Saturday, June 3, 2023

Gonna Get High, High, High

With apologies to Paul McCartney, for some time now I've been aware of the distinctive tone, player selection and look Topps used for some of their high number series from the 1950's. With the baseball season in full swing, On a macro basis I would estimate June was the month the highs were created and composed in most years, so what better way to kick of the portal to summer?!

1952 is, of course, the most famous high number series of them all.  I've expounded on it almost ad nauseum over the years (click over to the labels if you don't believe me), and don't feel the need to address much more of it here. Created after Topps thought they would stop their inaugural Baseball issue at 310 cards, or so the story goes, it's the biggest series of the set at 97 subjects and contains three famous double prints. My own opinion as to the greenlighting of this last batch is they finally signed Mickey Mantle, Jackie Robinson and host of Dodgers after prior contracts finally ran out in mid-June. Whether due to a need to shunt three cards of managers to the fifth series, leaving a lack of players or coaches to fill in that small gap left by such a move, they came up short and had to double up Mantle, Robinson and Bobby Thomson in a series also loaded with no-name rookies.  Truly a "prince and pauper" series if there ever was one.

Generally referred to at Topps in 1952 as the "second series", its lackluster sales seems to have tempered their thinking about the length of their sets over the next half a decade.  Here is a good example of how Topps used coaches and managers to fill out the series.  There's 11 of the former and 3 of the latter among the 97 subjects. The entire Dodgers staff was present: Manager Dressen, and coaches Lavagetto, Herman and Pitler.  

In fact, if you look at the New York teams, they have a combined 35 subjects represented in the highs, with 9 of them managers or coaches.  That left 57 slots for players, coaches and managers from other teams. Take away 14 Boston Braves and Red Sox subjects (Beantown was seemingly the next biggest market in 1952), there's only 43 numbers left for ten teams (no White Sox made the cut). Here's Pitler:

1953 brought a smaller set, planned to have run 280 cards. except that six subjects were withdrawn due to their exclusive deals with Bowman.  My thought is Topps left holes in the earlier series (such as the five missing numbers in the 1st series), which they then "backfilled" from the next to allow for this.  The first series was missing card nos. 10, 44, 61, 72 and 81 and when those were printed with the second series, they likewise likewise held back nos. 94, 107, 131, 145 and 156. Those were printed with the third series, which was otherwise 55 cards in length. Ending at #220, maybe Topps briefly thought they were out of the woods with Bowman or even done for the year, but they most certainly were not as nos. 253, 261, 267, 268, 271 and 275 never appeared.

There is some star power in the 1953 high numbers, with Willie Mays and Jackie Jensen present but it's the gaps that define the highs.

1954 doesn't really have high numbers as the set was printed in an odd fashion, with seeming huge numbering gaps in the later series press runs (and possibly the first series), suggesting some pessimism at Brooklyn HQ. In addition, there weren't enough subjects in the set to extend into true high number territory. There is a second Ted Williams card though, concluding the set at #250, which is a nice bookend to the #1 card he leads off the set with.

Topps did do something special with this card though, using a Brady Bunch-ish motif for the cartoons and a note to check card #1 in the set for the Splinter's stats:

1955 saw the shortest set of the era for Topps, when 206 out of a planned 210 cards were issued.  There's some weirdness to the print arrays for the first series, where some holes seem to have been created, just like in '53.  At the end, four numbers were pulled: 175, 186, 203 and 209, as Topps continued to wrangle with Bowman. It's been suggested in the big Beckett Almanac of Baseball Cards & Collectibles that nos. 170 (Pearce), 172 (Baumholtz), 184 (Perkowski) & 188 (Silvera) were double printed to replace the missing cards on the press sheet. There's really no distinction of a high number series this year either and the distribution of stars is robust from nos. 161-210.

1956 was the first year Topps didn't have to compete with Bowman, having bought out their erstwhile competitor in February. To me that means at least one if not two series were already planned at the time of the sale and it's possible they took a wait and see approach at Topps, planning to definitely issue 260 cards before committing to the final 80.  They certainly truncated the Baseball Buttons set at 60 pins, 30 short of the intended (and announced) number.

