Friday, February 28, 2014

Poll: Which Game Set Would You Play?

I'm revamping my software coding skills and itching for a project. I've long thought about converting vintage game-themed baseball sets into playable online versions, so fans and collectors could spin through games on the web instead of doing responsible things with their time. But the $64,000 question is...which set first? Check the list below and cast a vote to push me in the right direction!

1. 1951 Topps Blue and Red Backs 

1951 Topps Red Back #5, Johnny Pesky

Topps began mass-producing baseball cards with this pair of game sets. They're not hard to find today, but few collectors risk the condition of either batch of 52 players by riffling, dealing, and flipping them competitively.

DIFFICULTY: Easy to find scans of all 52 cards and uncomplicated results ("OUT") make this one straightforward.

2. 1968 Topps Game

1968 Topps Game #5, Harmon Killbrew

17 years later, Topps made a second trip to the well with this "floating head" design that now reminds me of Allen & Ginter.

2007 Allen & Ginter #94, Charlie Manuel

DIFFICULTY: Easy to find scans of 1968's 33 players, but extra game situations like "Double (all runners score)" make this a bit more work than the 1951 version.

3. 1978 Topps "Regular"

1978 Topps #400, Nolan Ryan

This 792-card set moved its game to the back, a nice bonus that didn't interfere with face space on the front.

DIFFICULTY: It would take a bunch of time to collect the scans, but game logic is straightforward and similar that seen in 1951.

4. 1935 Goudey Knot Hole League Game & 1936 Big League Gum

1935 Knot Hole League Game #5 (score card)
1935 Knot Hole League #5 (back)

I dug into the history of Goudey's Knot Hole League and related promotions in late 2013. The text-only set's not much to look at, but remains interesting as an artifact of its era. Should be fun to combine with players and situations from 1936's Big League Gum.

1936 Big League Back, Oral Hildebrand (game back)

DIFFICULTY: Knot Hole League is obscure and finding all 24 scans online is tough, given low collector demand. It's not hard to put together a Big League Gum set, so starting with that and adding some of the score cards might be easier than Knot Hole League alone.

5. 1933-34 Goudey Sport Kings Varsity Football

1933-34 Sport Kings Varsity Football #5

A close cousin that predates Goudey's Knot Hole League (and also mentioned in its profile), this text-only football set's so rare that I hadn't seen a real card until 2013. This one's especially interesting for its glimpse into 1930s football plays, positions, and rules.

DIFFICULTY: I've found scans for half of the 24 cards so far. Goudey printed paper "fields" that connect with card play, but it's possible none survive in the modern marketplace, so I'd need to create my own or go without.

So what would you like to play most? I'll keep the poll running for awhile and update on decision/progress.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Baseball's Top 5 Non-All-Stars (Pitching Edition)

How many trips to the mound must a man walk before you call him an All-Star? Some do it a hundred thousand times without ever getting in. Others suit up for the Rays, do not-so-bad for a year, and nab that one-player-per-team selection.

Your 2003 Tampa Bay All-Star, Lance Carter

There's no magic solution to getting chosen at the midyear break, but steady performance, peer recognition, and a little "Frankie Zak" all help. Today's post salutes the hurlers who stretched, warmed up, and threw the pill, year after year, without coalescing the intangibles into an All-Star berth. I took the All-Star ERA (1933-present), queried for pitchers who'd never been selected, and sorted by a common equalizing measure, WAR. Here are the top 5; full results at B-R.

1. Tom Candiotti (42.6 career WAR)

1984 Topps #262, Tom "Candy Man" Candiotti

Wins Above Replacement (WAR), what is it good for? It's good for Tom Candiotti, who ranks highest in career total for pitchers without an All-Star resume. Critics would say most of it (30 WAR from 1988-93) came from franchises who needed more help, but few pitchers had better stuff than Tom Candiotti's knuckler in its prime. (And few collectors have better cards: check out his prewar collection in Tom's "Best of the Best" at PSA.)

These days, Candiotti does commentary for the Diamondbacks, telling stories between game action. One curiosity is whether Ramon Martinez plunked Jeff Kent for Tom's rotisserie league, cited as a reason the Candy Man stopped playing fantasy sports. Is it true? Did Ramon send New York's red-hot second-baseman to the infirmary to improve his teammate's chances at pretend baseball? No, not exactly.

