Even among collectors of oddball sports cards, the Transogram baseball issues of 1969 and 1970 have long been a source of intrigue thanks to both their unusual distribution methods and their short-lived, out-of-nowhere run in the hobby spotlight. In the 45 years since they last appeared on store shelves, many of the cards — and the plastic figurines that accompanied them — have changed hands, but their origins have become even more obscured by the decades. As it turns out, Transogram’s baseball issues were the final flameout for a company that once burned bright across the American pop culture landscape.
Board Games – America’s First Pastime?
Around the turn of the 20th century, toy and game companies began to gain a legitimate slot in the marketplace as more and more folks moved from rural locales into America’s cities for work. Along with more steady external employment came a modicum of free time and a proliferation of in-home electricity, which meant that families could gather in the evenings and get to know each other like never before. What better way to do that than playing games?
By the 1930s, board games had become a big business, and Parker Brothers had gained a firm foothold with its classic Monopoly game. Not far behind, though, was a company which started life 30 years earlier as the Friction Transfer Pattern Company under the auspices of gaming legend Charles Raizen. By the time Raizen worked his way up from summer employee to firm president in 1917, the company had become known for their “magic” stick that could be rubbed across the back of a print image to transfer it to another piece of paper. Raizen, seeking to capitalize on that success and make his company more memorable to consumers, changed the name to Transogram.
As the Great Depression gave way to World War II, Transogram turned its energies toward the toy market, leaving its gaming division to founder. When television sets began to make their way into American households in the mid 1950s, though, Raizen took advantage of the burgeoning pop culture boom by producing several TV-based board games, and Transogram asserted itself again as one of the top independent toy manufacturers. “Transy,” the company’s revamped logo/mascot, became a familiar site on stacks of game boxes across the nation, and, by 1962, the company had grown enough that Raizen decided to make the transformation to public trading. Transogram stock debuted on the New York Stock Exchange in May of that year, though Raizen maintained a controlling interest in Transogram, holding 61% of the company’s outstanding shares until his death in 1967.
Two years later, the company was sold and, not long after that, Transogram was gone.
Bottom of the 9th
Before Transy retired to the locker room forever, he surprised baseball card collectors by making an appearance in toy aisles during the spring of 1969, emblazoned on box tops of 60 different Transogram National League and American League player figurines, sold individually. Boxes feature red and blue writing on white cardboard, with a transparent plastic front that allowed shoppers a clear view of the player statue inside. Behind the plastic figurine, typically posed in-game action, was a blue or yellow cardboard rendering of the inside of a baseball stadium, so that the entire tableau had the feeling of a snapshot taken from the field of play.
The side panels of the boxes show a small head shot of the featured player, so that when the figurines are stacked on a shelf, the player visual is still present. Many collectors snipped these side-panel “cards” and saved them separately, and they can occasionally be found on the market today.
The figures themselves feature a player in full team uniform, complete with logos on the jersey, a cap, stirrup socks, belt, and a fielder’s mitt. Some slight variations in skin tone can be found, presumably to account for different races, but the figures generally bear little resemblance to the players they purport to portray. In contrast to Hartland statues and even Kenner Starting Lineups, the Transogram figures were really just toys with no grand artistic ambitions.
Hey, These Look Familiar!
While the figures in the boxes were mostly unidentifiable, Transogram decorated box backs with full-color player cards to help children (and collectors) keep track of who was who. Measuring the standard 2-1/2″ x 3-1/2″, the cards feature a player photo inside of a thick white border with rounded corners over the top three quarters of the pasteboard. Below the picture is the player’s name in red ink, and below that, his vital statistics, position, and team name appear in black ink. A bright yellow background makes the Transogram cards visible from across a crowded card show, and the “cut-here” dotted line that surrounds the card border completes a set of questionable design choices that has somewhat limited the popularity of the cards over the years. It also doesn’t help that the backs of the cards are completely blank, since they were really just the inside of the figurine boxes.
Even though the design of the Transogram cards is not all that appealing, it does not take veteran collectors long to recognize that there is something very familiar about these yellow “beauties.” In particular, many of the photos will deliver déjà vu shivers to anyone who’s spent time poring through Topps cards from the late 1960s. Cards of Lou Brock, Tom Seaver, Juan Marichal, Lee May, Rick Reichardt, Danny Cater, Johnny Odom, Bob Gibson, Rick Monday, and Ken Harrelson feature an exact match photo to the one on the player’s 1968 Topps issue.
So, did Topps “rent” these pictures to Transogram or maybe even produce the cards for Transogram? The photo matches certainly suggest a strong connection, and, as noted Topps expert Dave Hornish pointed out to me, the fonts used on the Transogram cards are nearly identical to those that Topps used for its 1968 set. Typically, when Topps licensed photos to other parties (Hostess, for example), the fonts did not come along for the ride.
An Amazin’ Encore
Regardless of who actually produced the 1969 sets, one go-round was apparently not enough for Transogram, and they were back with two sets in 1970.
