo catalog, printed on thick stock with heavy front gloss. Fortunately for modern collectors, this combo's also durable and a large number survived into the 21st century.

Most "competing" sets from that era used hand-tinted images or awkward drawings, making TSN's photography superior by default. The set suffers from time-lag, however, as Cardinal-in-a-Giants-uniform Leon "Red" Ames amply demonstrates. Let's track the time line!

  • Pre-1913: TSN takes photo for today's card of Ames as Giant
  • May 1913: Giants trade Ames to Reds
  • May 1913 - July 1915: Ames goes 28-40 for Reds
  • July 1915: Ames sold to Cardinals
  • Post-1915: TSN produces Ames card as "St. Louis"

While we call TSN's 1915 and 1916 issues "sets" and catalog them as 1916 M101-4 and 1915 M101-5, I have a feeling the magazine itself wasn't that organized.'s excellent combined checklist details the numerous differences, including swapped players, pose changes, and editorial corrections. (Their card back gallery is also impressive.) M101-4/5 seems like a rolling release, updated sporadically over at least 2 years, that we--90 years later--are reassembling like a puzzle, in search of a coherent image.

Value: My card's trimmed down to the photo and player name, so cost me only $15. Full cards with a complete, white border cost significantly more.

Fakes / reprints: People have reprinted both sets and singles for TSN and fakes can be hard to distinguish for modern collectors. Look for white stock that's slightly thinner than modern cards with a yellowy gloss on the front. (When in doubt, buy from dealers who specialize in pre-war.)

Friday, November 6, 2009

1978 Post Cereal Baseball -- Steve Garvey #5, Fielding a Pop-Up

I manned first base in little league and my dad's a huge Dodger fan, so Steve Garvey made a natural favorite player for many years. In the mid-70s, Garvey seemed almost more "traditionally American" than hot dogs and John Wayne. (Sport Magazine even featured him on a 1976 cover eating apple pie, don'cha know.) A star for several years, Steve fell just short of the HOF, though some think otherwise.

His personal foibles aside, Steve could hit the ball, won 4 straight Gold Gloves, and helped the Dodgers reach the playoffs several times, so Post Cereal saluted him with a 12-panel set in 1978. Each cut-away card includes Garvey's mug, several sentences about a particular skill, and baseball-stitch edging. They came on the outside of cereal boxes, so are blank-backed.

Card front (blank back)

Notice the upper-left corner, where Steve's head overlaps the top of this "card." Doesn't that invite well-meaning kids to simply chop off the top of his head? It's a fairly subtle curved cut around the cap. Think of the children!

Speaking of kids, check out the opening paragraph.

One of the easiest looking and potentially most embarrassing plays is the pop-up. It must be practiced continuously and an emphasis must be placed on proper body positioning.

The 1989 movie Parenthood included several baseball scenes, focusing on Steve Martin practicing pop-ups with his son, a key skill for middle infielders. The extra work eventually saves a game, as his son catches a pop fumbled by another (obnoxious) player, redeeming their time spent together. Baseball, apple pie, American families.

Single panels don't turn up often, so I purchased the entire set for $12 to obtain this #5. Don't see any Post panels in the market right now, but will include some search links, just in case.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

1979 Burger King Yankees Baseball #5, Jay Johnstone

Back in mid-1978, Philadelphia traded veteran outfielder Jay Johnstone to New York, perhaps as depth for their run to October. He pinch-hit, played some OF, and DHed five times, as the Bombers went on to beat the Royals in the ALCS and LA in a 6-game World Series.

After a slow start in 1979, more trade winds took Jay to San Diego, and he eventually landed in LA for the 1981 rematch series, won by the Dodgers. That raises an interesting question--how many players captured titles with both the Yankee and Dodger franchises?

Like the 1979 Burger King Phillies, the Yankees set differs from Topps' normal offering in renumbered players and a separate checklist card. Off-season acquisition Tommy John also got his own Yankee card (#9), instead of Topps #255 (as a Dodger).

Value: Though loaded with stars like Reggie Jackson, Thurmon Munson, Ron Guidry, and Catfish Hunter, you can find complete Yankee sets for under $10 and single cards for ~$1.

Fakes / reprints: No reprints that I know of, but people sometimes confuse BK cards for the regular Topps.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

1980 Burger King Phillies Baseball #5, Manny Trillo

As of Nov 3, 2009, the Phils need a pair of wins on hostile turf to defend their 2008 championship. From the other dugout, the Yanks can do what Steve Carlton and Tug McGraw did to KC in 1980 by finishing the series at home in 6 games.

Manny Trillo won the first two Silver Sluggers for NL shortstops in 1980 and 1981, batting around .290 (with over 100 OPS+) each year. While he didn't burn up the base paths or hit for much power, 3 Gold Gloves and 4 All-Star appearances say something about his overall contributions to the team.

Like the 1979 Burger King Phillies set, 1980's version licensed Topps' own design, front and back. They added a BK logo, used different poses for a few players, and created a new card for manager Dallas Green, but otherwise let the layout speak for itself. (Capewood Cards did a nice profile of the whole set in 2008.)

Manny's the 1st player to start the All-Star game for different leagues in consecutive years. He represented Philly in 1982, but went to Cleveland for 1983 in the widely disparaged 5-for-1 Von Hayes trade. 88 games and 1 AL All-Star start later, the Tribe sent Trillo to Montreal for a minor leaguer and cash. He finished the season with Les Expos, became a free agent, and signed with San Fran prior to 1984. After a mediocre couple of years in the bay, he played productively for Chicago from 1986 to 1988 and retired after a handful of games with Cincy in 1989.

UPDATE: recently added a "Card of the Week" feature, profiling both cards and stats related to the pictured player. Its first entry featured the 1981 Fleer card of Lonnie Smith. Despite being on a 1979 Rookie Stars card, Topps didn't make a normal 1980 card for Lonnie. They did, however, craft a version for Burger King, #14 from today's set.

Read more at B-R's Card of the Week!

Monday, November 2, 2009

1979 Burger King Phillies Baseball #5, Larry Christensen

Philadelphia won their first World Series (over Kansas City) in 1980. As Wikipedia notes, that made them the last original MLB franchise to capture a title. Today's guest started game 4 of that series, threw 22 pitches, allowed 4 runs, committed an error, and retired exactly 1 batter. Willie Aikens took him deep, his 1st of 2 homers on the day in an eventual 5-3 KC win. (Fortunately for Larry and the Phils, they won in 6 games.)

Burger King published a number of oddball sets from 1977 to 1987, including a handful of team-specific sets. Who did they pick for this honor in 1979? Why, it's the Phillies and Yankees! Such odd prescience for a company focused on quick turn-around.

Topps licensed their 1979 design to Burger King as-is, so collectors often find them "mixed in" with the regular set. While the numbering obviously differs--Christenson is Topps #161--the 22-card burger checklist includes a few notables.

  • 1st Pete Rose PHI card (compare Topps #650 to Burger King #13)
  • Danny Ozark gets a separate manager card (the Yankees use a team photo)
  • 6 players, including Rose, use different (or re-cropped) photos

The profile of the PHI and NYY sets includes an image of the Philly checklist and summary of both releases. I like team-based releases, so will add more Burger King #5s soon.