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A battalion of vintage cards you have never seen before ...

TJ Dioguardi is a member of a really cool, reasonably exclusive club. There are no dues, no formal membership rosters, no monthly meetings, none of the bureaucratic stuff that can make joining a club tiresome and unattractive.

Dioguardi creates custom-made baseball cards, most typically of cards that many serious collectors wish that Topps and Bowman had gotten around to creating way back when.

It’s hardly a secret in the hobby that a combination of events conspired to limit the number of vintage cards Stan Musial had during his career, and members of Dioguardi’s informal little club have labored feverishly over the last 20 years or so to rectify that sad situation. In his case, the Avon, N.Y. resident has produced a full two dozen knockout Stan Musial cards that you’ve never seen and don’t own.

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An accountant by trade, he brings a genuine flair for graphic design to his hobby of the past seven years. He doesn’t offer the cards for sale, but I came across his name from another member of his little club, Bob Lemke. I’ve marveled at Bob’s homemade creations for years, most prominently his Homeric effort to mimic cards in the style of the 1955 Topps All-American Football issue, and when Lemke hinted that Dioguardi’s level of technological sophistication might even surpass his own, I paid attention. This I had to see.

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(Note: I have this really goofy computer that prints website links in invisible ink. Don't ask. If you simply double click on the white space above this note, it should take you to Dioguardi's website. I apologize for the ridiculous intrigue. – Ed.)

A visit to the above website took care of it. There I found the 24 vintage Musials right alongside a dozen “new” Mickey Mantle cards, 13 Ted Williams beauties and anywhere from a half-dozen or so to three or four cards from many of the other monster Hall of Famers like Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, to name a few.

His roster offers hints about his rooting allegiances. “I am a Yankees fan and a true collector,” said the 41-year-old Dioguardi, who collected cards as a kid and started in the hobby in the late 1970’s when he would go to some early shows with his father. By 1981-82 they were full-time vendors at shows and in 1989 even teamed up to open their own card store.

All the while he was laying the groundwork for his creative hobby, studying the vintage cards and sets that would serve as his inspiration. “I like the 1950’s cards best,” he said. By the 1960’s or so, he says, Topps’ graphic guys would simply plop down a photo onto the card. The 1950’s classics, from the early Bowman issues to very nearly the entire Topps run from 1952-59, would sparkle with artwork, intriguing body copy on the backs and different design elements on the fronts.

“You need to have that affection for the cards,” is the way he describes it.

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His three-piece “cards” consist of fronts and backs glued to a stabilizing center sheet. With each new creation, now numbering more than 100, he’ll make one version of the card for his personal album and then promptly post it on the website.

The results are nothing short of sensational. Mostly he just gets to have fun with it. Stanley Frank Musial missed out on so many of those great Topps and Bowman issues? Done. Teddy Ballgame had no Topps cards from 1952-53? No problem. Dioguardi will even throw in Williams cards from 1954 Dan Dee Potato Chips and Red Heart Dog Food.

Even a casual observer on his website might notice a lot of Vic Raschi cards. Turns out, the former Yankees ace had a liquor store in nearby Geneseo, N.Y., and would appear at shows Diojuardi and his father promoted. The artist gets to decide about his own checklist, after all.

When you roll your own like he does, you can plant Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb in some of the great 1950s Topps issues, get Mickey Mantle that 1955 Topps (multiples, really) that he didn’t get at the time, or even make a 1962 M & M combo card of Mantle and Maris. How did Topps let that obvious treasure get away in 1962?

“That card should have been made,” he said incredulously. It was seeing an ersatz 1955 Topps Mickey Mantle card on the Internet six or seven years ago that helped propel him headlong in his new hobby, though he had been prepping for the move – perhaps unconsciously – for several years before that. He even bought that massive 1986 Topps book that included images of every mainstream card the company had produced up to that point.

One of his first efforts was that 1955 Topps Mickey Mantle card. “I showed it to my dad, and put it in his hands, and he kind of teared up,” Dioguardi said, taking note of the ultimate sanctioning of his work. “He was 8 years old again. It was one of our most satisfying family moments.”

With meticulous attention to detail front and back (he’ll even tint his white borders a bit on some of the vintage issues to more closely replicate originals), Dioguardi has opted for a labor-intensive hobby. Three years ago, he was diagnosed with colon cancer, and his passion for these custom cards proved to be a nice diversion after so many hours of chemotherapy. He’s now started his fourth year in remission.

No matter how long I’m involved in this hobby, I’ll never get over the realization that some of the best material I run across has come from private individuals doing their own thing.

Boy, it sure would be fun to take a look at that album of his. He might want to have me frisked at the door afterward though.
I’m just sayin.’

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