Monday, February 21, 2011

I Reverently Call it "The Book"

As you may have guessed, I have a bookshelf loaded with reference material related to baseball cards. All I have to do is look over my right shoulder and and wheel over to it in my swivel chair.

One of those books is this one:

It's the 1991 paperback re-issue. The original 1973 edition came as a hardcover book.

I've mentioned this book in the blog before. Once, I mentioned it in this entry about a trade I made with Phungo, to which he immediately commented that he was proud to be mentioned in the same post with this book. He also said he believed that Boyd and Harris were possibly "the first fun baseball card reviewers/bloggers/snarks." Though the Internet was merely a text-based toy for academia and the military when the book was originally written in 1973, he may be onto something with his statement. The entire section of the book that shows and comments on the cards reads amazingly like a series of blog posts.

Several years ago, I wrote an email newsletter. In 2003, I wrote one of my best-received articles about this book. I'd like to share it here, for your enjoyment.


For some of the earliest collectors of "bubblegum" cards, it wasn't intended to be an adult hobby. The kids who opened packs of Goudey, Delong and Tattoo Orbit gum in the 1930s had to grow up quickly because of the Depression and World War Two. Older kids often were compelled to find a job to help out during the slow economic era; the war effort saw many former collectors drafted into the service, and the paper drives claimed a lot of cards. After the war ended and the times got better, those kids who had collected in the 1930s had grown up and many of them simply let the things of their youth slip into a distant memory.

Baseball cards had a special place in the lives of many kids who grew up during the 1950s as well. The children of those Goudey-era collectors developed their own type of collecting. Like their fathers, they would use cards as currency on playgrounds and schoolyards. They flipped cards against brick walls in an effort to win their friends' cards; some kids even cheated by dipping the cards in paraffin. It was much easier to get a spare nickel or two to spend on cards from fathers who had remembered how they only had to pay a penny for a gum pack. They would trade their dupes in an effort to get a card of their favorite player. Some would even try to complete the entire set, but while every other kid in the neighborhood already had a Duke Snider card, nobody could produce the one Toby Atwell or Paul Minner card needed to finish up the set, But unlike their fathers, many of those kids decided to carry the hobby into adulthood in greater numbers. Though a lot of those kids stopped actively collecting when they decided to pursue girls and cars, many of them came back to the hobby as adults. Two of those kids grew up and unwittingly helped advance the hobby simply by writing a book.

In 1971, Fred Harris and Brendan Boyd worked in a Boston bookstore. One day, a customer came into the store and asked whether there was a book about baseball cards. Certain that there must have been one, they checked around but couldn't find a single book anywhere. Neither Harris or Boyd could believe that nobody had ever written a book about baseball cards. As kids, both had collected them and so had most of the kids in their neighborhoods. It seemed odd that somebody hadn't written a book on the subject.

Harris told Boyd, "we should write one." So they each took out their old cards and wrote a book around them. Boyd covered American League players and Harris focued on National Leaguers. Ironically, they couldn't get any publisher to consider printing their book until Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer raised interest in 1950s baseball nostalgia. Finally published in 1973, The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book wasn't a blockbuster, but it is still regarded as an important hobby book more than thirty years later. Even though most of the players whose cards are shown have faded from many fans' memories, they remain in their "glory days" in the book.

The book has an introduction which recalls the author's experiences of their 50s childhood in a rapid-fire delivery, followed by a report about a visit to the Topps factory complete with an interview with Sy Berger. The book ends with a list of different things a collector could do with cards (and included a short glimpse into a hobby that was about to explode, though the authors didn't realize that at the time). The meat of the book, however, is in between Berger's comments about Topps' operation and descriptions about how to properly flip cards. Most of the book is a section titled "Profiles." In that section, cards -- mostly from 1951-'63 but some later cards appear -- are pictured along with a comment about the player or his career. The comments are a mixed bag; sometimes respectful, usually irreverent, and thouroughly entertaining.

