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A not-so-dying breed

So, Blog Bat Around readers, you wanna know why I collect what I collect, eh? Well, I can sum it up for you in two words: Lou Thornton.

He's the reason I'm a set collector. Who the hell is Lou Thornton? Funny, I asked myself that same question when he arrived amid two stacks of 1986 Topps cards from dayf this week. But you know what? Instead of tossing him aside because I don't know him or because he isn't a star, or because he doesn't have a piece of fabric attached to his card, I did a little jig (well, in my head, of course). I couldn't believe my luck: today, I get to find out who Lou Thornton is!!

This is the beauty of set-building, and living the so-called first-world life. Set-builders get to find out who each individual ball player is. Every player has a story, whether they are a revered star or an ignored utility pinch-runner. And some of the stories I've found through set-building are amazing.

I am also a team collector. That's quite obvious with the number of Dodgers I've displayed on this blog. But even my Dodgers fall behind the sets that I have completed over the years. I have completed eight base sets in my collecting career. But each experience was different.

The first complete sets I ever owned were the 1984 and 1985 Topps sets:

But I'm not happy with the way I collected those sets. I was just starting college, and didn't have the time to devote to collecting cards. But I did have money that I never had before, so I bought the complete sets each year. They're nice to look at, and I enjoy both sets. But to this day, there are cards in the 1985 set that are a complete mystery to me, because I didn't get the opportunity to enjoy every card.

A similar thing happened with the 1988 Topps set:

I collected a few scattered rack packs that year. Then, years later, I enjoyed the look of the set so much that I tracked down some more cards. But instead of collecting the remainder of the set, I went ahead and purchased an entirely complete set because it was cash friendly. Dirt cheap, but not exactly getting your hands dirty.

The other sets I have completed have been the ultimate examples of why I am in this hobby:

The 1980 Topps set was the first one I ever staked out to complete. I came very close in 1980, falling about 15 cards short. Then in a trade, almost 25 years later, I acquired those 15 missing cards. The last card was Ralph Garr of the White Sox. Almost every time I look at that set, I turn to that Ralph Garr card.

The 1989 Topps set was the first one, as I mentioned here, that I tried to complete by buying packs at one single drug store in Buffalo, N.Y. I was out of college, working two part-time jobs, had loads of free time, only a girlfriend to spend money on, and plenty of disposable income. I came up four cards short. Again, more than a decade later, I completed the set by acquiring two Astros -- Mike Scott and Craig Biggio -- and two Yankees - Claudell Washington and Gary Ward.

In 2006, I did almost the same thing, although I spent my cash in various places to pick up the entire '06 Topps set. I was back in the hobby after more than a decade away, and I wanted to see if I could do what I couldn't in 1989. I could. Andy Pettitte (another Astro) was the last player to fill out the set.

But the most meaning came from completing the first two sets of my childhood: The 1975 Topps set, the first set I ever collected:

And, the 1974 set. The first set that I ever saw as youngster. The cards that my brothers and I threw out at the end of the summer because, hey, we were clueless Brady Bunch boys, and we thought that's what you did.

Both of those sets were the first things I collected upon my return to the hobby.

I'm also very close to completing some other sets.

I have the final two cards on the way to wrap up the 2008 Allen and Ginter.

I need three more to put a bow on the 1978 Topps set.

And, I'll probably never get there, but I'm dreaming of completing the 2008 Topps Heritage set.

But it doesn't end there. I'm working on completing:

1976 Topps. Isn't that a great on-the-field view?

1981 Topps. Pops at his golden finest!

1983 Topps. A member of one of the most talked-about outfields of the late 1970s.

1986 Topps. That's what all those '86 cards from Cardboard Junkie were all about.

And 1991 Topps. Just because a lot of the photos are cool, and I didn't appreciate them at the time.

Still not done ...

And, because I need long-range goals and have a self-loathing streak, I am aiming for the entire 1971 set ...

... (scanning issue on that Unser card) and the just-as-hard to complete 1972 set.

You might have noticed that not a single one of the cards I featured were Dodgers. There's a reason for that. Even though I am a Dodger fan and take the most interest in the players that compete for L.A., I am interested in EVERY player that appears on a card. I don't like it when sets exclude players. EVERYONE has a story, card companies. Everyone. And I bleeping don't need seven Ichiro cards every year.

Each of the cards I featured above holds meaning to me. Either I like the design of the card, or the photo on the card, or the player on the card, or the player's background, or a combination of all of the above.

