Saturday, January 30, 2016

Can I Have Your Autograph?

So I was stumbling around eBay the other day, just sort of window shopping, when this little baby caught my eye:

Now, in a testament to how screwed up I am with all this stuff, I asked myself "Self, how did they get rid of the line under Bobby Murcer's name?" My second thought was more like "Hey, why is one missing?" and then I moved on to wondering who had checked the first signature and written 44% on the sheet.  But as it turns out, I was asking the wrong questions.

Bobby Murcer first appeared on a Topps card in 1966, a year with no autographs. In 1967 there were autographs a-plenty but he signed as Bobby Ray Murcer.  He was in the army from 1967-68 and had no card for 1968.  In 1969 and '70 there were no autographs and in 1971 he repeated 1967:

You can see how his signature evolved, can't you? The M in Murcer could still have been connected to the Y in Ray but he didn't link to anything early on. He made the cut for Bazooka in 1971 but no autographs there either, nor were there any on the 1972-74 Topps cards. Now the sheets says Yankees but that's just the team he was with when he signed his name in quintuplicate. In 1975 he's a Giant, being sent over to San Fran in exchange for Bobby Bonds, the first time two players making over $100,000 per year were traded for each other. And sure enough that's where we see the signature from the sheet:

The 'bay also had a Billy Martin sheet, signed when he was with Texas. 

That stint lasted from 1973-75 and as seen above, there were no autographs the first two years.  Billy though, goes back to the ur-set in 1952:

A couple points.  If he dotted the "i" in Billy, what the hell is that bubble above the two "l's"?  And he added a dash above the "i" in his last name.  WTF? So I got curious.

The next year with an auto is 54 and the dash is gone but not the dot/circle combo:

The dash was back in '56 after a sig-free '55:

No autographs in either 1957 or '58 but in '59 he was back, missing top part of the bubble but retaining the dash:

There were no signatures again through 1962 and then no more cards of Billy until 1969 when he was shown as the Twins manager.  He won the West that year but knocked out two of his players in a bar fight in August and was summarily dismissed after the Twins got swept by the Orioles in the ALCS. As you can imagine, he was out of baseball in 1970 but the Tigers gave him a chance in 1971 and he ended up with a double bubble and a bit more of a stylized autograph, a lot closer to what's on the signature sheet but not an exact match for any of the five examples thereon, nor was he a Ranger at the time:

After the three year autograph hiatus in 1972-74, you would think his 1975 card would have an autograph but they used team cards like so:

He became Yankees skipper in the middle of the 1975 season, then 1976-77 brought more team/manager hybridization before manager cards were en vogue again in 1978, although sans autograph. He got canned again in '78 then had no cards in 1979 or 1980 having been re-hired in mid-season in the '79 and getting fired again after the season ended.

In 1981 he got a good A's team red hot and ushered in "Billy Ball" but that was another team card/manager card year and then somehow he wasn't in the 1982 card set but did make the sticker set, which did not sport autographs.

He was on Topps cards in 1983 (regular and traded), 1984 (regular), 1985 (traded) and 1986 (regular) and that was that.  His signature never made it to a card after he signed the sheet. Despite Sy Berger's assertion that a player's "signature was extremely popular with the youngsters", Topps didn't actually have many years with autographs on the cards. I have to think it was a huge PITA gathering and reproducing them all and in fact, over the 38 years from 1952-89, there were only ten years where the regular issue set carried an autograph (1952 - 1954 - 1956 - 1959 - 1967 - 1971 - 1975 - 1977 - 1980 - 1982). Some secondary and insert sets carried them during the 60's heyday of Topps oddball issues but those were far, far lesser in length than the annual offerings. I always thought of the cards having autographs but it ain't necessarily so.

Saturday, January 23, 2016


As longtime reader of this blog know, I've been trying to track down one of the most elusive inserts Topps ever slipped into their packs for quite a while now.  I am talking of course about the 1968 test Basketball issue, a 22 card black and white rarity issued in minute quantities almost fifty years ago.

The cards are well known in vintage basketball collecting circles but not so much to the casual hobbyist:

Just under 170 cards have been graded by PSA and the highest amount for any single player is 13 for Wilt Chamberlain. Pop reports can be tricky things, what with crackouts and resubs and the more common players seem to average about a half dozen examples each.  In my experience and opinion test issues from the 1965-72 era, sort of the golden age for such things, are available in direct proportion to how they were tested.

