The Ultimate Guide to Sir Isaac Newton Trading Cards

INTRODUCTION

Welcome to the largest collection of Sir Isaac Newton trading cards on the internet! In an alternate reality where Science was our National Pastime, Sir Isaac Newton would be our Babe Ruth. Just as Ruth excelled in both pitching and hitting, Newton excelled in mechanics, optics, astronomy, and mathematics–not to mention such less scientific endeavors such as alchemy, coinage, and Bible study.

In this same reality, the Newton trading cards presented below would be unattainable to all but the wealthiest collectors. But alas, in our own reality, it takes only patience, persistence, and a few bucks to add just about any of these cards to your collection.

Learning about these cards and collecting them has been a labor of love, and I hope you enjoy your look around. Feel free to follow @cardboardisaac on Twitter for occasional updates and Newton-related matters of interest.

THE COLLECTION – WANT LIST ITEMS ARE IN RED


Year: 1886 (estimated)
Country of Origin: USA
Manufacturer: Dunning and Company
Product: Lawn Mower

Dunning and Company appears to be an agricultural supply firm that was based out of Auburn, NY, in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The product advertised on this card appears to be a lawnmower called the Royal. The front of the card bills Sir Isaac Newton as “The Greatest Philosoper,” and I have seen one other card in this series, featuring Galileo as “The Greatest Astronomer.” The rough cut on the left edge of the card suggests that the card may have originally been one half of a fold-out.


Year: 1888
Country of Origin: France
Manufacturer: Chocolaterie Poulain
Product: Chocolate

This early chocolate card features an embossed design and is numbered 15 in a set that included at least two series of 10 cards each.


Year: 1888-1890
Country of Origin: USA
Manufacturer: Allen & Ginter
Product: Tobacco

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This early Newton card features fellow inventors Archimedes, Galileo, Torricelli, and Franklin. The card is 6″ x 9″ with a blank back and was intended for inclusion in an album.


Year: 1890 (estimated)
Country of Origin: France
Manufacturer: Chocolat Guerin-Boutron
Product: Chocolate

Newton was featured as one (unnumbered) of 84 Benefactors of Humanity (“Les Beinfaiteurs de L’Humanite”) on this card distributed with chocolate from the French chocolatier Guerin-Boutron. Note that this same card design was used by other chocolate sellers as well.


Year: 1890 (estimated)
Country of Origin: France
Manufacturer: Kahn Brothers and Zabern
Product: Unknown

Newton is card 137 in this gold-bordered set that includes–possibly among others–famous scientists and mathematicians. Additional subjects in the set include Descartes, Laplace, and Newton’s calculus rival Liebnitz. Some cards in the set reference the 1889 Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair), held in Paris.


Year: 1897
Country of Origin: France
Manufacturer: Ph. Suchard
Product: Chocolate

This chocolate card includes a picture of the product, various Newton tropes (apple, telescope, books), and Newton coming out of his shell to explain planetary orbits to a small audience.


Year: 1900
Country of Origin: France
Manufacturer: Liebig
Product: Beef Extract

“Inventors 2” is the first of four Liebig series to feature Newton and highlights his discovery of the Law of Universal Gravitation. As with many Liebig cards, distribution was across multiple countries and in multiple languages. Note that this same card design was also used by Ch. Jux to promote its “Creme Express” product.


Year: 1900 (estimated)
Country of Origin: Holland
Manufacturer: Bensdorp
Product: Cacao

This card was number 101 in a series of 104 celebrities (“beroemde personen”). The design on the card’s front was also used by a supplier of French chicory around the same time.


Year: 1900 (estimated)
Country of Origin: France
Manufacturer: C. Berriot
Product: Chicory

This unnumbered card mimics the design of a Bensdorp (Holland) issue, hence may also be from a set of 104 celebrities.


Year: 1900 (estimated)
Country of Origin: France
Manufacturer: Sodex
Product: Soda Crystals

This card design was used by multiple firms circa 1900 and features Newton as part of “The Astronomers (Series B).” Also featured on the card are the Hammerfest Column (Norway) and Pulkovo Observatory (Russia).


Year: 1900 (estimated)
Country of Origin: France
Manufacturer: Wood-Milne
Product: Shoes

A large paper issue touting the superior quality of Wood-Milne heels and soles. In the picture, Newton himself seems to be admiring his shoes.


