By Mike Shannon
As with arguments, there are two sides to every baseball card: the front and the back. The fronts with those smiling (sometimes scowling) faces, team logos, and artistic, increasingly graphic designs naturally get all the immediate attention, but a lot of collectors spend more time looking at the backs.
It is the card backs, after all, which contain biographical information and statistics: the stuff, in other words, of personality and history, measurement and assessment, conversation and debate. As all perceptive card collectors know, the relative amount of bio info and stats on any card back varies and is dependent on the design preference and intention of the card manufacturer, in general; and in particular on the current length of the career of the player in question. That is, posting the stats of a player who has enjoyed a 20-year-career will leave no room on the card for even the briefest biographical write-up, while the stats of short and even average-length careers permit some biography.
Biography on baseball card backs comes in two forms: straightforward prose writing and cartoons, normally with captions. Collectors of vintage Topps cards from the 1950s and 1960s are very familiar with the latter, as cartoons or artwork used to illustrate and impart some player information (often about hobbies or career highlights) were a staple of those releases. Using cartoons or artwork obviously is more complicated and expensive than merely using writing, and that is probably why the former has generally fallen out of practice. However, done well, supplying good biographical copy for card backs is as much of a challenge as producing an eye-pleasing design and finding interesting photos of the players for the card fronts.
I have had the pleasure of being asked to write the backs of several baseball card sets, including a recent release from Helmar, the originator and unsurpassed maker of vintage art cards (new cards which look old); and I’d like to share with readers of Sports Collectors Digest some of the thinking that went into my efforts to make the backs of this new set a worthy complement to the beautiful card fronts.
The set in question came about because of Helmar founder Charles Mandel’s desire “to go in a bit of a different direction, to try to outdo what we’ve done in the past … which is one reason people collect our cards.” Mandel’s implied reference is to some of the company’s early sets which pretty much copied the designs of famous vintage cards, such as the T206 tobacco and 1933 Goudey cards. Those Helmar sets full, by the way, of players not included in the namesake original sets, are still on-going and very popular. Those two particular Helmar sets have also grown to include a fairly large number of cards; the T206 set, for instance, will soon top out at more than 500 different cards.
In the interests of innovation Mandel wanted to do a smaller set that was connected to a specific topic or event and was also limited, from the beginning, in the number of cards by the parameters of the subject chosen. He considered among other topics the 1927 New York Yankees and the 1919 Black Sox World Series (both of which may become Helmar sets in the future) but decided in the end to go with one of baseball history’s most important and cherished events: the first mid-season All-Star Game of 1933. Few baseball events have more historical interest than that game.
The All-Star Game started with the desire of Chicago Mayor Edward J. Kelly to have a sporting event of some kind be included as part of the Chicago World’s Fair then taking place in his dynamic city; due in part to the year 1933 also being Chicago’s Centennial.
Kelly went to the Chicago Tribune to ask for their help with the idea, and that’s when Arch Ward, the sports editor of the Tribune, came up with the idea of an exhibition game between the best players from the American and National Leagues to be played at Chicago’s Comiskey Field. After a bit of reluctance, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis agreed to the idea on the basis that the event would boost the public’s morale during the Great Depression, and the nuts and bolts details began to be put together.
It was decided that the gate proceeds from the game would benefit disabled and needy former Major League players, and that the fans would have a hand in selecting the game’s participants. The National League starters were Pepper Martin, Frankie Frisch, Chuck Klein, Chick Hafey, Bill Terry, Wally Berger, Dick Bartell, Jimmie Wilson, and Wild Bill Hallahan; while the backups were Gabby Hartnett, Tony Cuccinello, Pie Traynor, Woody English, Lefty O’Doul, and Paul Waner. The NL bullpen consisted of Carl Hubbell, Lon Warneke, and Hal Schumacher.
The American League starters were Ben Chapman, Charlie Gehringer, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Al Simmons, Jimmy Dykes, Joe Cronin, Rick Ferrell, and Lefty Gomez; while the subs were Bill Dickey, Jimmie Foxx, Tony Lazzeri, Earl Averill, and Sam West. The AL relievers were General Crowder, Wes Ferrell, Lefty Grove, and Oral Hildebrand.
The 1933 All-Star Game thus provided a limited universe of subjects for a card set: basically, 36 players and two managers for a total of 38 cards. Mandel further decided to use a 3” X 5” card size, highly unusual dimensions, and to base the design of the cards on the classic 1934-36 Diamond Stars set.
True, the Helmar All-Star Game set pays homage to the Diamond Stars cards, but the notable differences between the two sets keeps the Helmar cards from being a mere imitation. In addition to the differences in the size of the cards (Diamond Stars are 2 3/8” X 2 7/8”), the make-up of the sets (All-Star participants vs. randomly-selected players), and the number of cards in each set (38 vs. 108), Mandel, a graphic design genius, went to great pains to create individual Art Deco backgrounds for the cards that vary wildly in colors, design, composition. The result is a series of strikingly original and beautiful cards that evoke the past and pay handsome tribute to one of baseball’s greatest moments.
Mandel’s final decision was what to do with the card backs. He could have used, as he has done with other Helmar sets, eclectic period advertising to simply decorate the backs, but given the nature of the event the cards are based on, biographical player information seemed a much better choice. And that is where I, as the card back writer, came in.
My first consideration was how to deal with numbers and statistics. While numbers and statistics are the currency of baseball talk, it made no sense to include each subject’s playing record ina statistical rows and columns format. That format is a modern invention that was not used on baseball cards back in the 1930s. On the other hand, those numbers and stats are an extremely useful, universally-understood shorthand for conveying a player’s accomplishments and status, so they had to be included in the brief bios, but judiciously so.
Thus, I felt comfortable in saying about the Giants’ great first baseman: “Each of the previous 4 seasons (Bill) Terry has racked up more than 200 hits and 100 RBI, and he won the batting title in 1930 with a gaudy mark of .401.” And this about Philadelphia’s Jimmie Foxx: “Last year, after a mild slump in 1931, he almost equaled Ruth’s famous record by bashing 58 home runs to go along with his .364 batting average and 169 runs knocked in.” By citing Terry’s and Foxx’s recent history I avoided a danger I was highly conscious of, the unintentional inclusion of anachronisms.
I had to compose these card backs with the player knowledge that a writer of the day would have been limited to. Referring to Babe Ruth’s career total of 714 home runs would have been an embarrassing, dead-giveaway that the writer making that reference was not working from the vantage point of mid-summer 1933, and the illusion that these Helmar cards are a relic of the past would have been shattered. To heighten this illusion, I even tried on occasion to mention players’ performances during the 1933 season; as when I wrote on the back of St. Louis Browns outfielder Sam West’s card, “He batted .328 in 1930 and .333 in ’31 and earlier this season collected eight consecutive knocks.”
This avoidance of relying too much on stats also gave me the leeway to include details about the players that are more personal in nature. For instance, I concluded the card back about Lou Gehrig by saying, “Lou also has a girl now, E. Twitchell of Chicago. They say it’s serious.” It doesn’t get much more personal than that. Luckily for me as the card back writer, Gehrig had just started dating Eleanor Twitchell whom he soon married, and their courtship caused quite a stir. The fact that she hailed from Chicago was a local-connection coincidence that writers of the day would have undoubtedly noted. And the addition of “They say it’s serious” conveys the idea that whether Gehrig ever marries this gal or not is unknown, as it would have been to observers of the day.
One further example, that of N.L. pitcher Hal Schumacher, illustrates a combination of using the personal and the recent past: “Born 11/23/10 in Hinckley, New York, Hal graduated from St. Lawrence College this spring, and the entire Giants’ team attended the ceremony!”
I tried to use the language and terms of the time as much as possible, as well as the general style of baseball card back writers of all eras. Because of the highly limited numbers of words available, the predominant feature of that style is its shortened, clipped nature, as in “Owns great arm and throws fearlessly to any base at any time” (Gabby Hartnett). This style is anathema to me, a former English teacher who normally insists on grammatically complete sentences, but … “when in Comiskey Park, do as the wordsmiths in the press box do,” as they say. As for the lingo, I referred to the outfield as “the orchard” (Ben Chapman); I called Cincinnati, Ohio, “Porkopolis” (Chick Hafey) without using quotation marks; and I referred to the A.L.’s starting catcher as “Ploughboy” Rick Ferrell to indicate his rural background.
