By Bruce Amspacher
magine a baseball card set that is 90 years old yet was unknown to the collecting public until the 1960s. Imagine a series that is so rare that no complete set has ever been assembled to the best of the knowledge of dealers and collectors alike. Imagine a set that contains Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson as three of the most desirable keys, yet every other issue in the set is a virtual equal in the rarity department. This set can fire your collecting imagination and create one of the greatest challenges in all of sports cards. It is the 1912 Plow's Candy Baseball Cards set (E300).
"We have only handled five Plow's Candy cards in the past ten years," says Jim Betancourt of Sportscards Plus in Laguna Niguel, California. "I don't think any of them graded higher than a PSA EX-5, and we've never had any individual player's card more than once."
"Once" seems to be the virtual limit in availability for these 3" by 4" rarities. PSA has certified only 56 cards from the entire series over the years, and in an almost unbelievable statistical oddity, that number encompasses 54 different players!
How many cards are in the set? It's hard to say! There were probably 66 in the original set. One catalogue lists 68, but skips two numbers. The Standard Catalogue of Baseball Cards lists 66, but skips one number and leaves out Chief Bender, even though PSA has certified one. "There's always the possibility that another player's card could be discovered at any time," Betancourt added.
What is the single best card from the series known to exist? There are six different cards graded PSA Near Mint-Mint 8, with nothing higher. Three of the cards represent a trio of pitching phenoms: Chief Bender, Christy Mathewson and Ed Walsh. Another is of one of the all-time greats at any position—Napoleon Lajoie.
Here is a look at some of the stars that make up the Plow's Candy 1912 Baseball Cards Set:
Home Run Baker—Of all the players in the history of baseball, it seems odd that the one who ended up with the moniker "Home Run" hit only twelve in his best season. Even so, Frank Baker led the American League in round-trippers for four consecutive years (1911-14) and clouted two game winners in the 1911 World Series off of Christy Mathewson and Rube Marquard. He was the third baseman on the famed "$100,000 infield" of the Philadelphia A's and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1955.
Roger Bresnahan—This innovative player was the first catcher elected to the Hall of Fame (1945). He holds a Worlds Series record that can't be broken unless they change the rules—he caught four shutouts in 1905, three of them hurled by Christy Mathewson. He hit .350 in 1903 and stole 42 bases. He was frequently under suspension because of his fiery temper. His nickname was "The Duke of Tralee" because he said he was born in Tralee, Ireland. He should've been called "The Duke of Toledo, Ohio" because that was where he was really born.
Mordecai Brown—Known as "Three Finger" Brown after a childhood accident with a corn shredder, the Hall of Fame pitcher starred for the Chicago Cubs during their era of greatness—the first decade of the 20th century. He won one of the most famous games in the history of baseball, the make-up game to settle the 1908 pennant after Fred Merkle's infamous bonehead base running cost the Giants certain victory. In 1906 his ERA [earned run average] for the entire year was 1.04, and it was under 2.00 in all but one year from 1904 through 1910.
Ty Cobb—How great is great? His lifetime batting average is .366 (or .367, depending on the reference work that you check). Either number is the all-time best by nearly ten points. He was the first man elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, first man to crack out more than 4,000 hits (4,190), and for decades held the major league record for career stolen bases and runs scored. He led the league in slugging average eight times during the dead-ball era and some consider him to be the greatest of all time. There's an old joke about Ty Cobb that goes like this: What would Cobb hit against today's pitchers? Oh, about .290. Well, .290 isn't that great. Oh, yeah? You gotta remember that the guy would be 116 years old!
Johnny Evers—Tinker to Evers to Chance. A famed double-play combination made even more famous by Franklin P. Adams's poem. Evers was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1946 after starring for the Chicago Cubs during their heyday and managing the Chicago franchises in both leagues. By the way, here's the famous poem:
Tinker to Evers to Chance
By Franklin P. Adams
These are the saddest of possible words:
Tinker to Evers to Chance.
Fleeter than bear cubs and swifter than birds:
Tinker to Evers to Chance.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble
Making a Giant hit into a double
Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:
Tinker to Evers to Chance.
Walter Johnson—Who won 417 games while pitching for a team that was in the second division for ten of the 21 seasons that he pitched? Who won more than 30 games twice and more than 20 games in ten other years? Who hurled 110 shutouts? Who led the league in strikeouts twelve times and in ERA five times? Who else but Walter Johnson, one of the first five players elected to the Hall of Fame.
Napoleon Lajoie—His .426 batting average in 1901 is still an American League record. Lajoie had already established himself as a great star in the National League when he, Cy Young and other top-notch players jumped to Connie Mack's American League Philadelphia A's. After his incredible major league career was over he went to the minors in Canada and won another batting crown. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1937.
Christy Mathewson—One of the first five players elected to the Hall of Fame, the "Big Six" was a 30 game winner three years in a row (1903-05) and won 37 in 1908. He also had nine other 20-win seasons. He is most famous for the feat mentioned above—three shutouts in one World Series—and he accomplished it in six days, giving up only 14 hits and one walk against the mighty Philadelphia Athletics.
Tris Speaker—One of the all-time greats, Speaker had a lifetime average of .344 and hit over .375 six times. He played during the Ty Cobb era, though, so he only won one batting title. His 793 doubles are still first on the all-time list. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1937.
Honus Wagner—This man and baseball cards seem to go together, don't they? One of the first five Hall of Fame members from the class of 1936, this fabulous player won eight batting titles in a twelve-year span and hit over .300 for 17 consecutive seasons. What can be added to that?
Ed Walsh—This amazing pitcher compiled the lowest career ERA in history—an ultra-stingy 1.82! He's also the last pitcher to win 40 games, accomplishing the feat in 1908. In 1910 something almost unbelievable happened. Walsh carved out a magnificent 1.26 ERA for the entire season—and lost 20 games! His hitting "support" provided a team batting average of .211 and seven home runs for the entire year.
These are but some of the stars of the RARE 1912 Plow's Candy Baseball Cards set. A terrific group, regardless of whether you're referring to the cards or the superb players of this bygone era.