By Gary Herron
Type “TCMA” into eBay’s search function and see the number that pops up: more than 35,000 items when a recent search was conducted.
These old baseball cards and team sets, ranging in price from 50 cents (1980 issue of Wes Westrum) to $2,499.99 (1979 issue of Rickey Henderson with the Ogden A’s).
Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Satchel Paige, Roberto Clemente … they’re also there. Most of the products have great photography on the fronts, photos not obscured with logos. Stats and more were on the back, with stats back in the early days harder to find for the minor-league team sets.
Michael Aronstein, the “MA” of the abbreviation, now lives in Santa Fe and still stays close to the game and hobby. Those in the know consider him a pioneer, and it sounds like a comparison to other innovators is fair.
“When I started, I was doing it all unlicensed – in my basement,” Aronstein said.
Aronstein grew up in the Bronx, within walking distance of Yankee Stadium and not too far from the Polo Grounds on the other side of the East River, collecting baseball cards as far back as 1947. Despite the proximity to the Yankees, Aronstein was “a Giants fan first,” and outfielder Don Mueller was his favorite player.
“They were ‘strip’ cards and cost a penny,” he recalled. “I collected the 1948 Bowman, the ’51 Bowman – a penny a pack.”
Sharper than most kids his age, he discovered he could walk to a local wholesaler and literally cut out the middleman.
“I bought 24 packs for 85 cents – 120 cards,” he said, as his collection began to grow.
Even Aronstein couldn’t figure out his profit margin when he sold that mid-20th century collection in 1984 for $200,000.
“I sold everything – even the T-206 set complete with the Wagner. I had the Lajoie. All the Play Ball, Bowman and Topps,” he said.
When the Giants followed the Dodgers and headed west after the 1957 season, Aronstein was broken-hearted in 1958.
Flash ahead three years: “It was exciting when the Mets came to town,” he said. “That was the early sixties. I was in my 20s, got married and didn’t want to spend a lot of money on baseball cards.”
Thanks to his initiative and a talented uncle, Myron Aronstein, who was a combination salesman/cartoonist, “We did a whole set.”
Uncle Myron and his wife Margie drew the cards, starting in 1968, which became the Sports Stars Publishing Company (SSPC) set.
“After awhile, they dropped out because they couldn’t keep up with the demand for drawings,” he said.
That later gave birth to TCMA, after Aronstein found “other things to print,” collecting old glass negatives and photos, before meeting the late Tom Collier, the “TC” of TCMA. The two card collectors knew each other, had become friends and decided to get together in a business.
“That was my first endeavor,” he said. “We decided to do reprints of old cards.”
Aronstein put together an 8½-by-11-inch sheet of old cards in color and simply put TCMA on them, which Collier opted to tell everyone stood for The Card Memorabilia Associates, and the two incorporated in 1972. Within two years, Aronstein bought Collier out, but kept the TCMA brand name.
Those sets of the stars from the 1950s and 1960s – colorful and unencumbered with logos on the front — “became a lot of work,” Aronstein said. “Tom said it was too much work, so I bought him out.”
Although TCMA’s stars of the various decade sets were popular, a new niche was found when Aronstein decided to do some minor league cards. That was ground-breaking, actually. Although the first minor league set had come out in 1940, featuring the Pacific Coast League’s Sacramento Solons, and Bowman printed a PCL set in 1948 — and some team sets were printed in various markets for their fans — it wasn’t until 1978 that minor league cards were available across the nation.
The first minor-league set, for the 1940 Sacramento Solons, came from Hughes Frozen Confectionary Co. It’s worth $2,000 now. The 1949 Bowman Co. Pacific Coast League set goes for around $6,000. Both are extremely hard to find. And, as was the case until 1974, when TCMA began using color photos, both sets are black and white.
According to SCD’s Standard Catalog of Minor League Baseball Cards, the minor-league sets started in 1972 with the Cedar Rapids Cardinals, a 30-card set. The 1974 Gastonia Rangers later got the ball rolling; it was a set Aronstein said was done as a favor to a club executive he knew. (Len Barker is the best-known player on that team; the Rangers won the Western Carolinas League title that season.)
Cubs fans, you’ll find Joe Maddon in the 1985 Midland Angels set; it was recently being available for $50 on eBay. Rickey Henderson’s 1979 TCMA card, oft-raveled Rickey was with the Ogden A’s back then – was about to be sold for more than $2,300.
“I never thought it would get this big,” Aronstein admitted many years later.
When two new manufacturers jumped into what had been Topps’ solo market, Fleer and Donruss in 1981, Aronstein managed to become the exclusive distributor of Donruss.
“Bill Madden called me. He did the writing, and we knew all the photographers. But the (1980) season was over, so we had to use existing photography,” he recalled.
It’s a good-looking set, but it’s fraught with errors. “We made a million mistakes,” Aronstein said. “Typos, misidentified players.”
Collation was also bad, and not many collectors realized right away that Vern Ruhle’s card had the face of Ken Forsch on it. And Bob Lacey’s last name wasn’t Lacy. Maybe fortunately, that relationship Aronstein had with the manufacturer, which began with a handshake, lasted one year.
