Saturday, March 28, 2015

Space Patrol

Of late I have been looking into various third party printers and manufacturers used by Topps over the years. In addition to their two main printers for mainstream sets (Lord Baltimore Press from the late 40's through the early 60's and Zabel Brothers from the early 60's through the 90's) they used at least one "overflow" printer, especially in the 1960's as the baby boomers were buying cards faster than Topps could make them. The evidence points to Stecher-Traung Lithograph Corporation (later Stecher-Traung Schmidt Corporation) of Rochester, New York as the overflow printer and they seemingly also printed cards for Topps in a Connecticut branch as well.

Here's an interesting hobby side note-Schmidt was the printer of the 1909-11 Obak baseball cards, which are some of the most beautiful cards ever made, and certainly printed a host of other sets before and between World Wars 1 and 2. Stecher-Traung was known more for their fruit crate labels, which were also works of art.

The Osborne Register Company did some "minting" for Topps from about 1948-52, especially the earliest versions of the Golden Coin issue.

Topps had a Japanese manufacturer for certain novelty items in the 1960's and early 70's but some U.S. Customs issues may have curtailed that relationship. That is definitely a work in progress on my end,  However, I have seen many references to a Canadian Manufacturer Topps used to make its 1964 and 1971 Baseball Coins, a firm called Space Magic Ltd. of Don Mills, Toronto, Ontario. This would be fairly close to where O-Pee-Chee was headquartered in London and it would make sense that Topp's Canadian partner would have been able to source a manufacturer for them.

Pretty much any baseball collectors knows about these colorful coins, which are printed on light aluminum, have rolled edges and came inserted in packs of Baseball.  Here's the 64's:

The 1964 coins were printed on large 255 coin sheets, as this Leland's auction from February 7, 1992 shows:

You will note there is no reference to Space Magic, so it's a bit of a leap of faith that they were manufactured by them,  However, I think it's correct once you look at this next item.  For instance, this largely uncatalogued set of 20 Batman coins from 1966 bears the Space Magic Ltd. name:

There was no second series incidentally. That blueish color looks like a dead match to me.  The coins are pretty pedestrian and used the very mundane comics artwork of the time to cash in on the TV series but the shields used to house the coins are spectacular:

Holy crap Batman!

The 1971 Baseball Coins were probably issued in three groups, each having 51 coins.  51 is interesting because it divides evenly into 255, so five complete series could be run on a full sheet. Here is one of the 51 coin series sheets in proof form

There are a number of other aluminum coin sets out there, most from the 1960's.  The 1962-63 Salada Football Coins, the 1963 version of Salada's Baseball Coins, 1962-63 Shirriff  Hockey Coins (Shirriff was owned by Salada), 1965 Old London Baseball Coins, and probably a few others I am missing.  I suspect Space Magic Ltd. made them all, even though not every one divides neatly into a 255 coin production sheet.

I have not found too much on Space Magic Ltd. so maybe one of our Canadian readers can provide some insights.  I will keep looking though.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Catchup Mashup

I haven't done a catch up post in quite some time, so if you missed short updates on prior posts, this is your day! I'll proceed chronologically...

1949 Topps Play Coins of the World

Friend o'the Archive Bill Christensen has passed along some color variations via scan:

Yellow, blue and green all seem to have lighter toned variants.  Whether this was planned or the result of die running low at the end of a "minting" is hard to day but I lean toward the latter.  I particualarly like the light blue.  Anyone else out there have some color variations they can share?

1962 Topps Hockey

I've shown this before but given recent revelations about the 1962 era aluminum plates, here is one of the color process plates in aluminum for the 1962 Football set, compared to the regular issue card:

The 1962 aluminum hockey proofs have a little bit more of an intriguing story now, thanks to Friend o'the Archive Keith Olbermann, I'll let him explain regarding these:

...[they] include the answer to one of the great riddles of Topps editorial choices. That set has 66 cards of just three NHL teams. There's a coach and at least one goalie depicted for the Bruins and the Black Hawks, but the Rangers have a card of one goalie, no coach -- and a trainer.

The trainer card, Frank Paice, always bothered me. A trainer? Instead of a coach? Well sure enough, on the aluminum and paper proofs, the explanation is presented. Paice had nothing to do with the absence of a coach card. His photo is identified as "MARCEL PAILLE - GOALIE." An understandable photo ID mistake, apparently discovered too late to do anything more about than make the card into one of Paice!"

Here is Paice the Trainer:

The 1962 backs must have been pasted up first then, I'm not sure how many guys have been called a stickboy on a hockey card but it must be in the low single digits:

1962 Topps Hockey Bucks

I find the early Topps Hockey issues fascinating as there were so many little twists and turns, a boatload of inserts and packaging oddities, all for some very short sets.  Recently an uncut strip of twelve 1962 Hockey Bucks was rung up on eBay:

If you want to know why there are so many miscut vintage Topps inserts, this is a good indicator. When I was editing the above shot, I realized the top edge was perfectly aligned horizontally.  You can see the right-tilting curl very easily in this scan.

1967 Topps Blockheads/1988 Topps Pee Wee's Playhouse

I recently linked some of the activity cards in Pee Wee's Playhouse to some earlier Topps issues and while I didn't include this in the post, I think there is a basis for comparison.  Here is one of the most gorgeous artworks from the Blockheads issue, which I have also shown before:

First of all, the idea that such an intricate painting was used to create very short run Hallowe'en issue in 1967 is mind-boggling! Really, look at this thing, it's insane! Now here is a clear derivation, although in rough form, from Pee Wee's Playhouse.  Not an exact copy but I suspect the Pee Wee's Playhouse artists were looking at some older Topps archival material, possibly unearthed as the iconic 1989 Guernsey's auction of Topps production material around the same time:

Blockheads, by the way, featured artwork from Wally Wood and Basil Wolverton of EC Comics and Mad Magazine fame, with Norm Saunders doing the finished paintings. Crazy!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Metal Shop

Running off a sheet of cards at the printers would seem like a pretty mundane task these days. That's not the case of course but like anything else it seems like it happens almost effortlessly these days. It isn't and never really has been all that easy and there are a lot of processes involved before the final product spins out of the press.

One part of one method, namely offset lithography printing,  involves the use of thin aluminum plates, which have the images being used to make the cards (or anything else really) etched on to them.  If I have this right (and this is a very simplified explanation), the plates are dampened with a water based solution then inked in the press. The ink ends up adhering only to the "dry" areas to be printed, as the solution prevents ink from adhering where it is applied.  The inked portion is transferred, or offset, to a rubber roller, making a reversed image before being rolled over the press sheet.  This is done for each color pass.

The plates cannot be "wiped" once used, they have to be melted down and remanufactured.  As you can imagine, a lot of aluminum has to be destroyed for any type of meaningful recycling to occur, ergo when it comes to Topps, there are few aluminum plates floating around.  That is, unless you are talking about 1962.

 Take this 1962 Kansas City team cards (#384):

In order to print it, you needed this first:

Compare that to this 1962 Football plate, which has corroded to a degree:

When you look at the card this plate produced you can see that the Baseball plate has an additional element, namely the team name is visible in the black oval. Therefore, it must have been used to produce a different color than the one for Chandler. The inset photo is missing as well; that would have been added during a different color run.

A large find of 1962 aluminum sheets was noted in an SCD ad in  the January 31, 1986 issue where Mid-Atlantic Coin Exchange was selling 1962 Baseball Green Tint plates (second series). They also had a number of 1962 Hockey plates as well.  All of these had been cut from the original, larger aluminum sheets used to make the cards. However, at least two partial sheets have survived from the Hockey run:

You can get a good idea of how vivid these were in the unfaded areas (which look like they had something like a paint can on top of them for years. 

