After the 1990s decade of overproduction, excesses in options and over-saturation of the sports card cardboard marketplace caused a mass exodus of collectors from one of the oldest collecting hobbies. The sports card business in the 1990s represented all that was bad within the hobby despite the aspects that made it fun, still existing yet getting lost in the noise. Corrupted by money and the pursuit of fast riches, the hobby turned from the sheer joy of chasing down and trading for cards that would complete a set, to one of financial investment and price guides. Instead of discussing stats and favorite players, hobbyists began watching prices for inserts and specialty cards rising to three and even four digits based upon speculation that an 18-year-old draft pick would rise to the stardom of the game’s best and brightest.
Disillusioned by the greed of the hobbyists and card shops, not to mention the card manufacturers themselves, one can point fingers to a number of causes leading to the degradation of baseball card collecting. However, a common theme emerges from a large portion of collectors: over-saturation of the market which was spurred into action by the fervor surrounding the mercurial rise of a superstar player and the launch of a new generation of baseball cards that featured high gloss, crisp colors and graphics that awakened a stagnant industry.
The inaugural issuance of the once giant Upper Deck company was the 1989 baseball set that featured a rookie baseball player that was catching the attention of sportswriters and fans alike as he drew incredible interest due to his play while ascending through the minor leagues. The Seattle Mariners’ rookie prospect, Ken Griffey, Jr. adorned the front of 1989 Upper Deck Baseball, card #1 and created a stir like no other before or since.
“More than 1 million Griffey cards were printed. In Upper Deck’s original mailing to dealers, the company said it would sell 65,000 cases of card packs. With 20 boxes in a case, 520 cards in a box, and 700 different cards in the set, there would be about 965,000 of each card produced for the boxes. Combine that number with the amount of Griffeys in the untold number of “factory sets,” and you’d have your production run.
Given the number of Griffey cards in circulation, there have long been rumors of an illicit reason for the card’s ubiquity. Upper Deck, the legend goes, knew that printing the cards was just like printing money. As such, there was a sheet the company could run with 100 Griffey cards on it, instead of the standard sheet that had just one Griffey in the top corner along with 99 pictures of other players.” – Junior Mint: The enduring popularity (and ubiquity) of the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. Card | By Darren Rovell
The 1989 Upper Deck #1 still garners the interest (though the card must be highly graded by an independent authentication and grading company, sealed into a plastic slab and labeled with the grade along with a unique identifier) and can generate sales transactions in the high three and sometimes four-digit ranges. As the 1990s wound down, there was a significant glut in the marketplace with the arrival of countless card manufacturers and the proliferation of products as businesses made a full-court-press for every consumer dollar. A Netflix film, Jack of All Trades, captured the reality of this dark era of card-collecting and the impacts still being felt by collectors (see: ‘Jack of All Trades’ on Netflix: A Baseball Card Documentary That Doubles as a Personal Father/Son Story).
While card collecting as a whole took a significant hit in interest levels in reaction to what happened prior to the turn of the new century and those cards manufactured during the 1990s were largely relegated to junk-status, cardboard manufactured prior to the 1970s remained stable in terms of perceived value (among collectors), attracting a new audience.
Baseball militaria collectors have few options available in terms of enhancing their collections with baseball cards. Two manufacturers, Tri-Star Obak (2011) and Panini (2012 and 2015) made military-themed cards as set inserts in the last few years that feature players who served during World War II, however they are of relatively limited production numbers. In 1959, Fleer produced a special, 80-card set to commemorate the end of Ted Williams’ career (1939-1960). As part of the Williams set, Fleer produced 11 cards that recognized the ‘Splendid Splinter’s’ World War II and Korean War service (see: A Set to Honor Teddy Ballgame’s Military Service) however, they only scratch the surface in any attempt to satisfy the collectors’ desire for military-related cardboard. Apart from building “veteran” themed groups from vintage card sets featuring cards from players who served, the option for cards recognizing baseball during the war are virtually non-existent, or so was the perception.
One of the card manufacturers of the 1970s and ’80s that was a bit of a dark horse among the big names (Topps Fleer and later, Donruss) laid the groundwork in addressing collectors’ desires for new treatments of vintage cards. The company’s founder, Michael Aronstein was ahead of his time with sets that turned younger generations’ attention to the game’s golden era, beginning with the reproduction of the 1936 Goudy cards in the 200-card 1972 TCMA 1936 Goudey Wide Pen Reprints set (see: Heritage before Heritage and Beautiful purple cards). Some speculate that TCMA’s popularity is what influenced makers such as Topps towards their re-issue and re-printing movement of the 1990s.
During TCMA’s 15-year-run, the company largely produced cards that paid homage to the game’s heyday directing attention to teams and stars from the 1920s through the 1950s. Some of the card sets that were produced centered on specific teams such as the 1927 Yankees (released in 1979), 1914 “Miracle” Braves and the 1959 Dodgers (both released in 1980). TCMA ventured into the minor leagues with sets such as the Rochester Red Wings and Wichita Aeros (1980) and into sets centered on the game’s greats with “Hitters,” “Pitchers” and “Sluggers” (1982). Unlike what is commonly seen within the sets produced by the major sports card companies, checklist inserts and set production data are not readily available.