“In 1982, they called me down to Charlotte. They stabbed me in the front; I was not the exclusive distributor anymore,” he said.
In 1983 or ’84, Aronstein said, he was working out of his basement, working hard to acquire baseball photo negatives and reproducing them into 8x10s for collectors, show promoters, etc.
“I had been acquiring negatives all along,” he said. “I was getting nervous because it was getting big.”
The Chicago Tribune took notice in 1989: Bogus cards of Sandy Koufax as a pitching instructor with the 1981 Albuquerque Dukes (a TCMA set) and the 1986 Columbus Mets set containing Gregg Jefferies are among those showing up. Two years ago, the Nashville Sounds admitted reprinting their complete 1981 set containing Mattingly.
That drove down the price from $75 to $40.
Consider the Jefferies cards. His 1988 cards from Fleer and Donruss started at around a buck apiece and are up to $7.50. That 1986 Columbus Mets set from Pro Cards of Pottstown, Pa., which sold for around $3.50, is up to a whopping $125.
Some big-leaguers whose first minor-league sets are in demand include Frank Viola (1982 Toledo, $100); Wade Boggs (1981 Pawtucket, $70); Roger Clemens (1984 Pawtucket, $55); Dwight Gooden (1983 Lynchburg, $65); Orel Hershiser (1982 Albuquerque, $65) and Mark McGwire (1985 Modesto, $70). The 1980 Reading set, with Ryne Sandberg and George Bell, commands around $400.
Aronstein acquired another partner, legendary author/boxing expert Bert Sugar, and Sugar managed to obtain a licensing agreement for all of Aronstein’s photo acquisitions.
“It just kept getting bigger and bigger and then colossal,” he said. “I moved my business three times.”
Sugar was later bought out.
But bigger isn’t necessarily best.
“I liked doing the minor-league sets,” Aronstein said, remembering brokering a deal in which he’d give each team allowing him to photograph its players 500 sets to be sold in their pro shops, and Aronstein could sell as many as he could after that. Those sets were branded TCMA and CMC.
Naturally, it wasn’t without counterfeiting, and maybe the most-famous incident occurred when a Sandy Koufax card he’d included with the 1981 Albuquerque Dukes was copied and sold. You can find it online – be careful it’s not a counterfeit, of course.
“Photo File bought me out in the late ‘90s,” he said. “In 1998, I went back and showed a cover, postmarked with the date a record was set – they laughed at me. ‘We’ll be partners; you put the money up.’”
He did and, “It was an instant success.” By 2003, he said, he was grossing $100,000 monthly through the items postmarked and sold through the post office.
“When the Red Sox won the World Series in November 2004, we started doing a million dollars a month. How do you manufacture them quickly enough?”
TCMA basically evolved in 1987 into Photo File (photofile.com), termed a one-stop shop for licensed sports images and collectibles, with Aronstein’s son Andrew serving as its head of online retail customer service.
Awarded a license for photography by Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association, it became the first company to be given a license for photography by any major sport in the U.S., and now is by far the nation’s leading manufacturer of sports photography with licenses from the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, CLC, WWE and MLS and their respective player associations.
Photo File’s 43,000-square-foot facility is in Mount Kisco, N.Y., which is pretty appropriate, given Michael Aronstein’s Empire State origins. It’s come a long way from his basement and Uncle Myron’s sketches: Photo File has a state-of-the-art digital photographic printing lab, a top-notch graphics department and a complete framing operation.
Collectors can buy photos up to 30-by-40 inches, plus a slew of framed and matted products, plaques, photo sculptures, ceramics tiles, key chains and event covers – even a line of licensed framed gold records featuring top recording artists.
Aronstein was credited for providing, from among “tens of thousands” of available Photo Files, Inc., photos included in Donald Honig’s “Shadows of Summer” (1994) coffee table book.
Photo File actually bought out Aronstein twice, the latter deal taking place in 2006. He had been the executive vice president there for about 10 years the first time.
Later, he explained, “I went back to them with the idea to sell United States Postal Service collectibles,” which commemorated significant sports happenings and were postmarked with the date and/or city the event had taken place in.”
No surprise: That became a huge hit, too, and Photo File bought him out again.
“I’m retired now, working on some huge projects,” and that was before the 2016 World Series, where a Cubs win – that came true – meant another bonanza for this “retired” hobby businessman.
He calls his place in the hobby “an unbelievable ride.” He shows up for an occasional SABR meeting in Albuquerque, often bringing 8x10 photos of the Rio Grande Chapter’s guests for visitors to get autographs. After all, who else has 8x10s of Pat Listach and Bronswell Patrick?
Of course it didn’t matter – according to oldsportscards.com’s recent list of 60 most-valuable cards “you need to collect” that there weren’t any TCMA issues on that list (and only a few Topps cards) – all Aronstein accomplished was for the love of the game and its colorful history, which all began for him as a short walk to Yankee Stadium in the 1940s.
Gary Herron is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest.