Not too many of us collected cards in 1931, owned sets of T205s, T207s, complete runs of Bowman and Topps as well as thousands of regionals and team sets and are still at it sorting current cards into sets. Did I also mention having a card set named after you? On “Jeopardy,” the question would be, “Who is Bob Solon?”
Bob Solon was a name I had seen in The Card Collector’s Bulletins of the 1950s and 1960s. He was an active hobbyist during those years writing occasionally for the Bulletin and other publications. He had participated in the early card shows in the Chicago area. I remembered buying an early 1980s baseball set from Solon and talking to him briefly 23 years ago. I was glad he was around to get my second call a few months ago.
Solon was born in Chicago in 1923. His family lived in the Lawndale neighborhood on the west side. Today as a retired school teacher, he has a remarkable memory of events and people that have been part of his baseball and hobby experience. He also has a good grasp of the business end of the hobby as it has evolved. It takes more than a few hours to hear the full story. This article gives you a glimpse.
Mickey Mouse Comes to Lawndale
Solon’s interest in baseball came first. He remembers being with his father listening to a radio broadcast by announcer Pat Flanagan of a 1929 World Series game between the Chicago Cubs and Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s. Hack Wilson dropped two balls in the outfield that day and Solon’s father was irate. Bob thought to himself that this was great, following the best teams as they made it to the World Series. Every year since he has made it a personal challenge to guess the annual World Series participants before the season starts. As a result he has always had his eye on the front runners. Rather than being a hometown team die-hard fanatic, Solon closely follows the best teams. He is a self-described “elitist” in his allegiance.
Solon’s neighborhood provided drugstores and confectionary stores where he first found the R89 Mickey Mouse cards by Gum, Inc. in 1931. By 1933, Solon had his eye out for baseball cards. He saw the DeLongs in one store, but he bought the Goudeys. Solon pursued the Goudeys in earnest, eventually accumulating about 500 of them; organizing them by the color of their backgrounds.
He remembers having card No. 181 of Ruth with a purple background that should have been printed with a green background. I don’t know that the card has ever surfaced again. He was interested in the players (and the color of the backgrounds) and didn’t pay much attention to the numbers on the back. He had three Ruth cards, never running across the fourth card – the full-length pose of Ruth batting that was actually a double print. He was unaware of Foxx and Gehrig having two different numbers.
High numbers were very hard to find in Lawndale. They were issued after the pennant race was over. In an instant Solon rattled off the high numbers that he had trouble finding more than 70 years ago: Dean, Root, Hartnett and the two Hubbells. Solon vividly remembers a 1933 Goudey Leo Durocher card with a number different from his correct number of No. 147. Perhaps it was the No. 106 proof card listed in the Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards? No. 106 was also used for Lajoie. Like many collectors, Solon was interested in getting cards of all the players. The obscure players became more of a challenge than readily available stars. Years later Solon would meet hobbyists like Buck Barker who shared the same opinion.
Solon’s collecting coincided with the Great Depression. His family had an opportunity to move into a flat with steam heat rather than a stove and they jumped at it. Solon’s sources for obtaining cards was altered in the new neighborhood. He picked up some cards from other kids and would buy a few new cards as they came out. The 1934 Goudeys didn’t inspire him like the ’33s. The 1935 puzzle cards were “a disaster.” How could you put four players on one card from different teams in any kind of order? Solon remembers the 1938 Goudeys, 1940 Double Headers, and 1941 Goudeys as being not much better. The 1939 and 1940 Play Balls never made it to Solon’s neighborhood.
Solon’s collecting had the normal interruptions, like school, girls and a World War. The cards disappeared as quickly as they had accumulated. Phase One of Solon’s collecting ended as he went off to war in Europe.
The Second Bug Bites
Fast forward to Bob Solon school teacher in 1954. A kid in his class dropped a 1954 Topps Gus Zernial on the floor. Solon liked what he saw. Some of the older kids had a 1953 Bowman Mantle and a 1953 Bowman Musial. Solon caught the bug for the second time. He was off and running by 1955.
He went to wholesalers and picked up the Topps, Bowmans, and Topps Double Headers. He kept collecting in quantity through wholesalers, except for the tough 1957 Topps series that was only available in one candy store. Solon subscribed to The Sporting News and saw an advertisement from a dealer in New York City, Sam Rosen: baseball cards for sale.
