Saturday, January 27, 2024

The Gang's (Almost) All Here

BFF o'the Archive Jeff Shepherd has sent along scans of a couple of exceptional Bazooka Joe and the Gang original art pieces for everybody's viewing pleasure.  First up is Officer Bill, from an original character study on Bristol board, laid down by Wesley Morse:

Wait, what?!  There's no character named Officer Bill in the Bazooka Joe comics.  There is however, Sarge, the gruff but friendly cop on the beat (often seen directing traffic by the school) in whatever burg the gang called home:

That was actually a Bazooka comic, as eight of the characters rated a solo look in the first series of  one-cent tabs of the bubble gum in 1954. 

I ran the art by Mark Newgarden, who is wise in such matters, and he indicated he has a handful of these studies in his archives: Wilbur, Toughy, Tex, Walkie Talkie (more on those in a minute) and of course, the eye-patched hero himself, good ol' Bazooka Joe:

That one is just about identical to the finished version of Joe, seen here in a scan, again courtesy of Shep:

As a capper, there also exists a piece of art that Mr. Newgarden advises hung in a Topps conference room for years and it is a beauty, although the whereabouts of the original are unknown at present (but it's still believed to exist):

Seemingly a black-and-white stat (i.e. a photostat, a kind of early copying system that used a camera) with color added after reproduction, it depicts several characters that didn't last too long or ended up with new names. Let's go from left to right:

Bazooka Joe of course, comes first then we see his girlfriend Janet, Joe's kid brother Pesty, then sister L'il Pat, Toughy (formerly Butch, then later Tuffy), Wilbur, Mort, Tex (who seems redundant thanks to Pesty's presence), Bazooka Joe's Mom and Pop, Hungry Herman, Joe's dog Walkie Talkie and finally, Sarge.

Several recurring characters are not shown, even though they appeared with some consistency.  There were, for example, at least two teachers who were semi-regulars, one a young blonde woman and the other a white-haired, stouter Mrs. Grundy type. Various parents, relatives, townsfolk and even passing hobos made appearances in the strip.  

All these characters were around for years, even after Morse died in 1963, as Topps had a stash of comics in reserve they issued for almost two more decades, although by the mid-Seventies they began salting in more promo and prize comics before an early-Eighties redesign brought in new artists and some new characters as well (Metal Dude anybody?). But for literally hundreds, if not thousands, of adventures spanning a quarter-century, the original Bazooka Joe and his Gang were a familiar group to millions of penny-wielding kids.

Saturday, January 20, 2024

Treading The (Card)boards

The various and myriad test issues spit out by Topps have always ignited collectors' passions and, as the years pass, done a number on many a bank account, mine included. What we tend to think of as a test issue really began in 1965-66 and seems to coincide with the move of production from Brooklyn to Duryea. Yes, there were tests before this (and probably far more than anyone will ever know) but the method of distribution seems to have been refined by the mid-Sixties into what amounts to a standardized countertop display featuring a blank, white box, with white wax packs within.  These came with a large, colorful sticker affixed to the front that identified the set and often used the planned graphics for the full retail release.  A smaller ingredients sticker was affixed to the reverse. Not all sets were tested this way but for anything that was a standard sized card, it was pretty much the norm, although some regional tests seem to have had more "finished" packaging (and wider distribution).

Test packs are seen sporadically and remain highly (and rightly) prized.  Test wrappers are found with a little more regularity but an actual test box is a rare bird and, given the lack of any identifying markings in most cases, not something that would suggest to anyone it was worth keeping.  Here then, is one for the 1975 Shock Theater test:

It's just a mashed potato sandwich, with mayo on white, especially when all closed up:

The test pack has fabulous graphics, which were used for the retail release (which was NOT in the U.S):

Here is the ingredients sticker, purple in this case:

Friend o'the Archive Lonnie Cummins has done some magnificent work on this set and I'll link to a Vintage Non-Sports Forum post where he gets into all sorts of detail on it. Not to steal his thunder but his discovery that purple ingredients stickers were used for seven card test packs, and black ingredients stickers for three card test packs, is illuminating.  I'm not positive but that seems to suggest a testing of two different price points. Rising prices were becoming a major concern following the 1973 oil crisis not just for Topps but pretty much everybody on the planet. I'm not sure where the pricing was displayed but at a guess it was just a sticker to be stuck to the box. The purple/black ingredients stickers require further research but Topps seems to have settled in on some kind of bright line with the colors used for these around this time.

The set was retail-released in 1976 in the U.K. as Shock Theatre, with most of the production handled in America, then shipped overseas, as Topps fully devoured A&BC and rebranded in 1975. Production was being set up at the time in Ireland for the U.K and Continent but it was a while before the plant got rolling and it seems the old A&BC facilities and local lithographers were no longer up to snuff, requiring imports of various card sets.

Saturday, January 13, 2024

The Mark Of Zorro

Wow, it's been close to a year since I visited the 1960 Venezuelan Baseball Tattoo issue.  When last remarked upon here, the set was holding fast at nineteen confirmed subjects.  Well late last year Friend o'the Archive and intrepid collector of these rare and delicate items, Rick Lyons, sent along a miscut image of Luis Arroyo, which holds a distinct clue to a twentieth subject.  Take a look at this Luis Arroyo tattoo:

That little sliver of a letter off to the left is a Z, which immediately brings to mind Zoilo Versalles, the eventual 1965 American League MVP. Like several other players in the set, Versalles was Cuban-born and, if confirmed, would continue the perplexing string of non-Venezuelan born players in the set. It's a pretty good bet that's him though.

