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Monday 25th Sep 2017

In 1959, Topps expanded their baseball card set to 572 cards and produced them in series. So when you purchased a pack early in the year, the cards would only be numbered 1-110 and as the year went on, other series would be offered for sale. At the time, it seemed logical, but for collectors of Topps cards from 1959-1973, it represented a challenge - and still does today. The later series were marketed late in the season when interest had waned and the cards became scarcer. So, when you hear a collector talk about "high numbers" being difficult to find, you understand the issue.

How this relates to "rookie cards" begins with that beautiful '59 set. The best rookie card that year was future Hall of Famer Bob Gibson and his card was in the high number series (#514), making it a tough card to find, especially in nice condition. In addition, all the All-Star cards were also in the high number run, creating another difficult collecting challenge that included Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.

As the calendar turned to the 60's, many great players made their debut and their rookie cards were (and still are) in great demand. In 1960, there was Carl Yastrzemski and Willie McCovey, 1961 had Juan Marichal and Billy Williams and in '62, it was Lou Brock and Gaylord Perry.

The 1963 Topps set included a concept where many of the rookies were shown together on cards that had small, cropped photos of four different players, and they were in the high series. That is where you'll find the rookie card of Pete Rose shown with Pedro Gonzalez, Ken McMullen and Al Weis. While not very visually appealing, it is still a valuable card indeed. Willie Stargell's rookie card is also in this category and includes three more obscure players.

The '64 set has Phil Niekro and two possible Hall of Fame Managers - Tony LaRussa and Lou Piniella. Lots of Hall of Famers in '65 with Steve Carlton, "Catfish" Hunter and Tony Perez, '66 included three HOF hurlers with Jim Palmer, Fergie Jenkins and Don Sutton. Tom Seaver and Rod Carew both debuted in the high number series of the '67 set.

The 1968 set features the rookie cards of two of the most popular players of the era - Nolan Ryan and Johnny Bench. Once again, Topps included multiple rookies on certain cards, so Ryan shares his cardboard with Jerry Koosman, while Bench is shown with Ron Tomkins. Finishing off the decade, Reggie Jackson and Rollie Fingers grace the '69 set with their rookie cards.

Wouldn't it be nice to see some of those names on your fantasy roster? Keeper decisions would be much easier. Reality, however, rears its ugly head this time of year and making those choices is never easy. Last week, we talked about draft inflation and league context for auction-style keeper leagues, but you also must be prepared for the context to change.

My AL-only league has been in existence since 1987 and is old school -12 teams, 4 X 4, 23 players, $260 budget. We still have some original owners and there has been very little turnover, a testament to the fun and camaraderie. Normally, this would make "league context" an easier problem to solve, but last year's draft teaches us that you're never as prepared (or as smart) as you think you are.

Historically, players in this league go for prices that even exceed the inflation percentage, but there always seemed to be some artificial barriers. In 2010, for example, the highest price for a player was $35. This was consistent with prior years and actually paid significant dividends for my team in 2008-2010. My general strategy through the years in winning over 25 titles has been to compile a balanced team with a minimum of high-priced players, but I found myself "stuck" with Miguel Cabrera. He was coming over to the AL for his first season with the Tigers in '08 and most projections had him worth over $40 without inflation. So, I found myself saying, "$39" at the Draft to get some money off the table and no other team bid $40. The bottom line is that I kept "Miggy" for three seasons and won three championships. The context seemed to be in effect again in '09 when one of our more successful owners also tried to bid up a power-hitting 1B and ended up with Mark Teixeira for $33.

This is the context as we prepared for the 2011 Draft. My team's keeper list included Adrian Beltre and Evan Longoria, so I didn't want to fill my corner spots by keeping a 1B with Cabrera back in the pool and Adrian Gonzalez coming over from the NL. Even though I wasn't confident about contending, it seemed that going after one of those big guns would always allow me the option of using either of them as a trade chip for re-building late in the season.

