I recently went to the high school graduation party for the son of a former Beckett colleague. The young man finished in the top 10 of his graduation class of more than 1,400 students and is on his way to a great collegiate program next year. Thinking about his future brought back memories of a different sort for me. Those memories are of those 1950’s seasons in which many major league teams were saddled with having what was called “bonus babies” on their roster.
While every once in a while those players would have nice careers the majority would have short and not always sweet careers. Covering their early (and sometimes complete) major league career was the Topps card company. Today, we usually associate Bowman as the brand for future major leaguers but from 1954-56, Topps actually became the first company to be heavily invested in young prospects.
Of course, for every player who turned out to be Sandy Koufax, Harmon Killebrew, Al Kaline or Clete Boyer there was a Tommy Carroll; Paul Penson, or Tom Qualters. Mr. Qualters was so highly regarded by the Philadelphia Phillies he never played a game for them the entire 1954 season. Could you imagine carrying a player on a roster all season and never using them… at all?
But for the kids buying packs in those years the hope always sprung eternal this would be the year these prospects would make the big move to become stars.
So why are those 1954-55 Topps cards so dotted with young players? Well, the primary issue was the “card wars”. While Bowman had the edge in veteran players, Topps would end up with an advantage by signing everyone they could, including many of those young guys who had yet to put on a big league uniform. When you need all those prospects and even coaches and managers to finish your sets, then you are doing whatever is in your power to at least make a set of more than just one series. My best guess is this is why the first series in the 1954 Topps set is so heavily invested in the veteran stars and that was to use them as quickly as possible.
It became a little easier in 1965, when the draft came into being. First pick Rick Monday didn’t become a Hall of Famer but he did have a nice career. Still, there were plenty of high picks who never even made it onto a card.
By the time I started collecting in the late 1960’s, our prospects were often boldly titled “Future Stars” or “Rookie Stars”. We would see guys like Cisco Carlos or Wally Wolf and imagine what a great future they had. After all, when you are a child getting these cards out of your packs, you didn’t really know if Johnny Bench would go straight to the Hall of Fame as predicted back then (he did) or Les Rohr, drafted first by the Mets several rounds ahead of Nolan Ryan would out of baseball by 1970 (he was). Either way, they were all basically equal coming out of the pack.
But for all of us including today’s Bowman “Chromies”, the hope remains that the player who may be the focus of our “PC” (personal collection) becomes the next Mike Trout or Bryce Harper. When those players become stars we are happy and if they don’t, well, the 2015 draft is this week and we’ll watch players who are selected sign contracts and start their pro journey. Some will make it and some won’t but following along is the fun of being a fan and collector.