Saturday, July 20, 2019

1962 Topps Baseball #5, Sandy Koufax

As I write this, Cooperstown honors its 2019 inductees, including Seattle hero, Edgar "Light Bat" Martinez. He proved one of the most accessible, personable guys a fan could watch. Still remember learning in the mid-1990s that we shared the same favorite Thai restaurant.

Cooperstown came to mind today as I flipped through the type collection and stopped at my favorite 1960s #5, and baseball's youngest elected HOFer, Sandy Koufax. The Topps wood grain even matches his sun-kissed LA look.

I consider this "photos curling off a rec room wall" design the best of 1960s Topps, with 1964 running a distinct second. (Thanks to league leader cards, Koufax appeared on three consecutive Topps #5s, 1962-64.) 1980s fans will remember a lookalike popped up again 25 years later, before Topps made Heritage sets an official part of their lineup.

1987 Topps #460, Darryl Strawberry

If you like to scrutinize card backs, note that 1962s don't refer to "1961" by text in the stat boxes, just (previous) "YEAR."

1962 Topps card back detail

I think this date ambivalence served a business purpose for Topps, who expanded their foreign card relationships into Venezuela in 1959. (See related set profiles in my summary post.)

Topps licensed Venezuelan-sold card sets in some years (e.g., 1959, 1960, 1962, 1964) and skipped others (nothing in 1961 or 1963). I think this left room to resell remaining inventory in "skip years," so little went to waste. In other words, by tweaking this basic 1962 design, they improved sales prospects of international sets. If I'm right, winter league fans could find these "1962" cards during both 1962-63 and 1963-64 seasons, with their original issue date masked by "YEAR." (Much more about 1962 Venezuelan.)

Returning to Sandy himself, Koufax's card bio mentions the financial underpinnings of his erratic early career: Bonus Babies. Brooklyn first signed Sandy to an amateur contract that required he remain a MLB roster player for two full seasons. Without minor league instruction more suited to his youth, frequent wildness in 1955-56 let to a lot of time riding the pine. Frustration with on-and-off pitching duties, despite playing for some great Dodgers teams, led Sandy to almost quit baseball after 1960.

1961 Union Oil booklet for "The Left Arm of God"

Sandy's breakout 1961 season proved pivotal to the remainder of his HOF career. Without retreading one of baseball's many Koufax biographies, suffice to say he went on to throw the hell out of his left arm in an era that encouraged pitcher overuse. After years of extreme pain management (and extreme success), he retired due to arthritis at age 31, with HOF enshrinement following in his first year of eligibility.

Congrats again to the class of 2019!

Value: Key 1962 Topps stars like Koufax cost $10-20 for lower grades. Type card commons run closer to 50 cents.

Fakes / reprints: 1962 star cards appear in a number of Topps retrospective and retro-style sets, making them almost as easy to find in modern versions as from the vintage originals. While I haven't seen any actual fake 1962 cards in the marketplace, they could exist for its big names.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

1954 Bowman Baseball : Memo to The Man

How I got here

Somewhere in the middle of SABR's Cardboard Crosswalk article about 1954 Bowman and 1954 Topps baseball sets, I flipped through my own Bowman set and found some things I didn't expect or even remember. Weird player choices. Repainted uniforms for some offseason moves and not others. Missing autographs -- and even #123 Toby Atwell's odd-tograph. When professionals make these kinds of mistakes, I sound like my dad: "...and what can we learn from this?"

#101, Don Larsen. He's not mad at Bowman, he's just disappointed.

Using 1954's underlying structure and unexpected features, this article shows how team checklist consistency and exclusive player contracts explain the set's initial plan and final version. It also hints at what could've been, if Topps and Bowman cooperated more than fought.

Bowman by the numbers

First thing to know about 1954 Bowman: their team-sequenced numbering. At its root, Bowman wanted clean, 32-card sheets of players numbered #1 (Yankees) to #16 (Braves), with a steady sequence of guys slotted into two spots per team on each sheet. (Their 1949 and 1952 baseball sets followed similar patterns.)

1954 Bowman's "base" layout

This put #65 Mickey Mantle (Yankees slot) next to #66a Ted Williams (Red Sox slot), adjacent to #73 Don Mueller (Giants slot) and #74 Junior Gilliam (Dodgers slot).

Uncut sample panel, auctioned 2018 for $6K

Followed to its logical conclusion, this perfect layout adds two players per team, 32 per sheet, until you run out of guys "worthy" of cardboard. My gut says you top out at 20 "good enough" players, meaning 320 maximum set size. And yet, Bowman's own 1954 ads went bigger, promising over "400 major league headliners under exclusive contract!"

1954 Bowman season-opening ad

To the best of my knowledge, Bowman released #1-128 in April, followed by #129-224 around June. Despite aspirations to rival the 1952 Topps 407-card effort, they fell several sheets short of 400 "major league headliners," with at least three contributing factors.
  1. Slowing baseball sales. When kids stopped buying baseball, Bowman shifted card budgets to other projects, like 1954 NFL football and their military U.S. Naval Victories and Power For Peace sets.
  2. Not enough available players. The legal aftermath of fierce 1953 wrangling with Topps over exclusive player contracts led both companies to scale back 1954 set sizes. I doubt Bowman considered 400 cards a real goal.
  3. Quality problems. Text errors on 40 cards led to corrections on every print sheet, wasting money Bowman could've used on new players.

This final 1954 layout includes those late-game team changes, corrected print errors, and several "missing" player autographs, replaced by block letter names.

1954 Bowman team checklist, warts and all

These changes hint at who's left out of Bowman's original plans. They also tell us when they finalized the set. Let's start with the former, its absent players.

Missing player autographs

Most 1954 Bowman card fronts show a player's facsimile autograph, saving position and team names for the back. Some signatures loom larger than others!

1954 Bowman #65, Mickey Mantle

On the other hand, six 1954 baseball cards sport block lettering instead of autographs, two in series one (#60, 121) and four in series two (#179, 208, 219, 222).

1954 Bowman #179, Morris "Morrie" Martin

Three theories why Bowman left off some autographs.
  1. Bowman didn't possess a printable version, due to circumstances beyond their control. Based on this 1955 exchange with The Sporting News, we know they depended on media outlets for photos. Perhaps this extended to signatures.
  2. Block letter players served as "alternates," swapped into their team slot for someone Bowman couldn't secure the rights to print. (For example, #66 Ted Williams replaced by another Red Sox player, Jimmy Piersall.)
  3. Some autographs "failed" during test runs, so printers switched to letters.

For the six block letter cards, let's assess whether a) Bowman possessed usable autographs and b) on-card players served as stand-ins for other, better choices. Print failures could explain anything not covered by those two.

#60 Fred Baczewski (Reds pitcher, 1953 rookie)

Did Bowman own Fred's signature in time for printing? Based on 1953 game logs, his star rose well after mid-year, so perhaps not.

Did Fred step in for another Reds player? I think he did. Topps signed veteran Cincinnati teammate Bud Podbielan to an exclusive contract for 1954. Swapping in an emerging rookie on an otherwise moribund 1953 team makes sense to me.

#121 Ray Katt (Giants catcher, 1953 rookie)

Ray "arrived" even later in 1953 than Fred, serving as September fill-in for a fifth-place Giants team. I don't think they had his autograph ready by print time.

Did Ray step in for another Giants player? Topps signed OF star Monte Irvin to an exclusive contract for 1954. That could well be why Bowman substituted Katt, even though New York's everyday catcher (#25 Wes Westrum) also appeared in their "first series" (#1-128).

#179 Morrie Martin (A's pitcher)

Morrie first appeared in 1953 Bowman's black and white set, which feels like ample time to secure an autograph for 1954. If a player with prior cards can end up with block letters, other factors must be more important than service time.

Did he swap in for anyone? Martin did most of his work as mid-game reliever and "closer," not a glamor position in that era. Topps signed A's slugger Gus Zernial to an exclusive 1954 deal and could be who Morrie stood in for as a Bowman card.