The test cycle went roughly as follows: 1) Controlled opinion and market testing in a lab, 2) field testing where Topps executives would actually hand out cards at schoolyards near HQ in Brooklyn ("here little boy, would you like some gum?"), and 3) retail testing where a couple of boxes would be put out in stores near Topps HQ (Cortelyou Road is a rumored location for such things). Later on, regional issues such as the 1975 Mini Baseball would occur and give us products with production runs well beyond anything that should be considered a test. Normally, the farther along in the test cycle a set went, the more cards there are out there to collect. Under ten wax boxes would be a typical run of test cards that made it to the retail level from what I can gather.

There is also another phase, that of the failed test where cards (or internal proofs never market tested) were dumped via Fun Packs (like Flash Gordon), or the Card Collectors Company (1970 Cloth Baseball) or by other means. My own opinion is that most black and white cards, like the one above and also quite a few other sets in the mid to late 60's, did not make it to a full retail test and were only handed out in the lab setting or never actually made it out of the executive offices.

So the 1968 Basketball issue possibly made it to the schoolyard phase but not the retail test to my mind.  Unlike almost all other test issues though, they came in an envelope and not a pack:

Ignore the writing, it's likely added after the fact.

Three things:  1) The gum may have been individually wrapped given that this was not a traditional wax pack; 2) the envelope measures about 3" x 4 1/2" -thanks to Friend o'the Archive Don Huse for the measurements- and; 3) nobody has ever seen the insert.

Well, as is my wont, I was trolling around the internet recently and found this:

That is from this site: and it has scans of 11 other booklets. The site is semi-defunct but if you look you will see the webmaster attributes these booklets to a Hood Dairy issue in 1963. I have sent a message to the webmaster looking for details, especially measurements (remember the oversized envelope wrapper).  I have no idea if there is Hood indicia on the booklet but I could see Topps somehow getting a small supply of these and using them for the insert.  I'm guessing but it's the closest thing I have ever seen to what the wrapper advertises.

Further Update 8/12/17 - Folded Booklets were indeed found in the test packs. More here.

Update 1/25/16-See the Comments for a measurement of the booklet.  It appears that even if folded it would be to big for the pack on even its shortest side.  There is Hood indicia on the back cover to boot. Back to square one it seems, or square zero (no insert exists).

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Driven Batty

I started delving into 1968's Batty Book Covers a few posts ago when discussing some Basil Wolverton original art used by Topps in that set and also the same year's Ugly Hang-Ups. 1967-69 was the era of very large Topps products and Batty Book Covers are no exception, coming in at 11 1/16" x 18 13/16".

Obviously designed to be used to cover textbooks, the set was clearly a 1968 issue as detailed on the box:

Looks like Topps had a promotional deal going on ("Sale-A-Bration") with this box, possibly indicative of poor sales.

The wrapper is, well, batty:

The checklist is handy but inaccurate:

No. 5 is listed as "Wacky Packages" but it ended up being something called "Topps Is What's Happening" presumably because of worries over potential legal issues with the former's intended subject:

(Courtesy The Sport Americana Price Guide to the Non-Sports Cards Number 4 by Chris Benjamin)

Intriguingly, you can see the baseball card depicted is a fair approximation of the burlapped 68's. No less than 13 Topps products are shown, including Bozo gumballs, which is helpful to me as I have been trying for ages to track when they went from bulk wholesale product to retail packaging. I like the checklist appearing on the product itself as well.

Here are a few others, it's a great (and very tough) set and the covers are quite fragile as these examples from an old Legendary auction show:

That looks like Paul Coker artwork on the left panel (UPDATE 11/11/23-It's not-Mark Newgarden advises it's in Art Spiegelman's hand) and I see Jack Davis's hand on the main part of the cover above.  The whole set is peppered with art from MAD artists and it's amazing.  Look at the ad section from the above example (click to blow it up):

Here is more Davis, look at this tableaux!

The left panel has the instructions and they are classic-check out no. 4:

Legendary also had a concept sketch from the set:

Topps had some great artwork early on (1950-51) but it's got nothing on their late 60's output.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

I Am Not An Animal (Set)

Way back in 1989 Guernsey's conducted  a huge auction for what was, at the time, considered to be a large portion of Topps' stash of original artwork. This auction was highlighted by the offering of six original paintings used to produce the 1953 Baseball set, led by Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. We know now, thanks to oodles of auctions held in the last quarter century and the voluminous offerings of the Topps Vault that the Guernsey's auction merely scraped the surface. However, one batch of artwork in the Guernsey's catalog did not make sense.

Nestled in the back 40 of the catalog was this batch attributed to the 1951 Animals of the World (AOTW) set:

I've written about these paintings previously and to recap, thanks to a major media dustup about the violence and celebration of war in the 1950's Freedom's War set, which was then truncated immediately at least one series shy of completion, Topps President Joseph Shorin told the press in 1951 that a second series of Bring 'Em Back Alive, featuring the exploits of the famous adventurer and big game "animal collector" Frank Buck, would be issued instead of another series of Freedom's War but it never happened.