Soon, Solon was buying 1952 high numbers for 5 cents each from Rosen and selling him the 1957 tough series (4th) that were hard to find in New York. Jack Wise of Virginia became a source for more 1952 Topps as well as 1939 Play Balls and Wirt Gammon had tobacco cards. Solon subscribed to Burdick’s Card Collector’s Bulletin. He found fellow Chicagoan Lionel Carter and began trading and corresponding with about 12 collectors around the country including Bill White, Irv Lerner and Carter. He remembers the vast majority of people he came in contact with in the hobby as “straight arrows.” Solon has retained the many articles he wrote for The Card Collector’s Bulletin. The subjects varied but there was always an interest in the hard-to-find regional issues.
The 1958 Gathering
Through Carter, Solon met other collectors. The turning point being a meeting of four hobbyists at Carter’s home in late September 1958. The foursome was Barker of St. Louis, Charlie Bray of East Bangor, Pa., Solon and Carter. Bray had taken over as editor of The Card Collector’s Bulletin and continued to run his bimonthly auctions of cards. He brought along a T206 Wagner that he kept in a type of picture frame, Carter recalled.
Barker was an avid baseball fan and collector who joined Bray and Burdick as an editor of The American Card Catalog, helping catalog the post-war baseball sets. Carter was probably the first to write an article about baseball cards in 1936 and continued as a frequent hobby publication writer as well as a collector of quality baseball cards.
The last series of 1958 Topps had just come out and Solon had visited his wholesaler. He brought to the gathering the triple-printed 1958 Musial All-Star cards, as well as the tougher single prints of Carroll Hardy, Billy Harrell and Preston Ward. He gave them to anyone who needed one. Without hesitation, Solon remembered that he needed card No. 51 of Charlie Grimm to complete his recently assembled 1933 Goudey set. Carter just handed him the card and said to keep it.
The Stars Come Out
Carter wanted cards in the best condition while Solon and Barker had an interest in the more obscure players. Barker told him that he would rather have cards of 10 obscure rookies than a duplicate of Mantle. Barker and Solon agreed that the Wagner (pulled from circulation) and Plank (broken printing plate) should be at a premium, but they didn’t see a reason for premiums on star cards. Solon said that others did, however, like Bruce Yeko.
Yeko wound up completing a chain of transactions starting with Sam Rosen. Solon recalled that Rosen was ill and sold his card business in New York to Gordon B. Taylor. Taylor began publishing the monthly Card Comments Magazine in 1958, including a master checklist (that this writer purchased some 45 years ago). Taylor’s business was taken over by Marshall Oreck. He, in turn, sold the business to Yeko, who had moved from Milwaukee to Connecticut. Yeko, like the others, would sell most any card for 10 cents. But soon Yeko found that he could get a premium for stars like Mantle and rookies and by 1962, he began selling them at premiums. According to Solon, the hobby has never been the same.
Marbles and Marshall
An example of Solon’s interest in the obscure player is demonstrated by his story of finding out that a card had been issued of Marshall Renfroe, a pitcher for the San Francisco Giants. Now, if you say to yourself that you remember Renfroe, you might be remembering his 1960 Leaf high-number card, because to have seen him in action would have required extreme vigilance. Like Topps in the mid 1950s having to picture such household names as Stan Jok and Paul Penson to come up with a set of players not under contract to Bowman, the 1960 Leafs practically cornered the market on obscure players. Renfroe made one major league appearance in late 1959. He started a game, pitched two innings and retired with a 27.00 ERA. He appeared in no other set and 1960 Leaf high numbers weren’t too easy to find. Solon found out that the cards – issued in packages with marbles – were available not too far away on the west side of Chicago. He went to the plant and talked them into selling him a case.
Solon developed an affinity, or perhaps more accurately an affliction, for going after regional and team issues in quantity. Anyone could go to a store and buy the one annual issue of Topps cards, but Cardinal postcards, Seattle Rainiers issues, Kahns, Kelloggs and other regionals were a challenge.
