Monday, September 21, 2015

1977 Cramer Pacific Coast League Baseball #5, Bob Knepper

Do you like orange? Here's future big leaguer Bob Knepper, modeling a Dutch-orange hat against orange trim and orange borders. His card background shows a Southwestern staple, well-watered grass that ends at a fence line. This hints at an interesting question: do water costs pinch the ability of desert teams to compete with those in temperate cities?

Water issues didn't slow Phoenix in 1977, who finished with the PCL's best record, if by foggy statistical means. On one hand, the Giants' 732 BB and .382 OBP led the league. On the other, second place Salt Lake City (150) more than doubled Phoenix's league-worst homer total (67). Despite posting also-ran ratings in both hitting (.796 OPS) and pitching (6.02 runs/game), Phoenix overachieved with a .579 winning %, perhaps due to superlative work by manager Rocky Bridges.

Teams who get on base but can't hit homers usually blame the ballpark. Phoenix's 345-410-345 dimensions back that up, as do their league-leading triples (84), where long flies bounced off walls instead of over them. Bridges could've adapted his team's performance for the surroundings, working free bases where he couldn't expect big flies and turning them into enough runs to win more games than the average roster, but that remains speculative until we can enjoy fuller season-by-season histories for teams like the AAA Giants.

The MLB version of Knepper went on to become Houston's top lefty, winning 93 games as an Astro (1981-89) and garnering two All-Star selections. He also sparked 1988 controversy with a Sports Illustrated interview that criticized one of pro baseball's few female umpires, earning blowback of his own. Beyond those particular comments, S.I.'s piece dives deeper into the flip sides of loneliness and family, something all traveling athletes must deal with. It's worth a read for its "pre-Internet-ness," compared to today's always-on, media-aware careers.

Value: This #5 cost $2 at the 2015 National, unburied from stacks of fellow minor leaguers.

Fakes / reprints: I doubt you'd make money reprinting minor leaguers like Knepper, but future HOFers from similar sets could be replicated, given its thin stock and today's scanning technology. If you have the means, stick to established dealers for top "pre-rookie" minor league type cards.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

1886 N48 Allen and Ginter's 'Dixie Cigarettes' Lady Baseball Players #5

I recently came across my second 19th century type card, a woman in hazy sepia pretending to catch a ball dangling on a string. While unusual in style, I didn't realize they created un scandal in their time, likely because women weren't socially accepted as "athletic."

Those pants! So form-fitting! Her black stockings and shoes cut quite a figure, and passersby responded, for good or ill, when cigarette sellers hung Allen & Ginter's promotional cabinet cards (below) in their sidewalk windows.

Despite the quality difference, a close look shows both photos are the same woman, who herself appears in most of their 1886 studio photos, occasionally with an "opponent" in matching uniform.

Compare the "cabinet" (above) and cigarette card (below) to see how Allen & Ginter rendered the same picture with varying print quality. Their flashy "real photo" cabinet would draw attention to shop windows and in-pack cards would adapt the image for non-photo printing, this one with a branded "Sub Rosa Cigarettes" foil stamp.

While 19th century women's teams played ball in many cities, it's no accident that Allen & Ginter used these uniformed women to promote Dixie, Sub Rosa, and Virginia Brights, as these were A&G's female-targeted brands. Some kept a blank obverse to save print costs, but others continued their "unexceptionably fine" quality pitch onto card backs.

For some history of a real 1890s women's team, see Baseball History Daily's post sub-titled A Riot in Cuba.

In 1886, Allen & Ginter covered a range of topics on tobacco cards, but when competitor Goodwin & Co. used their Old Judge brand to show off almost every ballplayer of the day starting in 1887 (OJ details at PSA), other brands followed suit and got the base-ball rolling for a nearly uninterrupted run of sports-first sets that continues to the present day.

Value: While more affordable than 19th century male stars of the same vintage, low grade Allen & Ginter cards are always pricy and this #5 cost $130. Larger cabinet cards run much more, especially when the photo presents well.

Fakes / reprints: Haven't seen any fakes or reprints of the women's ballplayers, but they're of an era always vulnerable to counterfeiting. If you're looking for a 19th century type, stick to experienced dealers who know their cards or get something already graded.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

1922 W503 Baseball #5, Bill "Rosy" Ryan

As a fan of baseball eras long past, it's fun to think every player has their own piece of history. The one thing they did that few others have. Lou Gehrig played 2130 straight games. Roger Clemens struck out 20 guys twice. Jamie Quirk hit a walk-off homer in his only at-bat as a Cleveland Indian. Legendary stuff.

