Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Reading between the lines

I normally don't try and tell people about what they should and shouldn't do.

But hear me now, people. If you're a card collector and you don't own The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubble Gum Book, please do yourself a favor and buy it immediately. You'll be glad you did.

In a lot of ways, it was kind of like a card blog before blogs even existed. Or before the internet existed, for that matter. The authors, Brendan Boyd and Fred Harris, provide great (and often hilarious) little tidbits about various cards from their collections, collections they rediscovered as adults.

I was flipping through the book the other day when a section on poor Sam Esposito caught my eye. One line, specifically.

Sometimes you had to read a little between the lines to get a feel for what was really going on.

The authors are referencing Topps's largely sugar-coated bios of players who, let's face it, weren't very good. References of Esposito's college career, coupled with him being a "valuable hand" and being able to play "at as many as four positions," scream SCRUB UTILITY PLAYER.

For whatever reason, this topic particularly piqued my interest.

I don't have Esposito's '58 Topps issue, the one that appears in the legendary book.

I do, however, own a copy of Esposito's 1959 card from the following year. Until last night, I'd never taken a good look at the back.

It turns out that Esposito had another unremarkable season in 1958, which led to even more fluff from the people at Topps.

The first part of the first sentence flat-out says that "Sam is not a distance hitter." Given his whopping three RBI in '58, I don't believe that thing about his "exceptional ability" to drive balls through the defense for a second.

Also, referencing back to days of being a "schoolboy sensation" is never a good sign. Even the cartoon simply says that "Sam attended Indiana Univ.," meaning that Topps didn't have anything positive to note about Esposito's big league career.

We get the rather unremarkable utility feel again with the note that "he plays both infield and outfield."

Even Topps didn't believe the guy was anything special.

If you've read it, you probably know that Boyd and Harris's book mostly deals with cards from the '50s and early '60s.

I wanted more. Did Topps continue with its "reading between the lines" mentality into the late '60s and beyond? That's a question I tried to answer last night after stumbling upon the passage on Sam Esposito.

I landed on the 1969 Topps issue of one Ted Kubiak, a relatively obscure A's middle infielder that I collect for no good reason.

By referencing his minor league career, the cartoon pretty much gave it away from the start. Like Esposito, Topps wouldn't be mentioning anything from college or the minors if Kubiak had done anything at the big league level.

But let's keep going. Yes, it's true that Kubiak raised his average nearly 100 points in 1968. What the bio doesn't mention, however, is the fact that he hit .157 in 1967.

A .250 batting average never sounded so good.

Let's contrast Kubiak with someone like, say, Roberto Clemente.

The cartoon gets right to the point, referencing Clemente's team-leading 12 triples from the year prior. No messing around with the college or minor league stuff.

I don't know if it was intentional, but the fact that Topps kicked off Roberto's bio by saying that "This All-Star..." certainly makes the guy sound more important. Note that Kubiak's begins with "The left-handed hitting shortstop..."

We get specifics on the Clemente. No saying that "his glove has earned him quite a reputation!" None of that crap. Boom. Batting titles in '61, '64, '65, '67. Bam. Only the seventh guy to win four championships.

Just the cold, hard facts.

As far as I can tell, Topps continued the trend into the '70s as well.

Though he'd go on to become a fairly well-known name by the time the decade was through, Bernie Carbo was just another Quadruple-A outfielder in 1974. Despite six years of big league stats, all three bullet points on his bio reference his minor league accolades.

The cartoon doesn't do him any favors, either. Topps barely acknowledges the fact that Carbo was merely a small piece in the mega-deal that involved the legendary REGGIE SMITH.

The guy was a cameo on his own cartoon.

Again, here's a star for contrast.

George Thomas Seaver already had the Hall of Fame in his sight by the time 1974 rolled around. His bio reads as such. Ten strikeouts in a row. Most K's by a righthander. LED NL IN ERA FOR THIRD TIME.

So much greatness, in fact, that Topps felt the need to give us all a breather with the cartoon. Tom enjoys playing bridge.

Oh, does he?

That's nice.


But we thought you should know he plays bridge.

The more and more I look at the backs of 1981 Donruss, the more I like them.

Unlike Topps, Donruss often didn't feel the need to sugarcoat things. No pulling punches. They went for the kill.

While Donruss does note that Mario Mendoza excelled during his first season as a regular shortstop in 1979, they shove the fact that he "HIT JUST .198" into our faces. That same little tidbit features what I like to call the "kiss of death" for baseball card bios.

Sacrifice bunts.

If a card company feels the need to glorify your 13 sacrifice bunts in 1979, chances are you ain't anything special at the plate.

That was certainly true with Mario Mendoza, as you probably already know.

Most of the bios I looked at from the '90s and up are pretty dull and self-explanatory, but I did manage to find a couple hints of past glories.

Topps channeled a little early Donruss with the back of Aaron Boone's 2006 issue. Topps could've easily said "Oh, just so you know, this guy hit .284 with 12 HRs in his last 98 games of the season."

Nope. They go out of their way to mention that Boone was shackled (I love that word) with the LOWEST AVERAGE IN THE MAJOR LEAGUES by early June.

They might as well be saying, "Hey, everybody! Let's all laugh at Aaron Boone!!!!!"



Perhaps the new wave of reading between the lines is any mention of Twitter or tweets.

I'm a huge Brandon McCarthy fan and the guy is a great Twitterer (Twittee?), but does something like that really belong on the back of a baseball card? I seriously doubt Topps would've mentioned it had McCarthy not had such a down 2013 season.

Note to all MLBers...you better play well.

Otherwise, Topps might start mentioning your tweets on the back of your baseball card.

There's a way out of the whole baseball card bio thing, of course.

If you have enough lines of record-breaking stats, Topps, Donruss, or whoever else won't have any room to say anything backhanded about you.

They'll let the numbers speak for themselves. Get rid of "schoolboy sensations" like Sam Esposito. Discard glorified .250 batting averages like Ted Kubiak's.

No need for sugarcoating.

Then again, I guess we can't all be Yaz.


Zippy Zappy said...

Cool post.
The back-handed insult reminds me of Craig Kimbrel's card in 2012 Sega Card Gen where the bio on the back stated that Kimbrel fell apart in the last game of the 2011 season and the Braves missed the playoffs because of it.

Marcus said...

I haven't studied it thoroughly, but one of my favorite sets, '92 Pinnacle, had some pretty downright negative card backs. Might be worth a look.

Kevin Papoy said...

Great post Nick ! ordered the book you mentioned, so thanks for the heads up