Tuesday, March 24, 2009

'56s from heaven

The fifth blog bat around asks us to brag a bit. "What is the best experience you have had acquiring cards or memorabilia?" OK, I'm gonna brag a bit.

But first I'm going to address the question. The question implies that you actually DID something to acquire these cards or memorabilia. It assumes there is a story about "the process," a journey, an undertaking. Hopefully, it's an interesting story. Maybe it's funny or uplifting or fraught with danger and intrigue.

But there is no "process" to my acquisition. I did absolutely, positively, 100 percent nothing to acquire a bunch of 1956 Topps cards. Sometimes, believe it or not, just raising your hand and saying, "I collect baseball cards!" is enough.

So, here is my story. I mentioned it one other time on this post. But I want to go into a little more detail this time.

My father worked for the city. He was in charge of the city's water supply. It was a job with a lot of responsibility and every day he would come home with a series of stories about the hassles and adventures of the day.

One day, he came home with more than stories. He came home with a large, brown grocery bag. My brothers and I knew immediately what was in it. My father had told us a couple of days before that someone at work heard we collected baseball cards and that he might have some older cards to give us. So when the grocery bag finally appeared, we weren't shocked. Thrilled, yes. Out of our minds, yes. But not shocked.

In that bag were baseball cards! Cards from someone we had never met or even seen! They were like baseball cards from heaven!

All of the cards were from the 1950s. There were a few 1957 and 1958 Topps. I snagged a 1957 Willie Mays from that bag. But the vast majority of the cards were 1956 Topps -- in my mind possibly the greatest set ever made. I may have great affection for the 1975 set, but I know, if I was collecting -- or even around -- in 1956, that set would be my all-time favorite, by far.

The set is just a great piece of art, front and back. The fronts are great. Portraits AND action shots. A terrific design. The backs may be even better. Probably the best cartoons I have ever seen on a trading card. And the larger size of the card provided a better opportunity for the artists to create their pictures both on the front and the back.

I mentioned in that earlier post that my father's co-worker probably didn't give us all the cards from his collection. Missing from the 1956 cards in that bag were players like Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Duke Snider and Roberto Clemente. In fact, there was not a single Yankee in the entire bag. Not surprising, since I lived in Yankee territory.

The best players I ended up getting were stars, but not superstars. There was Carl Erskine and Don Newcombe. Lew Burdette and Herb Score.

Ken Boyer and Enos Slaughter. Great players, but not players who were no-brainers for the Hall of Fame.

My two brothers and I had a system whenever we would acquire cards as a group. Any players from our respective favorite teams would go to that person. The Dodgers would go to me, the Red Sox would go to one brother and the Orioles would go to my other brother.

That meant I received some great Brooklyn Dodgers from that grocery bag. My brothers didn't fair as well, since the Red Sox and the Orioles weren't powers in the 1950s. But they did get a lot of cards of their favorite teams. That explains why my only Red Sox card from the '56 set is the team card, and my only Orioles are duplicates that are pretty beat up.

Like this Dave Pope card. It looks like someone folded it up in their wallet.

The rest of the cards we split up by alternating turns, like choosing sides to play a baseball game. There were so many cards that I ended up with nearly one-third of the 1956 set.

There were great cards, like Johnny Antonelli of the New York Giants, who was from Rochester, and owned a tire shop in our town.

And Whitey Lockman, another New York Giant, who recently died. I loved all the nicknames of the players back in the 1950s.

This was my favorite nickname. A ballplayer named "Granny." It became one of my favorite cards, all because his nickname was "Granny."

But these cards became so much more to me than a photo and a name. Through the magic of cartoons, I actually learned something about these men who played before I was even born. The cartoons made me want to learn about them. These backs were far more interesting than those that featured just a bio and a stack of stats.

Almost in storyboard form, you learned about leading pitchers of the day like Burdette, Score and Nuxhall. The cartoons were well-done, clever and thoughtful. Even if the same concept was brought up on more than one card -- say a pitcher had a good fastball -- Topps used a different cartoon to convey the concept. That was back when Topps used their head.

The cartoons summed up the players' careers so well that I can bet you can guess the subject of each of the following three cartoons. If you have a relative understanding of baseball players from the '50s, you'll know who each of these players is.

Some of the card fronts even included live-action photos, which I believe was a first for Topps at that time.

I can't begin to tell you which player is Frank Lary, or even if either player is, but you can tell the action picture is a heck of a lot different than the one of his fellow Tiger teammate.

That's a drawing all the way.

There were a few variations in the 1956 set, although none intentional, like they are today. A number of the team cards featured the team name with a black bar that was either centered, or off to the left -- as on this Cubs card.

Then there were the white backs. I'm pretty sure these are rarer than the gray backs, but not significantly so. I do have fewer of the white backs, and I actually prefer the gray backs. Now, that I think of it, did Topps Heritage replicate the gray backs and white backs when they copied the '56 set in 2005? I wasn't collecting then, so I don't know.

The '56 set was the reason why I already knew all about Joe Torre's older brother when Frank was in the news during the 1996 World Series for needing a heart transplant. Some were hearing about Frank for the first time then. But I already had Frank's card -- his rookie card.

I also became fans of players forgotten by time, like Billy Hoeft of the Tigers, who went 16-7 with a 2.99 ERA in 1955. But I mostly liked him because of the cool tiger on the cartoon.

And here's Rip Repulski (because only his mom called him "Eldon"), who was cool because his nickname was Rip, but also because of that awesome cartoon of the ball crashing down between the two spectators. Wow.

On that day, I acquired a whole bunch of cards that taught me all about the players from the 1950s. Some of them were famous, like Newcombe here. And some of them weren't. But that was OK, because now I was one of the few who knew that Rip Repulski hit 23 home runs for the Cardinals in 1955.

I'll always appreciate the 1956 set, front and back. And I didn't even have to do anything to get the cards. You can't beat that.


  1. My guesses for the three cartoon panels:

    Johnny Podres
    Vernon Law
    Gene Conely

    I probably enjoyed the backs of cards even more than the fronts. I learned a lot about baseball by reading the backs of cards. :)

  2. What a great post! You really hit the jackpot with these 1956 cards. I only have a few of the Orioles from that year, but I do have a Davey Pope that's in slightly better shape than yours ;)

    Matt beat me to the cartoon guesses. I'm pretty sure he's spot-on (except I think it's spelled Conley).

  3. Wow, what an incredible day it must have been to be able to did through that bag of baseball cards. I would have been out of my mind. I'm not too familiar with the older cards and I never really appreciated the 56 set before. If fact, I don't have any so I didn't know about the cool backs. It does look like a great set.

    The only cartoon I got was Johnny Podres

  4. Awesome! The '56 set is one of my favorites. It great to see so many in one place.

  5. Why post so many cards of schlubs? All you needed was the Nuxie!
    That is a cool feeling. New Years Day in 81 watching Hershel run wild in the Sugar Bowl was a day like that for me. All the neighborhood kids who were "too old" for cards brought theirs to me. Over 6k baseball. basketball and football from 67 up. Some sweet cards.

  6. the '56 set is beautiful. so are the memory and the post.