As we continue in our quest to locate and secure photography associated with the military game, over the last 10 years, we have encountered a smattering of images listed (in online auctions) as photos or real photo postcards (RPPC) that were clearly printed (half-toned and containing labels on the image faces). “Photographs” of this type tend to be clippings from books or periodicals and are always absent the characteristics (such as good resolution, exposure or clarity that are hallmarks of photos printed from negatives) of type-1 images.
As we search and scour online sales and auctions for vintage military baseball photography, an occasional listing of a candid image (above) showing Pee Wee Reese, Johnny Vander Meer and Merrill May in their Navy baseball flannels in front of a tropical vegetation backdrop. The image appears to have postcard dimensions and, due to it being a half-tone printed item, the exposure appears to be of a low and “muddy” contrast that is typical of such material. While the subject of the photograph would capture our attention, we would routinely dismiss the items. Having only seen the front of the postcard-like photo, there was no reason to suspect that the image should have captured our attention.
In recent months, another listing of the Reese-Vander Meer-May photo appeared in a search however, this time, there were a few additional similarly themed postcard photographs included as part of a group. A closer examination of the additional auction listing images raised our eyebrows as we noted details printed on the backs of each card. The addition of the other cards drew attention to the presence of numerals on the face of each card along with the names of the players shown. Of the handful of cards, one of them truly stood out. On the front featured two men in their service uniforms – Phil Rizzuto (formerly of the New York Yankees) wearing his Navy service dress blues and Terry Moore (formerly of the St. Louis Cardinals) in his U.S. Army dress uniform – at the fifth and deciding game of the 1943 World Series at Sportsman’s Park. On the reverse of the card is what appears to be the introduction of an essay that was penned by Harrington Crissey, LT, USNR, entitled “Athletes Away.” Printed in smaller type in the lower right-hand corner of the card, “T.C.M.A” and a 1975 copyright date. We immediately acquired the few pieces that were listed and subsequently reached out to Mr. Crissey with an inquiry.
In the year since I became acquainted with Mr. Crissey, we have collaborated on considerable research of wartime military baseball – predominantly focused upon his area of expertise, the game played by professional ball players who served (and played) in the U.S. Navy – we discussed his three books, Teenagers, Graybeards and 4-F’s: Volume 1: The National League (published 1981), Teenagers, Graybeards and 4-F’s, Vol. 2: The American League (1982) and Athletes Away: A selective look at professional baseball players in the Navy during World War II (1984) along with his extensive research, interviews and correspondence with the players and his incredible library of photographs, documents and personal items (obtained from the men who played and served). Despite all our conversations and correspondence, there was no mention of the cards until I shared my “discovery.”
Without pause, Mr. Crissey explained how the set came into existence, mentioning how he came into contact with the founder of TCMA cards, “Mike Aronstein was a young man about my age who had collected a very large number of glossy photos of players and was selling them at reasonable (for those days) prices, “ Crissey wrote in an email. “I bought many of them from him both at card shows and later at his apartment in New York City,” Mr. Crissey continued. Crissey explained that the 18-card set was the result of a collaboration with Aronstein with photos from their respective vintage image collections.
The “Athletes Away” TCMA 18-card set shines a spotlight upon baseball during World War II, specifically Navy baseball with seven of the cards depicting the players either in their service team flannels or in their navy service uniforms. “The photos of players in major league uniforms plus the one of Phil Rizzuto and Terry Moore were from the Aronstein collection,” Crissey wrote. Aside from card #1 (showing the aforementioned Rizzuto/Moore photograph from Aronstein’s collection). Card number 2-6 and #12 were all made from Crissey’s photo collection. Most of the photos supplied by Crissey were given to him directly by former St. Louis Browns outfielder, Glenn “Red” McQuillen, one of the players featured on six of the TCMA cards, giving the set a more personal historical connection. The remainder of the set features photos of players who served in the Navy but are shown in their major league uniforms before they entered the service.
TCMA Athletes Away Set List:
- Phil Rizzuto and Terry Moore
- Action at Gab Gab, Guam
- Navy players warm the bench
- Merrill May, Pee Wee Reese, Johnny Vander Meer
- Navy players in working uniforms, Guam
- At Great Lakes with Manager Cochrane
- Del Ennis – Phillies
- Mace Brown – Pirates
- Reese, Gordon, Dickey – 1941 World Series
- Glenn McQuillen – Browns
- Mike Budnick – Giants
- Navy Pacific Tour Teams
- “Skeets” Dickey – White Sox
- Connie Ryan – Bees
- Hal White – Tigers
- Mickey Cochrane – Tigers
- Barney McCoskey – Tigers
- Ben Huffman – Browns
As the dialogue between us continued, Mr. Crissey inquired as to the cards that I was missing from the Athletes Away set. A few days after our conversation, a package arrived with the pieces that brought my set to completion. Mr. Crissey was unaware of the production size of the Athletes Away set nor was he familiar with the manner in which the cards were distributed to TCMA customers. If the present very limited availability is an indication, it appears that production was limited.
Aronstein, an avid collector of vintage photographs, ventured into other areas including the minor leagues before transitioning to his fully-licensed (through the MLB, NBA, NHL, MLS and NFL) photographic reproduction business, selling frame-able, autograph-ready retail sports photographic prints. We attempted unsuccessfully to reach out to Mr. Aronstein for input.