Tom said this story happened in an early 90s New York road game and LA pitcher Ramon Martinez did hit Kent in the second inning on April 30, 1994 (box score). That's still his first at-bat, so we can forgive Tom's "first inning" muff, but our real question is whether Ramon heard a bullpen conversation and decided to knock Jeff out. Unfortunately (for the story), Ramon hit Jeff on on the 5th pitch, hardly a sign of killer intent, and the at-bat followed a Bobby Bonilla homer, itself a more likely brushback trigger. Kent went on to finish the game without apparent ill effects and there's nothing to imply Ramon's countrymen went on a spree of targeting him thereafter.

But speaking of hit batsmen, who did plunk Jeff Kent with pitches more often than anyone else? Yup, it was yarn-spinner Tom Candiotti.

2. Danny Darwin (40.6 career WAR)

1991 O-Pee-Chee #666, Danny Darwin

Guys with high WAR totals but no All-Star appearances tend to be above-average, well-traveled, and durable, which fits Darwin to the letter. I even see it in his face: "Oh, I'm with the Red Sox now? OK, let's go."

Danny turned great 1990 numbers with Houston (5.3 WAR & NL ERA title) into a 4-year, $10 million free agent contract with Boston, where he managed one more excellent year in 1993, posting 5.7 WAR. Perhaps those peak seasons came late enough in Darwin's career (age 34 and 37 respectively) that they didn't stand out to managers when filling out their All-Star rotations.

3. Fritz Ostermueller (34.5 career WAR)

1934 Goudey Big League Gum #93, Fred (Fritz) Ostermueller

This lunchpail 1930s & 40s pitcher might ring a bell because his name resurfaced in the Jackie Robinson biopic 42. Near the end, Jackie pays back Ostermueller's racist beaning with a dramatic homer, the essence of skill trumping discrimination that's both satisfying and very Hollywood.

Fritz's daughter protests today that "[i]t didn't happen that way," as her father expected to pitch inside on May 17, 1947 (box score), despite Jackie's own habit of crowding the plate, and brought no racial animosity to the mound. Robinson's mid-September homer off Ostermueller (box score) came well after Brooklyn wrapped up the pennant, so it's a stretch to connect both moments without artificially linking them to some larger issue, something movies have a deserved reputation for doing.

Making Fritz an on-screen goat is a cheap choice, but the writers might've lacked options once they decided to stick with 1947 as Jackie's only celluloid season. (As an inherited Dodgers fan, I was hankering for a stretch into 1955, when Brooklyn won its only title.)

The real Ostermueller's career peaked early (11.6 WAR from age 26-28) and late (14.9 WAR from 36-40). Fritz changed teams and pitching roles several times, which would've reduced visibility at All-Star time and explains his third spot here.

4. John Tudor (34.3 career WAR)

1985 Topps Traded #124, John Tudor

In 1985, Tudor led the NL in shutouts (10), posted career-highs with 185 ERA+ and 8.1 WAR, and in any other year would've carried home the NL Cy Young (career stats). Unfortunately for John, his best efforts coincided with this guy.

1985 Topps #620, Dwight Gooden

Doc was 1985's unanimous NL Cy Young award winner, posting a 12.1 (!) WAR and foiling John Tudor's best shot at the lasting notoriety and higher profile that helps in future All-Star selection. For his career, I suspect Tudor was OK with winning a ring (1988 Dodgers), earning several million dollars throwing baseballs, and not riding Gooden's cocaine roller coaster across the sports pages.

5. Charlie Leibrandt (34.3 career WAR)

1987 Topps #223, Charlie Leibrandt

Leibrandt faded into my mental background after Kansas City won their 1985 title. He became one of those guys you think will always stick around, always pitch, always fill out the back end of a staff. Then, one day, he's on the list of first-year HOF eligibles, and then he gets no votes, and that's about it for baseball pitchers like Charlie Leibrandt. Work hard for a couple decades, get your MLBPA union pension, and pick out some post-career interests.

Charlie didn't possess the shutout threat of John Tudor or longevity of Danny Darwin and his best awards finish, #5 on the 1985 AL Cy Young ballot, trailed two guys on the same KC staff. Consider his footnote a nutshell version of today's list, as last in a line of pitchers who were good enough for long enough that being 25th-best Royal of All-Time is the suit that fits best.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Bazookas, Bad Scanners, and Best Offers

I have a frustrating printer-scanner-coffeemaker. It's the kind that's great at flatbed scanning, sharp and clear, but loses focus once you try thicker SGC or PSA cards that sit ever-so-slightly higher. My latest type acquisition arrived Tuesday, ready for profiling, and here's the raspberry my all-in-one scanner laid on me.


