by Bruce Markusen
COOPERSTOWN, NY–A museum exhibit about iconic and rare baseball cards is sure to capture the attention of this author. When the exhibit happens to be featured here in Cooperstown, there is simply no excuse for me to miss it. The temporary exhibit, titled The Ultimate Set, features 25 of the most intriguing cards contained in the remarkable personal collection of Arizona Diamondbacks majority owner Ken Kendrick.
The exhibit is curated skillfully by the Hall of Fame’s Lenny DiFranza, who discussed its intricacies during a recent presentation to the Hall’s museum teachers. Faced with the challenge of finding themes for the 25 cards selected by Kendrick, DiFranza divided The Ultimate Set into five sections; they are “Childhood Heroes of the 1950s”, “The Mystery of Scarcity”, “Classic Cardboard”, “Design Appeal”, and “A Piece of History.”
For Kendrick, his collection started with “Childhood Heroes.” Growing up with baseball during the 1950s, Kendrick collected cards of such immortals as Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Duke Snider, all of whom made their big league debuts during the 1950s. The rookie cards of each of these players are featured in the exhibit, all in stunningly pristine condition, especially considering that nearly 60 years have passed since they were first released by such companies as Topps, Bowman, and Goudey. Most collectors of the day abused their cards by flipping them, inserting them into bicycle spokes, and generally mangling them into oblivion, but Kendrick took good care of his early cards and then augmented his collection by purchasing pristine cards during the 1980s.
My favorite section of the exhibit is “The Mystery of Scarcity,” which profiles some of the rarest cards that can be found in the hobby today. A terrific example is a beautiful 1954 Bowman Ted Williams. Williams had already signed an exclusive agreement with Topps, thereby making the Bowman card illegal. When Topps found out about the Williams card, the company demanded that its rival pull the card from distribution. Bowman complied, but not before some fans had already bought the renegade cards.
(The deal that Williams signed with Topps typifies the way the company has historically done business. Topps has always negotiated contracts with each individual player, who agrees to give the company the rights to use his image on a card. Over the years, most players have gladly signed agreements with Topps. But there have been exceptions. Notable players such as Maury Wills, Rusty Staub, and Jason Varitek have declined signing deals with Topps for a portion of their careers. That explains why you won’t find a Staub card in the 1972 and ‘73 Topps sets.)
Another rare card came about as a result of a glitch in Goudey’s 1933 set. Goudey did not produce a card numbered 106, most likely in an effort to keep collectors buying more cards in an attempt to find the elusive–and actually nonexistent–card. In reaction to a number of angry fan letters that poured in, Goudey decided to include a special card No. 106 in its 1934 set. Goudey made an odd selection for card No. 106–former Philadelphia A’s second baseman Nap Lajoie, who had been retired for the past 18 seasons.
Another section of the exhibit, called “Classic Cardboard,” displays the famed T206 Honus Wagner card that was once purchased by Wayne Gretzky and deposed Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall. Kendrick is the card’s most recent owner, having purchased it for $2.8 million. This is the same card that is in such amazingly fine condition that some hobbyists have questioned its origin. Many believe it was cut from a sheet discovered in the 1980s. In some ways, the questions surrounding the card only makes it more appealing.
Wagner, by the way, is very well represented at the Hall these days. Given that the Hall of Fame already owns two other Wagners from the T206 set, there are now three Wagners on the premises at 25 Main Street.
For fans of cards featuring attractive designs, the exhibit has a section called “Design Appeal.” Among the cards found in Kendrick’s collection are prime examples from the famed “Cracker Jack” set, featuring the stylish red background. At the time, these cards were particularly expensive to produce because of their reliance on color. Thankfully, the Cracker Jack company bit the bullet and made the cards, which have become so iconic that their style has often been mimicked if not completely duplicated.
Also included are two cards from the memorable Goudey “Heads Up” set, in which each player is shown with an actual head over a cartoon body. The “Heads Up” set was produced in two versions, one featuring a comic strip in the background and one without. Very popular in its day, the “Heads Up” style was revived by Upper Deck in 2007, giving fans a chance to see the likes of Derek Jeterand Ichiro Suzuki with oversized heads on cartoon bodies.
No card exhibit could be complete without samples from the first full regular issue set produced by Topps in 1952. (Topps had produced a Red Backs set in 1951, but it consisted of only 52 cards.) In issuing this groundbreaking release, Topps broke with some early traditions established by other card companies. The company increased the size of cards, making them two and five-eighths inches by three and five-eighths. This would eventually be reduced to the two-and-a-half by three-and-a-half frame that would become the standard for the industry. Topps also made sure to put team logos on the front of the cards, so as to appeal directly to fans who would have interest in collecting players from their hometown teams.
The exhibit’s final section, “A Piece of History,” highlights cards that coincide with record-breaking and milestone seasons. Kendrick’s collection includes a 1927 Babe Ruth, an acknowledgement of his 60-home run season. There are 1941 cards for Williams (who batted .406) and Joe DiMaggio (the 56-game hit streak), and an historic 1948 Leaf card of Jackie Robinson. Since no card company anticipated Robinson’s arrival in 1947, the ‘48 Leaf card represents his actual rookie card.
With its smattering of industry heavyweights, scarce jewels, and high price tags, the subset of 25 cards from Kendrick’s massive collection will remain on exhibit at the Hall of Fame for the rest of the year, and possibly in 2011.
Bruce Markusen is the author of several books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research.