Year: 1900 (estimated)
Country of Origin: France
Manufacturer: a Jean-Bart
Product: Clothing

This beautiful card of Newton sits high on my want list. Any leads are greatly appreciated!


Year: 1901
Country of Origin: UK
Manufacturer: Ogden’s Cigarettes
Product: Tobacco

This blank-backed “Guinea Gold” card is number 119 of 1148! Can you imagine how many packs of cigarettes you’d have to smoke to pull the Newton card if that was the one you really wanted?


Year: 1901 (estimated)
Country of Origin: France
Manufacturer: Aecht Franck
Product: Coffee

Newton is card number 3 in this German series identifying him as a famous scholar (“Beruhmte Gelehrte.”)


Year: 1902
Country of Origin: UK
Manufacturer: John Player & Sons
Product: Tobacco

Newton was card number 4 in a series of 20 “Famous Authors and Poets.” Narrow (pictured above) and wide variations exist.


Year: 1903
Country of Origin: France
Manufacturer: Liebig
Product: Beef Extract

“Monuments to Famous Scientists” is the second of four Liebig series to feature Newton. The monument depicted stands at Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge. As with many Liebig cards, distribution was across multiple countries and in multiple languages.


Year: 1906
Country of Origin: France
Manufacturer: Liebig
Product: Beef Extract

“Astronomers 1” is the third of four Liebig series to feature Newton. As with many Liebig cards, distribution was across multiple countries and in multiple languages.


Year: 1908
Country of Origin: Germany
Manufacturer: Stollwerck
Product: Tobacco

This Newton card is from the Heroes (“Helden”) series, which corresponds to album number 10.


Year: 1910
Country of Origin: UK
Manufacturer: Taddy and Co.
Product: Tobacco

This is card number 16 of 25 in Taddy’s “Autographs” series. The same cards, with minor variations to the reverse, were also released in Canada under the Tuckett’s brand, which can be harder to find.


Year: 1911 (estimated)
Country of Origin: France
Manufacturer: Chocolat Lombart
Product: Food – Chocolate

Chocolat Lombart was at one time France’s largest chocolate manufacturer and also claimed to be its oldest. The back of the card cites highlights in the company’s history across three different centuries. The front of the card indicates this card was part of a series of Famous Men (“Les Hommes Celebres”) and that Newton was part of an Inventors subset. 


Year: 1912
Country of Origin: UK
Manufacturer: R.J. Lea, Ltd.
Product: Tobacco

Newton was card 46 of 50 in this set of “Chairman Miniatures.” Cards were issued with plain or gold borders.


Year: 1921
Country of Origin: France
Manufacturer: Liebig
Product: Beef Extract

“The Causes of Great Discoveries” is the fourth and final Liebig series to feature Newton, though Liebig would continue to produce cards for almost 50 more years. As with many Liebig cards, distribution was across multiple countries and in multiple languages.


Year: 1924
Country of Origin: UK
Manufacturer: Nicolas Sarony & Co.
Product: Tobacco

Sarony & Co. distributed their “Celebrities and Their Autographs” series in four sets of 25. Cards 1-25 were distributed in 1923, cards 26-50 and 51-75 were distributed in 1924, and cards 76-100 were distributed in 1925. Cards came in two sizes each year, narrow (shown above) and wide. There is also some variation in the size of the card number on the reverse. As card 29 in the set, the Newton card was part of the 1924 release.


Year: 1924
Country of Origin: UK
Manufacturer: Ogden’s Cigarettes
Product: Tobacco

Newton was card 35 of 50 in the “Leaders of Men” series. A related card has a similar picture (possibly reversed), the same text on the back (in Spanish), but is numbered 49 instead of 35.


Year: 1924
Country of Origin: UK
Manufacturer: Fry’s Chocolates
Product: Chocolate

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Sir Isaac Newton’s sundial at Colsterworth Church is card 10 on a series of 50 “Ancient Sundials” cards.


Year: 1925
Country of Origin: UK
Manufacturer: John Player & Sons
Product: Tobacco

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Smokers who missed out on the Ogden’s Newton the year before must have been delighted to see the same “Leaders of Men” series put out by Player, with Newton again card number 35 of 50.


