If you opened a pack of baseball cards in the 1970s and early 80s, you remember Mike Cubbage. If you’re in the hobby, you may have even competed with him in an auction or run into him at a show. A “baseball lifer” with decades of experience at all levels in the game, he’s a long-time collector, too.
A third baseman by trade, the Charlottesville, VA native was drafted by the Washington Senators in the fifth round of the 1968 MLB Draft. He did not sign and was drafted yet again by the team in 1971. He made his major league debut on April 7, 1974 and spent eight seasons playing for the Texas Rangers, Minnesota Twins and the New York Mets.
After his retirement from the game, Cubbage stepped into the role of skipper, as he managed the New York Mets AA club in Jackson, Mississippi. His lone season at the helm was 1986, when he led the team to the playoffs and the league finals.
He spent five seasons as a coach for the Houston Astros, from 1997 through 2001.
During Spring Training in 2002, Cubbage served as the interim manager of the Boston Red Sox after Joe Kerrigan was relieved of his duties. Cubbage remained on as the team’s third base coach after the Red Sox hired Grady Little as Kerrigan’s replacement.
Transitioning to the front office, Cubbage served as a special assistant to the Washington Nationals President of Baseball Operations and GM Mike Rizzo up until his retirement in November of this year. Last year, he was inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame.
We caught up to him about his rookie card, his massive collection of pennants, autographed baseballs, Hartland statues, Detroit Tigers and Al Kaline items and heard a great story about finding 1952 Topps high numbers inside a dark room in Canada.
Tony Reid– Your rookie card was part of the 1975 Topps set when you were on one of the classic four player RCs. You were featured on the card with Doug DeCinces, Reggie Sanders and Manny Trillo. Do you remember seeing one for the first time?
Mike Cubbage– I don’t remember the first time I saw it. I’ve seen it thousands of times now. I know I’ve signed several thousand of them. It seems like during this pandemic and shutdown people have been sending more cards than usual. I get four or five letters a day with requests to sign cards.
TR– I’ve heard that across the board from athletes I’ve spoken to since the pandemic hit. Sid Bream told me that he thinks people are going back and watching old games and getting nostalgic. Do you think that is part of it?
MC– I’ve gotten a steady flow through the years but I have definitely got more this year than in previous years.
TR– Do you remember the first time you were asked for your autograph?
MC– I don’t remember that either. I can imagine it was some time after I got to the major leagues. Back when I started out, autographs and collecting items wasn’t that big. I started playing in 1971 and I just had my nose on getting to the major leagues and then it was a matter of surviving and having as long of a career as possible. I didn’t collect. (Topps Vice-President) Sy Berger came around every spring and tossed out packs of cards. We all opened them. If you found one of your cards, great. You kept it or gave it to your mother or whatever. I didn’t collect in those days. I started collecting in the 1990s when I was coaching with the Mets. I started going to shows and started buying on eBay and got familiar with some of the auction houses.
TR– What was it at that time that made you take the initial leap in toe the collecting side of the sport?
MC– One of the first high dollar cards I remember buying was an Al Kaline rookie card. He had been my boyhood idol. I got to see him play in 1955 at Briggs Stadium. I was five years old. He became my guy. I had little Tigers uniforms with number 6 on the back of them, white and grey, and they are hanging downstairs as part of my collection.
I got to know Al. He was still in the big leagues when I got there in 1974. I’ve got a room in house, my study, that is dedicated to Kaline and the Detroit Tigers. It is full of pennants. I became a big pennant collector. That is where I started. I have the pennant that my parents bought me that day in 1955. It’s a big orange tiger. The one I owned all my life is faded now. I gave one to a cousin that was put in a cedar chest and given back to me years ago and that one is in mint condition.
I also have a bunch of pennants from the clubs I worked for over the years-the Mets, the Red Sox, the Astros and Senators/Nationals. The pennants are my thing.
TR–From our conversations, you’ve also said you have a large collection of Hartland statues, mini bats, and store bought gloves. How did you expand into those areas?
MC– I got interested in mini bats a few years ago. I have about 100 mini bats. I pick up bats here and there of Hall of Fame players, former teammates and guys that I admire. Along with Kaline, I’ve got some nice Ted Williams stuff. Williams was managing the Senators when I signed with them in 1971. I got to know Ted a little bit. I never played for him but I met him and spoke to him a number of times.