Here's what 1971 Bazooka Yaz should look like.

For all that scan's clarity, it's actually from a fake. Topps test-printed a 48-player "numbered" version of their 1971 Bazookas before switching to unnumbered for the nationwide release, so stars from the rarer set became valuable enough to counterfeit. That "NO. X of 48 CARDS" tagline's the only difference between them, so it's not a challenge to reprint if you set your mind to it. (Two things tagged this particular card as no good: uneven glue under the picture and no dotted border.)

I've returned two faked Yaz cards to dealers who didn't how to vet a numbered version and finally decided to wait for something graded to pop up. Patience rewarded when this SGC Authentic hit eBay last week for $99 or best offer.

I've used "best offer" so rarely that I imagine it having a secret handshake and obscure bylaws, like The Fraternal Order Of Masonic Shoppers. If you start at $99, is $50 too low? (Probably.) How about $75? (Maybe.) Is the time I've spent agonizing already worth more than the $25? (Yes, time is priceless.)

So I offered $75 and change (in case they'd set an auto-reject at $75 even) and the dealer countered with $82. That's just a sandwich of difference, so I accepted and (at last) knocked a big hit off my remaining type list. Phew.

I've written about numbered 1971 Bazookas twice before, first to bemoan fakery and then to marvel at $1500 asking prices. Third time's the charm and glad to put this (type) subject to bed. Now I'm as happy as this other Yaz from 2013.

The question lingers, is there a secret protocol for eBay best offers? Is it more often a way for dealers to test the market? Should you message first and explain why you're offering less? Hmm. What do you think?

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Happy Birthday, Babe Ruth!

Born on Feb 6, 1895, Babe Ruth, although he got both day or year wrong for his WWI draft card. (I assume better records came to light afterwards.) Though never called to serve during wartime, he did enlist and appear in uniform as encouragement for others to join the Armed Forces.

Private Babe Ruth and General Pershing (National Archives)

Babe figures prominently in the type collection, thanks to his massive popularity and marketability. He first appears over and over in the 1920s, and later filled out post-war nostalgia sets. Here's my highlight reel, with links to full set profiles.

1. 1920 W519

Bad strip card scissor work can't mask those Ruthian good looks.

2. 1921 W521

Same picture, reversed image (note the right-buttoned shirt collar). Still smiling!

3. 1924 Williard's Chocolates Sports Champions

Ruth became so famous, he personified baseball to the world. Babe's one of just three such players (alongside Ty Cobb and Eddie Collins) in this multi-sport set from Canada.

4. 1928 Fro-Joy Ice Cream

If you've seen the grip, you better see the swing!


5. 1928 Babe Ruth Candy

This wasn't THE Baby Ruth bar, which facetiously claimed to be named for a deceased Presidential daughter, but a chocolate licensed through Ruth himself. No matter, that more famous bar blocked Ruth's "real" candy from sticking around, thanks to "potential name confusion." Nice job, legal system.

6. 1948 Swell "Babe Ruth Story" movie cards

These cards focused on a lackluster movie adaptation of Babe Ruth's life, so the whole set sort of qualifies as "Ruth." This one showed the purported link to Ruth's early baseball experience, Brother Matthias, an instructor at his Catholic boys school.

7. 1979 CMC Talking Baseball Cards

Babe's final public address at Yankee Stadium ended up on this square 7" that was half-record, half-card.

The set itself capitalized on the boom in kid-friendly record players, which I owned a couple of during my younger years. Nothing like borrowing some Tom Petty vinyl from the public library and spinning "Refugee" on the ol' Fisher-Price turntable. (Kids, ask your parents about record players...and Tom Petty.)

8. 1980 The Franchise "Babe Ruth Classic"

This "Classic" set's another run of Babe Ruth nostalgia, mixing on- and off-field photos into a direct-to-collector set that's nothing special to look at, unless you like to compare his right-handed writing to his left-handed swinging.

9. 1980 TCMA All-Time Yankees

All-time eyebrows. All-time nose. All-time eatin'. All-time everything!