Year: 1926
Country of Origin: UK
Manufacturer: Carreras Ltd
Product: Tobacco

Newton was card 5 in a series of 24 “Old Staffordshire Figures.” The statuette shown resides at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.


Year: 1928
Country of Origin: UK
Manufacturer: Ogden’s Cigarettes
Product: Tobacco

The “Marvels of Motion” series from Ogden’s includes Newton and the force of gravity as card number 8 in a series of 25. The front of the card is unique in that it feature’s Newton’s pet dog, Diamond, as well as accurate measurements based on the acceleration due to gravity. (Ignoring air resistance and rounding error, multiply 16 by the square of the number of seconds.)


Year: 1930s (estimated)
Country of Origin: Germany
Manufacturer: Yramos
Product: Tobacco

This card from Dresden-based cigarette producer Yramos was designed to be placed in an album.


Year: 1930s (estimated)
Country of Origin: France
Manufacturer: Produits Raoul
Product: Unknown

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This card from the “Great Inventions” series perhaps generously features Newton as an inventor of the thermometer.


Year: 1932
Country of Origin: Germany
Manufacturer: Enver Bey
Product: Food – Tobacco

This German tobacco series featured the greatest minds of all time (“Geistesgrossen Aller Zeiten”) and pioneering works (“Bachbrechenden Werke”). Newton is featured on card number 104 among the 72 images of the second series. The card focuses on Newton’s contributions toward understanding the role of the Moon and gravity in explaining high and low tides on Earth. 


Year: 1932
Country of Origin: France
Manufacturer: Chocolat Pupier
Product: Food – Chocolate

This card paired Newton with fellow Englishman William Shakespeare as part of a Europe-England (“L’Europe – Angleterre”) series.


Year: 1933
Country of Origin: Germany
Manufacturer: Unknown
Product: Tobacco

Newton is number 89 in a series of 200 “Figures of World History: Contemporary Miniatures of Famous Persons from Four Centuries.” This is a paper issue intended to be pasted into an album.


Year: 1933
Country of Origin: Germany
Manufacturer: Haus Bergman
Product: Tobacco

Newton was card 6 in book 3, dedicated to the Great Scientists and Inventors (“Die Grossen Forscher und Erfinder.”)


Year: 1934
Country of Origin: UK
Manufacturer: Typhoo
Product: Tea

Newton’s birthplace, Woolsthorpe Manor, was card 15 in a series of 25 “Homes of Famous Men.”


Year: 1935
Country of Origin: UK
Manufacturer: Carreras Ltd
Product: Tobacco

This Newton card is number 18 of 50 in the set “Celebrities of British History.” The same image in a monochrome blue was later used by Turf Cigarettes  in a 1950 blank backed set.


Year: 1935
Country of Origin: Germany
Manufacturer: Olleschau
Product: Tobacco

bookmark

This bookmark card came from a set that also included Sigmund Freud, Walt Whitman, and Mark Twain, among others. Given that the product came out of Nazi Germany, I was surprised to see Freud included. And for that matter, I was under the impression that bookmarks were pretty useless in a fascist state.


Year: 1935-1938
Country of Origin: UK/South Africa
Manufacturer: Max Cigarettes
Product: Tobacco

This would be a wonderful set to own. Many of the cards envision the future, as imagined from the 1930s. The full set is only display at the New York Public Library.


Year: 1936
Country of Origin: UK
Manufacturer: Godfrey Phillips
Product: Tobacco

Newton was the final card in this set of 50 “Famous Minors.” The card shows a very young Newton using a mouse to power a windmill. This may have special significance in light of the drawing recently discovered at Woolsthorpe.


Year: 1937
Country of Origin: UK
Manufacturer: W.A. & A.C. Churchman
Product: Tobacco

Newton was card 21 in a series of 40 “Howlers.” In this context, the meaning of howler may be “an amusing mistake.” Note here that the apple lands on Newton’s head and knocks his wig in the air, which is pretty amusing!


Year: 1937
Country of Origin: USA
Manufacturer: Melorol
Product: Ice cream

These “minute biographies” came from a 1931 book of the same name by Sameul Nisenson and Alfred Parker. Any collector with 25 consecutive cards in the series was able to trade their cards for the book, a deal that in retrospect wasn’t so good.


