Friday, March 9, 2018

Blinded By the Light

Nothing brings such unbridled joy to a collector as an unexpected bubble mailer full of cards.  The other day, Jon - of A Penny Sleeve for Your Thoughts fame - dropped quite the cardboard bomb into my mailbox, jam-packed with pasteboard perfection.  I'd like to spend more time talking his goods up and properly building anticipation for their big reveal on the blog; however, I simply cannot focus because they are all SOOOOOOOOO SHINY!!!!

Seriously, I suggest that you grab a pair of sunglasses before you scroll down... for your own protection!

Refractors -a whole bunch of refractors!  This decidedly low-budget collector has so very few of these fanciful beauties, owing to their premium pricing on the secondhand market; thus, trades are pretty much the only way that they sneak into my collection.  Scott, Robin (fun fact - first MLB player born in Singapore, and Lance will all be kicking their previous base representations in my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection to the curb - no contest.

Of course, Jon didn't stop at just adding rainbow flair to my Cubs binder though:

MOAR REFRACTORZ!!!!! This time, of the gridiron variety.  Legitimately, I think that this pair of polished pasteboards are my very first refractors from any sport outside of America's pastime.  Again, both Erik and Raymont easily unseat their previous placeholders in my Bears All Time Roster Collection.

This is where the refracting madness came to an end; that said, I would recommend that you leave your stunner shades on your face, as the shine has not worn off of this package yet:

For instance, this early ancestor of the "cracked ice" parallel was nestled alongside it's refracting brethren.  Technically, I suppose that this 1996 UD You Crash the Game insert was a contest card; if the player depicted on the front were to hit a homer in the series printed in foil on the front (July 4-7), you could mail "Slammin' Sammy" here in exchange for "a Super Premium You Crash the Game card of your Crash player."

In case you were curious, the Cubbies were at home against the Reds for that three-game tilt in '96.  For his part, "Slammy" went yard once, in the middle game, as part of a 6-2 victory.  Clearly, some kid 22 years ago dropped the ball here.

Anyone know what those "Super Premiums" looked like?  This orange redemption is pretty tough to beat in it's own right.

In the words of Coldplay, here's where Jon's trade package went "all yellow."

"Oh Henry" Rodriguez on a yellow, triple diamond parallel from 1999 UD Black Diamond... that's a confusing sentence.  No matter, this canary-colored card is another fine addition to the CATRC.  Same goes for the scrappy Rey Sanchez, shown here on a 1996 Score Gold Rush parallel.  I wish that these flaxen-tinted foil-boards photographed half as well as they look in hand.

Also, here's "Say it Ain't" Sosa on another reflective oddity, a 2001 Christmas ornament from Pacific... because of course this idea was Pacific's.  I've seen a few of these seasonal die-cuts on the blogs before and admired hem from afar (god bless Pacific and their wacky, innovative ideas) but had never seen them in the wild.  Now, thanks to Jon, I have to ask myself whether I should keep this bad boy as is or punch out the hole and make it the centerpiece of my Cubbie Christmas tree next December.  What say you, blogosphere?

Maybe I should track down a second copy...

Okay, I think we've finally dug to the bottom of this mine full of shiny objects; so, you now have my permission to remove your protective eye-wear.  However, there are still some matte gems left to be showcased, so don't go anywhere.

For instance, here's a pair of horizontal heroes that immediately grab one's attention.  On the top is Kerry Wood's famed 20K game, by way of a 1996 Stadium Club Video Replay insert - what a rip-off of Sportsflics, right?  Again, this was another toughie to capture in photograph, but it sure is fun to play with!  Along with Woodie, on the opposite end of the spectrum, we have some authentic, no-thrills vintage in a Cubs team card from 1967 Topps.  It's a little worse for wear - there's some heavy creasing visible on the front and the back has definitely seen better days:

Either someone was testing to see if their blue pen was out of ink, creating a piece of modern art, or just didn't really care for the 1966 Chicago Cubs.  Nevertheless, I'm happy to rescue this previously abused piece of cardboard and house it in my collection.

