Monday, November 29, 2010


In my small corner of the world, we went to Ha-Cha Stationery for the Sunday Times. On the off chance that they were out of papers, we’d head over to Park Island.

Park Island was a little more than a mile away from Ha-Cha, which in little-kid geography felt like light years. And it was exotic. Dark aisles of toys and greeting cards and colorful things to which I had not yet ascribed a practical use.

The counter at the front of the store was packed full of candy and rolls of red caps, and in the summer, space was cleared for Mexican jumping beans and baseball cards.

And not just any baseball cards. While Ha-Cha trafficked in the standard Topps sets, Park Island carried the 1970 and 1971 Topps Supers, Chemtoy superballs, Milk Duds player boxes, and Fleer World Series cards.

I made enough trips to Park Island in those years to put together a decent collection of these esoteric issues, but in time they fell prey to storage difficulties (Supers), the allure of splitting brittle rubber with a fingernail (superballs), inexact scissoring (Milk Duds), and general disinterest (the Fleers).

So when I saw this 1971 Super Clendenon on eBay, I jumped at it.

It's Park Island in optical-grade hard plastic...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


The 1970 Topps set is my Eden.

Now, I realize it’s just a gray, blighted garden to some. But hear me out.

First of all, let’s start with the gray itself. This is the first Topps baseball set with a gray border. They’d done wood-grain and burlap sack and white, sure. But never gray.

And gray was a perfect fit. It is both lunar and anti-psychedelic—the ideal 1970 color.

Next, we have the script player names on the card fronts, another first for a Topps baseball set.

Up until 1970 there had been nothing but a succession of blocky, mostly sans serif fonts used for player names. This script font makes it feel like baseball cards are growing up, which is both momentous and tremendously sad.

(A small quirk that I love about the 1970 set is that sometimes players from New York’s American League team are referred to on the fronts as Yankees and sometimes as Yanks. Because I appreciate a healthy disrespect for authority…)

The card backs are among the most readable that Topps ever produced, with blocks of blue and gold ink subdividing a creamy white field.

Oh, and finally there's this: Card #1. World Champions. New York Mets.


Monday, November 22, 2010


A cool subgenre of Manager cards is the “Manager Pantomiming Shouting by Raising Cupped Hand(s) to Mouth” card.

Here’s a nice example, genus 1964.

But wait, there’s something going on here that’s not quite right.

This is not actually a Manager card. It’s a “Head Coach” card.

That’s right, a Head Coach card. In a baseball set.

How did this happen? Well, back in the early 60s, things got a little weird in Chicago, and they instituted an experiment called the College of Coaches. You can read about it here.

And if there is no greater legacy of this doomed effort than an anomalous Head Coach card in the 1964 Topps set, I think that has to be considered in the ledger as a small measure of success…

Friday, November 19, 2010


I’ll always remember when Jon Matlack was deckled by a Marty Perez line drive in 1973.

The ball caromed off his head, and he dropped as if he'd been shot. I felt it out in Plainview.

After all, Matlack was one of my main driveway pitchers.

This was the short roster of guys I would pretend to be as I toed the “rubber” on my driveway and hurled tennis balls at the garage door. If I could hit the same rectangle three straight times, Reggie Jackson could only grumble and head back to the bench. Sorry Reggie—this game 7 belongs to us.

Matlack was a lefty like me, and like most good lefties, he wore number 32. Plus his middle name was “Trumpbour,” which has to count for something.

These Deckle Edge cards were part of the last gasp of limited-run test issues to come out of Topps. And deep in the heart of the Technicolor 70s, I’d say it took some gumption for them to release a black and white set.

I have an ungraded Felix Millan in a box somewhere. The Seaver has eluded me.

But as much as I love Tom Terrific, every once in a while still I rock into that Matlack motion, raise the glove in front of my eyes, uncoil, deliver, and duck…

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Manager cards have always been the licorice jelly beans of a Topps set.

They look as shiny and tasty as anything else in the pile. But you bite into one expecting sweetness, and instead get something exotic and slightly out of step.

Take this 1964 Gil Hodges card, for example. On the surface, it looks like pretty much any other player card in the set.