So what has Rosy Ryan done? To date, he's the only reliever to go deep in a World Series game, taking fellow Senators pitcher Allen Russell out in 1924's game three on October 6 (box score). Many champions have come and gone, many relievers have swung the splinter, but only Rosy got to circle the bases at a leisurely pace.

Ryan earned this opportunity in part from his versatility. No fainting flower on the mound, Rosy also led the NL in ERA (1922) and games played (1923) as a key part of three straight Giants pennant winners, 1922-24 (career stats). He even pitched half of that "relief homer game," nearly five innings in all.

Why include the PSA tag? Because "Gaints."

As for W503 itself, its 64 black-and-white photos are technically strip cards, as they were hand-cut from a multi-card sheet and perhaps distributed with food or candy. They prove so hard to come by that I assume both a small print run and some kind of trade-in promotion. To quote a 2015 Heritage Auctions listing, "Still unknown is exactly who produced and how this scarce set of 64-cards were circulated. The cards are hand-cut...and there is some speculation they may have been issued as a bonus with the purchase of candy or gum."

While finishing a set would be like catching ghosts, you can enjoy more 1922 W503 images for free at

2023 update: This Ryan's more trimmed than folded, leaving a clearer image.

Value: Yet to find a W503 #5 to call my own and I assume it'll cost $100+ when I do.

Fakes / reprints: Haven't seen any in the marketplace, but the HOFers are certainly at risk for fakery. Any deal that seems too good to be true goes double for this kind of set.

Monday, September 7, 2015

1951 Bowman Baseball #5, Dale Mitchell

Have you seen this man? Last spotted rounding second at full speed?

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If baseball fans mention Dale Mitchell in conversation, it’s usually as the trivia answer for “who did Don Larsen catch looking to end his World Series perfect game?” (Video and highlights at

And yet! For that one-game notoriety, Dale was no choke artist. He ranks #17 in OPS+ (115) for all MLB hitters in the decade following WWII and was even harder to punch out, ranking #14 on MLB’s career list at 33.48 AB/K. An all-time contact hitter getting caught looking to end a World Series perfect game says a lot about Larsen’s performance that day. (Better men than I question the ump’s eyes, but it’s now inseparable from history.)


For all the clean lines of 1951’s hand-colored front, that back design shows a conceit common to the Bowman era : "text, text, and more text." Read me, said the cardboard. Numbers must be described and put in the context of history! Statistical grids are for college professors, not kids in a candy store!

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Topps successfully moved many of those stats “south” for their 1952 debut and discovered how readily kids responded to the “grid.” Now, it’s hard to find a card that doesn’t do stats this way, other than intentionally retro versions like Allen & Ginter.

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Furthermore, when the self-proclaimed GIANT SIZED (2 ⅝” x 3 ¾”) 1952 Topps set arrived, kids bought so many palm-filling Mega Minosos that Bowman had no choice but to relegate Mini Minoso’s card size (2 1/16” by 3 ⅛”) to the dustbin of competition. By 1953, they closely followed the Topps example, as seen below.

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The added expense of keeping pace with design innovations proved key to Bowman’s eventual 1956 bankruptcy. In short order, Topps owned the whole MLB market and collectors wouldn't see a similar paradigm shift until Upper Deck's high-quality photography arrived in 1989.


Back to Mitchell, who figures into some interesting baseball footnotes. When Roy Halladay (nearly) matched Larsen with a 2010 postseason no-hitter, Mitchell’s son noted that Brandon Phillips got the unenviable “last out” credit shared by his dad; see “Was No Goat” by Dave McKenna. (That’s the younger Mitchell above, with his dad’s 1953 Topps card.)

Dale notched a singular achievement in 1949, tallying 23 triples and just 11 strikeouts. No one before or since hit 20+ triples at twice the pace of their strike outs. Not Stan Musial, not Willie Mays, not Joe Shlabotnik. Only dead ball star Wee Willie Keeler came close with 12 triples and 5 strikeouts in 1901.


As a career comparable, Dale’s like Manny Mota, who could always make contact and hit for average. Mota spun his pinch-hit skills into a 20-year career and Mitchell might’ve done the same, if he’d played during an era of expansion and specialization.

Value: Low-grade 1951 singles cost a dollar or two and I acquired this #5 while building that Bowman set. Those hand-colored fronts are still one of my all-time favorite designs.


Fakes / reprints: You can buy 1951 Bowman as a complete reprint set, so look for differences between vintage and modern cards when seeking type cards. Most legitimate reprints use brighter card stock, higher gloss, and include REPRINT somewhere on the card itself.