Two things stand out in the 1956  high numbers, Wesley Morse, of Bazooka Joe fame, did all the cartoons from nos. 261-340 (he didn't do any of the first 260) and there are no team cards, which debuted as a feature in series one, as Topps concluded those at no. 251 with the Yankees and issued them for all sixteen teams before they got to the last series. Finally unencumbered by Bowman's contracts, Topps also started "pushing" unnumbered checklist cards into the packs for the first time in 1956, one checklist covered series 1 and 3, the other series 2 and 4. I would very much like to understand the timing of their insertion as I suspect it could have been quite late in the production cycle.

Check out the bottom text on the 2/4 checklist:

It's almost like they wedged in the "340" isn't it? I wonder if they had a different number in mind originally.

1957 gives us an anomaly, with the toughest cards being in the semi-high series 4 and running from #265-352.  The highs end at #407 and are pretty much a wasteland of established major league talent, although Topps did add two extremely nice, high octane multi-player cards at #400 (Dodgers' Sluggers) and #407 (Yankees' Power Hitters) to round things out. I suspect this final series was a test of sorts, to see how many cards could realistically be produced with sixteen teams. If you take away the team cards, and the multi-players cards (plus the League Presidents card) you get an average of a little over 24 players per team, so Topps was at the extreme limits of what was possible given the rosters of the day.

Topps also pushed four standalone checklist cards (and some contest cards printed with them) for each series in the packs. Each checklist covered two complete series (1/2, 2/3, 3/4 and 4/5).  Once again, there are no team cards in the last series. I have to think they knew by the time the second series was issued in any given year if they were going to put out a final series.

This isn't a card but rather a paper proof of the Dodgers' Sluggers: 

1958 saw a new innovation, the team cards had checklists on their backs. Topps clearly saw a path to issuing more cards as 494 of a planned 495 subjects hit the streets, with #145 pulled due to the January 17 arrest of  the Phillies Ed Bouchee for indecent exposure in Spokane, Washington. (Bouchee was convicted on March 7th, given three years of probation and suspended by Commissioner Ford Frick, pending psychiatric evaluation and finally returned to the Phillies in early July). Bouchee was replaced on the second series press sheet by Jim Bunning.

A large number of multi-player cards were issued by Topps in 1958 and they also stretched things out with an All Star subset (their first) with the in-season signing of Stan Musial giving them something to crow about (he got an AS card but no regular issue slot). Once again, no team cards were created for the last series of the year.

If you look at the high numbers in '58 they otherwise feature a parade of nobodies and rookies as Topps seemingly intended to tentatively stop production at 440 cards before deciding to issue the final series. We can tell because the team cards held the checklists for the first time and only the last four came as "two-ways", where you could find either a numerical or alphabetical version on the backs of the Braves (#377), Tigers (#397), Orioles (#408) and Redlegs (#428) cards. Earlier team cards only had the numerical checklists.

I've shown these four variants previously, but look at the back of the Braves team card.  The alphabetical version caps out at #440 (we can confirm this because #474, the last "regular" card in the set, is of Roman Semproch, who is not found here on the "Fourth of 4 Cards" in the alphabetical sequence:

So, not "any" player could actually be located, as we see on the numerical version of the card:

It seems Topps was awaiting the final All Star Game rosters from Sport when this card came out, doesn't it? I have to think the changing of the major league map was testing Topps in a way, especially with the two NL teams from New York relocating to California. It seems like they were feeling their way through a somewhat unfamiliar landscape. By the way, to get to 21, there were All Star cards for lefthanded and righthanded pitchers from each league and a manager's card with both Stengel and Haney.

1959 was a little more organized as Topps seems to have planned for a longer release from the get-go. The checklists don't really tell the story for the 1959 highs but the card backs sure do.  Here's a lower series card reverse from '59:

Meanwhile, for the 7th series, we get this:

All the green's turned black!  And, we also get team cards in the high numbers:

As an aside, this particular can be found centered reasonably well on one side or the other but not necessarily both:

I assume the west coast sales from 1958 allowed this more reasoned approach in 1959. Plus the highs looks much sharper than what came before them.

1960 brings us a trio of "lasts": it's the final year of the decade (yes, it's true), the last year of the team cards holding the checklists and, certainly not least, the last year of sixteen major league squads. Each series through the fifth is identifiable by variations in the cardboard stock but then another "last" was realized, namely a seventh series, although it was indistinguishable from the sixth in terms of cardboard stock.