Most books covering baseball of the 1950s spend a lot of ink covering the important players and outstanding feats, but this book is different. The players aren't all Hall of Famers. In fact, of the 221 baseball players featured, only 15 are enshrined in Cooperstown. In 1973, four of those were considered longshots but eventually made it to the Hall (Richie Ashburn, Larry Doby, Enos Slaughter and Nellie Fox). Satchell Paige gets the following comment: "he could have been the greatest pitcher in major league history, if he'd been given the chance." Stan Musial was mentioned simply because he rarely showed up on cards and made it hard to play any type of baseball card game as the Cardinals without him. Yogi Berra was a natural player for the book's format. Ernie Banks was remembered as a great player who had the misfortune of playing with some terrible teams. Sandy Koufax's rookie card is called his "bar mitzvah picture" because he looked so young. Cards of Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente appeared together on a page with no comments; in a book that was irreverent, this was a respectful way to remember the early passing of both players just prior to the book's publication. Since Boyd was a Boston native and by extension a Red Sox die-hard, Ted Williams makes an appearance very early.

Hank Aaron doesn't show up in the book, but his brother Tommie is featured because he had the guts to play on the same team (and at the same position) as his more gifted brother. Niether Brooks nor Frank Robinson appear on any of its pages, nor do Al Kaline or Carl Yastrzemski. Roger Maris is mentioned but not shown. The three famed center fielders of the New York City teams aren't even spotlighted; Willie Mays and Duke Snider share a card in the section about Topps' specialty cards, but Mickey Mantle isn't shown at all. In the final section, Harris writes the following about "the Mick:"
"I remember one year, 1955 I think, when I must have had fifteen Mickey Mantles. You couldn't even use him for flipping because no one wanted another Mickey Mantle. Everyone on my block was sick of Mickey Mantle. And that was long before such emotions were popular."
Spoken like a true son of Boston.

Anybody can read about the superstars of the 1950s in just about any baseball book ever written about the era. Focusing on lesser-known players instead of the stars makes this book more special, because the writers choose to comment on players they recall from their own youth. The perspective is unique and the stories personal.

Then there are the cards. Gus Zernial's 1952 Topps card shows him holding up a bat with five baseballs attached to it. Bob Cerv's 1958 Topps card is needled because he appears to be smacking himself in the head with a bat. As a change of pace, a football card of Johnny Unitas is even tossed in. The 1969 Topps card of Aurelio Rodriguez shows a 14 year-old Angels batboy instead (Rodriguez "could very easily be mistaken for a batboy, except that most bat boys could easily outhit him," they cracked). Coot Veal, "Cot" Deal, Foster Castleman, "Spook" Jacobs and Whammy Douglas are spotlighted for their names.

One of the neat things about the book is that it's not a linear story. That is, each card shown has its own separate commentary, and only rarely do they blend. That way, you can always open the book to just about any page and start reading it. The writing is often quixotic because it jumps quickly from subject to subject, but is thoroughly entertaining to anybody interested in 1950s baseball (but not the black-and-white newsreel highlights shown repeatedly since).

Some of the stories are classic, like the account of Pumpsie Green and Gene Conley trying to catch a flight out of Idlewild (now JFK International) airport to Israel in what is described as "a markedly inebriated condition" two days after they jumped the Red Sox team bus in New York City traffic following a game against the Yankees. Ned Garver was remembered for winning 20 games with the 1951 St. Louis Browns, a team that won only 52 games all season. Even personal stories are shared, like the time Harris went to a store to meet some Red Sox players and how Billy Klaus sneered at him and his friends when they weren't allowed in because they were too young.

One page features the pictures (but not the TV borders) of umpires Chylak, Secory, Driscoll, Hubbard, Boggess and Barlick from the 1955 Bowman set. The rest of the page is red, and one word is repeated over and over behind them: "Boo." Another page shows cards of three players nicknamed "Bubba" (Morton, Church and Phillips). The 1962 Mets got their own page, with Casey Stengel's comment, "can't anybody here play this game?" as its headline. Another page pays homage to Kahn's Boys of Summer and shows four Brooklyn Dodger cards. A page featuring coach and manager cards starts out saying, "of course if you are really lousy at what you do, there's always a chance that you can work your way into management."