Then you flip it over and find that there’s no cartoon, no rub-a-nickel quiz rectangle, and no stats. Just a windy narrative about all things Gil.

But I have to say that I enjoy the occasional selection of artisanal licorice. And by the same token, I could see developing a specific enthusiasm for these old-school manager cards…

Monday, November 15, 2010


Back in the '70s and '80s, these Topps Giants cards were little regarded and even less loved.

They were too big for the bicycle spokes, but ideal for cutting into strips to fashion makeshift Hot Wheels track connectors. (Oh yes I did, and I’m proud of it.)

Dealers would leave these on their counters for the taking, or drop some in your brown paper bag when you spent a few dollars on a couple of packs of old ’72 wax.

However, it does seem that the short prints in this set are genuinely elusive. I don’t think I had ever laid eyes on this Cisco card until the advent of eBay. I’d defaced many a Hunt and McMillan, but never a Cisco...

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Today’s card comes with a bedtime story…

Once upon a time there was a boy named Charlie. He loved his mom, his dad, his little sister Becky, and his turtle Shelly. But most of all, Charlie loved baseball.

He’d spend countless hours in his backyard, throwing pop flies up into the air, making ice-cream cone catches to save imaginary games.

But as fate would have it, Charlie was just not very good at baseball. He had been hit in the face by many of those fantasy flies, enduring multiple bumps and bruises. A ball once caught him flush in the mouth and chipped his front tooth—it looked like a little peninsula. “I lost it in the sun!” he told his mom between tears.

Charlie’s dad was named Salvatore Etrada, and he dreamed that one day Charlie would join the family brokerage firm. He talked constantly to his wife about the future joy of having another Etrada working at Etrada.

Well, the years passed, as years will. Charlie grew older. Charlie grew into Charles. He went to work at the brokerage firm and was quite successful. But the dream of one day being a big-league ballplayer never quite died.

For Charles’ 25th birthday, Salvatore arranged the best surprise. He bought Charles a full New York Mets uniform, and arranged with the team’s manager Wes Westrum to allow Charles to spend the day on the practice field with the team.

Charles was overjoyed. He stretched and ran and threw with all the big leaguers. He felt like Charlie again.

Then, the strangest thing happened. Charlie was posing for a picture, pretending to pitch a baseball, when suddenly four bubblegum-pink letters floated into his view, just out of reach. He blinked twice, but the letters did not disappear: METS.

Charlie stretched to reach one of the letters, and he was finally able to grab the S.

There was a big whooshing sound, and the S snapped hard against his chest. Then he felt a tingling on his shoulders.

He didn’t think too much more about it until a few minutes later, when he was having a catch with one of the players. “Let it rip!” the player yelled to Charlie. So Charlie did. There was a loud pop of leather against leather, and the other player dropped his mitt and flexed his hand vigorously. “Ow! Here.” He tossed the ball back to Charlie. “Do that again.”

So Charlie did it again, with the same result. The coaches took notice of the sound, and began to form a half circle around Charlie. “Some arm you got there kid,” one said, spitting a big gob of brown goo at his feet. “Yeah, where you been hiding, Estrada?” said Westrum the manager.

Charlie was confused by all the attention. And did that guy just call him “Estrada”?

He corrected the manager. “It’s Etrada, sir. Charles Etrada.”

“Well, that ain’t what it says on the back of your jersey.”

Charlie strained to look over his right shoulder, and then his left. He saw that the name on the back of the jersey now read Estrada.

“You ever think about being a big league pitcher, Chuck?” asked Westrum.

Now of course we all know what Chuck’s answer was. Before he knew it, he was an official part of the team. He even had his own Topps trading card, which captured the moment right before he grabbed that magical S. The S that gave him a big league fastball. The S that changed Charles Etrada to Chuck Estrada.

His dad was sad at first, but the family brokerage continued to thrive. Eventually, all the people in the world got home computers, and Salvatore changed the name of the company just a bit, from Etrada to E-Trade.

And they all lived happily ever after.

You could look it up…

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


Ah, the multiplayer rookie card (MRC). When it works, it’s a thing of beauty. When it doesn’t, you curse the fibrous pulp on which it’s printed.

Topps introduced the concept of the MRC in 1962. Expansion was making it impractical to represent all the new players, and here was an ingenious way to fit some of the greener guys into the set.

The initial design followed the floating-head motif that debuted on the 1960 coaches cards. It was crowded, crazy, and kind of cryogenic. And it was gone by 1964.

From 1964 onward, Topps bounced around between headshots in portrait and landscape layouts, often employing both in the same year. The 1973 MRCs are exclusively landscape, and (as in 1962) native to the high-number series.

OK, the elephant in the room with this particular card is that it’s actually an O-Pee-Chee— hence the “Troisiemes-buts debutants en 1973” fol de rol.

I find these OPC cards endearing in part because of their bilingual joie de vivre, and in part because the ragged edges make it look like they were cut from a sheet with a rusty butter knife.

It’s hard to think of a rookie card with a better pairing than the Schmidt and Cey on this one, but here are some competitors that spring to mind:

1968 Koosman/Ryan
1971 Baylor/Baker
1972 Cooper/Fisk
1978 Molitor/Trammell

Friday, November 5, 2010


I carry this with me in my wallet, sandwiched between my driver's license and my Social Security card: a 1970 Topps Pilots rookie card. It's been with me for decades now, as the creases and tears will attest.

1970 was the first year in which I bought baseball cards. I was a couple of steps out of toddlerhood in 1969, and found myself swept up in the amazing saga of the soon-to-be-champion Mets. This was not an uncommon affliction in my Long Island neighborhood, but I caught a particularly persistent strain.

So every summer Sunday after church in 1970 we went to the local stationery store to pick up a copy of the New York Times, and I was allowed to buy two packs of cards. Wax, usually, but I could sometimes barter a bit of good behavior into a cello here and a rack pack there.

Of course, pulling a Mets card was a visceral thrill, be it Al Weis, Tom Seaver, or Bobby Pfeil. But I began to take particular note of the Pilots cards. It seemed odd that cards were being produced for a team that no longer existed.

These Pilots cards soon developed a secondary, but still special, place in my heart. I was far too young at the time to know what it meant to be ephemeral, and yet I think in a way I did.

As I grew older, the Pilots rookie card became increasingly totemic to me. I learned that one of the featured players, Miguel Fuentes, had died at the age of 23 in early 1970. The eight September games he pitched for the 1969 Pilots were the sum total of a career cut short by tragedy. An ephemeral career. An ephemeral life.

So now I carry with me the cards of my identity. My driver's license will tell you my height, weight, eye color, and date of birth; my Social Security card holds the map of my history as a son and a husband and a father.

But I suspect that the 1970 Pilots rookie card says more about me than both of those documents combined...

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


Checklist cards are sublime.

They are the novelization of a Topps set.

As a kid, I loved to be able to read a list of all the cards in each new series, and damn right I’d fill in the little boxes with pencil marks when I got my “got its.”

In addition, if you had sussed out Topps’ mathematical shorthand, checklists gave you a quick way to view which stars were in a given series. Cards ending in 0 or 5 were generally established/upcoming stars, and the century cards were superstars. Here's a sampling from series 5:

530 Don Sutton
550 Brooks Robinson
555 Ron Santo
560 Pete Rose
595 Nolan Ryan
600 Al Kaline
620 Phil Niekro

Checklist cards are ridiculous.

Even if you acknowledged the beauty and utility of checklists, chances are that you were less than thrilled when you pulled your second, third, fourth iteration of the same card.

They had no trade value, and didn’t fit the template for most flipping games.

To be determined: whether it is sublime or ridiculous to actually own a PSA 9 checklist...

Monday, November 1, 2010


We're in the primordial ooze of Metsdom here, friends. This is Mr. Met congealing in a sluice of amino acids and evolving proteins.

OK, OK, I know it says “Chicago Cubs” plain as day. But check the footnote:

“Drafted by the New York Mets, Oct. 10, 1961”

The franchise at its inception made a habit of drafting broken Brooklyn Dodgers like Zim in an effort to cater to an abandoned NL fan base.

The Mets were designed to be a second coming.

And in this card, snipped from the back of a box of Post Toasties, we see the shadow of a rough beast slouching towards the Polo Grounds to be born...