For example, Tom Griffin, 1975 Topps:

Griffin struck out 200 batters his very first year. He was a rookie sensation for the Astros in 1969. What followed was a respectable 14-year career. But he never came even close to the kind of season he had in 1969. That set off all kinds of questions in my head as a youngster when I saw the back of his card. But if I wasn't a set collector, if I just collected stars and dismissed the Tom Griffins of the world, I never would have known about Griffin's 1969 season. I'm not dismissing player collectors. I'm just saying that for me, I'd feel like I was missing out if I didn't know about Tom Griffin's 1969 season.

But I'm happy to say that I have company. What I have learned since starting this blog is there are loads more set collectors than I ever imagined. Several months ago, I had thought the entire collecting world had turned into player collectors or high-end collectors. That's hardly the case. And a lot of young collectors are set collectors. That is great news. Set collecting is all about the thrill of the chase, while gaining all kinds of information that you never knew before, hearing about wonderful stories of players who are above all human beings.

My fear for set collectors is a simple one. I think card companies are trying to short-print us out of existence. I would have completed my A&G set using much more cash and with greater difficulty if it wasn't for blog traders. And I have a feeling that's how I will complete a lot of current sets in the future.

There are other sets that I might be tempted to collect, but don't because the short-prints tilt the scale to "don't buy."
This Steve Carlton Masterpieces card, I believe, is a short-print. Nice card. But I'm not sold on Masterpieces, so I certainly won't try to complete a set with so many short-prints. Upper Deck Timeline? Nope. I may boycott (oooh, there's that word) that one altogether because of the insane number of short-prints.

But I think there will always be a set for set collectors each year, and hopefully it's one that looks good enough to collect. Because that's where my heart lies, in the stories and backgrounds and histories of the people who play the best game on earth.

Which brings me back to Lou Thornton.

Lou Thornton was mostly a pinch-running and defensive specialist for the Blue Jays and Mets from 1985-1990. After playing in 56 games for the Blue Jays (essentially why he has a 1986 card), he never played more than 13 games in a season the rest of his career. He is often mentioned as a prime example of the Rule V draft, the MLB rule that says any player made a Rule V draftee must remain in the majors with the team that drafted them for the entire season or be offered back to their previous organization. Thornton and Manny Lee were Rule V picks by the Blue Jays and basically sat the bench for the entire 1985 season, which meant the Blue Jays advanced all the way to the ALCS with essentially a 23-man team.

Thornton also played for the Mets as a replacement player in the spring of 1995 during the players strike of 1994-95, but walked out of spring camp as replacement players claimed that manager Dallas Green was being too tough on them.

A native of Montgomery, Ala., Thornton returned to his alma mater, Auburn University Montgomery, where he works as a physical education instructor and a coordinator of intramural athletics. He was also a manager of the Montgomery Wings, a professional baseball team in the Montgomery area, from 2001-03.

Nice to meet you Mr. Thornton. Sorry it took so long to get to know you. This 1986 Topps card just arrived at my door on Monday.


Andy said…
This is an awesome post and was a pleasure to read.
MMayes said…
I am absolutely with you about being a set collector. I admit, however, that I "cheat." I usually buy the complete set, as it becomes a little too cost prohibitive to buy individual cards. I've got all of the regular Topps sets from 1973-2008; Donruss/Fleer from 1981-1991. I'm about 20 short of 1972, 10 short of 1971 and 20 short of 1964. I've started a 1970 set and only have about 250 of it so far.

About 10 years ago I started something that added even more to appreciating the common players in the sets. I started taking my singles and sending them in the mail for autographs. That meant I would have to research a little about who Tom Griffin was to write him a little letter. It's been even more rewarding that set collecting.
Dave said…
Wow - awesome post! You did a great job of explaining the joys of being a set collector. If I was wherever you are, I'd give you a standing ovation!
Fleerfan said…
What a great explanation of what it means to be a set collector. You hit the nail on the head in talking about building sets, and how cards of every day "common" players hold as much significance as a "star".

The sets that I have that I purchased complete are nice to have, but its those sets that you put together card by card that are the most rewarding and the ones you remember the most.

I agree that it is nice to see that there are still a good number of set collectors still involved in the hobby.
Motherscratcher said…
My favorite post in the bat/blog-a-round that I've read so far. I like to think that I'm first and foremost a set collector right now, because that's what my mindset says that I am. I just have set to actually collect a whole set. Like you I have some complete sets, but they don't count because their mostly still wrapped in plastic. Sometimes I think the best thing I could do with those would be to just dump them all over the floor. Then I would HAVE to organize them, and consequently appreciate them like they deserve to be appreciated. Hey, maybe that would make a good blog post!
Motherscratcher said…
Good lord my grammer and spelling are horible.