Year: 1938
Country of Origin: UK/South Africa
Manufacturer: A.&M. Wix
Product: Tobacco

Newton and Einstein teamed up for card number 1 in a series of 250 cards featuring “Speed Through the Ages.” Depending on the country, the card back is either in English or in both English and Afrikaans.


Year: 1946-1966
Country of Origin: Australia
Manufacturer: Stamina Trousers
Product: Clothing

Newton was card 96 in a series that spanned two decades.


Year: 1950 (estimated)
Country of Origin: France
Manufacturer: Editions Arnaud
Product: Unknown

This paper issue was likely intended for placing in an album.


Year: 1951
Country of Origin: UK
Manufacturer: Carreras Ltd
Product: Tobacco

The same firm issued a very similar set 15 years earlier. However, these “Turf Slides” cards were a monochrome blue and hand-cut from the box rather than inserted. Newton’s number has also changed to 8.


Year: 1952
Country of Origin: USA
Manufacturer: Topps
Product: Chewing Gum

The Topps “Look ‘n See” set featured famous men and women from throughout history. Newton was card number 68 out of 135. Other notable scientists include Marie Curie, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Copernicus, and Galileo.


Year: 1955
Country of Origin: UK
Manufacturer: Morning Foods Ltd
Product: Cereal

This card is number 18 in a series of 50 and features Newton’s childhood home, Woolsthorpe Manor. “Our England” is the theme of the series.


Year: 1955
Country of Origin: UK
Manufacturer: J. Bibby & Sons Ltd.
Product: Cooking Fat

This is card 5 in a series of 25 “Don’t You Believe It” cards. I’m always impressed with how dressed up Newton gets just to go outside and think!


Year: 1956 (unreleased)
Country of Origin: UK
Manufacturer: W.A. & A.C. Churchman
Product: Tobacco

This set of 50 “Pioneers” was produced in 1956 but never released. Only reprints of the set are known to exist, such as this 1997 reproduction from Imperial Publishing. Newton is card #31. 


Year: 1960
Country of Origin: Germany
Manufacturer: Honigs
Product: Macaroni

This card is on a paper stock and is numbered 177 from a set of 192 cards featuring celebrities (“Beroemdheden”). The cards were issued in 12 series of 16 and intended to be pasted into an album that included descriptions of each figure.


Year: 1960s (estimated)
Country of Origin: France
Manufacturer: Fernand Nathan
Product: Game

This playing card appears to be from the 1960s and was produced by French publisher Fernand Nathan as part of a “Great Scientists” (“Les Grands Savants”) family game. Other astronomers in the deck are Kepler, Copernicus, and Galileo.


Year: 1960 (estimated)
Country of Origin: Australia
Manufacturer: Woolworths
Product: Swap card

Woolworths (Australia) distributes “swap cards” to customers based on the amount of purchase. The store also hosts swap days where collectors are encouraged to trade cards with each other. 


Year: 1960s (estimated)
Country of Origin: Belgium
Manufacturer: Chocolat Jacques
Product: Chocolate

These paper issues were intended to be placed into albums. The first focuses on Newton the Astronomer and is card 92 in the “A L’Assaut Des Etoiles” series. The second focuses on Newton’s work in optics and is card 54 in the “Chromos Instructifs” series.


Year: 1962
Country of Origin: UK
Manufacturer: Fine Fare/Sunblest
Product: Tea

This is card number 4 from the first of two series of 25 cards featuring “Inventions & Discoveries.” Note that the same set of cards was also distributed by Sunblest Tea, differing only in the manufacturer name on the reverse.


Year: 1962
Country of Origin: UK
Manufacturer: Fine Fare/Sunblest
Product: Tea

This is card number 34 from a set of 50 cards, released in two series of 25 cards each, featuring “Inventions & Discoveries.” Note that the same set of cards was also distributed by Fine Fare Tea, differing only in the manufacturer name on the reverse.


Year: 1963
Country of Origin: USA
Manufacturer: Nabisco
Product: Cereal

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This “Giants of Science” series came three to a box of Spoon Size Shredded Wheat. Cards were blank-backed and required hand-cutting from the back of the box. Newton was card #18 in the series.


Year: 1968
Country of Origin: UK
Manufacturer: Glengettie Tea
Product: Tea

This tea card is numbered 4 in a series of 25 historical scenes.