My guess is that by the time Joe Shorin made this announcement, Topps no longer had enough lead time on their license to produce a second series of BEBA. As many in the hobby know, AOTW numbering picks up at #101 and the thought is it replaced the planned 2nd series of BEBA. But what of the eleven cards shown in the Guernsey's catalog? They looked more like a sedate version of BEBA, which was quite a lurid set, but also in no way resembled AOTW.

Here are typical BEBA and AOTW cards for comparison; look at the action depicted on the former:

Now, thanks to a recently concluded Huggins & Scott auction, a number of new examples of this mystery set from the Guernsey's auction have surfaced:

You've got more action on these 28 examples than AOTW (which had none) plus at least two planned cards where someone very much resembling Frank Buck (but who is almost certainly not the famed adventurer) is depicted. On the other hand you also have a gorilla juggling a leopard!

So after seeing this latest batch I am wondering if they were from a planned set that was not related to either BEBA or AOTW. You can even see a coordinated design where a larger "portrait" of the animal is shown on each card along with an "action shot" background, much like the 1955 & '56 Baseball cards, so a later date of intended issue is certainly possible.

There are penciled comments and "in-series" numbering on the margins of some paintings and they are clearly done by a different hand than most of the the BEBA and all of the AOTW paintings.

Topps was probably in the final phase of pre-production on these but then something happened and the whole thing was scrapped.  Maybe AOTW sold poorly and spooked Topps, which would not surprise me, or if the paintings were more of a planned mid-decade issue the Bowman/Connelly acquisition may have intervened, but clearly this was a project that was intended to be issued as a standalone set or series. So we still have 39 mystery subjects out there to deal with!

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Hoop Dreams

Another month, another jaw dropping auction!  This time it's SCP Auctions and the subject is basketball, specifically 1948 Bowman Basketball.  The set is a landmark in the hobby and actually predates the NBA, showing players from the Basketball Association of America (BAA). Kicking off just after World War 2 ended in 1946, the BAA played three seasons before merging with the National Basketball League (NBL) in August of 1949 to spit out the NBA, casting off the weaker teams. This mega-merger likely came about because four NBL teams had jumped to the BAA for the 1948-49 season.  The 12 BAA teams from its final season are all represented in the Bowman set, so in addition to being the first nationally distributed basketball set, it's a great time capsule.

For the record, the 12 BAA teams in existence when the set was issued were:

Baltimore Bullets (not the franchise that eventually became the current day Wizards)
Boston Celtics
Chicago Stags
Fort Wayne Pistons (a.k.a. Zollner Pistons)
Indianapolis Jets
Minnesota Lakers
New York Knickerbockers
Philadelphia Warriors
Rochester Royals
St. Louis Bombers
Washington Capitols

As you can see, a couple of of the team names belie their owners' industrial backgrounds. I've linked to a site with some information on the Steamrollers, who had one of the greatest logos I have ever seen.

Anyhoo......The set was issued in two series of 36 cards each, with each team getting five players. Bowman snuck 12 "basketball play" diagram cards in to round the set off at 72. The high number series is tougher to find and the whole issue is a nightmare of condition sensitive cards and high value rookies (which obviously abound). Like the upcoming 1949 Baseball issue, the cards featured black and white player photos, slightly tinted with some spot block color added. Backgrounds were solid. Here is a classic example from the set:

The cards were distributed in five cent wax packs and given the conventional hobby wisdom that the basketball set had the lowest production runs of any 1948 Bowman issue, you can imagine how hard it is to find any wrappers or packs.  Well, SCP has managed to snag an example of both in a recently concluded auction:

There's also a nickel wrapper, which I think is a bit mesmerizing:

As if that wasn't enough, there is a partial uncut high number sheet as well, a 7 x 4 array:

Mr. Mikan is there on the bottom row! And those slate gray backgrounds indicate the red process is missing from this particular partial sheet. 

Like Topps, Bowman printed cards on much larger press sheets. A number of partial sheets from various Bowman sets, often in a 9 x 4 array (reflecting Bowman's penchant for 36 cards series) have shown up in the hobby over the years. These are mostly rejected press sheets (like the one here) that were bought up from print shop personnel by a paper dealer in Philadelphia in the 1950's. Bowman sets, much like those from Topps, were printed on larger press sheets.  The sheer number of partials that have 36 card arrays makes me think they were cut down this way before being sent off to Bowman for further cutting and packing.

I'll not show the full back, which reveals numerically sequential printing, but rather the six mostly-basketball themed premium offers on the back of the cards:


Again, much like Topps the premiums would have been fulfilled by a third party vendor or two. What a great little slice of Bowman and BAA history this sheet represents.