Marv Throneberry and Dick Stuart are remembered for their lack of finesse with a glove. Likewise, Casey Wise and Eddie Miksis are celebrated as players who could claim truly embarrassing offensive statistics. Johnny Antonelli and Joey Jay are lauded because each was drafted by the Braves and then showed their promise later by beating up on the Braves on the mound after getting traded. Ken Hubbs and Harry Agganis are remebered for their far-too-early exits from the baseball diamond.

The chapter describing the visit to Topps' offices is a terrific look into the world of Sy Berger. Though it never explicitly says so, the 1973 Topps set was in production. The little comments flesh out the details: the cards were still being released in series, each player had his own file with numerous photos, an artist was airbushing Diego Segui's card, and Berger mentions about how the "kid pictures" subset was being included again in the new set and how they were going to include more action shots. Berger also mentions about how the "new design" would be among the best Topps ever issued, but it's interesting to have the hindsight of time because that 1973 Topps set is on few collectors' "best of" lists. The "kid pictures" subset never appeared again after '73, and collectors often criticized the action shots in that set because it was hard to tell which player was being featured (in fact, Joe Rudi's 1973 card shows four A's celebrating a Gene Tenace home run, but Rudi isn't even among them).

In 1991, Boyd and Harris came out with a new edition. The 1973 edition was reprinted intact, with new introductions by each author. They acknowledged how the hobby had changed after 1973 and how they handled their short period of fame. Boyd recounted how they tried to get a celebrity endorsement for the book, but unfortunately the celebrities they approached were rubbed the wrong way by the book. Jim Bouton took exception to being called a "big mouth" (though he should have been intimately aware of the effects of somebody's written words thanks to Ball Four), and Joe Garagiola wasn't happy that Sy Berger told how he had signed an exclusive contract with Bowman and still pretended he was interested in signing with Topps. Boyd then related about how his baseball card collection was stolen along with his car.

Harris added in his introduction that they had written "the book that wouldn't die." He explained, "even when all the editions were out of print, somehow the spirit of this book never died." He mentioned that they had planned on featuring additional players from the 1973-'90 era in the new edition but it seems the idea never came to fruition. Still, The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book remains to be an integral book for any hobbyist's reference shelf. The book is mentioned on the website for the OBC group as "The Book," and a few collectors have sought to obtain all the cards featured in its pages. Even 30 years after its original publication, it remains a great hobby book.

If somebody wanted to use the idea to write a similar book using players from the 1970s and 80s, it could be interesting. Imagine being able to open a book filled with cards from the 1970s and 80s and stories of some of the characters of the era. Featured cards could include the 1984 Fleer Glen Hubbard, showing him with a large snake, or the '86 Fleer with Mickey Hatcher holding a giant glove. Some of baseball's goofballs could once again take center stage, like Bill "Spacman" Lee, who once told a reporter that he ate marijuana pancakes for breakfast, or Joe Charbonneau, who was a noted party animal just before becoming a hobby footnote. Mark Fidrych could be remembered for his proclivity for talking to his baseball while on the mound. A card of Ivan DeJesus would be accompanied by a commentary about how he was traded to the Phillies in 1981 for Ryne Sandberg. Finally, some of the obscure players could once again be recognized; guys like Buddy Biancalana, Joaquin Andujar and Bobby Meacham can be seen in their mid-80s glory. Lenny Dykstra, Dave Concepcion and George Foster could be recognized as great players who probably won't get to Cooperstown without paying admission. Finally, names like Shooty Babbitt, Joe Zdeb and Jerry Dybzinski can be brought out for the way that kids mangled them while trying to pronounce them. Then there's guys like Don Aase, Pete LaCock and Rusty Kuntz (a name that should have never been allowed in any 12 year-old's card collection), but maybe not for a family-oriented book.


If you've read this far and would like to get your hands on a copy of this book, here's a link that will let you pick one up:

Pick it up if you enjoy reading blogs like this. I guarantee you'll love it.


  1. This is my all-time favorite book. My father bought it for me in about 1974. I still re-read it once every few years.

  2. I never knew about this book until I started reading card blogs. Each person treated the book with almost reverence.

    Thanks to your detailed write-up, I now know what everyone was talking about and I'll have to get the book myself.