Year: 1972
Country of Origin: UK
Manufacturer: Shell Oil
Product: Other – Gasoline

This card was part of a series of 20 Great Britons distributed by Shell Oil. Purchasers of Shell gasoline were given a card and were able to affix the cards into a special album.


NOTES

  • For modern cards (post-1980), please refer to The Trading Card Database.
  • Let me know if you can assist with my want list!
  • Please report any corrections or additions!

OTHER WANT LIST CARDS

  • c1900 Chicoree Extra Daniel Voelcker-Coumes a Bayon “Beautiful Inventions” #145 (The Telescope)
  • c1900 whatever this is! (I think it’s a French card.)
    Weird Newton
  • And whatever card this stock photo came from!
    sir-isaac-newton-1642-1727-english-mathematician-physicist-astronomer-G36NJC
  • c1913 Sodex “Famous Men (Inventors)” – Newton with apples (gravity) – black/white image
  • c1960s Chocolat Coop “Benefactors of Humanity” #29
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Stats Part 5 – WAR Crimes

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“WAR is about the best we’ve got for comparing players’ holistic contributions across eras.” — Ted Berg, USA Today, September 11, 2017

 

“The best we’ve got”

23138a_lgI spent four posts raising minor and moderate objections to the overuse of WAR in today’s game. However, I will fully admit that WAR–when understood and used properly–provides a wealth of good information and gives casual baseball fans at least some quantitative means of comparing–for example–the 2017 seasons of Giancarlo Stanton and Cory Kluber, two entirely different kinds of players. Ditto for 1963 Sandy Koufax and Roberto Clemente. And ditto, with some larger caveats, for the careers of Lou Brock and Carl Yastrzemski.

Of course what all my examples have in common is that the players being compared are contemporaries, playing in the same (or equivalent enough) leagues at the same time. These two conditions are vital to the valid use of WAR. The importance of comparable leagues is probably the easier one to see.

League Matters a Lot

Consider the following hypothetical seasons, with WAR numbers pro-rated to 162 games.

  • MLBLITTLELEAGUE-1100x733Don leads the Majors with a WAR of 10.2.
  • Rick leads all of AAA ball with a WAR of 10.4.
  • Andres leads all of AA ball with a WAR of 10.3.
  • Simon leads all of NCAA Division I with a WAR of 10.5.
  • Carey leads North Venice Little League with a WAR of 10.3.

We can’t and wouldn’t imagine for even a second that these players are comparable simply because their WAR stats are equal. All you could rightly conclude is that each player outperformed his peers (or more accurately, his league’s replacement players) by about the same amount. However, because the population of peers is so different in each of these leagues, there is literally zero reason to believe Andres could head to MLB next season and replicate his WAR number. Similarly, we would presume that if Andres somehow sneaked into North Venice Little League the following season we might see a WAR over 50!

The R in WAR is super important. Where the caliber of replacement players is unequal, any WAR comparisons (hence JAWS comparisons) become apples and oranges.

Era Does Too

KilleferBillrasmusApplying that same logic to eras, WAR-based comparisons across eras rest upon the assumption that the Joe Schmoes from Era 1 are roughly equivalent to the Joe Schmoes of Era 2. In truth, I’ve heard people say the Babe would be the Babe in any era (though I doubt it) and Ted Williams would still bat .400 in today’s game. (Okay, maybe!)

But I’m not sure I’ve met anyone who believes that the typical bench warmer on the 1910 St. Louis Browns is comparable to the typical bench warmer on the 2010 St. Louis Cardinals. On the contrary, I have to believe Colby Rasmus (2010 Cards bench guy selected at random) would have been an absolute star a century earlier. And meanwhile, I kind of doubt that Bill Killefer (random guy on the 1910 Browns) would even compete in AAA today.  (And now the requisite joke: “Of course not, he’d be 130 years old!”)

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Case Study: Big Six and Big Unit

Two pitchers with similar career WAR numbers a century apart are Randy Johnson and Christy Mathewson. In the case of Big Six, he outshone his era’s Joe Schmoes by 102 wins. And meanwhile, the Big Unit outshone his era’s Joe Schmoes by 102 wins. If we believe their various Joe Schmoes were interchangeable, then we can conclude our two aces are interchangeable as well.

