Sunday, April 8, 2018

'56 of the Month: Elmer Valo

I have told the story numerous times of my father coming home from work one night with a large paper grocery bag filled with 1950s baseball cards to give to myself and my two brothers.

Overcome with glee but knowing we would have to share and share alike, we set up all the cards on the dining room table, scattering them in a giant pile in the center and took turns selecting them.

The few superstars that were available -- I nabbed the '57 Willie Mays with my first pick -- went first. But the majority of cards, around 300 of them, were players we didn't know at all. At this point we were collecting pictures, not names.

But ever since I started collecting back in 1975, I have been drawn to certain cards of unknown players for unknown reasons. The 1977 Bob Tolan, the 1976 Steve Renko, the 1975 Jackie Brown. The names didn't matter. The pictures did.

I wanted that '56 Elmer Valo card.

I had no idea who Elmer Valo was. I barely knew what the Kansas City A's were. But I thought it was a beautiful card, full of intrigue and excitement, all in an unfamiliar atmosphere. Were those sand dunes behind the fence?

I did nab that Valo card, probably far too early in the round, but I didn't want to risk the chance of one of my brothers getting the card and not realizing what a find that it was.

This is the thing: we couldn't believe our luck that so many 1956 Topps card had landed in our lap. These cards were from ages before we started collecting. None of us were a thought in my parents' heads at the time. My dad was in the service in '56. My mom was in high school. It would be years before they even met each other. But we all knew we were possessing something special. They looked awesome even though they didn't look anything like the cards that were showing up in packs at the drug store at that time.

That's why I was discouraged by the past week of nonsense on Twitter. It started out as innocent nonsense, then turned unseemly, and then into a mess of everything that I try to avoid. The less said the better.

But during the innocent period, in which people were voting on historical baseball sets, NCAA brackets style, it came down to 1956 Topps and 1989 Upper Deck in the final.

Now, to me, that's not even a contest. I would try to complete 1956 Topps five times before attempting to complete 1989 Upper Deck once. I consider '89 UD one of the most overplayed sets of all-time. I get its impact and how it changed cards for decades. But I think "innovation" when it comes to cards is overblown. This isn't medical science or predicting the weather. We're collecting pictures on cards, that's all, and I evaluate a set purely on what it is. 1989 Upper Deck is mediocre and far similar to other sets issued at that time than most  '89 UD fans would care to admit.

Yet, '89 UD almost won the fool contest. During the final vote-off, I read a great deal of resentment for Topps and the '56 set specifically, which was pretty deflating. It was dismissed by one collector as a "paint-by-numbers set." It was derided for being horizontal. And overall, I began to see a group of people who couldn't appreciate something created before they started collecting. All they could appreciate is what they knew.

I think here on the blogs we have respect for cards no matter what their time period. Some bloggers may not be into vintage, but you won't see them dismiss it with name-calling. I, personally, can't get into tobacco cards, but I'd never deride them as inferior.

Instead, mostly what I do is wonder what is wrong with me. Why can't I appreciate those tobacco cards? I must have a flaw.

Elmer Valo was the same way. Valo wasn't a natural athlete. But he worked tirelessly so that he became known for his work ethic. He crashed into walls. He used his speed to get to balls that no one thought he could reach. He was a line drive hitter, a doubles-type of guy. Yet, he was hard on himself and would blame himself for losses and plays not made. He wondered what was wrong with him. He focused on his flaws. He also owned a self-deprecating sense of humor.

That's my kind of guy, my kind of player.

It's no wonder I gravitated toward his card.

That Twitter contest -- 1956 Topps won by the way -- did accomplish one thing though.

I've had a difficult time focusing on my '56 set project. With so many expensive cards left, it's tough to see any kind of light ahead and it's taken a back seat to other pursuits.

But now I feel called to action. Criticize that set? Man, you don't do that.

I just got finished going to my first card show of the year. And before I left for it, I placed 1956 Topps right at the top of the list as cards to find at the show.

You'll see what I got tomorrow.

I guess some good comes out of everything.


  1. I've never heard/read the story of that grocery bag of 50's cards, but since I'm probably the only one I wont ask you to go into more detail. That's amazing though.

    My mom got me started on the '56 set, in a roundabout sort of way. I'm determined to finish it while she's still around. It is amazing, and if it's not the all-time greatest set ever, it's certainly better than 89 UD.

    Can't wait to see what else you got.

  2. Knowing that Twitter folks were bashing 1956 Topps makes me glad I don't do Twitter.

  3. Sounds like a stupid argument. I really don't believe much in criticizing other people's taste. It's fair to have a difference of opinion on the merits of something but there's no reason to be disrespectful. I do like tobacco cards but I don't say you should.

  4. Great post. You do a lot of posts on the new cards, which I just can't get into, but if I am patient, you come through with a great article on the old cards.

  5. Obviously if you read my blog it won't take long to figure out that my vintage knowledge is lacking. With that being said I love learning about it and can appreciate it. Long story short, I like cards. I saw the Twitter fight you referenced. It was stupid.

  6. Buying '56 Topps instead of registering a domain name? Shame on you!

    All kidding aside, thanks for highlighting Elmer here. I've passed on this card a few times, in the rush to other pursuits, to the point where I've never really looked at the background painting, and that's a damned shame. I think I need to see about snagging a copy soon.

  7. 1956 Topps won? That's good to hear. I voted for it... but for some reason, I thought it was losing. Just like picking favorite car designs, favorite movies, or favorite colors... there's always going to be a variety of responses. In fact, it's kinda nice when I hear a collector mentions a set design they love that I've never even considered before. Makes me take a closer look at the design and see if I can find things to appreciate.

  8. I keep asking if I'm missing anything not being on Twitter. So far I don't think so.

    1989 Upper Deck? I bought the set minus Griffey for like five bucks and Junior for $15. It's not about the money, but you couldn't sniff the '56 star cards for anywhere near that because they're worth a lot more because of the history, nostalgia, artistic value and just all around classic feel. Like you said, Upper Deck is fine, but vintage rules, no question.

  9. Yeah! Elmer Valo is awesome. I have almost every card out there that features him.