The baseball card time machine

81Scott

Donruss was a company started by two brothers named—you guessed it—Don and Russ. More specifically, Donald and Russell Weiner from Memphis, Tennessee. They made trading cards in the 1960s for such TV shows as the Monkees, the Addams Family, and the Flying Nun. In the 1970s, they released trading card sets for both Elvis and KISS. And in the early 1980s, if you wanted to have The General Lee, Daisy Duke, and Boss Hogg from The Dukes of Hazzard on trading cards, Donruss was there to set you up.

But baseball was where the real action in trading cards was. Topps had that market cornered, as they signed baseball players to exclusive contracts while they were still in the minor leagues. In 1975, Philadelphia-based Fleer–a competitor of Topps and Donruss—sued Topps for the right to produce baseball cards of their own. After years of litigation between Topps and Fleer, the summer of 1980 was a watershed moment in the card collecting hobby. Topps’ monopoly on baseball card production was ended by court order, and Fleer was given the right to produce a baseball card set of their own.

Donruss was not directly involved with this litigation, but the language of the court’s decision also allowed them to get into the game. During the final half of the 1980 baseball season, Donruss scrambled to get enough images to produce a set in time for the 1981 season. The resulting set was panned by some for its poor quality, but the end result allowed Donruss to establish a toehold in the lucrative baseball card trade. And, more importantly, it gave us many enduring images from another era of Chicago baseball history. In fact, it wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to call this “the Chicago set” of baseball cards.

To get a sense of how this happened, it helps to remember Chicago’s standing as a two-team baseball town. Both the National and American Leagues came through town during the season, and the nature of baseball’s schedule allowed Donruss to photograph players on the visiting teams. Baseball’s scheduling was different in 1980 than it is today. Back then, every team—regardless of which division they played in—travelled to Chicago twice during the season. So the Seattle Mariners, who had already played in Chicago in the middle of May in 1980, returned to Chicago again in early September. Baseball’s scheduling today means that Seattle, and the other teams in the A.L’s Western (and Eastern) division, come to Chicago only once each year. If you missed the Mariners in Chicago back in early April of this year, you’ll just have to wait until 2014 to see them again in Chicago. But baseball’s scheduling certainly worked to Donruss’ advantage in the summer of 1980.

When the Mariners came to town, a player like Juan Beniquez could be posed for a photo, with Comiskey Park’s double-decked bleachers in the backdrop behind him. Fred Patek of the Angels and Rich Dauer of the Orioles also received this treatment when their teams passed through town. And when the Yankees came to town in the middle of July, Bucky Dent was photographed taking batting practice, and Oscar Gamble was posed outside of the batting cage.

The players were the photographer’s real interest, but Comiskey’s green seats, grandstand portals, and upper deck billboards successfully photobombed their way into the images, as well. If you remember the old ballpark, as I do, this is the closest you can come to going back there today. Standing at the marker where home plate once was, on the other side of 35th Street from the current ballpark, doesn’t do much to bring back the old park, what with all of the asphalt nearby.

The Donruss Company also captured some elements of Wrigley Field which no longer exist. For example, Randy Moffitt’s card shows what Wrigley’s scoreboard looked like before the video board was tacked on at the bottom. It also reveals that the red bars indicating the scores for the Chicago teams’ games have not always been located at the bottom, as they are today. Instead, these scores once appeared in the middle of the scoreboard. Having gone to games in Wrigley since 1987, I would have assumed the present location at the bottom of the scoreboard was where they’ve always been. But thanks to Donruss, I realize that this is not the case.

A shot of Moffitt’s teammate Gary LaVelle, also posed at Wrigley Field, reveals some more historical details. The rooftop bleachers on Waveland Avenue are gone, and a door in the outfield wall that is now covered by advertising was once painted red and left unadorned. The green ivy and red door somehow coexisted in the outfield back in 1980, but the empty red door is now long gone. San Diego’s Steve Mura also helped to demonstrate what a rooftop-less Sheffield Avenue looked like, and the card for the Giants’ Bob Knepper now shows us that the batter’s eye in center field was once just a green board of some kind. Let’s say that the restaurant now in that spot represents a huge visual improvement over what used to be there.

But maybe the most revealing card of all is the one for the Mets’ Mike Scott, shown above. As a September call-up in 1980, Scott pitched only six games for the Mets, but one of them was a start against the Cubs in Wrigley Field on September  23. Both the Cubs and Joe Torre’s Mets were out of contention, and school was back in session, so the lack of interest in an afternoon game is understandable. But as Scott is delivering a pitch–with a sparse crowd of 1,936 looking on in the background–it becomes clear just how empty Wrigley Field was in those days. It also looks as if once you bought a ticket, you could sit as close to the field as you wanted to. That’s quite a change from the Wrigley Field that I know.

I can understand why some baseball card purists look down at Donruss’ 1981 set. It was printed on a flimsy white card stock, and the yearly statistics that Topps and Fleer provided on their cards were missing from the Donruss edition. What’s more, Donruss didn’t have the distribution network that Topps and Fleer did. Retailers had to buy the cards in bulk and then collate them by hand. As a result, a kid in the hinterlands like me didn’t even know there was a Donruss baseball card set available back in 1981. But now that I live in Chicago and know about this set, I’m happy that Donruss had to lean on the city and its teams so heavily back then. It produced a visual time capsule that probably means little to anyone outside of Chicago and under the age of 30, but is absolutely priceless to someone like me.

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2 thoughts on “The baseball card time machine

  1. I didn’t know all that about Donruss. I knew about the fall of the Topps monopoly and that they threw their set together pretty quickly, but not all the other stuff. Not sure I even noticed all the Chicago shots. Educational and interesting post.

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