As best I can tell, baseball existed in Cuba as long as Cuba and baseball each existed. Its professional league started in 1878, just two years after our National League. Cubans love to play it, they play it well, and Cuban ballplayers remain touchstones for American political conversation.
When baseball writers first talked about integrating the American game, Negro League star Oliver Marcelle came up as a risky choice, enough so that baseball's HOF site titled their profile, "The Talent and the Temper of Oliver Marcelle."
While little-known today in the USA, Oliver played a key role on one of Cuba's all-time teams and local fans will know his name as Americans might memorize the 1927 Yankees lineup. (Marcelle did more with a bat than equivalent New York third basemen Joe Dugan, so advantage Cuba.)
This card's back stamp appears to advertise flavored cigarillos from Mallorquina, who used baseball to promote Cuban products much as American tobacco did for decades. This set included 100 players from that winter's three pro teams on a single print sheet, cut along those white print gutters, and distributed players one-per-pack.
HOFer Willie Foster shows off my favorite league uniform, with Cuba's flag flying from its eponymous C. His squad somehow came in last in that winter's Cuban league, despite being named Cuba.
Value: Singles from this hard-to-find set cost $100 and up, depending on which way the wind's blowing. HOFers could run you a lot more. (I have yet to find #5 Marcelle for my type collection, so borrowed a friend's scans.)
Fakes/reprints: I encouraged the owner of that complete sheet to create direct-to-collector reprints for others to enjoy. While none yet exist to my knowledge, there's a nonzero chance someone reprinted its Negro League HOFers.
Been away from this blog too long and yet still close to our hobby! This post covers my week at Chicago's 2021 National Sports Collectors Convention, from local sightseeing to show shopping. Let's go day-by-day.
Sunday and Monday
My girlfriend arrived ahead of me to visit North Side cousins and I joined her Sunday afternoon. We checked into the downtown Athletic Association Hotel, a great place for dark wood rooms and old-school sports motifs. Their room key card even featured a Cubs Hall of Famer.
Five highlights for my pre-National days.
Giordano's deep-dish pizza
Chicago Art Institute's collection
Multiple public beaches
Excellent murals and graffiti all over town
Chicago's architectural boat tour, which starts along its downtown river and goes out onto Lake Michigan for skyline views
One regret: I missed seeing Nighthawks at the Art Institute. At least there's a Great Art Explained episode for it.
Tuesday -- almost show time
National dealers start setting up on Tuesday and I understand a lot of money moves around as dealers sell to each other. Many come with shopping lists for their customers back home and I bet it helps to buy from colleagues before they spend five full days managing their booths.
That night, I joined friends from OldBaseball.com at Impact Field, home to Rosemont's independent minor league baseball team, the Chicago Dogs. Helmed by baseball lifer Butch Hobson, the Dogs play an entertaining AA-level of competition from the Midwestern US and Canada. That night's visiting lineup (Kane County Cougars) included Kacy Clemens, Roger's son, who was celebrating his 27th birthday. Chicago, for their part, fielded K.C. Hobson, Butch's son.
After yielding three runs in the first inning, the Dogs clawed back to tie things in the sixth and won 4-3 in the tenth inning on an infield hit, sacrifice, and double. My friend Sal was over the moon to learn that Chicago's league does not start a runner at second base in extra frames. ("That's real baseball!")
Wednesday show day
I helped a dealer with Wednesday setup, so arrived about 10am and beelined for his booth. He dubbed me "sign guy," which meant scribbling long lists of complete vintage sets on bright-colored paper for people willing to spend several hundred dollars or more. He also invited me to pull any cards I wanted from a large box of 1980s cards and I went long on my boyhood favorite, Spike Owen.
After a few hours of setup work, my own shopping got underway. One of my first buys proved a show highlight.
I spotted this 1941 Goudey Carl Hubbell, with its card number written as "our price." I asked that dealer to confirm and he said, "yeah, it's twenty bucks" -- about a tenth you'd expect to pay for one of that scarce set's key cards. No dickering needed, it was mine. (For comparison, I later picked up a 1941 Goudey Mel Ott for $120.)
You see all manner of things at National booths, like someone scrawling their opinion of Ty Cobb on an otherwise good-looking prewar card. (I imagine some people did consider him a punk.)
The National show floor sequesters its low-tenure dealers to one end and that area tends to be heavy with UV. My oldest buy came from a prewar guy in its far corner. He kept some low-grade stuff in a box under the table, which yielded these $5 1920 W520 and W522 strip cards.
Wednesday's haul went beyond expectations, including a handful of 1936-37 World Wide Gum from a friend divesting himself of that scarce Canadian set. (More about it in my lengthy post about "Canadian Goudey.")
