Friday, November 13, 2020

1956 Topps switch-hitters and predictable inconsistency

This week, a wolf in sheep's Orioles clothing arrived at my front door.

A friend of mine sent 1956 Topps #103 Willie Miranda to help chip away at my variations wantlist. I added 1956's white and grey backs this year to inject some life into my postwar collection and Miranda's white back fits the bill. Let's check it out.

Always fun to examine stats and cartoons, right? "Upsy daisy!" There's one you don't hear in baseball. And then...

Huh, "L. & R." looks odd. Shouldn't that say "both" or "switch" or something? Let's check 1956's best-known switch-hitter.

The Mick shows a "both" like we expect. This is discomfiting. Did Topps let something simple like switch-hitting consistency fall between the cracks? There's one way to find out. Let's run through them in order.

#51 Oravetz agrees with Willie Miranda, left and right.

#165 matches Mantle. Now we have multiples of each.

Robin Roberts, our first "both" switch-hitting pitcher! (And as for variations, Roberts marks 1956's "end" of #1-180 white/grey backs.)

Dave Philley gives me a growing sense of "both" consistency. Perhaps "L. & R." ended with Oravetz and Miranda.

Another "both" switch-hitting pitcher! There's a book waiting to be written about these multitalented gentlemen.

1956's second-best-known "both" switch-hitter, Flash Gilliam.

Our third both-hitting pitcher, Steve Gromek, would've been 100 this year. I have to ask about that middle cartoon. Is 18-16 a brilliant record? His stat sheet shows a solid year, but 1955 Gromek also led the AL in homers allowed, the majors in balks, and struck out just 102. I'm glad we're focused on how he hits.

One to go!

Whaaaaa--Topps throws me their best curve with an "L. & R." switch-hitting pitcher to cap the set. After hitting a nice groove, 1956 Topps fell back into its Oravetz-Miranda ways right at the end. What a Wiesler.

For a set I thought we knew inside and out, finding this nugget makes our hobby's best designers seem more human. Seeing amazing card...

...after amazing card...

...and yet with Easter eggs for us to enjoy decades later. (My standards for "amazing" are, "Is a player leaping? Are there outfield billboard ads?")

In search of an explanation, let's check how Topps treated these guys in 1955.
  • #51 Oravetz: No 1955 Topps
  • #103 Miranda: "L. & R." on 1955 #154
  • #135 Mantle: No 1955 Topps
  • #165 Schoendienst: No 1955 Topps
  • #180 Roberts: No 1955 Topps
  • #222 Philley: No 1955 Topps
  • #227 Meyer: No 1955 Topps
  • #280 Gilliam: "R & L" on 1955 #5
  • #310 Gromek: No 1955 Topps
  • #327 Wiesler: No 1955 Topps
Thanks to their Bowman licensing battle, just two of these players appeared in each Topps set. While Willie Miranda looks the same, Gilliam found yet another way to switch-hit. So much for predictable inconsistency!

Thanks for following this unusual path with me. I will be sure to think about it the next several times I flip a card over to read the cartoons.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

1974 Bra-Mac 1931 Philadelphia Athletics baseball #5, Al Simmons

George Brace spent sixty-five years of his life behind the camera lens at Chicago ballparks. He shot players at almost every Cubs and White Sox home series, often visiting each park on the same day. His work, both before and after colleague George Burke died in 1951, built an archive of a million-plus baseball photos that continue offering insight to many eras of our national game.

1930s George Burke/Brace photo, Lou Gehrig

That the same guy photographed Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken is jaw-dropping in baseball scale.

1980s George Brace photo, Cal Ripken Sr.

Oh and also the other Cal Ripken. This was the one I could tie to Brace. :-)

While MLB teams and players purchased many of Brace's photos for their own use, evolving technology allowed Brace himself to create direct-to-collector sets in 1974. He and Bill McAlister formed The Card Collector Company to sell batches of colorized photos from his extensive archive of negatives under the name Bra-Mac.

Ad for first series of 1930s Bra-Mac cards

This first group of eight grew into 288 total, all with a design that's unique to Bra-Mac. Note these colorized photos are distinct from the black-and-white Bra-Mac NL All-Stars set, which profiled National League players from 1933's All-Star Game.

1974 Bra-Mac 1933 NL All-Stars #5, Tony Cuccinello

After releasing their largest set of 288 colorized 1930s photos, Bra-Mac made several smaller, team-specific sets. Today's #5 hails from their "1931 Philadelphia Athletics" series.

1974 Bra-Mac "1931 Philadelphia A's" #5, Al Simmons (3"x5")

Each of Bra-Mac's colorized cards use photo paper and show what appear to be Dymo label nameplates and two pinholes.

Everyone else remember Dymo labels? If you don't, see this retro write-up.