Here's another slice of landscape fun with my first ever single from 2001 Pacific Prism Atomic... again, the drug-fueled minds at Pacific are sorely missed in today's monopolized hobby.  Any set that makes such heavy use of team logos and colors is bound to be a Wrigley Roster Jenga favorite.

To wrap things up, Jon also gifted me with a lovely, numbered Gale Sayers Football Heroes parallel the first new steer to be added to my Bulls All-Time Roster Collection in several months.  To be honest, of all the major sports, basketball is the one that holds the smallest slice of my heart.  That's okay though because I still enjoy slotting new names into that binder, including Kornel David here.

Bunches of refractors and shiny parallels, vintage goodies,  magic motion oddballs, and even a Christmas ornament for heck's sake... as you plainly can see, Jon dropped a dizzying array of phenomenal cardboard into my mailbox and I couldn't possibly be more grateful for his generosity.  Thank you, Jon - I'll be sure to properly return the favor as soon as I possibly can.

By the way, does anyone else's retinas burn a little bit?  Maybe I need some stronger sunglasses!

Monday, March 5, 2018

Perturbing Premiums

As many of you in the card collecting community might know, Saturday was Upper Deck's annual National Hockey Card Day.  In order to celebrate their exclusive license with the NHL and drum up interest in their rink-based products, UD created a special checklist of cards and gave away free packs of those promos to customers at card shops across the United States and our neighbors to the north.  This is the third year that this holiday has been on the calendar and it's an event that's been circled on mine since year one.  Accordingly, I made sure to forgo sleeping in that morning so that I could get to my nearest card shop shortly after opening. After all, I didn't want to miss out on my free pack of cards, especially with Blackhawks hotshot, Alex DeBrincat, included as a potential pull.

Unfortunately, things did not work out as planned.

Normally, I go to a different shop on Hockey Card Day; but, with a full slate of non-hobby activities already on the schedule for the day, I decided to stay a little more local.  Big mistake.  You see, the proprietor of this particular store did not appear to understand the promotion and was adamant that these packs were to be handed out only to those who purchased hockey product (of which, he stocks nothing new, just random singles, btw).  After I politely pointed out the true parameters of the promo, which were notated on the poster he had posted in his front window, he stared at me, in complete silence, for what had to be at least thirty seconds. If looks could kill, then I'd be six feet under right now. At that point, I felt weird about the whole thing and wanted nothing more than to just leave.

But, then something on the counter caught my attention.

At first, I was just grateful for something to break up the awkward staring contest. Then, I realized what it was that I was flipping through and my jaw nearly dropped through the glass counter.  Good thing it didn't though because breaking the man's property might have been the only way to make him resent me more than he already did.

Sitting right out in the open, on the counter, was a small stack of cards from the 1930's (in top-loaders, mind you), like that was normal or something. And the price on these unexpected, super-vintage gems?  One buck a piece...  Yup, for the price of a pack of Opening Day, you could take home an eighty-year old piece of baseball history!  Surely this had to be some sort of mistake.

Despite my misgivings about the initial venture, this was simply not a deal that I could possibly pass up.  I grabbed two of the half dozen or so that were available, including the Ethan Allen that you see above.  Allen might be depicted in a Philadelphia Phillies uniform, assisting a young boy with his batting form (maybe his son?), but he'll always be a Chicago Cub to me - he played half a season with the club in 1936.  For a measly buck, I'm more than happy to include a career contemporary card to my CATRC binder.

The card, by the way, is a Type I 1936 Goudey Wide Pen Premium. These oddballs were made up of  3¼" by 5½" black & white photos printed on thin paper (comparable to an index card), with blank backs.  Also, they are referred to as "wide pens" because of the thick script which declares the depicted subjects name on the front.  This latter distinction is important, as we'll see in a minute.

Along with Ethan Allen, I purchased what is technically a Reds card.  The script on the bottom is quite tough to make out - it reads, " Lombardi says 'Ugh.' Reds vs. Cubs.  The Lombardi being referred to is not the legendary football coach, rather it is the Hall of Fame catcher, Ernie.  Maybe it's the Chicago homer in me, but the setting of this Chicle card is obviously Wrigley Field and an unidentified North Sider is coming home to score as Lombardi stares off in disgust.

