Thursday, July 14, 2016

Message from a hobby legend

I grew up during the Topps monopoly. I was conditioned to wait for one set -- and one set only -- each year.

I didn't mind. I didn't know any better, and I liked Topps' sets a lot. I was obsessed with them. And when other companies came along to challenge Topps, I considered them infiltrators. Topps was the one company truly qualified to produce baseball cards.

But it's clear, even back then as a young adolescent, that subconsciously I wanted something more.

This card of Mickey Mantle is the other item I received from Scott Crawford On Cards that I mentioned in the last post. Scott is the one who gifted me with the complete 1976 SSPC set that I will treasure forever (and I'm still attempting to catalog). A little while ago, he mentioned that there were some promo cards for this set, which I never knew. He said he had a Mantle that he could send me (the other promo cards are Hank Aaron, Catfish Hunter, Dave Kingman, Willie Mays and Tom Seaver).

The promo cards feature one of three backs, either stats and info about the player on the front, an advertisement, or the back is blank. You can see this one features an ad.

When I pulled the card from the package, I suddenly remembered an email that came unexpectedly last month.

The email was from Mike Aronstein. And it arrived completely out of the blue. I was stunned.

If you don't know hobby history, specifically from the 1970s, you may not have heard of Mike Aronstein. He is the man behind a lot of the things that we enjoy in the hobby today. Aronstein, along with his partner Tom Collier, created TCMA (Tom Collier, Mike Aronstein, or "The Card Memorabilia Associates"). TCMA created virtually all of the minor league sets and baseball legends sets that came out in the 1970s and 1980s. And it created the '76 SSPC set and other related SSPC team sets that were often advertised in Aronstein's Collector's Quarterly magazine, as well as other hobby publications from the '70s and early '80s.

In Aronstein's introduction to me in his email, he explained it like this:

"I'm the MA from TCMA Ltd. Mike Aronstein. TC was Tom Collier. I put the initials on an 8 1/2 x 11 reprint sheet that we did and Tom came up with the name. Hope I'm not boring you."

I stared dumbfounded at the email. Boring me? I was thrilled. If he only knew how many of his sets I drooled over when I was 13, 14 years old!

I don't remember the name of the publication that I received in the mail back then. It could have been Collector's Quarterly but that name doesn't ring a bell. Whatever the publication, between that, Baseball Digest, and the back pages of The Sporting News, I began to discover options to Topps. I wasn't bored with Topps by any means, but Topps was for current players for the most part and something inside me craved knowledge about past players.

The Renata Galasso Glossy Greats, first issued in 1977, drew most of my interest. Those cards were produced by Galasso and TCMA, and I remember the day when a long, white box of those cards arrived at our house. Pure excitement.

The fact is the cards that I desired the most -- those ones that were not obtainable from the drug store down the street, but only from a magazine sent from a far-off place -- were all manufactured by TCMA.

You've read my praise for these sets since the beginnings of this blog. The All-Time Dodgers Team set, issued in 1975, is the first set I ever purchased through the mail. It's probably the first complete set -- all 12 cards of it -- I ever owned. It was made and issued by TCMA Ltd.

The second set I ever purchased through the mail was another TCMA set, which recognized the 1952 Brooklyn Dodgers, "The Boys Of Summer." It was issued in 1974, and at 40 cards was quite a bit larger than the first set I ordered.

These cards you may recognize as some of the most praised oddball card sets on this blog. Each was highly desired by me as a youngster then and continues to be now.

All of them are TCMA cards. From TCMA sets.

The legends cards held the most appeal to me initially, but as the '80s began and more emphasis was placed on rookies, I saw the appeal of the minor league cards, too, and I started staring at those in the advertisements.

Although many of the sets are colorful, many more are strikingly simple, in the style of the '76 SSPC set (which was modeled after another famously simple set, 1953 Bowman color). Aronstein, who bought out Tom Collier (Collier died about 10 years ago) during the early '70s before many of the minor league sets were created, seemed to favor simple cards.

He also seems to favor a simpler game. In his email, he said he now follows the Sante Fe Fuegos, which is an independent baseball team that plays in the Pecos League.

"I now live in Sante Fe, NM and am an avid Santa Fe Fuego fan. They are in the Pecos League, currently 5-21 in last place (they are now 15-37, but still in last). They won the league championship in 2014 and their division in 2015. It's great fun for real fans."

Aronstein went on to say that he makes cards for each Santa Fe player, it's what he's "currently doing." He said he gives three to the player and keeps one for himself.

It's that hands-on, simplistic approach that made the SSPC set so appealing. You've probably read the stories about that set, how Aronstein enlisted a young high school student named Keith Olbermann to help create the set, from writing the backs to photographing the players. TCMA was able to find its way onto the field, get permission to take photos of every player (and many managers and coaches) in the major leagues, and then produce an attractive set.

Aronstein had intended for the set to be sold in stores, but Topps sued TCMA before that could happen and part of the agreement with Topps stated that no reprints of the set could be made. It remains one of the only large sets of current players produced during the Topps monopoly period from the mid 1950s to 1981.

Aronstein is responsible for hiring people who I looked up to as an early teenager finding out about baseball and the hobby, people like Bill Madden and Rick Cerrone. And because of Aronstein, we do things like collect minor league sets and display our cards in pages in a binder. Those were his ideas. The slick Beckett magazine? They can thank Aronstein for starting that.

In the email, Aronstein attached a sample of his current cards for the Santa Fe Fuegos. I tried to open the attachment but something's wrong with it and I kept getting an error message.

"Any questions? Send me an email," Mike said to close out his message.

So I sent him an email saying I couldn't get a look at his cards, could he send them another way? I also wondered if he'd want to answer some questions for my blog?

I waited for an answer. And waited.

My insecurity started to get to me. Maybe he sent the email to me by accident. Maybe it was supposed to go to someone else and he's wondering who this idiot is asking for an interview.

But upon receiving the Mantle card from Scott, I decided to send another email. Emails end up in junk mail all the time, maybe he never saw it.

I'm still waiting for an answer.

My guess is I'll receive one eventually. I've written enough odes to TCMA that he's got to know about this blog. I believe that Mike -- like me -- is from another time and place and does things when and how he wants to do things. It's one of the reasons why there are so many great TCMA cards out there.

I'm still receiving TCMA cards. I just got some the other day from a fellow collector that you'll see soon. Topps is just one way to collect. That's what TCMA taught me, long before Donruss, Fleer, Upper Deck and all the others came along.


  1. Wow, great piece. I never knew "TCMA" stood for something other than "The Card Memorabilia Associates". How come Baseball Hobby News never told me that? Anyway, I don't have a lot if those TCMA/SSPC cards, but I treasure the ones I do have. Great to learn more about them.

  2. Hopefully he reads this and can tell me what 1974 & 1975 Syracuse Chief cards look like. Been trying to find Syracuse Chief Virdons for years.

  3. Awesome write-up! I've read most of the story before, but it's cool to hear about one of the guys who started the TCMA/SSPC thing. If I remember right, I'm about 10 years younger than you, but those kind of sets still enthralled me when I was a younger kid, before Upper Deck came around. Even though they weren't being produced as much in the late 80's - when I could find cards like that Baseball Immortals it was always great.

  4. Like you, I was just into Topps when I started collecting but I think I'm older than you. No matter. I pull TCMA cards from repacks once in awhile and I love them

  5. TCMA only produced one NBA set but it's a favorite of mine. Wish they did more, as they covered some of the early (1950s) players that never get any other looks from the hobby. As far as I know the set even included the only produced card for an entire Franchise! I've seen what they did (or some of it, anyway) for baseball on blogs and the Database, and you guys got a lot of great stuff from them. I didn't know what the initials stood for at all, but then again...only one set is on my radar.

  6. I loved those minor league cards.

  7. Extremely interesting stuff. I love the backstories behind things -- the creation stories -- and, man, what fun it would be to sit down with Mr. Aronstein and just ask questions and listen.

  8. I would have asked him about Keith Olberman writing up the backs of 1976 SSPC that all came about!

  9. The 1976 SSPC set has promo cards? That sucks. Hope they aren't too pricey... because I absolutely have to add them to my collection.

    P.S. I hope Mr. Aronstein responds to your email.