I spent most of Thursday using the program guide's map to walk its show floor row-by-row, in an effort to see everything at least once. Most booths took less than 20 seconds to confirm if they stocked interesting vintage stuff. Even at a brisk pace, it took me until Sunday morning (3+ days) to confirm I'd visited them all!
Along the way. I spotted cool things like these Robert Laughlin promo stand-ups. A steal at $500 each! 😮
Thursday included my first "dollar box" stops. I found two 1960s Gehrig cards in a $4 box and a variety of others for $1, $2, and $3. I dropped $90 upgrading my 1957 Topps #407 (Mantle/Berra) to VG-EX.
If I had big money to throw around ($5500), it'd buy this 1880s Black Stocking Nine cabinet card. They prove tough as nails to track down, so I considered it a win just to find and hold one.
Speaking of winning, I made a return trip to watch the Chicago Dogs on Thursday and upgraded my food choices to include steak.
The morning's first purchase proved to be its best. I will buy boxes of 1950s Red Man cards in well-loved condition anytime you find one to sell me.
That round-cornered bonanza gave me a great start on 1954 and 1955 sets and I traded its duplicates to friends at our Saturday dinner.
Friday found my first #5 type hit of the week, as a friend passed along this 1967 Coke Cap of Astro Barry Latman.
Friday's haul ran the gamut from prewar to 1974. A friend pointed out that the bio on that 1952 Topps Eddie Waitkus card mentions his run-in with a violent stalker that almost killed him.
Eddie's shooting and recovery inspired, in part, The Natural.
My hotel roommates and I woke up in a funny mood and somehow decided that Tone Loc's "Funky Cold Medina" would be our weekend theme song. Who's to say it shouldn't be?
Many anticipated packed show floors throughout the week and Saturday delivered in spades. A growing number of attendees wore masks as aisles grew thick with other shoppers. A few dealers I chatted with talked about enduring COVID themselves during 2020, either solo or because it hit their whole family.
The day's attendance ebbed mid-afternoon, about the time its most popular autograph guests (Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan among them) finished signing for long lines of fans. This left more space around the 10 cent tables, where I spotted a card from my childhood.
Second-year Canseco for 10 cents! Say it ain't so, Jose, say it ain't so.
Those 10 cent boxes also yielded a pair of cards that mentioned a Mariners game I attended in 1979. They beat the Yankees so bad that night, every guy claimed a piece of the highlight pie.
By Sunday morning, every dealer booth on my map showed a check mark, so I returned one-by-one to places marked for further investigation. When the dealer with Bra-Mac cards turned down my discount offer for its whole binder, I picked out my 25 favorites for their regular price.
2021 marked the first time I stayed at a National long enough to feel the whole thing shutting down, which started about 2PM. Dealers started boxing up inventory and shoppers faded away right about the same time. I caught my own shuttle to the airport at 3:30 for a comfortable flight back to Boston. My pickup pile looks big when you lay it all out!
It proved educational to help out a National dealer for the first time. Stationed behind their table, you try to keep track of everyone, fielding questions from browsers and minimizing risk of theft. Sellers spend a disproportionate time talking with the minority of shoppers who want to chat, often as they hunt for a particular player or card set.
Next year, we'll be in Atlantic City, which I hear gives the National organizers such a good deal on space that it's almost free. Given its limited cultural appeal, compared to Chicago, collector enthusiasm depends on how close you happen to live to Atlantic City.
Spotted this discarded pack wrapper on my way out Sunday evening. New rule: if you crack the wax, you chew the gum! #ShowRules
Presidents Day 2021 is an ideal time to look at one subset of Universal Toy & Novelty's strip cards from a full century ago: the presidents. Let's also talk about a complicated character in this photo...
What we're talking about when we talk about presidents
Universal's presidential strip cards are a subset of what's catalogued W563. While "100 years ago" represents a huge jump in terms of collecting history, that same amount of time lops off just 17 Presidents. Harding himself took office on March 4, 1921, before we changed to January inaugurations.
Despite Warren's lectern demeanor, Americans thought well of Ohio's former Senator during his lifetime. According to this 1992 set of Presidents, he knew baseball in detail and even owned a minor league team. Seems like an OK guy so far.
Universal printed this 1921 copyright date on just two other strips, a series of Boy Scout activities and scenes from Charlie Chaplin's movie "The Kid." (I'll profile those sets in future posts.)
Other subsets in this style, like W516-1 baseball and W529-1 boxing, omit any date. That implies Universal needed to enforce a design copyright or defend against similar claims from competitors by 1921. Either way, their company name appeared along the middle of each strip.
The ten Presidents that Universal chose say something about how people viewed history in 1921. I'll do my best to find commonalities and link to more info, accepting that my handful of sentences oversimplifies these presidents into tiny dots on a huge American canvas.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson
These two loom over other Founding Fathers, thanks in part to how much territory they added to America itself. Washington's roles as military leader and our first President represent a meaningful chunk of high school history on their own. Jefferson also bridged the pre- and post-colonial eras as international statesman and negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase.
Washington and Jefferson's fierce differences regarding federal power (see the Whiskey Rebellion) make them tough to unite under a single philosophical banner. I was surprised to learn the phrase "Founding Fathers" came from Warren Harding himself. He grouped these venerated men together, in part, to position them against government actions he opposed, including entry into the League of Nations. While I doubt he expected "Founding Fathers" to become a permanent part of our lexicon, modern politicians continue to use our earliest leaders as a way to argue for any number of ideas.
Echoing Jefferson's push west into the Louisiana territory, Andrew Jackson pursued land expansion policies that furthered indigenous relocation (see Trail of Tears) and eventual Texas annexation. He remains in conversation today thanks to proposed changes to our $20 bill.
Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant
The presence of Lincoln and Grant hints at how big the Civil War remained in America's 20th century consciousness. I won't try to tell you anything new about Honest Abe. Grant's own reputation among modern historians, on the other hand, grew as biographers published new assessments of his military and presidential achievements.
McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft
While I believe Teddy Roosevelt's best-remembered of these three, Taft deserves a better reputation than his reputed bathtub misadventures. Eight years after leaving the presidency, he became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, as nominated, in 1921, by Warren G. Harding. Even bad presidents possess great influence!
Before I forget to say so, Harding's administration ranks as one of America's worst. His own drinking habits and multiple infidelities paralleled corruption throughout the cabinet. You can spend several minutes just reading Wikipedia's summary of its scandals. Had Warren not died mid-term in 1923, he risked a public fall from grace soon after.
How these presidents fit Universal's bigger picture
Every era of card-making produced sets with politicians and presidents, so it makes sense Universal would do the same. Based on cards available in the hobby today, they ranked behind baseball and boxing in popularity with 1920s collectors, similar to the scarcity of Hollywood actors.
1919-21 Universal actors #15, Dorothy Dalton
I have a keen interest in strip card variety and look for hints wherever I can find them. Miscuts from presidential strips prove at least one multi-subject print layout existed. This one shows a sliver of W563 Warren Harding above W516 baseball's George Burns.
Another layout put them above W529 boxers.
Note that I used W516/W529/W563 catalog numbers instead of Universal Toy & Novelty in that context, since these miscuts lack clear connection with Universal's strip cards. An ideal example would show at least two different subjects and Universal's title text, something like this pasteup.
Until something with title text and multiple subjects appears, remember that Universal's cards represent a subset of similar strips. Some collectors and dealers consider them variations.
W516 Tris Speakers, with Universal at lower right
If a company printed a new strip of just ten presidents today, I bet at least half of these 1921 cards would flip to different guys, like FDR or Eisenhower.
I skipped over Universal's Hollywood cards to talk about presidents, so will cover those two strips of actors next time.
Value: Individual presidents in low-grade cost $5-20, depending who you look for. In our current hot market for collecting, I'd expect to pay $10 or more.
Fakes/reprints: The thin paper and clumsy printing seen on many 1920s strip cards makes them easier to fake than other sets. Counterfeits might exist, so I recommend sticking to cheaper cards for a type set and working with dealers you trust.
I believe those IFC and "International" tags originate with the William Randolph Hearst-owned International Film Company, one of his many media outlets. Hearst tended to bulldoze over smaller competition, so who can say if IFC licensed their photos from Fowler by legitimate means or just sold them as their own.
Cataloging smaller issues like these boxers proves challenging a century after-the-fact. W529, a set of ten boxers, contains at least eight variations by text style and type of picture. These Jack Brittons show difference within that larger group.
While that makes all Universal boxing cards a subset of W529-1, you must intuit which #1-4 and #8-10 cards match their card stock. The reassembled strip above shows what I mean.
It also remains tough to nail down how W529 strip cards reached collectors. I've heard about candy store owners trimming them off one-by-one, vending machines selling full strips for a nickel, and so on. Universal itself used another method that suited its toy line.
Some (and perhaps all) of their strips came in variety "surprise boxes" like this one. Note the small line of faces on its lid at lower-left, alongside a bevy of other paper toys.
There's much more to say about Universal's strip card contributions. As a coda to our IFC discussion, some other sets sourced photos from Hearst's International Film Service (IFS), as on the Dorothy Dalton below.
Upcoming posts will dig deeper into those subjects, which run a gamut from Hollywood to baseball to the funny pages.
Value: While Lew cost me $2 a few years ago, many strip cards rose to $10+ since then, even in low grade.
Fakes/reprints: The crude nature of strip cards makes it easy to fake Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and other big baseball names. Universal's strips use rag paper about the thickness of playing cards. Anything with a high-gloss finish or bright white stock should be suspect. While boxers might not get the same treatment, I recommend seeking lesser names as type cards to reduce your risk of buying a bad one.