Nicknamed "Zorro," Versalles does not appear in the 1960 Baseball Tattoo U.S. set.  He debuted for Washington in 1959, after a brief, U.S.-based minor league career, which had followed a pair of top-flight amateur seasons as a teenager in Havana and some extremely brief pro appearances in the Cuban Winter League. He didn't earn a regular berth with the club (now the Minnesota Twins) until the 1961 American League expansion and, save for 1965, had a fairly pedestrian career in the big leagues. He did, however, have a monster season in the CWL in 1960, the last season for that league before it was shut down by the Castro government.

Let's add him to our running list of subjects as a hypothetical:

Bob Allison
Ruben Amaro (Venezuelan only)
Luis Arroyo (Venezuelan only)
Bob Clemente (Venezuelan only)
Rocky Colavito
Don Drysdale
Nellie Fox
Tony Gonzales (Venezuelan only)
Dick Groat
Harmon Killebrew
Frank Lary
Juan Marichal  (Venezuelan only)
Ed Mathews
Stan Musial
Juan Pizzaro (Venezuelan only)
Vic Power (Venezuelan only)
Pedro Ramos (Venezuelan only)
Zoilo Versalles (Venezuelan only) inferred not yet confirmed
Gene Woodling
Early Wynn

A little bit after Rick sent along that scan, Lonnie Cummins, who is doing some heavy-lifting with his Topps research, figured out that the tattoos done in this style, namely the North American penny wraps with an interior image printed in vegetable dye, were designed and produced in iterations divisible by 8, which points to possible minimum tattoo total of 24, leaving our current surmised total of 20 a little short still. That denominator has been suggested for a while now but Lonnie's pretty much nailed it down with some recent findings about how the 1960 Baseball and Superman Tattoos were printed in the U.S. of  A.

With that, it seems at least four more subjects could and should be found, although given the scarcity of these, it's a bit of a tall order to think they will show up any time soon. Still, this is a set where the checklist was at one subject not all that long ago, then two more were found, before the revelations of the past couple of years came to light. Maybe one or two of those will actually be a Venezuelan player; certainly Luis Aparicio comes to mind as a likely subject from the country. 

However, it appears there needs to be a 1960 intersection with the major leagues to qualify as a subject (which makes sense with the art being provided by Topps) and the only other Venezuelan players to meet that criteria are Ramon (Ray) Monzant and Elio Chacon. Monzant appeared in a single game for the Giants in the latter stages of the 1960 season (after missing the 1959 season due to injury) and then disappeared from MLB (and organized ball) forever.  Chacon seems a far better possibility as he debuted in '60 and appeared in 49 games for the Reds, which was after four seasons with Havana. Are Aparicio and Chacon out there along with two other subjects?  

Saturday, January 6, 2024

A May-September Marriage

Happy New Year folks!  Today I want to dip into the recent past, December 9th, 2023 to be exact, wherein I examined some of the subtleties of a 1959 Topps Baseball 3rd series proof sheet. Friend o'the Archive Keith Olbermann recently posted some images of a 7th series proof sheet on Net54 Baseball and was kind enough to send me some higher-res scans. I don't want to usurp the discussion on Net54 but do want to look at some of the production details, just like last time.

Here is the front side, with all 66 cards showing, including the Bob Gibson rookie and Roy Campanella's Symbol of Courage tribute card among its very colorful array:

As with the 3rd series, there is production detail on the sheet itself:

The reference number for the third series sheet was G-803 and we're all the way up to G-1174 here.

While it seems like the high numbers were issued just in August and September most years, their preparation clearly was undertaken in May, at least in 1959. Since the 3rd series was being prepped in March, it seems like a new series was being created every three weeks or so.  With May seeing work this advanced on the high numbers, even allowing for final printing in say, June, there seems to be a bit of a lag built in. This surprised me as it may indicate sheets were stored onsite at Topps Warehouse/HQ in Brooklyn (or in another nearby warehouse of theirs) or even packed and held for a spell.  There's a reason that gum tasted so stale even in a newly issued series!

Intriguingly, this sheet has the backs as well:

That looks really cool, I must say.

Topps made an attempt in '59 to track some trades and options by adding a short statement to the text on the reverse.  The earliest these appear is in the 4th series, referencing transactions from March. They disappear from the 5th and 6th series then reappear in the seventh series of high numbers. There's some subtleties to these, which I plan to examine quite soon but today I just want to look at card #541, which features Gary Thurman.

Thurman's regular issue card has his May option described like so:

With the proof version looking like this:

Clearly a work in progress.  The typeface, font size, color and the use of quotes all differ from the issued version. Topps wisely abandoned such updates the following season. The proof stock is not nearly as white as the regular issue's, which is a little odd.

Spoiler alert-Thurman did NOT regain his 1956 form (and he seems to have actually had a better year in 1957 if measured by WAR). His failure to replicate things may have been because, despite the birth date used by Topps, he was actually born in 1917 and in 1958 turned 41 midseason!

Little details like this fascinate me and also lay bare the amount of work that went into issuing a set of Baseball cards.  Work on their flagship set would begin annually after the end of the World Series and then the set would roar to life as Spring Training and the regular season got underway. It was an entirely mechanical process with many, many time-consuming steps along the way. And until the 1973 oil crisis or thereabouts, it worked out to a mere penny a card for the consumer!