That's not a real Dymo label on my Al Simmons, it's a photo of a Dymo label. I believe Bra-Mac followed this process creating each card.
  1. Develop a source photo from its original negative
  2. Add color to the developed photo, using the "new color technique" George mentions in his ad
  3. Let the source photo dry (I think those two pinholes are the hanging points)
  4. Create a Dymo label with name and number and stick it to the photo
  5. Take a new photo of this marked-up photo
  6. Develop the new photo for inclusion in the 8-card set & print sets to meet demand

All this handwork explains why he charged $3 for eight photos when Topps sold packs for a nickel. If Bra-Mac moved enough sets, they'd make a profit at some point. You just need patience, developing materials, and sufficient collector demand.

George Brace wrote a short article in The Collector Talks newsletter about these colorized Bra-Mac sets and some of his history working with George Burke and MLB players.

I found these ad and article scans in a Net54 discussion of Brace and his Bra-Mac work. As mentioned in that thread, nailing down a checklist for these cards proves tough, even today. I know of these via catalogs and other collectors.
  • 1974 Bra-Mac "Players of the 1930s" (numbered to 288 + several "bonus" multiplayer cards)
  • 1974 Bra-Mac "Players of the 1940s" (unnumbered, perhaps 50 total?)
  • 1974 Bra-Mac 1931 St. Louis Cardinals (20 cards)
  • 1974 Bra-Mac 1931 Philadelphia A's (20? cards)
  • 1974 Bra-Mac 1939-40 Cincinnati Reds (48 cards)
  • 1974 Bra-Mac 1938 Pittsburgh Pirates (26 cards)
  • 1974 Bra-Mac 1938 Chicago Cubs (29 cards)
  • 1974 Bra-Mac 1930s-40s Browns (? cards)
  • 1974 (?) Hall of Famers (37 cards, 3"x5" or 5"x7")
  • 1974 (?) team photos: 1889 Boston, 1889 Philadelphia, 1898 New York, 1898 Louisville, 1914 Braves and 1915 Red Sox (all 5"x7")
  • 1974 (?) multiplayer cards in postcard or 5"x7" format (30 cards)

Max Lanier shows relative size for some of Brace's formats and his large photos appear to be scarcer.

As of this writing, I own about 20 of the 3"x5" "Players of the 1930s" and type cards from a couple of other sets. When (and if) in-person card shows come back from COVID, I look forward to hunting oddball and photo dealers for more.

Has anyone made a serious run at completing these sets in the 21st century? Let me know if you have! Check out George Brace's obituary for a bit more on his life.

UPDATE: Found a card of George Brace himself! He caps the 149-card, 2003 set of Jewish Major Leaguers, a comprehensive direct-to-collector issue of Jewish baseball players and figures important to the game. Brace's daughter contributed a number of its images from their archive.

Value: You can find common players for under $10 on eBay and other card sites. I bought #5 Al Simmons for $40 and another #5 type for $10 from Larry Fritsch Cards, who I believe purchased Bra-Mac leftovers from George Brace decades ago and continue to sell them one-by-one. Search their downloadable catalog for "Bra-Mac" to see those listings.

Fakes/reprints: Bra-Mac photos are so unusual and little-known that it would be tough to find willing buyers for reprints. That said, there's always a chance where Gehrig or Ruth are concerned. Based on the cards I own, look for real photo paper and glossy finish. I haven't seen any Bra-Macs that used card stock.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Baseball for Halloween

Thanks to COVID and an October 30 snowstorm in New England, Halloween didn't happen this year for us. Our neighborhood did its best to decorate yards and we carved a pumpkin, but I didn't see any kids trick-or-treating. Our city also canceled outdoor event permits for the remainder of 2020, so we knew in advance the traditional neighborhood block party would wait a year.

For lack of excitement, I searched bygone Halloweens for baseball inspiration. I remember dressing up as a Chicago Cub at least once around age 11 and wish I still owned the photos to prove it. If that happened again, count on me to be this guy.

Cubs fan in McCovey Cove, circa 2016

I did come across some baseball costumes from my 2004 trip to New York City's Halloween Parade. You might remember that was the same week Boston won their first World Series title since 1918 and parade-goers did not waste their opportunity. This couple went as two inspirational characters.

Wonder Woman & Johnny Damon

For the all personalities the Red Sox put on the field that year, from Manny Ramirez to Pedro Martinez to Curt Schilling, I think more fans identified with Johnny Damon. His shaggy hair and hey-that-guy's-better-than-you'd-think performances clicked with a lot of people.

The early 2000s brought a lot of Curse of the Bambino back to our cultural conversation. Boston vandals turned a local thoroughfare's "Reverse Curve" caution into a "Reverse The Curse" stump speech. Each time city officials painted over the scrawl, it was back to the Red Sox version with a day or two.

Boston's Storrow Drive, circa 2003-4

I'm sure this New York couple was one of many who put the curse to rest that Halloween. Perhaps he also lost a bet that involved doing all the household chores for 80+ years.

Curt Schilling's bloody sock exorcises the Babe's ghost

Here's former Governor Mitt Romney helping take down Boston's "Reversed The Curse" sign that year. (While I don't know what became of this original, you can buy recreations on etsy and elsewhere.)

Despite all of New York and Boston's bad blood, there's one Yankee costume I'd consider wearing in future years, best personified by this 1973 Topps custom card.

Anyone add some baseball flair to their Halloween?