Sunday, July 19, 2009

Mike DeNero's Neighborhood: July 2009

Mike DeNero's Neighborhood was created by superstar cartoonist Jim Hunt ( To view a synopsis of the comic strip and/or sketches of the four characters with whom you will become familiar, please click here.

Keith's Key Kard Korner: July 2009

1953 Topps #244 Willie Mays

In my inaugural release of Keith’s Key Kard Korner, it’s easy to peak in waxing poetic on the most attractive, important cards in the hobby. That’s because it is the only time I have every card ever produced to choose from. Must any reader wonder why I chose the subject?

The player depicted needs little introduction. Often considered the greatest all-around ballplayer ever, and the quintessential "five-tool player", it is appropriate that Willie Mays is depicted employing one of his five tools – fielding – in a 1953 Topps card issue where cards show most players with a neck-and-shoulders portrait.

Printed in fewer numbers than some other 1953 Topps cards, the Mays displays the issue’s signature namebox in the lower right – a black one for National League players, a red one for American Leaguers. The namebox is also decorated with the team logo in the corner.

No matter the pose, this 280-card Topps issue may exemplify miniature artwork better than any sportscards in existence. After fifty-plus years, even mildly worn examples retain handsome artistic quality, such as the details in Mays’ focused face, and each uniform wrinkle articulated to life-like form. The artist’s canvas looks saturated with color and the most appropriate choices of the pallet appear thereon.

I’m hardly the only one who’s noticed this is a special card. Based on individual oil paintings by Gerry Dvorak of New Jersey, these 1953 Topps card images are so iconic and enduring that in 1989, the Marriott Corporation bought the original painting that this card was based on for $80,000. Often, the value of the sports card trumps that of the art - the solitary PSA 10 Gem Mint example of this card has fetched a lofty $95,000. That’s a remarkable coronation to the man whom humbly began his pro career in 1947 with a team named the Chattanooga Choo Choos. Additionally, PSA named the 1953 Topps Willie Mays one of the Top 250 Sports Cards in the Hobby.

Even in the face of a strong 2009 recession, I noticed that the card reflects a price increase in the latest Sports Market Report price guide. In being forthright, I still don’t own a copy of this comely rectangle. Hopefully, my column won’t make the demand and price spike higher before I can address my glaring deficiency.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Confessions of a Vintage Cardboard Junkie: July 2009

Pandora's Box

Having related my memories of my first pre-war baseball card purchase in last month’s column, I shall now indulge myself with various thoughts on the veritable Pandora’s Box that said purchase opened. It thrust me into the labyrinth that is the seemingly infinite variety of baseball cards produced between 1885 and 1960 – where there is something, I dare say, for all tastes.

My initial pre-war purchase, a T206 Walter Johnson, served as my "gold standard" for some time thereafter. However, in retrospect, given the panoply of stylistic choices out there, dare I blaspheme by stating that I do not consider the T206 anywhere near the top of the list in aesthetic and intrinsic appeal? I suppose that’s the beauty of our hobby – we can collect what we like without causing offense to anyone else. We can even argue over such things without getting emotionally invested in any real sense since, none of this really matters, right? Somewhat analogous to the "boxers or briefs" or Mantle vs. Mays debates, I suppose.

Different folks seek different things in their pursuit of these little pieces of cardboard. Back to the T206, the main reason they fell down in my estimation was their absence of biographical information (other than each subject player’s name and team) and the striking photographic imagery and vivid, rich background colors of the early caramel issues (e.g., E93, E94, E95) These "Caramel" cards constituted my primary passion following my two-year T206 craze.

I love the sojourn through the endless smorgasbord of tiny archival documents (I use the term archival to give a serious spin to a fifty-something year-old man’s love of a child’s diversion).

The 19th century gave us the state of the art photographic images of Old Judge and Mayo’s Cut Plug – contrasted by the artful and "cartoonish" renderings of Buchner Gold Coin. The same stylistic choices were offered in the early 20th century – from the generic funny paper illustrations of E91 (Honus Wagner? -- More like Honus Schwartz!) to the meticulously shot images of the Fatima team and player cards. The large American Caramel E90-1 set merged the two concepts, offering very accurate portraits on some cards, and action cartoons on others, the player being recognizable only by the name on the card. Of course, the tobacco pushers gave us more ornate offerings, such as the fancifully framed T204 Ramly and the T205 color lithograph mug shots. By the way, were these not the first cards with statistics and biographic data on the back?

The 1920’s were generally ruled by the austerity of the no nonsense black and white photographic images of American Caramel’s E120, 121, and 122 sets. The Great White North gave us Neilson’s Chocolates and Willard’s Chocolates that used the same photos. Does one conclude that Canadians were big chocolate eaters whereas the Yanks were voracious consumers of caramel?

The 1930’s ushered us into the rise of the gum card and a sort of "artsy-fartsy" period -- the predominant issue being the 240 card (if you count Lajoie) extremely popular 1933 Goudey set with its absolutely mesmerizing artwork. Look into Mickey Cochrane’s eyes. The dude is staring right back at you. Of course, no mention of 1930’s cards would be complete without paying homage to the art deco depictions on the Diamonds Stars and Tattoo Orbit cards, and the truly unique concept of Delong. Imagine Godzilla-like baseball giants trampling and lording over an entire stadium.

World War II seriously curtailed card production due to paper shortages. The truncated 1941 Play Ball is interesting inasmuch as most of the cards were colored artists’ depictions of the previously issued cards in the 1940 Play Ball set. Nothing much else happened until the Bowman Gum Company hit the scene in the late 1940’s.

Over the years, my tastes have evolved, and broadened, whereby cards I found singularly unattractive have risen dramatically in my pecking order. One such issue is the 1949 Bowman set, the primitive appearance of which I originally I found to be a turn-off. It is now that very aspect that lures me -- I now find them kind of funky. Also, were their designers influenced by the early caramel cards -- colored black and white photos on a rich uni-color background -- all this with a biographic capsule on the back to boot? Plus, the set is anchored by the terrific Satchel Paige card.

With the surfeit of baseball card issues released over the years, the above is obviously nowhere close to exhaustive. I have only tried to give voice to my perceptions of the broad brush of stylistic changes over the last 100 years or so. This evolution goes to the essence of my fascination with these little pieces of cardboard which were, after all, produced for no other reason than to market a product (e.g., tobacco, cigarettes, bubble gum).

I admire those who manage to maintain some semblance of specificity and focus to their collecting. Myself? Forget it. I’m an easy mark -- a card slut. The lid to Pandora’s Box is stuck open.