A little of this, a dash of that, and a piece of the other. Sounds like the beginning of a good recipe game plan. It is. Only in this case the "dish" is seasoned "combo" cards.
In the first few years of "modern" era regular-issue sports cards, 1948-1952, cards with two or more athletes on them to any degree were about as common as a fat-free French fry.
The 1953 Bowman Color baseball set, however, "changed the menu" a pinch and collectors like Anthony Nex appreciate those groundbreaking photos. "Some of my favorite combo cards of all-time come from that set," said Nex. "I like the one with Mantle, Berra and Bauer (#44) and the one with Rizzuto and Martin (#93)," he said of the Yankee combos in the issue. But the third and final "combo" of the set is from the Yankees rival of the time, Brooklyn. The Yanks beat the Dodgers in the 1952 and 1953 World Series to round out a record five straight championships. "The 1953 Bowman Color Pee Wee Reese is a classic," said Nex, of the Dodger pasteboard. "It is the only card in the set derived from a black and white photograph," said the California-based pro photographer. "It was hand colored for inclusion in the set and the Reese card is often cited as the most aesthetically pleasing of all post-war cards."
Of the staged shot of the Brooklyn shortstop ready to relay a throw while leaping over a sliding runner, collector Tony Lijoi simply stated: "That's a sweet card, just a spectacular shot." Lijoi correctly noted that the 1953 Bowman Reese "was probably the first of its kind of a regular-issue card of the era showing an action shot."
Okay, the Reese is not the most traditional multiplayer card since the runner is not identified, although some say it's Phil Rizzuto, but it is included here for so many other solid reasons.
Out of the trio of 1953 Bowman Color baseball combos, the PSA Population numbers show Reese with about 1,000, the Mickey Mantle/Yogi Berra/Hank Bauer card with around 900 and the double play duo of Rizzuto and Billy Martin approaching the 650 level. In PSA MNT 9, both of the Yankee cards list in SMR for $6,500 and the Reese is $5,250.
It would be a few more years before the appearance of any other baseball combo cards of note, and team cards are not included in this article, but in 1957, Topps gave collectors another dose of the Yankee-Dodger rivalry.
Yankees' Power Hitters (#407), the final card in the 1957 Topps offering, highlights Mantle and Berra and, understandably, collectors regularly gobble it up. But nearby in the set sits Dodgers' Sluggers (#400). "That is probably my favorite combo card," said Nex. "It pictures Snider, Hodges, Campy and Furillo in their last summer in Brooklyn. Within a few months, Campy would be involved in a tragic car accident that confined him to a wheel chair for life, Furillo would be in the twilight of his career, and Brooklyn would be left without their Boys of Summer.
"The 1957 Dodgers card was perhaps the most awesome Dodgers' card of The Boys of Summer ever released," said Lijoi, "in my opinion, a beautiful card."
The 1958 Topps issue included some of the alliteration attached to several combo cards, such as Sluggers Supreme (#321) starring Ted Kluszewski and Ted Williams. Other 1958 Topps multiplayer cards, including a Mantle/Aaron pairing and one for Mays and Snider, rank high on many collector's "taste tests," but it was from 1959 Lijoi picked up his most-coveted combos on cardboard.
"1959 Topps were the first cards I ever collected as a kid," said the Michigan-based hobbyist, "and my three favorite combo cards are Pitchers Beware (#34) with Al Kaline and Charlie Maxwell, Fence Busters (#212 ) with Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews and the Corsair (Outfield) Trio (#543) with Roberto Clemente, Bill Virdon and Bob Skinner."
"Being a Detroit boy my heroes were Charlie and Al and locally it was a big deal to have that card," recalled Lijoi. He said the Aaron/Mathews card was "a thrill" to get in 1959 due to the players' superstar status, but the photo with the Corsair/Pirate outfielders was more of an acquired taste.
"Corsair Trio was probably the least popular then because none of the three players made any type of headlines in that day until Clemente came alive in the 60s and became one of the best players of all time," said Lijoi. "That's a tough high-number. Maybe one store in ten carried the seventh (and last) series packs that year."
Take Me To Your Leader
In 1961, Topps introduced League Leader cards to the buffet of baseball subsets. That year Mantle and Roger Maris appeared on the American League Home Run card. A second helping of the M & M Boys on the key leader card came the next season when the sluggers pursued Babe Ruth's single-season homer mark (60), which Maris broke with 61 in '61.
Other popular leaders include the 1962 National League Homer kings showing Mays, Aaron, Frank Robinson, Ernie Banks and Orlando Cepeda; and the 1966 and 1967 A.L slugging frontrunners as Frank Robinson and Carl Yastrzemski won the league's Triple Crown for batsmen in 1966 and 1967, respectively.