Plates even exist for promotional material, like this one for the 1962 Baseball Bucks set:

I'm not certain how these all came to survive.  It's not like today where Topps sells or uses as inserts the plates that produce the cards. Given that the green tint plates were in the '62 mix, it seems plausible Topps required the plates be returned to them as that run was not produced in Philadelphia. Or did Topps also sub out work on the Football and Hockey sets that year? No matter where they were printed, it's clear these sheets never got melted down.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

King's Ransom

Another Topps Presentation Board has popped up, this time featuring the one and only Elvis Presley.

We've looked at these boards before, which were prepared for pitch meetings at (or possibly by)
Topps when new sets were being contemplated.  This latest one, offered by BMW Sportscards is quite nice as these things go:

Sometimes there is a number on the reverse, indicating where in the sequential order of the presentation the specific board should appear.  That does not seem like it is happening here:

The concept for the cards, at least at this stage, was pretty spare:

You can see how the lettering and red bars were pasted on. I actually like the design and it doesn't clutter up the picture. 

Topps, of course didn't get to produce an Elvis set, that was done by Donruss with a busier and more varied design:

It's too bad Topps didn't get to produce an Elvis set as it would have closed the circle with their late 1956 offering, which was also their first set in the now standard size of 2 1/2" x 3 1/2":

The 1956 version of Elvis (the singer) is a little closer to the era I most like when it comes to his music, the Sun Records years.  If you ever want to check out the primal Elvis, Sunrise is a great little release.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Catch Them If You Can

When things get down to the rarest of the rare with Topps, there are a few sets that even die-hard collectors may not know about.  One of these features the Dave Clark Five and it's a strange one for sure.

In 1965 Topps made a pitch to Epic Records for a 55 card set of this British Invasion group. As you can imagine, this pitch was unsuccessful but as it turns out Topps created a number of cards for it.  In 2007, a lot of 43 different DC5 cards went up on eBay for a crazy low $200 BIN. These were handcut from a sheet and the sheer number of cards makes me think the full set of 55 was printed by Topps. I'm not sure if the lot actually sold at that price but if it did it's a bargain for the ages.

The cards are fairly pedestrian and typical for a Topps rush job; a process they had honed with their Beatles releases..  There are black and white photos on the front and a rectangular box on the back with information about the number of cards and their manufacture and copyright.  An Epic records logo completes a short ad for the group below that:

They appear to be printed on very cheap, unstable stock and the example above is apparently lacking gloss on the front.  I believe they are a little bit larger than standard size (2 1/2" x 3 1/2") but don't have any exact measurements at hand.

Card # 18 above is perhaps the most well known in the set.  It was prominently featured in an ad in The Wrapper # 127 (Nov 15, 1994) that mentioned it and three other cards were purchased in a local candy store at the time of issue. The seller was Gary Paruolo and his address was in Franklin Square, New York which was the same town as the Card Collectors Company PO Box (and one town over from Woody Gelman's residence). "Local candy store" likely means the store in Brooklyn near Bush Terminal where Topps tested sets but these were likely never officially issued. 

Not that that ever stopped Topps from dumping stock. They were probably sold in cello wrappers if that story is true. Now the idea that one of the "local candy stores" could be close to the Gelman homestead is also intriguing and while I have seen a few references to the Brooklyn shop on Cortelyou Road  that haunts hobbyists dreams, I've never heard of a Long Island version.  I'd love to know where this guy was from!

Topps also tested cards in controlled settings, like the ones in a mall where you sit in a room with a few other people and sample things before you answer some questions, and by handing them out at what we would now call middle schools.  Imagine trying the latter today!

#18 also popped up in a Legendary auction in August of 2013 but it failed to reach the $1,000 reserve. A few others have sold over the years from what I can recall and there are rumors a former Epic Records executive had over 100 of them at one time but no matter, these are rare cards indeed.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Fresh Prints

It looks like we have another entrant or two in the list of firms that printed cards for Topps back in the 1960's.  In re-reading one of Keith Olbermann's Sports Collectors Digest posts about the 1967 Roger Maris Yankees card, I happened to notice a comment about some uncut proof sheets made up by a printer in Connecticut. I did a double take as I had missed this information the last time I had read Keith's article, which came out in 2008.

The Olbermann story is thus: a house being remodeled in Connecticut is found to have sheets of old cards being used as insulation in a false ceiling; in addition aluminum printer plates from some Topps sets were found in the void space as well; 1962 being the "year-zero" for aluminum Topps plates, this piqued my interest even more. It would turn out the previous owner had worked for a company that printed cards for Topps.

I still need to do a deep dive into the printing of 1962 Baseball Green Tints but there is a great article by Pete Putman that appeared on the PSA website a while back that delivers an in depth look you should go an check out. Pete mentions within his article the Rochester firm of Stecher-Traung, which I believe did overflow work for Topps in the early 1960's after Zabel Brothers of Philadelphia took over for Lord Baltimore Press (LPB). LBP was bought out by International Paper in 1958 and slowly transitioned out of commercial printing thereafter resulting in Topps utilizing Zabel Brothers, which had produced some of the best Bowman sets, as their main printers for decades (this comes straight from Irv Lerner, who used to do Zabel's tax work).

Stecher-Traung likely printed the green tint second series baseball cards in 1962 but this has not been definitively proven.  Pete also mentions they may have printed some 1952 Baseball high numbers, at least the ones that ended up in Canada and that theory makes a whole lot of sense to me. Anyway poking around after re-reading the KO piece, I stumbled upon a very, very interesting auction on eBay that concluded last month and has shed some additional light on this Connecticut firm, although a name has not yet presented itself.  What has presented itself is intriguing, namely a bootleg 1966 Batman Black Bat series Cinderella card featuring the Caped Crusader on the commode:

It's a little blurry obviously but I suspect that was a Norm Saunders creation:

 The back has some bleed through:

This creation, along with some cut up proof cards from the 1966 Batman Bat Laffs series were found together and originated with the family of an employee of the Connecticut firm.  Now get this, the family member's relative auctioning off this piece is domiciled in, you guessed it, Rochester, NY!

Stecher-Traung did have a corporate presence in Connecticut but I can't decipher if that was before their merger with Schmidt Lithographic of San Francisco (likely printer of Obaks) or after (merger was March 1, 1966) so there is more work to do. But there is no way the Rochester connection is meaningless or random.

Now, for a bigger issue.  It has long been suspected within the hobby that numerous test issues produced for Topps in the 1960's and 70's were specifically printed for sale via the Card Collectors Company and/or Bill Haber (long time Topps employee and early card dealer).  There are numerous black & white test issues from the mid 1960's that I have long felt were not produced by Zabel Brothers so I wonder if our mysterious Connecticut firm had a hand.

It gets even better-I have found some old news stories online suggesting another Baltimore firm also did some work for Topps, one A. Hoen & Company. Whether they did some overflow in the 1950's or other work is an open question but one I hope to answer as they were in business from before the Civil War until 1981.  That is a tantalizing thread to follow as it has been offered up by other writers and researchers that the 1967-68 Topps Action All Star Stickers saw limited distribution in the Chesapeake Bay area.

And we get into even another possible connection or two, namely a Grand Rapids, Michigan subsidiary of Stecher-Traung Schmidt called Wheeler-Van Label Company.  Let's not forget Michigan was a main distribution area for the 1975 Topps Mini Baseball cards, as was California (Schmidt's original base). So how many wheels-within-wheels are we dealing with? More to come...

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Pee Wee's Madhouse

As many of you know, I like to keep most matters on the blog to 1980 and before.  However, there are times when something is interesting enough that I will break through this cardboard ceiling and "go recent".  This is one of those times.

In 1988 Topps came up with one of the most innovative sets they ever produced, right up there with Pak O'Fun and Laugh-In. Pee Wee's Playhouse must have been a risk as the show was mid-run in 1988 but that did not stop the creative team from going bonkers. The full checklist is a doozy and takes a bit of concentration to determine; certainly many eBay sellers have no idea how full "full" really is but no matter.