First up was a series of NL and AL All Stars that were issued three to a box, as opposed to the single-player model from 1969, for a total of 30 different players. All of them were holdovers from 1969 except for Boog Powell, Sam McDowell, and Reggie Jackson. All of the photos were the same, too, except for those of the new additions and Joe Torre, which of course means more Topps flashbacks when paging through the 1970 Transogram cards. In addition, the yellow Reggie Jackson card matches his iconic 1969 Topps rookie, portrait-for-portrait. One small difference introduced for the 1970 cards was a slightly larger cut size, at 2-9/16″ x 3-1/2 inches.
In 1969 and the early parts of 1970, of course, nothing buzzed louder in the baseball world than the unlikely rise of the New York Mets from bottom-feeders to World Champions at a time when the mighty cross-town New York Yankees were looking for direction. To capitalize on that phenomenon, Transogram dedicated their second 1970 set to “The Amazin’ Mets,” featuring 15 different members of the champs.
Also issued three to a package, the Mets box was branded with team colors — blue and orange — and proudly proclaimed that they were “1969 World Champion Collector Figures.” The usual yellow cards adorned box backs, and three players were crossovers from the “All Star” series: Tom Seaver, Cleon Jones, and Jerry Koosman.
Collect ‘Em All!
Since there are no identifying logos or text on the hand-cut Transogram cards, they sometimes change hands at shows or garage sales without either part really knowing what they’re trading. While most folks in the hobby during the 1980s and before had at least some vague idea of what the Transogram sets were about, there have been so many different cards produced in the last couple of decades that our collective knowledge of and interest in this obscure issue has slipped. Along with at least a modicum of true scarcity, this lack of attention has led to some truly sparse PSA population reports for all three Transogram editions.
A total of 544 of the hand-cut 1969 Transogram cards have been submitted to PSA for slabbing, with just three scoring a perfect 10, along with 58 graded as 9s and 92 graded at 8. Only 16 complete boxes have been sent in for grading, and the highest mark handed out to those specimens was a PSA 5 for the Harmon Killebrew statue.
The 1970 Transogram issues are even less active in the graded arena, according to PSA, as only 189 hand-cut NL/AL cards have been submitted for grading. Rico Petrocelli scored the lone PSA 10 among single All Star issue cards, while 11 others checked in with a 9 and 26 graded an 8. None of the 44 Mets cards submitted to PSA have warranted a 10, though a single Nolan Ryan card graded at 9, as did a tri-card panel of Al Weis, Ed Cranepool, and Tom Seaver.
As with the 1969 issue, graded complete boxes of the 1970 Transograms are tough to come by, as only 12 have been submitted through mid March. Of those, the only one to grade as high as PSA 5 was a start-studded beauty featuring Hank Aaron, Jim Wynn, and Tom Seaver.
Despite this relative lack of graded material, collectors looking to build a set or partial set of Transogram cards or statues will find plenty of examples on the market at any given time. In fact, aside from conditioning, the real challenge with collecting the Transogram issues is figuring out exactly what it is you want to collect.
A recent survey of the Transogram listings on eBay, for example, reveals a dizzying array of formats available. Among these are single hand-cut cards, triple-player panels hand-cut from boxes, complete boxes (both single and triple) with or without the figures inside, loose player figurines, hand-cut side-panel photos, display pieces from all three Transogram sets, and loose figures plus their backgrounds but without the boxes. When you factor in graded and ungraded examples for many of these formats, as well as opened and sealed boxes, the number of possible collecting permutations can be overwhelming.
As you might imagine, prices are all over the board depending on the specific configuration of the lot for sale. At one end of the card spectrum, single raw commons start around $10, while, on the other end, a PSA 8 copy of the 1969 Roberto Clemente card was recently offered at nearly $3000. A PSA 3 panel of Clemente, Bob Gibson, and Jerry Koosman recently sold for just under $300, while a complete box containing those same player statues brought $931.
On occasion, complete sets of the cards or boxes will come to market, and this can be a cost-effective route to build out your collection if condition is not a primary concern. Recent complete-set sales, as reported on PriceRealized.com, include the five-box, 15-figure Amazin’ Mets set for $600 and the full 1970 set, including all five Mets boxes and the 10 All Star boxes, for $2600. A complete set of sealed Mets figures (alas, without the outer boxes) is being offered online for $381.
Transogram display pieces make a nice adjunct to complete box runs and sell for a few hundred dollars when they come to market, which is not often.
Still Mysterious After All These Years
Even after more than 45 years’ worth of cutting, stacking, trading, and grading, it seems that collectors are still not quite sure what to make of Transogram’s three baseball issues from 1969 and 1970, and we don’t even really have a handle on how to collect them, or if we want to collect them at all. Maybe, in the end, the whole point of these issues was to make hobbyists scratch their heads trying to figure out one last Transogram game.
After all, what could be a more fitting legacy for Charles Raizen than for collectors to still be “puzzling” over his toy company’s final offerings nearly half a century after his death and the demise of his brainchild?