Here's some gray stock on a Stock from the semi-highs:

Which is the same as a high number (ignore the contrast):

The Red Sox team card, a high number, also shows how Topps created "faux" series via lagging the checklist information as they produced "preview" cards for the next series as the Fifties concluded.

1961 saw the first traditional checklist cards, as major league baseball expanded for the first time in the 20th century, thus ending our tale today.

Saturday, May 27, 2023

That's MISTER Topps To You or, We're All Bozo's On This Train

Some time around 1949, when it became clear to Topps that their one cent version of Bazooka was going to be a monster seller, they started converting their "changemaker" Topps Gum, previously a traditional wafer "tab" (like penny Bazooka) into a Chiclets style product.  This was a two-fold process.

First, Topps reconfigured the one cent version of their namesake gum into mint coated "nuggets" like this:

Those all carry 1949 copyrights and it's my understanding they were primarily meant for military field ration kits.  I believe but cannot currently confirm, these one cent tabs also sold at retail.  However, a five cent version certainly did and Topps made up a matchbook to promote the product:

That little chef mixing up a batch of ammoniated gum is today's quarry. It's hard to see but his toque says "Mr. Topps" in what is a quite mysterious advertising technique, i.e. obscuring your company name:

The packaging was eventually reconfigured:

I've blogged at length about Topps Gum over the years and won't rehash it here, just find and click on the appropriate label.  What I haven't posted about though, is Mr. Topps long-lived career as a company pitchman.

Topps would, from time-to-time, refresh their Bozo ball gum product and by 1971 had come up with a colorful redesign of the packaging as this box top shows:

I'll be damned if that isn't our old friend Mr. Topps! He's been updated and lost the old toque but it's clearly the same character. Here's a closeup, he's got more cauldrons now:

Here he is pouring out some grape candy coating:

Why Topps decided to use a character from almost a quarter century prior again is a question that will probably never be answered but I think it's pretty cool. Now, on to another cool thing...

Bozo ball gum was not affiliated with Bozo the Clown, although it's up-and-down past may indicate some legal battles with Larry Harmon had occurred.  But what's funny is that the clown was originally created as a macot for Capitol Records in 1949 and they sold various rights and licenses to the character to Harmon in 1956. The two corporate entities were getting along well enough by 1979 to combine forces for this oddball product:

Here's the commodity code: 

So the product you would think best associated with Bozo the Clown didn't make the cut and Topps went with Gold Rush instead, for what looks to be a very scarce package. There would also seem to be some additional train cars in the series, which I'm guessing never made it to a full retail release. 

Saturday, May 20, 2023

You CAN Go Home Again

It's a pretty well know fact, at least among collectors of 1953 Topps Baseball cards, that three cards feature background ads for the company that produced the set.  There's a couple of dozen "generic" ad representations as well, plus a handful that feature parts of actual ballpark billboard ads (Camel cigarettes for one) but the Topps ones are the most fun:

Yes, the Dodgers relief ace Clem Labine gets the first Topps ad on card #14, which seems appropriate, although that background in no way resembles Ebbets Field.  We have to wait for the high numbers (#252) to find the next one:

Well, that ain't Fenway! Willie Miranda, card # 278, gives us our final Topps ad, somewhat reminiscent of Labine's I think:

However, I believe there may be another Topps homage and it leads off the set.  Take a look at the background of Jackie Robinson's card:

At first glance it seems like it could be a ballpark superstructure looming behind Jackie but it's not Ebbets Field and there's no way the Brooklyn based Topps Chewing Gum would allow an image of the Polo Grounds - which I guess it vaguely resembles - appear on a Dodgers card.  If you look closely, it doesn't really look like a ballpark at all as there are no stands visible. In fact, the image used to create this card, a photograph by Brooklyn's team photographer Barney Stein, has no background, except for some clouds:

So what is it?  Well, my money is on a slightly cleaned up view of the elevated Gowanus Expressway superstructure and, behind it, Topps HQ at Bush Terminal.  Here's a couple shots of the Gowanus from the wonderful Newtown Pentacle:

This is about 16 blocks south of Topps HQ - note the cars parked underneath (and random tire-yikes!).  Sy Berger and Woody Gelman, who car pooled with some other Topps employees from their homes on Long Island, would park under the viaduct near the Topps office in Bush Terminal.  

Here's another shot of the underbelly:

Now here's a shot of their Bush Terminal building in 1940, courtesy of Brownstoner (their offices were in the second building down along the viaduct from the larger one sporting the ad):

Well, take a look at this cropped close up of the Robinson card:

I'm pretty sure that's the roofline of their Bush Terminal building behind the viaduct! It's all slightly altered by the artist but I have to think Woody Gelman could have been behind this little in-joke.

It's not the only card to feature the environs of their Brooklyn headquarters.  In 1955 the Rails & Sails set had a card that prominently featured not only Bazooka bubble gum, but what looks to be a small sliver of the same Gowanus Expressway viaduct, off to the right of the boxcar; quite appropriate given the extensive railroad tracks in the facility:

Fun stuff!

Saturday, May 13, 2023

Fast As A Shark

A little curveball today kids, or maybe just a frisbee slider.  Poring through various eBay listings of late, I came across an image from the 1967 "Topps "Venezuelan set of Luis Aparicio. Luis Aparicio, Sr. that is, father of Luis Aparicio Jr., the Hall-of-Fame shortstop.

Now, he is not a new name, nor is his legacy as a player, manager and foundational pillar of  Venezuelan baseball lost on me. I've been delving into the various winter leagues and tournaments that sprang up in earnest following World War 2 and for some reason I just decided to take a look at the man you see here:

I've covered the "3 in 1" 1967 Venezuelan "Topps" set a few times here, and the specific Venezuelan Winter League subset as well and it's a wonderful issue, with all sorts of ins and outs. The 138 subject VWL subset offers a substantial look at the wide array of players and coaches who participated in 1967-68.  Obviously, Aparicio is one of the coaches.

Luis Aparicio Ortega (the mother's name comes after the father's name) was born on August 28, 1912 in Maracaibo (an oil rich city in Zulia state) and was an athletic kid who gravitated to football (soccer), playing as a Forward for several talented teams in Venezuela. He also played baseball, founding a local team with his brother Ernesto, and that was the sport he made his own. Aparicio would soon become renowned as the slickest fielding shortstop in Venezuela.

In 1931 Luis, Sr. played in his first National Baseball Series and would be a perennial participant.   In the mid-1930's he became the first Venezuelan born player to appear for a team outside of the country and in 1946 was a founder of the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League, both playing and the managing, permanently cementing his already notable status as a scion of baseball in his home country. stadium in Maracaibo is named after him in honor.

After retiring from active play in 1953, where he had Luis, Jr. pinch hit for him in the season opening game for Gavilanes, Aparicio remained a manager, essentially gravitating to where his son played and in 1962 found himself at the helm of the newly rebranded Tiburones de la Guaira, or as we would know them in English, the Sharks. We see him with the team on his 1967 card.

Aparicio, Sr. moved on to another newly founded team in Zulia, known as the Aguilas (Eagles) in 1969 and died of a heart attack on January 1, 1971. He was elected to the Venezuelan Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005.

Here's the reverse of his 1967 card:

It reads, according to Google Translate, as follows:

"Luis the Great of Maracaibo filled a golden age of Venezuela baseball since it debuted in Caracas by the Concordia in the early years of the 30's. Your man has been brilliantly linked to the history of baseball actively until he retired in November 1953, bequeathing in his son Luis Ernesto a worthy representative of fervor and the mystique that he sowed. Professionally he played for Magallanes and Vargas, he works as a coach in La Guaira."

My grammar is off but you get the idea. The Concordia (Eagles) were a well known team from Caracas that in 1934 had players such as Martin Dihigo and Josh Gibson join Aparacio and other Latin American players, laying waste to all teams that faced them, not only in Venezuela but Dominican Republic and Puerto Rican tournament play (twice) as well, truly a legendary squad.

I love the look of the VWL cards in this hard to complete set!

Saturday, May 6, 2023

Shipping Out

Last week we saw some interesting Topps Baseball shipping cases, taken from the depths of the Fritsch Cards warehouse and auctioned by Collect Auctions. There were other sports represented as well and once again, it's a fascinating peek into how and when Topps got their products out of their warehouse and on to Fritsch's.