Many happy returns to fans of The Sultan of Swat and check out for 100% more Babe.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

My "history of marketing to children" essay for a job application

I've been unemployed since my MA-based, high-tech employer off-shored their (my) local team last Sept. When I applied for a job today, the on-line application said cover letters were optional. That would normally save me the work of writing one, but I decided instead to add something different: an essay on a topic of personal interest, the evolution of marketing to children. Why do it? Who knows, maybe it'll stand out in the sea of sameness that all piles of resumes become. If not, at least I've outlined ideas worth diving into later.

Dive, Pedro, dive!

Collectors will see how this intertwines with baseball cards, since most of us started plunking down money for packs at a young age. I started at 8, but I've talked to some who were building sets at 5. If you collected cards a century ago, though, you weren't buying the cards, at least not directly. You were buying tobacco. When kids managed to squirrel away savings, they often spent them on life-shortening cigarettes in pursuit of colorful cards. If there's one thing I love about the modern era, it's that we're so far removed from cigarette marketers controlling the hobby.

Rocky and his chaw, friends to the end

So here's what I wrote, interspersed with blog-only card images.


Hi [company],

While the application page says a cover letter's optional, one of my favorite interview questions is to ask the candidate to teach me something about a topic they know deeply that others don't. In that spirit, here's a brief history, for good or ill, of how companies began marketing to children.

Back in the late 19th century, few credited children with the "potential" that we do today, often sending them into class-delineated factories or menial trades they could do for less pay than adults. What little money children earned went back to families, as the thinking went, so advertisers didn't consider them potential customers. They aimed at two other groups: professional men (or farmers) and women who made household purchasing decisions.

The dominant luxury industry of that time was tobacco, both in popular use and in advertising. Cigarettes, rolling tobacco, chaw, cigars, snuff, pipes, and so on. We know from legal history how cynically 20th-century tobacco marketers targeted everyone, clandestinely attracting new teen smokers with a purportedly adult product. While early tobacco makers didn't "discover" children as a market intentionally, they set the wheels in motion for advertisers to target what's now a quarter of America's buying power.

In the 1880s, tobacco growers turned two technologies, mechanical packaging and color lithography, into a landmark promotional campaign, the first mass-produced, in-pack trading cards. These cards enthralled both adults and kids, transporting people who rarely left their home town to distant, exciting lands.

Duke's Cigarettes "Rulers, Flags, and Coat of Arms"

Promotional cards covered dozens of subjects and proved massively successful. While aimed at adults, resourceful children also purchased (and learned to smoke) their own packs in search of cards. The money that flowed into tobacco coffers fed more and "better" marketing. In cities with baseball teams, cigarette makers inked the sport's early stars to promotional contracts, drawing in still more smokers of all ages. Prior to the dissolution of several tobacco trusts, their enduring business success meant advertisers from all industries looked to cigarettes as the example to follow.

Various T206 tobacco card backs

While spiraling costs (and their military supply business) pushed tobacco makers out of "kid-friendly" trading cards prior to WWI, by that time they'd been the dominant force in marketing for two generations.

When candy and ice cream companies entered the 1920s trading card market, they appealed to kids directly, reflecting a shift in their buying power.

1928 Fro-Joy Babe Ruth #5, Babe Ruth's Grip

Expanded programs of public education added a layer of uniformity to schoolchildren that allowed more and more marketers to use the same approaches seen in tobacco's success. First, find something children aspire to (like a baseball or movie career). Second, cross-promote that goal with a cheap, mass-market product like caramel or chewing gum. Third, make your product familiar in the media through sponsorship. Wheaties, for example, built their "Breakfast of Champions" name by signing dozens of 1930s athletes to endorsement deals, a great achievement for what's otherwise unremarkable cereal.

1930s Wheaties cereal box panel

By the 1950s, food marketers established lookalike ad practices for candy, soda pop, cereal, and a host of other nonessential goods, which now addressed children directly. (Tobacco continued to live at the fringes, targeting adults but attracting teens to an extent the public didn't appreciate until state-led lawsuits made details available in the 1990s.)

Is the cap for you or your boy? How about the tobacco?

The evolution of marketing to children, even when they're the indirect target, helps us understand why some governments prohibit or circumscribe such advertising today. Many adults struggle to separate a directed message from its personal consequences, whether or not the product is beneficial. Those who look to us for leadership deserve help in making decisions that impact what they'll enjoy as both customers and kids.

Kind of heavy at the end, but it's a subject that deserves careful thought. I hope there was something new to you in that marketing chronology. I bring deep curiosity into any subject, work included, and look forward to talking with you about how this can help [company].



Longer than I usually spend on a cover letter, that's for sure!