Saturday, September 20, 2014

Silent protest?

Until it started inserting presidential candidates a few years ago, Topps steered clear of politics in baseball card sets.

I appreciate that. I'm not a political person. I certainly don't want to see it in my baseball cards.

But I wonder with this card. Maybe it's not politics. But it could be editorializing. Just a little.

In 1973, the American League implemented the designated hitter rule. The AL team owners actually approved the DH during meetings in December 1972. It was the result of another downturn in offense, which had been going on since the late 1960s. Prompted by A's owner Charlie Finley, the AL decided 8-4 that another player would bat for the pitcher during games.

The DH had been used in pro ball in 1969 as an experimental maneuver in the minor leagues. Teams even experimented with it during that period in spring training.

So even though Topps had already completed and released its 1973 set by the time Ron Blomberg strode to the plate on April 7 to take the first hack by a designated hitter, I wonder if the debate regarding the pros and cons of the DH hadn't been in the public discussion for months if not years.

Could Topps have published this photo of an American League pitcher with a bat in silent protest?

Or this card?

I'm sure these aren't the first photos in a Topps set featuring a pitcher with a bat. But they carry extra weight when the set is issued the first year that neither Coleman nor Kaat would ever pick up a bat in a game. Each card seems to say, "Look! They'll never do THAT again."

As a National League fan who really has no use for the DH, even with interleague play well into its second decade, I'd like to think that there was someone in Topps with both baseball morals and pull with the company that a quiet protest such as this could happen.

But I'm as cynical as I am idealistic and my guess is that there was no political intent with these cards at all. Instead, I think it was just another case of weirdly quirky photos in 1973 Topps.

I suppose that's the way it should be. No baseball card politics.

At least not ON my baseball cards.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Nice try

Since I am just a few cards away from finishing off the 1975 Topps minis and the 1972 Topps set must wait until I have cash to throw at high numbers, I need a set-collecting project that I can pursue at a leisurely pace, that won't strain the budget, and that fellow collectors are willing/able to send.

That's why I'm chasing down the 1981 Donruss set.

This is endlessly amusing to my 15-year-old self, because when the first Donruss set came out that year, it was as if I was buying homemade cards. I can hear myself snorting all the way from 1981.

By '81, I had collected Topps and basically nothing but Topps for seven years. Topps was as professional as you could be when it came to card collecting. They knew what they were doing. And their product -- for its time -- was high quality. A large set with adequate photographs, complete stats and an attractive design. No one could do what they did.

So when Donruss and Fleer offered sets in 1981, we opened our very first packs and smirked. These sets didn't come anywhere near Topps! Misspellings? Typos? Ugly designs and weird poses?

I gave Fleer a bit of a pass probably because of the card stock. At least Fleer's cards felt like Topps cards.

But Donruss? I couldn't get over the cards. They were thin. Flimsy. Some cards featured ragged edges. Some of the photos were dark or blurry. It was probably my first time looking at white card stock (save for some Hostess cards). I wasn't impressed. I noticed the cards got dirty quickly.

Some of my initial thoughts on this set I had forgotten until I received a healthy stack of '81 Donruss wants from Zach at Autographed Cards. He's the most avid '81 Donruss collectors I know and has featured a number of signed Donruss cards on his blog.

It was in shuffling through the cards that he sent that the initial rush of impressions of that first Donruss set came back to me for the first time since 1981:

Nice try, Donruss. You misfit, homemade card set.

Let's see a few of the things that made '81 Donruss, '81 Donruss.

First, as everyone probably knows, the majority of the photos -- I would say at least two-thirds -- were taken in Chicago.

The American League teams were photographed in old Comiskey Park.

And the National League teams were pictured at Wrigley Field.





I could continue this for the next hour, but I think you get the idea.

Another photo feature of '81 Donruss is it has to hold the record for the most photos showing a player with a bat on their shoulder.

Bat on shoulder. Bat on shoulder. Bat on shoulder. Bat on shoulder. Bat on shoulder. Bat on shoulder.

Again, I could do this for the next hour.

1981 Donruss endured a number of quality control issues. Sure there were errors, although somewhat overshadowed by the cavalcade of errors in 1981 Fleer. But the ones I noticed most were in terms of card production.

For example, this card:

This card that Zach sent looks totally abnormal to me. I don't recognize this card. Because the Terry Crowley card I pulled out of a pack of 1981 Donruss looked like this:

(By the way, I mentioned this card and all of the other issues with '81 Donruss back on this post. So, yes, I'm running out of material).

One of the other '81 Donruss issues is miscut cards. For some reason, the Pirates cards I received illustrate this best:

At least all of the YELLOW distracts you from the crookedness.

A problem that I noticed with '81 Donruss right away when opening packs were frayed edges, almost like the same thing you would see with O-Pee-Chee cards back then.