I cannot stop obsessing over who the mystery Cubs runner could be.  There's not much information or really any clues to be found in the background, other than the fact that it's a Cubs/Reds game from earlier than 1936.  Heck, the man in question's face is even obscured by shadow.  However, what if it's an obscure Cubbie that lacks more traditional cardboard rep and this is my only shot to land them for my CATRC...  with that in mind, I couldn't risk leaving this one behind. 

Speaking of "behind," it's a little bit easier to understand why these antiques were so cheap when we look at Ernie's backside (phrasing):

Clearly, these were pasted (and taped) into someone's photo album or scrapbook, way back when.  That's understandable because they more like photographs than traditional baseball cards. Nevertheless, I think a buck apiece is still a steal of a deal!

Although it is of the same dimensions, stock, and style, this Lombardi card is not from the same checklist as Ethan Allen.  Ernie hails from another gum company premium release that dates back to 1936 - National Chicle Fine Pen Premiums.  The key difference between these blank-backed, in-store premiums is the breadth of the stroke used in the caption on the front.  With as difficult as it was to make out said caption on the front of Lombardi, you can see why this set has earned the moniker of "fine pens."  Otherwise, these two sets are almost completely identical!


In the end, while I eventually ended up with purchase-incentive premiums, they were certainly not the ones that I had expected to find that morning.  After our weird encounter before, I was awfully hesitant to bring these artifacts up to the cash register, but there was no way that I was going to leave them behind.  Without any chit-chat, the store owner rang me up and I shot out of there like a canon. I should probably mention that he did relent and begrudgingly let me take a pack of the National Hockey Day cards; that said, after how bizarrely that all went down, I don't think I'll be revisiting that store for a while. 

Did anyone else partake in this cardboard holiday?  If so, was the experience a pleasant one or did you too have to jump through hoops with a perturbed proprietor giving you the death stare?  I hope it's the former, but I'm curious to know if I'm the only one who's experienced the latter?

And I didn't even pull DeBrincat from my hard-earned, free pack either.  But, you know what, I think the premiums that I ended up with are much cooler anyway!

Friday, March 2, 2018

Gordon's Gallery

When it comes to oddball trading cards, there might not be any name in the hobby bigger than TCMA - the company started by hobbyists, Tom Collier and Mike Aronstein.  These maverick card producers put out several retro-themed and minor league card sets throughout the 1970's, which were ardently advertised in early hobby publications.  Then, in 1975, the pair got it in their heads to produce a direct challenge to Topps and create their own comprehensive set of current players (a Flagship, if you will) under the banner of Sports Stars Publishing Co. (SSPC) - one of those early hobby publications and one that Aronstein just so happened to own.

Borrowing inspiration from the classic 1953 Bowman set, the 1975-76 SSPC set became a hobby legend for it's minimalist focus on photography, it's vast checklist, and it being edited by a baby-faced Keith Olbermann.  As far as distribution goes, their product was only available via mail-in order; that said, Aronstein had intentions of bringing it to store shelves.  Unfortunately, before this came to be, Topps stepped in and sued to block any further production, ending any further competition between David and Goliath.

Admittedly, this is probably a tale that most collectors are familiar with; however, what often gets forgotten is that this lawsuit did not mark the end of SSPC baseball cards.  Aronstein and crew regrouped, licked their wounds and came back at Topps just a couple of years later.

Exploiting a loophole, in 1978, SSPC produced special magazines that profiled the top 44 players in Major League Baseball... oh and they just so happened to contain team-centric panels of "27 full color photo fact cards" that could easily be separated.  These "All-Star Gallery" publications were produced for a handful of clubs and actually made it to retail shelves before again being shot down.  It was after this second shot across the nose of Topps, TCMA returned to focusing on minor league sets and throwback checklists; but, they put up a valiant fight.

I'm not sure how SSPC went about selecting the "44 Top Starts" to profile - they aren't based off of the previous season's All-Star selections and appear to have been chosen by the whim of the publishers.  In case you were wondering (I know I was), only one Chicago Cub made the cut:  Bobby Murcer.