Unlike Super Baseball, which was issued in both 1971 and 1971, Super Football was "one and done" after a 1970 release.  Poor sales and/or the impending consolidation of costs in preparing for their March 1972 IPO were certainly to blame.  The shipping case for the set is a colorful one:

Using the "Cummins method" we know Topps packed this case on September 16, 1970, which is a rock solid date for a football issue to my mind. 

Next, here is a 1972-73 Basketball wax case:

Easily dated to November 21, 1972, but what intrigues me here are the logos of the Player's Associations for the NBA and ABA, printed right on the shipping case:

While it's possible something predates these, this seems to be the first instance of such "outside' sports-related logos appearing on a Topps case and I have no idea why.  Perhaps it was a requirement laid down by both associations but it's pretty neat.

We can't forget about hockey, can we? Here's a 1973-74 Topps Hockey shipping case:

December 11, 1973 is when this vending case was packed.  I really dislike that Stepford Kid Topps used on these cartons!

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Highly Anticipated

Well it's definitely spring auction season around the hobby and all sorts of amazing things are being offered, often from long term collections or holdings that are being broken up. One of the more interesting aggregations of items I've seen so far concerns Topps shipping cases, which hail from the Larry Fritsch warehouse and were recently gaveled at Collect Auctions.  Fritsch still sells cards to the public but have been using Collect to auction various vintage items from their immense inventory. Generally, I prefer not to pick images from a single source for my posts but this was such a concentration of cases, I couldn't resist. Let's look at some Baseball offerings.

Here's a 1970 Baseball vending case:

The move of production from Brooklyn to Duryea, Pennsylvania in 1966 led to an the accompanying change of manufacturing information on their confectionery packs around mid-1969. However, items like vending boxes that had no gum often showed their origin as the latter.  

Now, the fun part as the packing code reads: 311601. Deciphering that using the "Cummins method" we get July 16, 1970. While it's certainly not clear exactly which series was packed using this code,  a reasonable guess, with seven distinct series in 1970, would run from the 5th to the 7th series.  However, it appears the good workers in the Fritsch warehouse have solved this riddle for us:

That "T70-7" suffix, may not be 100% definitive given the vagaries of storage in such a joint but I spent two years working in a shipping warehouse during college and once you opened a case to pull product, the remaining items never went anywhere else. So I make this to be a high number shipping carton with about a 95% level of certainty.

If this is indeed a high number case, then Topps Baseball packing dates for series 1 likely start in January. That makes sense, with a new series coming out roughly every month and I can attest Football cards were showing up in the stores by me as a kid by the middle of August and they were always started after Baseball concluded.. The initial release date for sports products seems to have crept earlier and earlier as the years passed - 1952 Topps Baseball didn't roll of the presses until the latter part of February.  IIRC by the early 1980's, December "prior" saw the first Baseball cards of the new season.

Next, we do get a little mystery.  This is described as a 1970 Super Baseball case.  It's a cool one, dig the Pete Rose graphic:

OK, first things first.  It's an X-out case, meaning  it was non-returnable. Topps would also mark the boxes with big, black magic marker X's but this is the first one I've seen where it's stamped on a shipping carton. The packing code date is January 21, 1971.  Wait, what?! Well the same wrapper and I believe the same box (or the majority of the graphics at least) were used for both the 1970 and 1971 releases of this product. As January seems very early for a supplemental issue, which generally seem to have been tied to the baseball season already being well underway, given the X-out, this seems like 1970 overstock being sent to Fritsch. Also, note the address has switched to Duryea on the shipping carton.

1973 also presents an anomaly:

Well, you can see the problem if you've been parsing the codes along with me.  January 17, 1974 seems to be the packing date but if you look just above it, part of another code can be seen.  I think that's the original packing date, which comes across July 11 (and I assume 1973). Maybe this case was never shipped originally, or used for a repack with markered X-out boxes. There's some extra bits below the 1974 stamps as well, possibly marking this as non-returnable as no X code is seen.

Here's a final Baseball case, from 1975:

At last, a code that makes sense: February 13, 1975.  Huzzah!