An Essay Comparing and Contrasting Roger Kahn’s “The Boys of Summer”
Brian Powell’s “Never Cheaper By The Dozen”
My name is Brian Powell and I have written a sports card book entitled, Never Cheaper By The Dozen.
My purpose was to write a book about a niche of cards I knew from long experience to be fascinating, but of which little had been written. Aside from brief price guide descriptions, even elaborate hard-bound general guides, several entries in a pair of books about important cards that was good yet provided less than a page of commentary per card, only a smattering of good features in forty years of hobby papers, and a paragraph or two in the better auction house catalogs, nothing.
In September 2011, several bidders fought it out for a partial set (16/26) of the 1955 Esskay Franks Baltimore Orioles, one of my subjects—and the winner’s final bill came to $64,625. While neatly trimmed, most of the cards were creased in some way and had evidence of product stains, ungraded, without one Hall-of-Famer. For many collectors this result raises the proverbial $64,000-dollar question—WHY? This instance alone shouts of an undercurrent of deep passion and desire. Undoubtedly there was more left unexpressed about the history, heritage, and purpose of the postwar regional – food issues. Surely hobbyists have more than an infantile attention span and would hunger to know about them, the multitude of obstacles faced, as well as the battles waged for possessing them.
With tongue in cheek, Mastro Auctions wrote that if the Glendale Franks Detroit Tigers set they were offering been brought to an early 70s Detroit show, oxygen tanks would have been needed to revive the fainting hobbyists at their sight. I was there in those days and saw the effect that regional had on the crowd. Mastro was right. Clearly, the hobby needed the rest of their story.
My goal aimed rather high; to wit, that my book would somehow be regarded as The Boys of Summer of sports card collecting.
Admittedly, it is outlandish to compare my work with a great classic of baseball history. Notwithstanding, if you try not, you shall not. While feeling the temerity, vanity, and arrogance, Never Cheaper By The Dozen will offer card collectors something original and desirable. Just as The Boys of Summer gave baseball fans something special, a most worthwhile twist of the original landmark work, Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times.
Without purposely trying, upon completion I was amazed to see numerous parallels with Roger Kahn’s classic.
The Boys of Summer brought many of us baseball history buffs up close and personal with one famous baseball team. Roger Kahn takes the reader back in time, allowing him to re-live the 1952-53 seasons in which he covered the Brooklyn Dodgers for the New York Herald-Tribune. We see an abridged day-to-day world of a major league season, from spring training to opening day, through the dog days of summer, culminating in the knockdown drag-out World Series of 1952-53, against the hated New York Yankees.
Never Cheaper By The Dozen unlocks a treasure chest holding the secrets and sea stories of these “free prizes” for which their beauty and background story were more interesting than their price tag. The reader is treated to re-live nostalgic portions of the Baby Boomer era when he and other baseball card-loving kids collected one or more of these charming sets while living in the distribution region of the company whose promotion offered these dazzling ducats. We even enter the world of the pioneer collectors from this post-war period who avidly hunted for these items in spite of the general public believing this was well beneath their age and right to enjoy as an adult.
The future hobby was quite fortunate these hobby pioneers appreciated and to some degree accumulated and hoarded some of the left-over prizes. Unsung heroes were the numerous other pack rats that salvaged some of these at the time, or when they were about to be destroyed after the promotion. For these survivors became the supply, sometimes large but all too often genuinely miniscule, that fed the frenzy and demand for these beautiful, artistically rendered artifacts of baseball history.
Like Kahn, Powell also takes us to the present day, where passionate collectors continue to make ownership of these prized doubloons as among the highlights of their respective collections, and in so doing have had to pay some very substantial prices.
In The Boys of Summer, Kahn hones in on about 13 prominent Dodger players that epitomize the team. They are Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Carl Erskine, Preacher Roe, Carl Furillo, Joe Black, Clem Labine, Andy Pafko, Billy Cox, and George Shuba.
To large and small degrees, Powell spotlights at least 13 pioneer and key hobby figures during its feverish growth. They are Lionel Carter, Larry Fritsch, Buck Barker, Bob Solon, Alan Rosen, Rob Lifson, Dick Reuss, Bill Zimpleman, Jack Urban, Clay Hill, Jim Cumpton, George Lyons, and Doak Ewing. Without naming them, other significant people in the industry, past and present, made valuable contributions. Furthermore, precious childhood collecting stories from the author and other individuals appear in at least fifteen of the twenty chapters. However, people are the supporting cast that provided vital help for Powell to revisit his chapter subjects.