Yet for many collectors, the 1965 N.L. batting kings (#215) with Clemente, Aaron and Mays "takes the cake" for league leaders. "That is my favorite leader card," said Jay Wolt of Qualitycards.com. "Those are the three best players of the era and every time I get one it sells quickly," said Wolt from his the Pennsylvania residence.
As for pitching leaders, the 1967 Topps set is an extra special treat for Sandy Koufax fans since the lefty retired after his Triple Crown year in '66 and he pops up on three leaders cards in '67 and on one of those (#236) he appears with Juan Marichal, Bob Gibson an Gaylord Perry-not a bad table for four.
In many cases, league leaders are the best way a collector can pick up a vintage card of a star for a fraction of his main image in the same year.
Combo in Limbo
Several of the most popular combo cards feature rookie stars. Among the most sought after rookies showing multiple players, many just happened to land in the high number series of their Topps set: Pete Rose (1963), Tom Seaver and Rod Carew (separate cards, 1967), and Mike Schmidt (1973).
But another rookie star combo card at the head table depicts New York Mets rookie pitchers Nolan Ryan and Jerry Koosman (#177) from the 1968 Topps issue. This card was white hot for several years as the fireballing Ryan racked up all-time big league records in lifetime strikeouts (5,714) and no-hitters (7) en route to 324 wins and a plaque in Cooperstown. And Koosman was no slouch, either.
In 1990, however, a sample of that card made headlines when a 12-year-old boy bought one for only $12 from an Illinois sports card shop. An inexperienced store employee inadvertently sold the card for 100 times less than its asking price ($1,200). The store owner sued for the return of the card and the next year, the high-publicity pasteboard sold at auction for $5,000, with proceeds going to charity.
From that same 1968 set comes another collector "five-star" combo card: okay, it actually only shows three stars, or "Superstars" as the card reads, but these guys were the real deal: Harmon Killebrew, Mays and Mantle (#490).
This card was reportedly taken at the 1964 All-Star game and Nex and others place it very high on the all-time combo list. "Shooting in the middle of the deal is always the worst option, but Topps photographers did a great job in capturing a pair of trios during the circus of an All Star Game pre-game warm-up," said Nex. The other card the hobbyist is referring to is Manager's Dream (#480) featuring Clemente, Tony Oliva and Chico Cardenas.
In 1962, Topps had a Managers' Dream combo card with Mantle and Mays, which looks like another All-Star game photo op.
The First Waves
In some late 19th-century sports card issues, like Old Judge, you can find the occasional combo image. But, where multiplayer cards were usually more appetizer than entrée in several offerings, in some cases they were the entire menu.
In 1911, for instance, Mecca slipped T201 baseball Double Folders into their packs of smokes. These Double Folders might be the ultimate combo card. When the card front was fully folded at its natural "hinge," the top of the card back showing a portion of a second player combined with the front side to form another complete image. "They were indeed a novelty," said Wolt, "as two players shared the same legs and feet."
The T201s feature a number of stars in the set but in some cases both athletes are Hall of Famers: "Home Run" Baker and Eddie Collins, Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford and Johnny Evers and Frank Chance. Topps brought back the T201 design for their 1955 "Double Headers" baseball set.
In 1912, the Hassan cigs gave smokers a Triple Folder card. "The T202's had the two small T205 type cards on the ends with a posed or action photo shot in the middle with a write up on the reverse," said Wolt. The images on the T202 sides were folded closed into the cigarette packs.
In the T202 set, you can find Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, John McGraw, Cy Young and a few different shots of Ty Cobb, among the classic images. In fact, one of the most famous baseball photos of the 20th century, with Cobb crash landing into third base amidst a cloud of dirt and other chaos, brings some of the most interest in the set. Ty Cobb Steals Third also has the Detroit outfielder on one panel and Tigers manager and Hall of Famer Hughie Jennings on the other.
Also in the T202s, one of the popular cards focuses on perhaps the most famous double play combo of all-time as it shows Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance. "The T202s have such great artwork," said Wolt, "they are just fun to look at." About these innovative sets the collector/dealer added: "The T201 and T202 cards had that little extra going for them compared to the standard small tobacco card of the day."
Collectors get a four-pack of baseball types in the 1935 Goudey set, with a Babe Ruth card as the key. The 1941 Double Play series shows a pair of players per card, and includes shots of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. Some vintage Exhibit cards also show two or more players.
So if you haven't done so already or for a long stretch, next time you visit the "Sports Card Café," may I suggest trying a little something off the combo platter from your era of choice. For many, it pleases the pasteboard palate.