#208 Johnny Antonelli (Giants pitcher)

Johnny serves double-duty set oddity, as both block lettered and occupant of #208, a "Braves" team number. When Milwaukee traded #208 Antonelli to New York for #201 Bobby Thomson, Bowman left them both in respective Giants and Braves checklist spots. More to say about these later.

As for the signature itself, Antonelli appeared in both 1950 and 1951 Bowman, removing time as a factor. This could be a legitimate autograph printing issue.

#216 Jerry Snyder (Senators shortstop)

Snyder's own 1952 Bowman card features an autograph, so we can skip that reason and look at player substitution. Based on field position alone, I bet Bowman planned this spot for Washington's everyday shortstop Pete Runnels, who Topps signed to an exclusive deal for 1954. Not sure Jerry's 29 games of spot duty merit a card otherwise.

#219 Hal Rice (Pirates outfielder)

Hal Rice first appeared on 1951 Bowman, so I doubt time's a factor for his signature. Topps held three Pirates exclusives for 1954 that look promising as swap-portunities: 1953 rookie 1B/OF Paul Smith and the O'Brien brothers (everyday 2B & SS), who Topps printed as their first multi-player card.

1954 Topps #139, Ed & John O'Brien

Topps also printed a card for absent Pirate shortstop Dick Groat, who served all of 1953-54 in Korea. I think Hal Rice appears in 1954 Bowman as stand-in for one of these four guys.

#222 Memo Luna (Cardinals pitcher, 1954 rookie)

After printing Stan Musial cards every year from 1948-53, Bowman failed to re-sign "The Man" for 1954. No doubt they hoped to include him, if at all possible. This spot serves as last gasp for St. Louis by team order, so I think Memo sits where Stan would be, if they'd landed him. As nice as Luna's card looks, he's far overshadowed by Musial's league-wide appeal.

1954 Red Heart dog food, Stan Musial

Musial declined to sign with Bowman or Topps after 1953, citing "insufficient compensation," and appeared on smaller sets like Red Heart dog food and Rawlings sporting goods until his return via the 1958 Topps All-Star subset.

1958 Topps #476, Sport Magazine AS Stan Musial

To Memo Luna's credit, he pitched in (1) and won (0) the same number of career MLB games as Musial. Stan faced a single batter (Frank Baumholtz) on Sept 28, 1952, as part of a first-inning marketing gimmick related to each man's pursuit of the NL batting title. (My "Selected By the Youth of America!" article says a lot more about Musial's impact on Topps and their All-Star sets.)

1954 Bowman #66a, Ted Williams

To summarize, Bowman's half-dozen, block-lettered players imply behind-the-scenes work to account for Topps 1954 exclusives that go beyond their infamous removal of #66a Ted Williams.

As Ted's exclusive contact with Topps happened after Bowman started 1954 production and distribution, let's use off-season player movement to narrow that "date of no return."

Players in the "right" or "wrong" team spot

Several off-season trades illuminate when Bowman prepared which parts of their 1954 set, based on their placement in or out of the intended team sequence.

#211 Al Robertson: Traded from Yankees to A's on Dec 16, 1953

Is Al in the right place? Yes, Bowman put #211 into an "A's slot" in the checklist and Al's card text leads with his trade. That repainted A's cap and uniform includes terrific detail on his catching mitt.

#75 Max Surkont: Traded from Braves to Pirates on Dec 26, 1953

Like Robertson, Surkont got a fresh coat of "Pirates" paint, his card text leads with the trade, and #75's the right checklist spot for Pittsburgh. This shows Bowman could make art, text, and numbering adjustments through the end of 1953 itself.

#180 Joe Tipton traded from Cleveland to Washington for #184 Mickey Grasso on Jan 20, 1954

#180 Tipton and #184 Grasso feature updated uniforms and card text leads with their trade. Both remain in "old team" checklist spots, so Bowman finalized their numbering before January 20, while text remained open for rewrites, at least for higher card numbers.

#128 Ebba St. Claire, #201 Bobby Thomson, #208 Johnny Antonelli traded on Feb 1, 1954

Bobby's the flip side to #208 Johnny Antonelli: Bowman repainted the 1951 Giants pennant hero to "Braves" without losing his autograph to block letters.

When Milwaukee and New York swapped these three as part of a six-player deal, Bowman card editors left #128 St. Claire, #201 Thomson, and #208 Antonelli in their "old" team number slots and noted the trades as postscript. That tells us Bowman finalized most of their back text by early February, while remaining open to player art and team bio changes.

#163 Dave Philley: Traded by A's to Indians on Feb 19

Three variations of Dave Philley exist, including one with a traded postscript. That tells us Bowman finalized its player art and initial back text prior to Feb 19, with further changes made during print revisions, even for higher-number cards like Philley. (You might ask, did Dave Philley ever play for the Phillies? Yes, he spent two-plus productive years there.)

#33 Vic Raschi: Purchased by St. Louis from Yankees on Feb 23

This Bowman trade variation added a postscript during later print runs, just like Dave Philley.

As mentioned earlier, Bowman made numerous stat errors in their initial 1954 set. Later print runs tweaked text for more than forty players, if you count both trade notes and things like "4.44 ERA" for Morris Martin, which means his career stats show 4.44 ERA (correct) and not .44 ERA (the "era-or").

1954 Bowman #179b, Morris Martin (corrected ERA)

While trades provide clear anchor points, I doubt we can pin down exact dates for these error-based variations, since they're backward-looking and not tied to anything known.

Chronological summary

Using our combo of block letter names and trade-related changes, we see Bowman finalized key parts of their design and checklist at the end of 1953. They locked player art soon after the start of February 1954 and started printing prior to February 19, making updates later for Vic Raschi and Dave Philley alongside stat error corrections.

Ah, Smilin' Ted, what secrets you hold

That implies Topps waited until at least mid-February to announce Ted's exclusive contract. At that late date, Bowman couldn't remove #66a Ted Williams from their first run of packs, at least not without paying a price they didn't care to bear. I surmise #66b Piersall appeared in their "corrected run," alongside the seven other error fixes in sheet three.

Thanks to their big trade with Milwaukee, 15 New York Giants appear in 1954 Bowman, breaking the tie with every other team at 14. That means the Braves drop to lucky 13. Those blue highlights from my "actual print sheet" show two more goofs to figure out.

Feeling loopy

Print oddities on two player pairs led to autograph variations, first found by former SCD editor Bob Lemke.

My article about #123 Toby Atwell's unusual autograph showed both pairs. It doesn't show them overlapped. Seeing is believing, so here you go.

Bowman corrected both cards in later printings by whiting out the loops. At least one more autograph overlap went unfixed, #184 Grasso to #192 Burdette, with Mickey's autograph overlaid to corroborate length of the "M."

Bowman's 1954 awkward autograph printing left themselves open to this kind of problem, disappointing kids with, say, "Willie Mau."

If Bowman sales trailed Topps in 1954, I think "poor name design" contributed. You can add that to my earlier ideas about "not enough available players" and "quality problems."

Summary of our knowns and known unknowns

1954 Bowman provides a lot to chew on, thanks to its cardboard curiosities and backstory of courtroom wrangling. While this post addresses several points to my satisfaction, some questions remain.

  • Why replace #66a Ted Williams with Jimmy Piersall, in particular, instead of another Boston guy? Creating a second card for Piersall implies, without confirming, that no other Red Sox player art existed to use once printing started.
  • How did Bowman identify stat errors to fix? Did players and teams call them out?
  • Would 1954 be a bigger set if Bowman decided not to spend money and time making corrections?
  • Why are the autographs so darn sloppy?

I invite any facts, opinions, and half-baked ideas on the above. Thanks for wading through the details of another set with me!

Monday, April 22, 2019

How 1954 Bowman #123 Toby Atwell became 1956 Topps #232 Toby Atwell

Until last week, I never thought about Toby Atwell, mid-1950s catcher, as either player or baseball card. He's just one of those guys you flip past in the collection. Toby's minor claim to collecting fame follows his "status" as 1952 Topps #356, one of its elusive high numbers, not that Toby seems to be enjoying the privilege.

1952 Topps #356 Toby Atwell Front
1952 Topps #356, Toby Atwell (RC)

After a week delving into 1950s Bowman and Topps, I found a second reason to care about Toby Atwell, and it's not thanks to high numbers or rookie cards. It's caring about the business value of using what you have and using it well. Let's start that work with 1954 Bowman #123, "serious Toby."

1954 Bowman #123 Toby Atwell Front
1954 Bowman #123, Toby Atwell

Side note: Toby's no-flap helmet reminds me of Pittsburgh's flirtation with fielding helmets throughout the 1950s, shown below protecting relief maestro Elroy Face. (Keith Olbermann shared several similar photos in his post about their helmeted era.)

Back to Toby, the baseball card, built from a hand-colored photo and purple autograph nameplate.

1954 Bowman #123 Toby Atwell Front

When assembling 1954 cards, Bowman laid a color stripe over each card's bottom edge and then added their player's autograph in black ink with a stamp-like printer's die. I think they rushed this part of things, leaving a cropped name for many players and quality issues on some adjacent cards. Back in 2009, former SCD catalog editor Bob Lemke profiled "extra loop" variations where #2 Jackie Jensen crossed onto #10 Carl Erskine...

...and #210 Jimmy Piersall intruded on #218 Preacher Roe.

While Bowman corrected these "extra loops" on later print sheets, I wondered about Toby Atwell's 1954 card and its floating double-line above the "T." Was that yet another player's autograph overlapping onto #123 from a different direction?

In this case, no. Autograph image searches show that Toby crossed that "T" with a wavy line throughout his life, as seen on this signed 1954 card. Bowman's odd trim job left it more mysterious than it needed to be.

"Atwell" shows floating line above "T"

Seeing 1954 Bowman lop off pieces of both "Y" and "Atwell" made me wonder if they even owned a proper signature for Toby at all. It took investigation of three sets to answer that question, starting two years earlier.

Bowman's first player autographs appeared in 1952. I think they compliment that year's artistic work, even if their cards feel "small" compared to the more sizable 1952 Topps.

I also think players produced one signature that Bowman reused whenever possible, saving card editors valuable time. This held true even for big stars with fixable issues like "Willie May" in 1952. Two years later, Bowman's aforementioned "loop trims" reduced the same stamped auto to "Willie Mau."

Toby didn't appear in 1952 Bowman, so they acquired a signature for on-card use sometime between then and 1954. Look at his 1952 high number again and note the "Maurice" signature.

1952 Topps #356 Toby Atwell Front

Toby had been on Topps cards for 1952 and 1953, before moving to Bowman for 1954 and 1955, perhaps on an exclusive contract. Jason Schwartz talks in detail about Bowman's skill at signing players to these contracts in SABR's 1954 Cardboard Crosswalk article. It's worth your time to read, now or later.

When Bowman folded after 1955 and Topps acquired their business assets, most recollections of the bankruptcy sale talk about the business value of existing gum card contracts. The nature of such a sale implies, without making explicit, that physical things like printing dies and plates also moved from Bowman to Topps.

1956 Topps #232, Toby Atwell (1954 Bowman overlay)

Toby's return to Topps cards after Bowman folded helps confirm the extent of what they handed over. That "ghost" label's where I overlaid his 1954 Bowman nameplate onto 1956's "Toby Atwell" autograph and got a perfect match, including the wavy crossed "T" circled in red.

While "Maurice D. Atwell" on 1952 cards, he became "Toby Atwell" for 1956. Unlike their former competition, Topps did this job without trimming pieces off the top and bottom. We can assume Topps did the same for a number of former Bowman players.

Summary: You can spend a lot of time and effort producing cards and some sets cut corners to save both. Bowman cut corners in a literal way, reducing the quality of their 1954 cards. There's some justice in how Topps improved on Bowman's dodgy choices with Bowman's own printing dies. If I were 1956 Topps Toby, I'd be smiling, too.