I cropped off the frayed edge on this Glenn Hubbard card, but I'll give you a closer look at the bottom edge of the card.

It might be difficult to see, but the edge as ragged as my job these days.

Also, the Hubbard card gives me a chance to show one of the blatant cases of inconsistency in 1981 Donruss.

All of the Braves Donruss cards (or at least all of the ones I have) feature light blue borders. But Hrabosky has a purple border. The Mad Hungarian doesn't seem too pleased about it either.

Zach told me that I originally sent this card to him so he could get it signed. But he sent it back because he wasn't able to snag Ozzie.

The card is interesting to me because it's the first card in the first Donruss set.

In fact, the first four cards in 1981 Donruss are Padres. I don't know why that is. San Diego finished dead last in 1980. They had a habit of doing that then (and still do). Ozzie had kind of broken out in the field, but he was still just a .230 hitter at the time. I wonder if Don or Russ was a Padres fan?

The team distribution in '81 Donruss is interesting in general. Teams aren't evenly interspersed through the set like Topps and aren't grouped together like Fleer. Instead there is a clump of four players from the same team here and a clump of three players from another team after that. I'm looking forward to seeing this set in a binder just because of that oddity.

The Phillies come out looking pretty good this set -- I guess that's what happens when you win the World Series the year before.

Not everyone was so lucky.

I actually received a handful of '81 Donruss from Jeff at One Man's Junk (Wax), too. Both Zach and Jeff sent me the Graig Nettles card (as well as Sparky Lyle).

I never noticed the stuff on Nettles' sleeves until scanning this card. It looks like he slid head-first on a dugout floor that was littered with sunflower seeds.

Here is part of the back, which may be the only time that hepatitis is mentioned on the back of a baseball card.

Also, please note that this set is a "First Edition Collector Series".

That's probably one of the reasons why I am trying to complete this set now, along with the quirky, homemade feel of it. It's always good to recognize a first effort. And that's what this set was: a first effort.

Donruss would improve its quality in subsequent years, depending on your perspective of '91 Donruss, of course. But as far as '81 Donruss goes, I'll stick with what I said in 1981:

Nice try.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

In the news

If you were a kid in the 1970s or 1980s and your Saturday mornings were a steady diet of cartoons and Eggos, then you probably remember something called "In The News".

It was a two-minute news report, geared toward children, that appeared periodically between cartoons. I remember it popping up at the top and bottom of each hour.

I also remember being alternately bored and intrigued by "In The News". Sometimes the topics, even though written for children, went way over my head. I had no idea what they were saying. Other times, they were somewhat interesting, and I was pleased that I learned something in-between watching Scooby-Doo, Josie and the Pussycats, and my magically delicious frosted Lucky Charms commercials.

To this day, that spinning globe and accompanying "swirling" music that began and ended each "In The News" segment are in my head and probably will be forever.

Also, you might recall that during this time, Topps featured its own "In The News" segment. In fact, they started it the very year I began collecting baseball cards.

Topps' venture into the news was the "Record Breaker" or "Highlights" subsets that would appear each year. Starting in 1975 and lasting through 1991, Topps recognized the previous year's accomplishments with a subset of varying size. Each card featured a picture of the "record breaker" and the back mentioned in detail what he had accomplished.

In most cases, the back took on a "ripped from the headlines" appearance (with one notable exception, which you'll see in a minute). I was a fan of newspapers even as a little tyke, so I really enjoyed this look.

But I especially enjoyed a specific set that dedicated itself to the memories of the previous season. Along with whatever postseason subset that appeared that year, and the league leader cards, these cards gave you a keepsake of the previous season, the news of the previous season, right there in cardboard form.

We called these cards "record breakers" but the first such set was actually termed "highlights". That's the entire subset right there (sorry that some of these are out of order -- if you had to deal with my scanner and multiple cards, you would understand).

The first "record breaker" or "highlights" card that I ever saw was the Al Kaline card. He taught me that there was something special about 3,000 hits.

The next Record Breaker set -- ah, hell let's just call it the "In the News" subset -- scaled back from seven cards to six. And it's the first time we see them called "record breakers".

This set is special to me, mostly because there is a Dodger in the subset. When a Dodger appeared as a record-breaker, that was Big News. It was a point of pride. Your team had made news!

The '76 record breaker set is also the only one of these subsets to feature statistics with each card. These were phenomenal.

I absolutely ate this up -- and studied it forever. This is News I Could Use!

Keep in mind this is long before baseball-reference and long after that day's newspaper had been thrown away. Poor Tom Dettore.

The 1977 "In The News" subset was different for two reasons. First, it was only four cards -- apparently nothing happened in 1976. This would be the smallest set until 1990 (which was just three cards).