I have some Green Diamond pieces and some bats and artwork of Williams. I would say he is the second key player in my collection. I’ve got all of the Kaline cards and most of the Williams cards but not all of them. Those are pretty pricey. I’ve got some unique Williams stuff, though.
TR–What are your favorite Ted Williams pieces in your collection?
MC-I have the 1941 Life Magazine cover, which is a classic. It’s that Splendid Splinter look. I have a nice cut signature framed underneath the Life Magazine cover. That is one of my favorite things. His Science of Hitting book came out in 1971. It is a great baseball book. It was like my baseball bible when I was going through the minor leagues. I have a signed copy of that also.
TR–What other players are the focus of your collection?
MC-I have some Jackie Jensen things. I knew Jackie when he retired here and had a Christmas tree farm. He had a heart attack and passed away in the early nineties. I got to know him a little bit, so I have some of his stuff. I have some gloves and other items.
TR– If you had to give us an audio tour, could you begin to describe your mancave?
MC– My room downstairs has a pool table and a nice, big TV. It’s the sports memorabilia room. The pennants are displayed everywhere. They are in plastic covers and fanned out across the upper part of the walls. I have artwork below them on the walls. I have a bunch of signed baseballs all over the place, on tables and everywhere. I am out of space. I don’t have any more room. I have a dozen jerseys that are hanging in closets that I just don’t have room to hang or display. You spend a lot of money to get these high dollar items framed. I have the stuff framed well. I have a guy who did it with a museum quality to protect everything. I am proud of it but I am pretty well retired. The old Tiger pennants are my pride and joy. They just don’t make them like that anymore.
TR–You have a huge memorabilia collection. How did the card side of your collection come together?
MC-The card collecting started with the Kaline rookie card. Then I got the idea that I would put together the 1954 Topps set. I loved that set. I did that. Then I went as far as to get the 1955 Topps set. Those are the two sets I love. That was fun putting those together. Most of the star cards are graded 5, 6, 7, or 8. I picked out most of the commons individually, too. They are all mid-grade.
I’ll tell you a story about the 1955 Topps Roberto Clemente rookie card. I swallowed hard but at the time it was the most I paid for any one item in my collection. I paid over $900 for the Clemente card to complete the 1955 set. It’s a Beckett graded 6. It’s a beautiful card. I was hesitant then but now that card is easily in the three to four thousand dollar range today.
TR–Did you stop at card shops when you were traveling the country in the big leagues?
MC– I got to tell you the story. We were in Montreal when I was with the Astros. We had an off day. Back in those days you look in the Yellow Pages. I found a card shop somewhere. I didn’t have anything to do so I ventured off to this card shop. I took a cab and I was walking a neighborhood in Montreal. I can’t find the place. I was about ready to give up the hunt. I walked by a store a see a Topps sticker in the window. I thought I found it. It was a split level place. I go through the door and walk up the stairs and I don’t see any cards. It was mostly coins. There was Russian man behind the counter, who was speaking broken English. I asked if he had any baseball cards. He said they were downstairs. There were no lights on. It was a dungeon. He said I could turn on the lights and look around. I found a boatload of 1952 Topps high numbers. It was a good find. I bought all he had. He only took cash and spent all the money I had that day.
I went to Dennis Liborio, who was the equipment manager for the Astros. You could always get a little cash off Dennis. This was the late nineties. I went back and wiped him out of his 1952 Topps high numbers. He also had some 1933 Goudeys. He had Ruth and Gehrig. I passed on them because they were so nice that I thought they were reprints. I wasn’t comfortable enough to give him $300 or $400 for these cards. If they were the real deal, they were worth a boatload of money. I didn’t have time to investigate. I had my hands on them and I have wondered my entire life whether they were the real deal or not. What I did get was an Eddie Matthews. I paid $50 for it. It turned out to be a 2. I got a bunch of stars including Pee Wee Reese.
I got a bunch of them graded and I bartered them. I took them with me as traveled the big leagues as a coach. I would use those cards and trade them for stuff I wanted. I got a Ted Williams Hartland statue for the Joe Black, which was an 8 OC.
I used them to trade for other Hartlands and pennants and things I would find that I wanted. They didn’t have any Mantles, by the way.
Those were some good days in Montreal.