It's easy to forget that "the next Mickey Mantle" was once a Cub.... mostly because he was the aged, declining return in the lopsided and shortsighted Bill Madlock trade.  Although, the first half of his 1977 was pretty decent.

Besides the cards that were actually included within the spine of these magazines, Aronstein made sure to hawk his card products with TCMA and their business partner, Renata Galasso:

Renata - the "world's largest hobby card dealer" - was known for offering complete, hand collated sets of Topps products.  In order to stand out from the competition, she partnered with TCMA to produce some retro-themed sets of her own doing, as modeled by Joe DiMaggio in the add above, that were offered as further purchase incentives.  Needless to say, between TCMA, SSPC, and their partnership with Renata Galasso, Tom Collier and Mike Aronstein were the oddball kings of the 70's and 80's!

For many moons, I've been trying to track down the Cubs edition of the "All Star Gallery" for a reasonable price.  After searching high and low, basically since starting this humble blog, I was thrilled to finally stumbled across a copy on Ebay that did not hurt my wallet.  For just a little more than six dollars shipped, the full 27-card set of Cub finally entered into my possession this afternoon:

Aren't they glorious?  I mean, the Cubs of the late 70's were pretty blase at best, but they sure look good here - again, in a minimalist, Bowman inspired design.  All the big names are there - Bill Buckner, Dave Kingman, Bruce Sutter, Rick Reuschel, etc. - that said, to be honest, that's not what I'm after.

They may have survived all this time in their panel configuration; but, I can say for certain that I'll be separating them with the paper cutter on my desk.  This might cause some collectors' skin to crawl, but it's what has to be done.  You see, one of these panels contains the one and only baseball card ever produced for a certain Cubs player, a player in dire need of representation in my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection.  Single cards from this product don't pop all that often... thus, the knife must come down.

Mike Gordon was one of several young catchers that the Cubs were grooming to replace franchise "Iron Man," Randy Hundley, throughout the seventies.  Drafted out of high school from Boston, Gordon was highly touted by Chicago scout, Lennie Merullo, and encouraged his employers to take the young, switch-hitting backstop in the third round of the 1972 draft.

Sidenote - Merullo, you might remember, was the last living man to have played in a World Series game with the Cubs when he passed away in 2015.  Lennie manned shortstop for the team throughout the forties, including the 1945 Fall Classic against Detroit.  After hanging up his spikes, he transitioned into a scouting role for his former club, like many a former ballplayer.  Moe Drabowsky was his most notable discovery and, unfortunately for both parties involved, Mike Gordon did nothing to boost Merullo's credentials.

Merullo (and son) on a TCMA "War Years" single.

Gordon was offered a substantial bonus to pursue baseball, abandoning his natural sport of football. The prospect likely received a bonus in the $25,000 to $30,000 range, comparable to the $35,000 signing bonus the Montreal Expos paid future Hall of Famer, Gary Carter. After all, Gordon was selected to the Parade Magazine national All-America high-school football team and had also signed a letter of intent to play at West Virginia University. He was highly desired too, as he had scholarship offers from Boston College and Notre Dame to fall back on, as well; meanwhile, his baseball resume included no comparable honors or achievements. Perhaps that imbalance should have been a red flag, but the Cubs still heeded the advice of their longtime scout.

To put it lightly, things did not go well.   After posting a .194 batting average in the Gulf Coast League in 1972 and following up that anemic performance with a similar .180 mark in each of the next two years at Single A, Gordon's position in the org was tenuous, at best.  It was only his defensive skills behind the dish and the team's expensive investment that kept that pink slip at bay.  Accordingly, the Cubs drafted a pair of college catchers in Ed Putman and Steve Clancy, who leapfrogged our hero in the depth chart.

Putman would only appear in 22 games for the Cubs from 1976-78.

In order to save his career, Gordon made some adjustments at the plate over the 1974-75 off-season.  Accordingly, his batting mark improved to .241, earning his ticket to AA, and further rising to .247 after that promotion.  Going into the 1977 season, Gordon had improbably jumped back to the top of the catching prospect ranks.  Everything looked golden as Mike made the ultimate ascent to the Major League club, coming out of spring training that March, as the third string backup to Steve Swisher and George Mitterwald.  Sadly, it was all downhill from there.