Only a few teams actually needed a 1B and my budget had plenty of money available, so I was going to pay whatever it took for "Miggy" or "A-Gon", always keeping our league context in mind. Well, if you looked up "blown strategy" in the dictionary, there would be a picture of me next to the definition.

When Cabrera came up early in the first round, I barely had a chance to bid before the price got north of $40; he ended up going for $44 to a team that only had room at the Utility spot and it was clear that they would have gone higher. So, the best 1B was gone and none of the 1B slots were filled. Two players later, Gonzalez was put on the table and exactly the same thing happened...he went for $45 to another team that only had their Utility spot open!

As the draft progressed, the 1B nightmare was only going to get worse and all the teams with 1B openings were on the prowl. The best available at that point was Billy Butler and I decided to spend whatever was necessary to get him...it turned out to be $39...YIKES! You may think it was a bad decision, but not when you see that it was followed by Morneau ($39), Adam Dunn ($36) and Derrek Lee ($31). Needless to say, the Fusco Brothers (my team, named after the cartoon strip) didn't contend, but there were many other reasons, including Matt Thornton's April meltdown, Longoria's early DL stint and numerous other injuries. Looking back, however, the 1B disaster was probably a hint as to how the season would play out.

For the record, none of the teams involved made a good decision...

> $45 A. Gonzalez - 6th place

> $44 Cabrera - 9th place

> $39 Morneau - 8th place

> $36 Dunn - 12th place

How about the championship team, you ask? They drafted Mark Trumbo for $7.

Two questions remain unanswered:

1) Has the league context changed?

2) Will the owners of Gonzalez and Cabrera decide to keep them at those elevated salaries and essentially take themselves out of the sweepstakes for Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder?

I've got my opinion. What's yours?

 

Last week, on XM Radio's MLB Channel, a caller was being braggadocios about the value of his 1953 Topps Ted Williams baseball card. The problem, of course, is that there is no Ted Williams card in that set. Now, I haven't called into a sports-talk show since my days in SoCal when I regularly annoyed Joe McDonald whenever he said something stupid (which was often), but I couldn't help myself. They put me on the air right away and I explained the history of "Teddy Ballgame's" cards without trying to directly insult the previous caller. Then Kevin Kennedy asked about the value of his Pete Rose Rookie Cards and Jim Duquette reflected on his Mom throwing away his collection (didn't that happen to all of us?). So, in addition to being the Rotisserie Duck, "Baseball Card Police" now also goes on the resume.

People often ask about what cards or players they should collect - for both hobby purposes and investment. A few years ago, a friend of mine pulled a low serial-numbered autograph card from a pack of Bowman Chrome. The player was a highly-touted Yankee prospect and the card was in great demand. She asked my thoughts on selling the card immediately or keeping it as a long-term investment and I told her to "take the money and run". The reasons were many but it is enough to know that a high percentage of prospects never make it and, for the last 15 years, the Yankees don't have a great track record of developing home-grown talent. In fact, more often than not, they trade prospects for proven players or sign free agents who block the path to the Bronx. She sold the card for top dollar and that Yankee prospect is just now getting to the Majors...as the DH of the Seattle Mariners! You can buy that card today on eBay for about 1/3 of what she received in 2009.

The easy answer of what to collect is to buy cards of your favorite player...or team...or year. If your goal is to enjoy your collectibles, this is the path to happiness. With today's upscale products, you can find autograph and memorabilia (jersey, bat, etc.) cards of almost any player. On eBay, I have customers who focus on one player...be it Dennis Eckersley, Will Clark or Kenny Lofton...and they are always looking for something special to add to their collection. If you decide to widen your scope and also include cards that might have some upside in value, don't get trapped in the prospect "trap". In looking at collections, I almost always find rookies who were the next great player sitting in a box wasting away...nobody wants fifty (50) Kevin Maas rookie cards from 1990 Leaf. Instead, maybe the approach should be to focus on players under the age of 25 who are already established Major Leaguers...Justin Upton, Andrew McCutchen, Mike Stanton, Buster Posey, Starlin Castro, Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw and others. No matter the potential...for baseball cards or your fantasy roster...don't lose sight of the fact that Lorenzo Cain is older than all of these players.