Indeed, the real stars of Never Cheaper By The Dozen are the “free prizes” themselves. Postwar regionals have always had star power in the minds of collectors, yet their story has never been shown in high definition. These were cards we wanted to get to know, but found them as mysterious as they were elusive. A wealth of research effectively shines Aladdin’s Lamp to grant collectors wishing to learn and understand some of their significance—JELL-Os, Post Cereal, Stahl-Meyer Franks, Glendale Franks, Salada Tea, Morrell Meats, Home Run Derby, Briggs Meats, Bell Brands, and so on. Never is not exhaustive, but rather a fine selection of these legendary hobby gems.
Roger Kahn provides us with his life story, particularly how he became a baseball fan, a passion stemming largely from his very close relationship with his father. Kahn shares his many interactions with the players, fellow reporters, and club personnel.
Powell weaves his own life story within, from his earliest beginnings as a card collector in late 1960, and drawing on his personal experiences with the subjects portrayed, touching upon various aspects of the hobby that became fixtures—mail order firms, early hobby literature and periodicals, collector conventions, the rudimentary “figure it out for yourself” storage containers for one’s growing collection, visits to a couple Card Collecting Hall of Famers, and the specifically-designed but sometimes back-firing hobby supplies. The significant auction scene is touched upon, from the important early hobby paper offerings, convention auctions, and on to today’s semi-gloss paper, full color, high class catalog auctions, with the same auction running concurrently on the internet, offering the bidder the opportunity of seeing the item as if it were right before their eyes. Finally, the current and demanding world of the third party authenticators, whose grading of your cards can spell doom or cowabunga KA-CHING!
In recreating the 1952-53 seasons, Kahn distills them to several key detailed scenes that summarize his time with the Dodgers. As it turned out, his time frame with Brooklyn coincided with their zenith, as they built upon or created their own legend.
Powell in turn refines this special area of the Golden Quarter Century 1947 – 1971 by presenting a plethora of juicy, savory stories involving these desirable prizes that illuminates their mysterious nature and magical allure. So often, they became out of our reach. Oh how those trinkets tantalized us! As a huge perfectly round South Sea pearl that was too deep to reach. Or a humongous blue diamond there before our eyes, in a crevice too narrow to pass through and grasp!
Roger Kahn beautifully takes us back to the innocence of playing Major League Baseball, when many players earned but fifteen to twenty thousand a year, with only a few at the thirty-five to forty-five range. A time when most players virtually played the game just because they loved it and were gifted at it. More importantly, we see how human and vulnerable these men were. The frustrations of life, their fears, injuries, disputes with management, and so on. When Kahn spotlights each former Dodger “boy”, we’re treated to their memories of what they were proud of and pleased them as a player, as well as their regrets, their skills that eroded with age or injury, and of course what was going on in their personal lives and family twenty years later when Kahn interviewed them.
The Boys of Summer immortalized these Dodgers, catapulting them from largely forgotten stars to legendary status. People simply loved the book. Many still-hurting fans of the departed Brooklyn Dodgers embraced this read with all their hearts.
Powell in turn portrays the nostalgic innocence of the youngsters and those few adults who collected these special items when brand new. Hence, when these gorgeous sets were creating their own hobby legend and lofty status in the minds of those who first collected them. Free with the purchase of the product. For a “free card” they were frankly expensive, yet solely collected as simple hobby enjoyment. The notion that these pasteboard, plastic, or metal player pictures would become seriously valuable probably never occurred to them. Yet like a van Gogh or Monet painting, it is not so much what they were, but what they became. Through a variety of ways, Powell paints a mural of words that takes the reader from those idyllic days of 1947 to 1971, to the forging of a new adult hobby, its powerful mainstream growth, on to today’s scaled back number of hobbyists who demand third party authentication. The passion of yesterday’s collecting is one and the same today, even though the price can be shocking.
With eloquent pathos, Brian Powell presents the human side of these collectors. A propensity has always existed for the acquisition of prized pieces. Successfully gaining ownership often was played out by narrowly squeaking by, like a group of boys fighting for a silver half-dollar they all saw at the same time. The thrill of victory. Just as often however, the human tragedy, epitomized in the counterpart of Wide World of Sports host Jim McKay’s well-remembered phrase—the agony of defeat. Losing out on getting something for a nice price, and never getting that chance again. Or selling some of these cards for a price that twenty years later equated to giving them away.
Roger Kahn skillfully stitched in the humorous side of the Dodgers, and in so doing we are treated to a glimpse of their personality that only served to endear them to us all the more, making them a friend from a distance. Powell provides a rare look at the sheer lunacy of attempting to build an entire set of some of his subjects, the human comedy of errors, and the preposterous reality of what the promotion sometimes involved.
The Boys of Summer was not intended to be a picture book, and is sparse in its use of photos, but counterbalanced by the fact they were well chosen. The inclusion of photos taken at the time Kahn met with each one was brilliant; several depicting their current positions in life. A reminder time slows for no one. In the same way, Never Cheaper By The Dozen is a read, providing just one photo for each of the twenty chapters. However, nearly all are creative artistic presentations befitting a museum display, with accoutrements symbolizing one or more facets of the particular regional gem.
One essential element contrasting the books is not every baseball fan would have enjoyed or even welcomed Kahn’s classic work. Fans of the old crosstown rival New York Giants, as well as the New York Yankees, among others, would just as well have looked elsewhere for their historical baseball fix. Though still limited, Powell’s subjects range into both leagues, both East and West coast as well as the Midwest and plains. The National Football League is also included, with ample coverage in two chapters and appetizer-sized entrees here and there.
Never Cheaper By The Dozen is chiefly an easy, fun read. However, like Kahn, Powell will make you think, something at times challenging for all of us. You’ll be drawn into the hoopla and action of collecting past and present, just as Kahn spurred us to imagine the scenes he painted. Still, Never Cheaper remains entertaining. You will also not be embarrassed to discover your child reading it to learn about some neat old trading cards.
Controversial? Of course—enough to stoke the hot stove league for a year!
I thoroughly loved Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer. Charles Caleb Colton’s maxim is appropriate: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” In fact I quoted, and noted, two portions of Summer amounting to two-thirds of a page, supporting as it did one of my subjects. I have good taste in my sources! As stated, without the least bit trying, I found striking similarities in my own book, NEVER CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN. My wish and prayer is that our hobby of sports card collecting, often in need of more relevant literature, will consider it a classic, right from the word go. Well, all right, that you’ll be glad you read it. However, please do not form an opinion without first buying and reading it. Whether or not it’s described as The Boys of Summer of card collecting, vox populi. The voice of my fellow collectors will rule.
Though difficult as I remember it to be, I hope you will peel off a little of your card-buying funds and buy a copy. Take a chance and give it a read. The photos alone are well worth the cover price. The hobby information is Fort Knox and the stories are priceless, a majority of which some people in the hobby would rather you be in the dark. If I was still psychotically collecting these babies, well, mum would be the word.
Oh what summers we had! Sometimes the winters got even hotter, too!
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Proposed Table of Contents for “Never Cheap By the Dozen”
THE SWEET SALTY SAVORY POSTWAR REGIONAL – FOOD ISSUES – AN INTRODUCTION
A Tale of Three Mantles (chapters 1 – 3)
- “There’s Always Room For JELL-O”, But Their Box Card was a Decidedly Tight Fit
1962 JELL-O Unfolded Box
- A Majestic Mantle
1960 Post Cereal
- A Mysterious and Mesmerizing Mantle Prize
1954 Stahl-Meyer Franks
- Would You Take Five Bucks For That Little Booklet?
No? Well, How Much Do You Want For It?
1953 Glendale Meats Detroit Tigers
- When You Really Like Something, You Know It
1962 Salada Tea – Junket Dessert Baseball Coins
- A Boy’s Quest to Get the One Card He Wanted
1959 Morrell Meats Sandy Koufax
- Things Really Did Go Better With Coca-Cola
1964 – 66 Coca-Cola Football, 1967 – 68 Coca-Cola Baseball
Bottle Caps and Premiums
- Don’t Knock the Rock, the Show, the Cards, or the Reprints
1960 Home Run Derby
- Well Whaddya Know? Briggs Really Did Print a Jensen
1953 Briggs Franks Jackie Jensen – Walt Masterson Panel
- Old MacDonald Had a Farm
1958 – 1962 Bell Brand Los Angeles Dodgers
1959 – 1960 Bell Brand Los Angeles Rams
- The Short Print That Became the Most Print
1953 – 1955 Dormand Postcard Gil Hodges
- The One That Got Away
1954 Wilson Franks Ted Williams
- The One That Did Not Get Away
“The Maltese Falcon of Baseball Cards”
1953 Stahl-Meyer Franks Mickey Mantle in MINT Condition
- Civic Pride Personified
1955 Rodeo Meats Kansas City Athletics
- Now You See Them, Now You Don’t
1963 Post Cereal Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle
- The Surprise Inside and At Season’s End
1971 Kellogg’s Cereal 3-D Baseball and Football Cards
- The Find – Netting 13 Hummingbirds In One Swoop
1954 Dan-Dee Potato Chips Cleveland Indians
- When Topps Blew Up Their Cards,
Then Split the Atom Gum Cards In 3
1959 Bazooka Bubble Gum Boxes and 1961 Bazooka Proof Set
- Buddy Hullett: The Esskay Franks Baltimore Orioles Capitalist of
1954 – 1955
- Have You Ever Dreamed of Cards That Never Were?
Fantasy 1954 Wilson Franks Jackie Robinson and Mickey Mantle