Baseball cards help tell the history of the game

By Barry Blair

One of the more fascinating things to me about baseball cards is how they tell the story and history of the game, most of the time, in subtle ways. Going through cards, there are a lot of things you can pick up on, if you take the time to really look.  

Bats

To me, the thing that has changed the most since the turn of the 21st century is the bats.    

Going way back, it was Spalding that first dominated the bat market. Then, in 1905, Hillerich & Bradsby signed Honus Wagner as the first player to have his name stamped on a Louisville Slugger bat, and they started to take over the market. By 1923 they were the leading maker of baseball bats, helped by Babe Ruth using and endorsing their product. Their name became synonymous with baseball.

For years, the bat of choice in the major leagues was the Louisville Slugger, with its distinctive, burned in oval label, made by the Hillerich & Bradsby Company in Louisville, Kentucky. They are seen, again and again, on the thousands of cards produced over the years. Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Johnny Bench, Cal Ripken, Ken Griffey Jr., and Derek Jeter all used them. Louisville Slugger’s most famous bat of all, its P72 model, was changed to model number DJ2 as a gesture to Jeter upon his retirement. He is said to have used no other bat or model in his more than 13,000 times at bat with the New York Yankees.

Somewhere around 30 bat companies are now approved by major league baseball to do business with the teams. The Rawlings/Adirondack ‘Big Stick’ has been used by a lot of players over the years. Pete Rose made a splash when he used Mizuno bats (a Japanese company) in his quest to become the all-time leader in hits in baseball history. But these companies never really threatened the dominance of the Louisville Slugger.  

Things began to change in the early 2000s. Barry Bonds is seen on cards with the Sam Bat, a bat made of maple. It is a harder wood, but deemed more dangerous to the infielders when they shatter.

The biggest change of all took place in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where Jack Marucci, the athletic training director at LSU, made his son a couple of wooden bats in his shed in his back yard to use in his youth league games. He could not find a wooden bat he deemed suitable for his son to use, so the story goes that he made his own. Not long after that he made some for his friend Eduardo Perez, who was the first major league player to use one. Word spread, and so did the use of the bats. By 2015, Marucci and Louisville Slugger were both laying claim to being the most used bat in the big leagues. 

With that, the Marucci bats, with their distinctive M label, start showing up more and more on baseball cards. Soon the likes of big name stars David Ortiz, Brian McCann, Jose Bautista, Anthony Rizzo, Chase Utley, and Andrew McCutchen are turning up on their cards holding or swinging a Marucci bat. Add the names of Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa, Dustin Pedroia, Buster Posey, and Clayton Kershaw (a pretty good hitting pitcher) as players who have been known to swing Marucci from time to time.

A distant third is The Old Hickory Bat Company from Goodlettsville, Tennessee. Look at Mike Trout’s cards, the player many think is the best all-around player in baseball, is swinging an Old Hickory bat. So is another young star, Paul Goldschmidt. In the past few years, more and more players seem to be prominently displaying their bat’s label in pictures that they pose for.

Some players go back and forth between the bat companies, using whatever feels good to them at the time. It is not unheard of for a player to pick up the bat of a teammate and give it a go if they have been struggling at the plate, regardless of the brand.

Hair styles

Short is the word from the 1950s and 1960s, as crew cuts and flat tops abound throughout this era.

Things started to change as the game moved into the 1970s. The 1976 Topps Traded card of Oscar Gamble and his afro is one of the more famous cards in baseball history. He says he still gets some in the mailbox from fans wanting him to autograph them.

How about Hall of Famer Joe Torre with long sideburns, which are showcased his 1972 Topps card, when he was with the Cardinals.    

Just about everyone on the swashbuckling 1970s World Champion Oakland A’s team had sideburns and mustaches, including their Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams. Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers has his stylish, waxed ’stashe to this day.  

As the game moved into the 1980s and 1990s things seemed to return to a more conservative look with the players.  

That changed in the early 2000s. Johnny Damon and the Red Sox seemed to usher in the current era of long hair and beards that seem to be prevalent throughout the major leagues today. A couple of years back, Coco Crisp, then with the A’s, shows up on a 2014 Topps baseball card with an afro that rivaled anything Gamble had back in the ’70s. Last year when the Cleveland Indians played in the World Series and Crisp went about his business with the Indians, his hair was cropped short.  

From Bryce Harper’s haircuts, to Mike Napoli’s beard, to Jayson Werth’s hair and beard, individualism seems to abound. I wonder what Werth’s grandfather, longtime major league infielder Dick Schofield thinks of this look?

Uniforms

You can see the evolution from conservative flannel up to the 1960s, to colorful double knits in the 1970s and 1980s, back to a conservative look in the 1990s. Moving into the 21st century, more colorful jersey tops emerged, moving away from the old standard of white at home and gray on the road. It is all there in the cards if you take the time to give them an in-depth look.

In the last 20 years or so, you see more and more brands of baseball gloves emerge. Wilson and Rawlings dominated that market for years, and still do, but now you see gloves for all the major sporting goods companies. That goes for batting gloves as well. You didn’t see those start showing up until the 1970s.

Most baseball cards were at one time shot in New York City – American League teams at Yankee Stadium and National League teams when they visited the Mets at Shea Stadium. I assume it was cheaper for Topps to do so at the time. If you look closely, you can tell by the background and by home and away uniforms. Now card pictures are shot everywhere, from spring training to most major league parks. It is not unusual to go to a minor league game and see professional photographers, with their big zoom lenses, snapping away at the top prospects and draft picks, so they can be included as rookie cards in the upcoming sets.

So, it is all right there ‘in the cards,’ as the old saying goes. Teachers have been known to use the back of baseball cards to get their students interested in math. I say you can use the fronts to make a great case for the history of the game.

Barry Blair is an author who lives in Jonesborough, TN. He just released his third novel, “SUPERDEATHS.” For more info go to www.rightfieldpress.com. He can be reached at barryblair54@gmail.com.

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