Museum’s Shoebox Treasures exhibit features stuff of collectors’ dreams
While no individual collection can stake claim to possessing every baseball card ever made, the collection at the Hall of Fame and Museum features many of the most iconic pieces of cardboard ever produced.
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Some of the cards are noteworthy because of their rarity. Others stand out because of their unusual nature, one in particular for showing a player that never actually existed. All of the cards are essential in telling the story of a hobby that is almost as popular as the sport itself.
Here are a few such gems from the Museum’s collection.
It was eventually discovered that a stray photograph of the batboy had been mixed in with the other photos in the Rodriguez file, which had all been purchased from famed photographer George Brace. At a time when most major leaguers were refusing to pose for new photographs because of a dispute between Topps and the Players Association, someone at Topps mistakenly chose the Garcia photo, instead of an actual photo of Rodriguez, for the ’69 set.
In retrospect, the error is easy to understand, simply because Garcia and Rodriguez did share some resemblance to each other.
No prank, no plot, simply an honest mistake.
1974 Topps: Willie McCovey
During the 1973 season, rumors circulated about a possible sale of the San Diego Padres. Facing severe cash flow problems, Padres principal owner Arnholt Smith reached a tentative agreement with Joseph Danzansky, a food company magnate, in May of ’73. A number of news organizations reported the sale as a done deal, even though it required the approval of National League owners.
By early December, the sale to Danzansky seemed inevitable. The National League released its 1974 schedule, which showed the city of Washington hosting an Opening Day game on April 4. Over the winter, the Padres acquired several high-priced veterans, including Matty Alou, Glenn Beckert, and Willie McCovey, a further indication of the imminent sale of the franchise to the wealthy Washington owner. Danzansky even began production of new Washington uniforms. But the franchise sale was not official and had not been approved.
Facing a dilemma with regard to its production of a set of 1974 cards, Topps decided to roll the dice. The company printed 13 of the Padres player cards, along with a manager card and a team card, with “Washington” and “Nat’l League” inscribed on banners on the fronts of the cards. Those cards became known as the “Washington Nationals.” One of those cards included an airbrushed shot of McCovey, the Hall of Fame first baseman who passed away in 2018.
Shortly after the cards hit the stores, Arnholt Smith announced the sale of the team to McDonald’s co-founder Ray Kroc. Kroc announced that he had no intention of moving the team out of San Diego. Executives at Topps began to scramble. They halted production of the existing cards and replaced the “Washington Nationals” with cards that featured “San Diego” and “Padres” on the banners of the cards.
As it turned out, Topps produced fewer of the “Washington Nationals” cards than it did the San Diego version of the card. So that makes McCovey’s Washington card rarer. Couple that with McCovey’s status as a Hall of Famer, and the fact that the sale and franchise move never happened, and you have a particularly valuable piece of cardboard.
You might be wondering about another Hall of Famer who played for the ’74 Padres, outfielder Dave Winfield. For some reason, Winfield was one of a number of Padres who was not included in Topps’ “Washington Nationals” adaptation. Winfield’s appearance on 1974 Topps only included the Padres’ version of the card, allowing the McCovey to stand in more exclusive territory.
Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame