When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn during the mid-1960s, the New York Yankees ruled baseball. Sure, the Mets were lovable, but from 1960 to 1964, the Yankees rang up five pennants and two World Series titles.
Who would have imagined that this Yankees dynasty would crumble in 1965, and then crash and burn with a last-place finish in 1966? And not sniff the World Series again until 1976?
Unfathomable. But in 1964 it was still a challenge to face the Yankees, and that was the year Hasbro (Hassenfeld Bros.) of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, cashed in on that idea with a board game called Challenge the Yankees.
The game featured a replica of old Yankee Stadium. One of the boards depicted a baseball diamond (players used pegs to denote runners on base), and there were strategy cards to use when a player hit a grounder or a fly ball. The left side of the box cover had small action shots of Mickey Mantle, Tom Tresh and Elston Howard. The rest of the box had a magnificent aerial view of the original Yankee Stadium. An inset encouraged would-be young managers that “each player performs as in a real game.”
This was a dice-driven baseball game, not as cerebral as APBA or Strat-O-Matic, but simple to learn and easy to play.
The game had 50 cards with player images — 25 members of the Yankees, and 25 all-stars. The All-Star roster seemed kind of dubious — while Hank Aaron, Al Kaline and Willie McCovey were part of the set, Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente were not. The cards measured 4 inches by 5 3/8 inches and had a small black-and-white photograph in the upper left-hand corner. A facsimile autograph was located to the right of the photo; below that were the results of dice rolls from 2 to 12. The card backs were blank; in fact, the 1964 edition of the game included some blank cards for kids to write in their favorite players.
The 1965 edition was very similar to the previous year. While some cards were the same, others had minor changes, like updated statistics.
If you were a kid in the New York metropolitan area, Challenge the Yankees was essential to own.
“That was the big game,” remembered Lou Dicioccio, who was born in North Tarrytown, New York, and was (and still is) a big Yankees fan. “I was six or seven years old and it didn’t take much to learn the game.”
“I had a yard with a picnic table in the back and we’d play there.”
Like most kids, Dicioccio used — and abused — the cards.
“I didn’t have anything left over. We used those cards until you couldn’t see anything,” he said.
Other kids would write on the cards or transform them into other players. John Scott Gray, a collector from Canadian Lakes, Michigan, remembers receiving three cards from a friend that were doctored.
“His younger brother marked up the back of the cards in the 1970s,” Gray told us. “He turned Jake Gibbs into George Brett, Pete Mikkelson into Willie Horton and Pedro Gonzalez became Dave Kingman.”
Dicioccio, 57, now a manager for aircraft maintenance for Federal Express in Long Beach, California, was prowling around eBay seven years ago in search of his favorite player — Mickey Mantle. As he searched, some Challenge the Yankees cards of the Mick popped up.
“I said, jeez, I remember those cards,” he said.
One thing led to another, and Dicioccio began buying cards from the 1964 set.
“I was originally picking them up for $2 to $9 apiece on eBay,” Dicioccio said. “I was picking this stuff up cheap.
“So I sent them in and got them graded.”
Dicioccio now boasts the third finest and second current finest set of Challenge the Yankees cards on the PSA registry. He has 42 of the 50 cards from 1964 graded; the two higher sets have all 50 cards. The first card he sent in to get graded was logged in on the PSA site in December 2011; the 42nd graded card was graded about a year ago.
The PSA registry lists the average grade of Dicioccio’s collection at 4.929 and a 4.14 rating.
Of the cards Dicioccio lacks, seven are Yankees — Mantle, Yogi Berra, Jim Bouton, Clete Boyer, Gibbs, Tony Kubek and Bill Stafford. The lone all-star he needs is Del Crandall.
He’d like to finish the set, but Dicioccio is not going to pay exorbitant rates. He is content to keep searching for that deal that brings him closer to completion.
A quick search of eBay showed over two dozen cards for sale, most with minimum bids of less than $10. There was one Mantle card listed for $59.99. Seems reasonable, but the card has been “trimmed,” according to the seller. Cut in half might be a more apt description, as the lower 2 ¾ inches of the card was neatly snipped away. A PSA 4 Mantle sold in April for $191.
A complete Yogi Berra card graded VG (40) by SGC was listed for $44.95.
Being a young Yankees fan, Dicioccio did not mind trading stars from other teams for cards of the Bronx Bombers.