Mike got off to a slow start, going 0-for-4 at bat  and catching a few innings of two games before he was sent back down to Wichita. He would not reemerge on the Big League roster until the September roster expansion and that's when things got really ugly.  He was given a starting opportunity in a pair of games against Montreal as audition for 1978, as Swisher and Mitterwald did not impress.  Gordon went 0-for-7 in those two contests AND allowed six stolen bases on six attempts; he didn't exactly seize the opportunity.  Furthermore, his hit-less streak would eventually extend to 12 at-bats before he finally connected on his first Major League knock.  All told, Mr. Gordon posted a dismal .043 batting average (1 for 23) on the year and looked over his head behind the plate.

I guess TCMA liked what they saw though, seeing as they decided to include him in their Cubs booklet for 1978.

 Bill Hayes would only appear in 5 MLB games, from 1980-81.
(He's also repped by a TCMA single from the 1983 Iowa Cubs team set)

At this point, the Cubs went out and traded for Dave Rader and Larry Cox to split time behind the dish.  However, Mike Gordon would get one further cameo with the MLB team in 1978, sneaking into four games after an injury to Rader, with one hit in five at-bats.  But, the writing was on the wall, as the Cubs selected catcher Bill Hayes in the first round of the 1978 draft, a clear signal that Gordon's glass slipper had shattered.  He was demoted as soon as Rader was healthy and would never again appear on a Major League roster.

In the end, Mike Gordon would hang on in the Cubs chain through spring training of 1980; after his release, Gordon decided to call it a career.  From there. he went back home to start a family, work as a technician for the Bay State Gas Company for almost three decades and became a noted amateur golfer in his region.  Sadly, in the autumn of 2003, Mike Gordon was diagnosed with leukemia, a disease which would claim his life eight months later, at the age of 60.

It should also be noted that it wasn't until the Cubs hit on Jody Davis in the 1980 Rule 5 Draft that the merry-go-round at catcher ceased to turn.

Jody Davis, catcher without fear, would hold down the backstop from 1981-88.

Seeing as his career in the Show didn't amount to very much and did not last for particularly long, it should come as no surprise that Mike Gordon got no love from Topps.  Furthermore, considering that he played in the days of the Topps monopoly, it stands to reason then that Gordon severely lacked cardboard representation.  To the best of my knowledge, Mike never snuck into a minor league card set or any other regional oddball checklist.  Therefore, I am eternally grateful to TCMA and SSPC for filling what would have otherwise been a frustratingly permanent black hole in my premier collection.

Additionally, it seems as though if it weren't for these booklets, we wouldn't even have a uniformed photograph of Mr. Gordon.  Image searches turn up nothing but this card, which is even used on his Baseball-Reference profile picture:

Maybe he didn't like having his picture taken?

All of these factors considered, I'm accordingly ecstatic about crossing Mike Gordon's name off of my want-list.  Now, with this acquisition officially in the books, there's only one further obscure infielder who played for the Cubs from 1977-78, who's only traditional baseball card happens to have been produced by an Aronstein venture, left for me to track down.  Oddly specific, right? 

If anyone knows where I can locate a modestly priced copy of the 1979 TCMA Syracuse Chiefs card featuring Mike Sember, I sure would appreciate the tip!

Before we wrap this up, I have to ask, do you have any of the 1978 SSPC cards in your collection?  Were you aware of their existence, despite the fact that the 1975-76 version steals pretty much all of the SSPC thunder?  Also, with all of Collier and Aronstein's cardboard ventures, how many cards from the oddball godfathers do you have in your collection?  Do you enjoy their efforts as much as Topps' flagship products of the day?  Personally, I feel like we need another set of mavericks, like these two, to step in, shake up the market, and issue a challenge to Topps' current monopoly.

With that, it's time to "close the book" on SSPC and Mike Gordon.  So, let's wrap up this post by showcasing the back cover of the Chicago Cubs edition of SSPC's 1978 All Star Gallery magazine:

Bad puns might be the only thing I enjoy more than adding a new name to my Cubs All-Time Roster Collection tome.

Also, I wonder if that offer has expired...