Who to keep is also a favorite topic this time of year for those of us who participate in auction-style keeper leagues. As someone who has played this format since 1984, my analysis will be much more seat-of-the-pants than technical...but you can get statistical information almost everywhere. There are three sources I trust for projections (including Mastersball) and these numbers are always a good starting point. Too many owners, however, forget about two vital factors in keeper leagues...draft inflation and context. Even if you have a working knowledge of statistics, it is amazing to see how consistent inflation numbers can be over the years. My two "home leagues" are old school in that they still utilize the basics from the 1984 book...12 teams, 4x4, up to 15 keepers. Almost every year, you can count on the draft inflation being 20% (plus or minus) with some slight skewing for batters & pitchers (you should calculate both). However, just increasing the $10 players on your draft sheet to $12 and your $20 players to $24 won't give you the entire picture.

Massaging context in your league can give you the edge when making keeper decisions. The first part of the equation is probably already in your head and that is the analysis of your opponents. Every league has them...the owner who will overpay for rookies, the owner who will always bid if he thinks someone is about to get a bargain (even if he doesn't need the player), the owner who will bid against you because you've been successful in the past and he hasn't done his homework, the owner who bids on a category he doesn't need (like spending big bucks on their final Pitcher), the owner who bids on a position he's essentially already filled...you're picturing these guys right now, aren't you?

A practical example is my NL-only league where my team acquired Paul Goldschmidt with a $19 FAAB bid on August 1st...the next highest bid was $17. Goldschmidt's 8-26-4 down the stretch helped the Ducks get a portion of the league championship (we had our first tie in 28 seasons), so the bid accomplished the goal. At the time, I wasn't thinking about 2012, just bidding enough to get the player. Our rules (from the '84 book) allow me to keep him at $19 for one more year or pay a penalty and throw him back in the player pool.

A sidebar...if you ever make a "keeper" decision based on saving the penalty fee, take up another hobby.

However, as I look at my roster six weeks prior to our "freeze" date, Goldschmidt starts looking better and better. While he was never a top tier prospect, his performance down the stretch and in the Playoffs may be a window for his potential upside. Current projections have him at about $15, so with typical inflation, maybe $18 is the number. Someone looking at this from a purely statistical view might say, "throw him back, draft him for $18 or less and you'll have him for three years". Context, however, tells you that one of the owners would certainly go into the 20's and once the other owners figure out that Pujols, Fielder & Pena all went to the AL, a feeding frenzy could follow. Two other teams in the league have similar decisions with Belt (another FAAB acquisition) and Loney at $20...what would you do within the context of your league?

Next time, we'll talk about rookie cards from the 60's & 70's...and how league context blew up in my face last April.

Your feedback is welcome...thanks for reading.

Welcome to the "Duck Pond." I'm pleased to be joining the great group of writers here at Mastersball with regular columns about baseball card collecting as well as fantasy baseball. People refer to me as the "Rotisserie Duck" due to success in auction-style Rotisserie leagues with teams called Donald's Ducks (home-league) and Donald's Dux (XFL national experts league). You can also find me on eBay under the ID "rotisserieduck."

How old were you when you opened your first pack of baseball cards? For me, it was probably about the age of seven when Topps baseball cards were a nickel...and came with a stick of bubblegum! For boys of my generation, the beautiful fragrance of that gum is something that has stayed with us over the years and would be recognizable even if we were blindfolded.

The wonderful magic of collecting is that the thrill of opening those packs to see if we got Ted Williams or Mickey Mantle is not any different today when we look for Albert Pujols or Alex Rodriguez to appear from beneath the wrapper. Of course, the packs are no longer a nickel (and there is no gum) but for a baseball fan, the thrill remains the same.

Card collecting is over 100 years old and the hobby has evolved into a complex and ever-changing marketplace. From the tobacco cards of the early 20th century to the sporadic issues of the Depression era and World War II to the post-war cards from companies like Bowman & Leaf, it wasn't until 60 years ago that the Topps company started the real boom era of sports card collecting. While they issued a couple of playing card style sets in 1951, the 1952 set marked the true beginning of baseball cards as we know them today with over 400 numbered cards that included statistics and player bios. Bowman also issued card sets during this time, but Topps bought them out in 1956 and became the exclusive distributor of major league cards for a period that lasted through 1980.

A court decision in 1980 paved the way for new companies to enter the market and starting in '81, Donruss & Fleer began to distribute baseball cards and more competitors (like Upper Deck) joined the market during the 1980's. In the 80's & 90's, this highly competitive industry created their own problems by adding too many products and brands, while also over-producing the products they made. Collectors became "investors" (a classic mistake) hoping that cards would increase in value as the player's performance improved but the glut of cards on the market created just the opposite effect. Even today, when I look at collections that people have interest in selling, many of the cards are "bulk junk" from that era.

Out of necessity, the card manufacturers began re-inventing their products in the late 90's with the advent of higher-priced "premium" items that included autographed cards as well as memorabilia cards (pieces of uniform or bat) and limited edition issues. Today, we have come full circle, with MLB limiting the licenses they issue and Topps once again being the major producer of cards. For fans and collectors, the hobby is still great fun and continues to bring enjoyment to young and old alike.

In future articles, we'll cover all aspects of the hobby, from building your collection to understanding values to card condition and grading and anything else you might find interesting. Please understand that the emphasis will be on "collecting" as opposed to "investing"...even though a nice collection will always be a good investment.

Your feedback is welcome...thanks for reading.

Somewhere during the evolution of the baseball card, collectors determined that the first card of a great player had more demand and enhanced value. So, the "rookie card" became the standard for the hobby and remains that way today.  Fans will chase these cards and in today's marketplace, with scouting and resources going down to the High School level, everyone is looking for the first card of the next superstar. A case in point is Bryce Harper, the 19- year-old phenom who was the #1 pick in the amateur draft of June 2010 by the Washington Nationals. In addition to his record contract, he also had a deal in place with Topps and baseball cards with his image available for sale before he ever had a professional at-bat.

Looking back, you will see that the "rookie cards" in a particular issue have great significance on the value and staying power of those cards. The Play Ball company made baseball cards in the three years prior to World War II and even though over 70 years have passed, their 1939 set is still cherished because it included the rookie cards of the two great players of the era...Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams -- aka the Yankee Clipper and the Splendid Splinter -- aka Joltin' Joe & Teddy Ballgame.

The 1952 Topps set includes the "holy grail" of baseball cards...#311, Mickey Mantle. Even though it is the most iconic card of the era, Mantle's first Topps card is technically not his rookie card, as there was a Mantle card issued in the 1951 Bowman set. However, the history of that initial Topps offering makes the '52 Mantle worth 3-4 times more than the '51 Bowman. Another Hall of Famer had his rookie card in the '52 issue, Braves 3B Eddie Mathews. The Mathews card is very rare in good condition because it was the last card in the set (#407). Why should that matter? Because kids of that era didn't have protective pages, sleeves and albums for their cards, so they would hold them together with a rubber band...and the Mathews card always took the abuse of being the bottom card. That is also why the #1 card, of an obscure player named Andy Pafko, is also very difficult to find in good condition.

The 1954 Topps set was another historical landmark, as it included the rookie cards of four Hall of Famer members -- Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Al Kaline and Tommy Lasorda. The 1955 Topps set didn't disappoint collectors with the rookie cards of Roberto Clemente, Sandy Koufax and Harmon Killebrew. Other sets of the 50's has some unique stories also -- in the 1957 Topps set, you'll find the rookie cards of both Robinsons, Frank & Brooks, who teamed up later in their careers with the Orioles.

In future visits, we'll review the great rookie cards of later decades, but next week, in honor of pitchers and catchers reporting, we'll talk about "keepers" for both your baseball card collection and your fantasy roster.

Your feedback is welcome. Thanks for reading.

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