The second difference is it didn't lead off the set like the subset did in 1975 and 1976. Instead the league leaders began the set and the record breakers began randomly at card #231. I didn't like that.

Also, here is a reason why there should always be record-breaker cards: There is a card of Minnie Minoso in the set! If there was no record-breaker subset, there would be no Minnie Minoso card in 1977 Topps! I don't want to live in a world where that is possible.

In 1978, the record-breakers were back at the beginning of the set and a hefty seven cards strong.

A lot of big names in this particular subset, too. That explains why Nolan Ryan and Reggie Jackson haven't been upgraded since ... well, 1978.

In 1979, Topps stashed the record-breakers in the middle of the set again, this time starting at #201.

By the way, this subset was the only way you could get multiple individual cards of players during this time. The separate all-star cards wouldn't be invented for a few more years. And -- even better -- there were TWO CARDS of Mike Edwards in the '79 Topps set. But only one of Mike Schmidt. That must have pissed off some superstars.

A new decade, but both In the News and the In the News subsets were going strong.

Topps returned to the "highlights" moniker, which is more vague than "record breaker," but probably more accurate here. The Brock-Yastrzemski card was the first shared "In the News" card since the 1975 set.

It also marks another record-breaker subset with a Dodger! That automatically makes the 1975, 1976, 1980, 1982, 1986 and 1989 In the News subsets the best of all-time!

The 1980 highlights subset kicked off that year's set, but Topps record breakers were back to the middle of the set in 1981. It must have decided to alternate every year.

The 1981 record breaker set is the largest to date -- eight cards. It's also the fourth straight year that Pete Rose appears in the subset.

Back to the front of the set in 1982, back to "highlight" instead of record-breaker, back to Pete Rose being featured.

And another Dodger! I didn't see the Valenzuela Highlight card until I started this blog. It was a tragedy.

Topps put the record breakers at the front of the set for the second straight year for the first time since 1975-76.

This year's subset features a number of obscure awards. The famous one, of course, is Rickey Henderson's new single-season stolen base mark. But putouts by a right fielder?

1984 was all about the highlights. The 1983 season was one of transition with big stars exiting and other big stars piling up career marks. The bottom three cards are kind of ugly with just a bunch of mug shots. And the Bench-Perry-Yaz card is one of the few Topps cards that acknowledges a player's retirement.

The 1985 record breaker set is the largest of its kind. It's 10 cards strong!

It's the fourth year in a row that the subset kicks off the set. I also happen to think this is one of the ugliest of the record breaker sets. Purple is usually not a good idea.

The 1986 record breaker set moved to the middle of the set. It trimmed back to seven cards and Fernando is the only two-time Dodger in an "In the News" subset. Pete Rose scoffs at such a number as this is his seventh appearance!

1986 also marked the final year for the "In the News" TV segment. It was only a matter of time for Topps, too.

The 1987 record-breaker set is actually seven cards. I'm missing the Dwight Evans card (I am not surprised at all that Evans is the last card I need for this -- stupid Dwight Evans supercollectors, I know you're out there).

The 1988 record breakers set is one of the most memorable if not the most memorable. It certainly grabs your attention and that Eddie Murray card is possibly the best record breaker card ever. (Dammit, I should have done a countdown).

This is the last record breaker set to feature a Dodger -- Orel Hershiser's consecutive scoreless innings streak.

I have just one of the three record breakers in the 1990 set (the others are Rickey Henderson and Cal Ripken). I don't even know if you can call three cards a subset. They sure are bright!

The record breaker set also started weirdly at #6 as the first five cards are of Nolan Ryan.

Here is the final "In the News"/"record breaker"/"highlights" set of this particular era. As a final farewell, this subset led off the 1991 Topps set.

After 1991, the set was replaced in 1992 by I don't know what. Guys in polo shirts or their high school uniforms, I guess.

The record breaker cards would make periodic appearances after 1991, but you never knew when they would pop up.

Here are some "In the News" cards from the 2000 Topps set. It's one of the only redeeming aspects of 2000 Topps, if you ask me. (The 2006 Topps set has a subset of gold glovers -- I couldn't care less).

Today, any recognition of the past year's baseball news usually shows up in the Traded set.

But it's very random. The cards aren't grouped together. And you don't receive any details on the back.

You just get a checklist.

Just the other day, the Mets' Jacob deGrom equaled Jim Deshaies' mark of consecutive strikeouts to start a game -- a mark that got Deshaies an extra card in the 1987 Topps set.

I have my doubts that deGrom's feat will pop up in 2014 Topps Traded or 2015 Topps.

That's too bad, because even though there are far more ways to receive our baseball news instantly than there was between 1975-91, I still consider baseball cards as recorded history.

Anyway, that's record-breaker cards ...

In the news.