By the late 1960s, collectors were “augmenting” the Topps regular issues with some of their own creations. If the teams weren’t going to put out sets, some collectors felt an obligation to help them along. Solon and friends put together five sets between 1969-70: Expos (two sets), A’s, Royals, and Orioles.
“Fud’s Photography” Montreal Expos was the first effort, with 200 sets selling at the time for $2 per set. The set still appears as a collector issue in The Standard Catalog and now lists at $40 per set. Although Solon was involved with the set, he thought the photography was not the best. The Kansas City Royals issue is also listed in The Catalog as the “1969 Solon Kansas City Royals” and is still listed at an affordable $16.
The 1970 La Pizza Royale Expos was a set that I had been looking for to add to my type-card collection. What an unusual name, I had thought to myself. I finally found one card a few years ago. It is amazing that I found a single card. I should have asked Solon for a set. Solon and friends made up the name La Pizza Royale and produced about 800 sets and issued them to collectors for a few dollars a set. The photography, write-ups and sales were quite an accomplishment and a lot of work.
The Exhibit Supply Co. operations were in Chicago and Solon made contact with them as well in the 1960s. Solon recalled veteran collector Stan McClure having a fantastic run of early Exhibits, including some sepia-toned 1927 and 1928 Exhibits. Even the Exhibit Supply Co. couldn’t find out much about them.
The company began issuing sports cards in 1921 (joke cards in 1919) and continued into the 1970s. Chet Gore purchased the company during the Depression and sold it to Paul Marchant in 1979. Solon met with Gore in the 1960s and instantly recalled specifics about the baseball issues, including relative production runs, players added and removed, and legal problems with Topps. Solon recalled that in 1966 Topps forced the Exhibit Supply Co. to delete six players from the issue: Aaron, Matthews, Spahn, Groat, Drysdale and Colavito. The cards had already been printed and Solon wound up with a few of the cards that were pulled.
Solon had a knack for getting quantities of Kellogg cards in the 1970s. Kellogg went so far as to print three of the cards in the 57-card 1976 set at a different printer in another part of the country in order to make collecting the set a bit more of a challenge.
Still a Few Cards
Solon’s recollections of these cards are so accurate that in checking my notes against catalogs after my interview, I soon stopped being amazed that Solon still knew Charlie Grimm’s card number or who the short prints were in 1958. Opportunities came along to buy out collections such as that of J.J. Siko’s of Pittsburgh. Solon bought everything, including a Goudey Lajoie.
In 1979 Solon retired from teaching and decided to part with his collection as well. Solon sold his Goudeys, Play Balls, T206s (missing Wagner and Plank), T207s, T210s, Bowman and Topps sets. But the story doesn’t end there. I asked Solon if he still had a few cards? He does. He has kept his hand in buying a few cases, sorting the cards and swapping with others. The cards are mostly from the past few years, quite unusual for an old-time collector to still be interested in the current cards. He has the 2003 and 2004 Topps broken down from packs into sets.
It is not surprising that Solon has also retained a few items from his older collection. The cards and photos are those of the obscure players that Solon and collectors like Buck Barker worked to chase down. If Solon couldn’t find a one-time card of someone like Marshall Renfroe, he would find a photo. The back of the photo might have vintage baseball photographers “George Burke” or “George Brace” stamped on it. Solon’s other surviving interest has been the oddball cards. Solon can produce shoe boxes of cards with random assortments of Topps inserts, O-Pee-Chees, 1970s basketball and hockey, Kelloggs, Jack in the Box Angels, collector issues and Exhibits, plus bakery and candy issues from the 1910s and 1920s that appear at the bottom of boxes in no particular order.
Looking for a Senator Police issue, a 1967 Topps Red Sox sticker, or a 1963 Pepsi Colt .45? Solon has them in a box somewhere. (In Solon’s experience the toughest post-war card to find by far is the 1963 Pepsi-Cola Colt .45 of John Bateman.) Minor league team issues from the 1970s are there along with pins from 1910. Dig a bit further and you can find a dozen or so Roberto Clemente 1962 Post Cereal cards.
Solon will reach into another box, pull out a recent obscure baseball issue, read the back of a card, find an error and thereby continue to stay involved in cards, more than seven decades after purchasing the Mickey Mouse cards of 1931.