“I would take every card and trade them for Yankees. I’d put them in a big box,” he said. “All the Yaz’s and Mays and Aarons, I’d trade them to get Yankees.
“Boy I was pretty stupid.”
But Dicioccio was pretty smart when it came to getting his cards graded.
“I bought a bunch of Mantles from this guy and I put them in the safety deposit box,” he said. “Then I read where people were altering and coloring cards and I said I’d better get them graded.”
Dicioccio’s collecting habits are varied and eclectic. In addition to baseball cards, he graded tickets from the Kentucky Derby and the Army-Navy game. In fact, he has a ticket from the 1903 game and a PSA-8 ticket from 1905.
“There’s only one ticket graded higher than that 1905 that I have,” he said.
Another part of his intriguing collection: ticket stubs from the games in which major-league players collecting their 3,000th career hit. It’s been easy to find those tickets of recent players, but Dicioccio concedes he’ll never complete the set.
“I need an 1897 Cap Anson ticket,” he said. “I’ll never get that. “Or Napoleon Lajoie either.”
Besides, there is some dispute when Anson actually got his 3,000th hit. The most commonly accepted date is July 18, 1897, when Anson rapped a single during the Chicago Colts’ 6-3 victory against the Baltimore Orioles. Lajoie doubled for No. 3,000 on September 27, 1914, one of a pair of two-baggers he got during the Cleveland Naps’ 5-3 victory in the first game of a doubleheader against the Yankees.
Lest one think he limits himself to sports, Dicioccio also has the second finest and second current finest set on the PSA registry of the 18-card Woody Woodpecker Drawing Lessons from 1953. That’s right: he has all 18 cards, including Woody of course, Andy Panda, Dizzy Dog, Wally Walrus, Carrie Pigeon, Floyd and Lloyd Rabbit, Snuffy Skunk and Omar Owl. And the rest of the gang created by Walter Lantz.
“I didn’t like being the other teams,” he laughed. “I always wanted to be the Yankees.”
Complete board games, with the cards still inside, are rare. A high-grade game sold for $1,749 in June while another described in ‘fair’ condition, brought $650.
Here is a breakdown of the game cards for both years of Challenge the Yankees’ existence:
1964 edition players
• Yankees: Yogi Berra, Johnny Blanchard, Jim Bouton, Clete Boyer, Marshall Bridges, Harry Bright, Al Downing, Whitey Ford, Jake Gibbs, Pedro Gonzalez, Steve Hamilton, Elston Howard, Tony Kubek, Phil Linz, Hector Lopez, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Tom Metcalf, Joe Pepitone, Hal Reniff, Bobby Richardson, Bill Stafford, Ralph Terry, Tom Tresh and Stan Williams.
• All-Stars: Hank Aaron, Del Crandall, Tom Cheney, Tito Francona, Dick Groat, Al Kaline, Art Mahaffey, Frank Malzone, Juan Marichal, Eddie Matthews, Bill Mazeroski, Ken McBride, Willie McCovey, Jim O’Toole, Milt Pappas, Ron Perranoski, Johnny Podres, Dick Radatz, Rich Rollins, Ron Santo, Bill Skowron, Duke Snider, Pete Ward, Carl Warwick and Carl Yastrzemski.
1965 edition players
• Yankees: Johnny Blanchard, Jim Bouton, Clete Boyer, Leon “Duke” Carmel, Al Downing, Whitey Ford, Jake Gibbs, Pedro Gonzalez, Steve Hamilton, Elston Howard, Tony Kubek, Phil Linz, Hector Lopez, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Pete Mikkelsen, Tom Metcalf, Joe Pepitone, Pedro Ramos, Hal Reniff, Bobby Richardson, Rollie Sheldon, Bill Stafford, Mel Stottlemyre and Tom Tresh.
• All-Stars: Hank Aaron, Joe Christopher, Vic Davalillo, Bill Freehan, Jim Gentile, Dick Groat, Al Kaline, Don Lock, Art Mahaffey, Frank Malzone, Juan Marichal, Eddie Matthews, Bill Mazeroski, Ken McBride, Tim McCarver, Willie McCovey, Jim O’Toole, Milt Pappas, Ron Perranoski, Johnny Podres, Dick Radatz, Rich Rollins, Ron Santo, Pete Ward and Carl Yastrzemski.