Believe it or not, my number one method for achieving authenticity was almost completely avoiding referring to the contest as the “All-Star Game.” As mentioned earlier, the game was envisioned as a one-time event, and it was directly tied in the minds of contemporaries to the city of Chicago’s Centennial and the Chicago World’s Fair, which had as its theme a “Century of Progress.” The ubiquitously-used term “All-Star Game” and its most common moniker, “The Midsummer Classic,” would come later.
I got insight into this phenomenon after reading what Lou Gehrig himself had to say when asked by reporters if he would play in the game, thereby risking injury and possibly being unable to break the consecutive-games-played record held by Everett Scott, which he was on course to do a couple of weeks after the July 6 exhibition was scheduled to be played.
Gehrig’s response was: “If Colonel Ruppert and Joe McCarthy want me to play in the Century of Progress game I will go gladly and give up my chance at Scott’s mark.” Thus, in keeping with the terminology of the day, I repeatedly used instead of All-Star Game, “Century of Progress Game,” “Game of the Century,” and “World’s Fair Game.”
Once or twice I used other variations, such as “mid-season exhibition,” “July 6 AL vs. NL exhibition game,” “the big game,” and, of course, “the so called all star game.”
Happily, Mandel found my work satisfactory, and his favorite card back is the one written for Tony Cuccinello:
“Small but scrappy Cuccinello is a favorite with the Brooklyn cranks of Italian persuasion. Born 11/8/07 in Long Island City, New York, Tony broke in with the Redlegs of Cincinnati in 1930. He manned the hot corner that year and batted .312 but switched to second base the following season when he upped his average to .315. ‘Cooch’ was key figure in big deal which brought him, Stripp, and Sukeforth to Dodgers and sent Herman, Gilbert, and Lombardi to Rhineland. Only Brooklynite selected to represent N.L. in ‘all star’ extravaganza slated for July 6 in Chicago.”
My own favorite might be the one for Babe Ruth, given the fact that the Babe was near the end of his career. Everybody knew it but it hardly mattered. As Wild Bill Hallahan, the N.L.’s starting pitcher, said: “We wanted to see the Babe. Sure, he was old and had a big waistline, but that didn’t make any difference. We were on the same field as Babe Ruth.”
My card back for Ruth covers this and concludes with a look forward that from today’s perspective is sad and ironic, as Ruth’s biggest disappointment in life was being denied the chance to manage a big league ball club.
“Ruth is no kid anymore but he can still sock the horsehide like nobody else. Just ask Charlie Root of the Cubs, made the goat of last year’s Series by the finger-pointing Babe. The fans will be disappointed if the Great Bambino fails to knock a homer against the N.L. all stars. Ruth wants to manage when he’s finished as a player, and the big game will give him a chance to learn from the winningest field boss of all time, Mr. Mack.”
As things turned out, Ruth rose to the occasion, making the day highly memorable for all concerned. He hit the first All-Star Game home run, a two-run blow, in the third inning; and later in the top of the eighth inning he ensured the A.L.’s 4-2 win by robbing the Reds’ Chick Hafey of a homer, reaching over the right field wall to snare Hafey’s liner. After the game McGraw went to the home clubhouse to congratulate Mack on the A.L.’s victory. There the sixty-year-old retired manager praised the thirty-eight-year-old Ruth, whom he’d often disparaged in the past: “He was marvelous. That old boy certainly came through when they needed him.”
With the issuance of this set devoted to the first Major League All-Star Game, Mandel has introduced one further Helmar innovation. Only 20 sets of the cards have been made, and each card is hand-numbered 1-20 out of 20. The cards are not available as sets but are being auctioned weekly one at a time on eBay.
What a treasure a set of these beautiful cards will be. Whether you put together the entire set or acquire just a few cards of your favorite players or team, I for one hope you enjoy the card backs as well as the fronts.
Mike Shannon is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest and can be reached at email@example.com.