There are 33 "regular" standard-sized cards, all numbered on the front, with full bleed borders; this is just the start of a condition sensitivity nightmare, compounded with a variations hangover:

According to Jeff Allender's House of Checklists (an invaluable site) there are two backs to these cards but that's not where the variations come in (hang tight, we'll get to them). They all have illustrated backs, which can best be described as either "non-puzzle" or "puzzle". Here is a "non" that also pokes fun and pays homage to Bazooka Joe. The colors on the other backs are in alignment, so I think this mish-mosh was done on purpose to skewer the propensity of the actual comics to be out of registration (look at the blues as they are "off left" in panel one, then "off right" in panel two, a sign of intent I think):

There are 15 "nons" and 18 "puzzle" backs. Here is one of the latter:

There are some crazy designs on this set, which mirror those of the show.  I am not sure if he was in charge but an artist, puppet master and set designer named Wayne White had something to do with the quirky look of the show and presumably the design of the cards.

OK, now the variations (part 1)-from what I can find, these involve the borders on the front of the card, specifically the backgrounds thereon.  I only have a run of 33 so I don't know what each variant is; even if I did, how would I describe it?!

Next up are the stickers, printed on card stock, also standard-sized....and confusing.  While there are 44 stickers, there are only 22 subjects as each front repeats exactly (and exactly) once...and then it gets weird (more in a sec on that). Dig those copyright disclaimers!

The lovely Miss Yvonne, the Most Beautiful Woman in Puppet Land is not actually #3, that is merely her sub-series number; a total of six represent various characters . Another sub-series is the multi-sticker, of which there are eight:

And my favorite, a partial reissue (there are eight) of 1967 Nutty Initials! Is this set nuts or what?!

Her overall number in the sticker set in this instance is #10.  She is also #9 but no matter what number is on the back, she is always #3 on the front; I suspect because there were two flip movies on each sticker back that Topps felt justified handing out the repeats.  It's a little hard to tell because none of the subset numbering is in order.  It's also hard to tell because  the final four stickers contain one of four checklists, each of which has checklist sub-series numbering on the back (but no overall numbering).

So 20 repeated subjects plus four non-repeaters on the checklists. Have you ever seen so many different ways to destroy bubble gum cards?  And we're not even getting halfway through all the subsets yet.

I'll give you all a breather here as we look at the Wiggle Toys, which are just small (1 3/4" x 2") lenticular cards, twelve in number.  I guess since the images moved, there was no need for further variation!

The tattoo sheets are even more placid.  There are twelve, each with similar arrays and they measure 3 3/16" x 5 1/4":

OK break's over!  Rounding out the set and staying large at 3 3/16" x 5 1/4" are a number of Activity Cards.  There are five sub-series of these. Five Puppet Cards, for fingers (mostly) and nose:

Sub-series number and indicia on the front, only more yuks on the back:

Then there are five Opening Doors cards, which borrowed from 1970 Topps Funny Doors, although they are not an exact limn. Same as the last sub-series in respect of numbering:

Next up are four "flying things" although they are not at all like their namesakes. Sub-series numbering only once again...whose idea was it to mar the fronts with all that tiny print?

You want Playhouse Foldies?  You got 'em, five of 'em, hearkening back to almost the very beginning of Topps:

And last but certainly not least, there are three Disguise cards...except there are actually six.  Three different front designs:

Quite the homage to the 1967 and '70 Disgusting Disguises, the Get Smart Secret Agent kits and the like, no? There are said to be mirror images of each Disguise but I can't find any scans to show this (I am still putting my own set together and have gaps).

As you can imagine, the packs were elongated to allow for the larger objects:

 Pretty good haul for one pack. I guess one final homage to Fun Packs was in order!

What then is our final tally? Lessee...

33 regular cards plus 33 variations
44 stickers
12 wigglers
12 tattoos
 5 puppets
 5 doors
 4 flying things
 5 foldies
 3 disguises plus 3 variations

Some folks just collect the 12 sticker fronts but that's Nowheresville man so I make it 123 for something akin to a complete set, plus another 36 if you count variations, or 159 in a master set.