Of course, I don’t know a soul alive who truly believes that. Even for the baseball fan who believes certain singular talents (Ruth, Williams Paige) could excel in any era, there is an acknowledgement that what applies to a few does not apply to the masses. The Joe Schmoes of 100 years ago would totally suck if they played today. But as obvious as this statement should be, it leads to an inescapable conclusion.

The very metric fans use to establish the equivalence across eras of HOFers like Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson in fact provides the strongest proof of non-equivalence. If Big Six were truly the equal of Big Unit in anything more than relative terms, his WAR–referenced against far worse players–should be vastly higher than Johnson’s. Instead, the conclusion we are forced to is essentially this:

As much better as random “replacement-level” players have improved over the last 100 years, that’s how much better Randy Johnson was than Christy Mathewson. At least that’s what the WAR statistic tells us. It’s the opposite of the conclusions many fans come to when looking at their WAR stats, but it’s what the numbers actually mean.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Stats Part 4 – Wins vs Winners

This post is Part 4 of a handful that consider the drawbacks of advanced stats on our enjoyment and understanding of baseball history.

Wins vs. Winners

21784d_lgThe whole premise of the WAR statistic is that wins are baseball’s gold. More wins…good. Fewer wins…bad. But how many baseball fans do you know who go into the year hoping and praying for a lot of wins? Probably none. We dream of championships! The postseason! A shot at winning it all! The truth is, in many sports, if you aren’t making the playoffs you’d rather lose than win!

The Tortoise and the Hare

Let’s look at two ballplayers who in real life never played a lick of ball.

  • Tortoise is the mark of consistency. He plays 20 seasons and comes in with a WAR around 2.5-3.5 pretty much every year.
  • Hare plays only 6 seasons but destroys all comers with a WAR around ten every year. Both players end their careers with lifetime WARs of 60, considered borderline for enshrinement.

And for simplicity, imagine that each player joined an average team and stayed there their entire careers.

hare_fanatic_baseball_jerseyUnless Tortoise’s team competed in the American League West of 1987, it probably never once made the playoffs despite 20 pretty good seasons from Tortoise. No postseason, no pennants, no rings. Just a lot of seasons going 82-80 or so.

Meanwhile, Hare’s team made the playoffs six straight years, were the talk of the town nightly, and always had a good chance at the trophy. It did kind of suck for the fans after Hare retired that the team played .490 baseball for the next 14 years, but oh what memories they’ll treasure for the rest of their lives! Even to this day, half the fans in the ballpark proudly wear their Hare throwback jerseys and line up for hours on his bobblehead night.

Is it even any contest which team you’d rather follow? Maybe the object isn’t to win a bunch of random games. Some players might be better off winning the battle but losing the WAR!

Stay tuned for the final post in the WAR series in which we examine the biggest WAR abuse of them all!

Stats Part 3 – The myth of Joe Schmo

This post is Part 3 of a handful that consider the drawbacks of advanced stats on our enjoyment and understanding of baseball history.

The Replacement Player

The Joe Schmo in the formula is a vital yet underappreciated piece of how WAR is calculated. As such, we’ll take a closer look.

A common definition for “replacement player” is one who may be added to the team at minimal cost and effort. An example often cited is that of a Triple A injury call-up–a guy you wouldn’t normally love on your team but a guy who can help you scrape by while you await your injured player’s return.

Notably, replacement players are NOT defined as average or typical players. They are explicitly defined as below average players–guys who would likely cost you 15-20 runs–about two games–over the course of a full season. (I’m not making up the “two games” part. Underneath the hood, the WAR formula equates every 10 runs or so as a win.) These guys are bad; they’re just not awful. And by definition, their WAR is zero.

Already, there is a surprise for many baseball fans and consumers of the WAR statistic: Your team’s shortstop might play the full season and finish with a WAR of 1.4. Without thinking too hard, you might conclude, “Hey, at least that’s better than nothing.” And yes, it is better than nothing. But don’t make the mistake of assuming it’s even a little good. Specifically, it’s better than AAA but bad for the big leagues.

Stretching that across a long career, this same shortstop may retire with a WAR of 23.3–not exactly Hans Wagner or Cal Ripken, but hey, didn’t it take Mike Trout two full seasons of playing like Superman to get into the twenties? True again, but theree’s nothing exceptional, above average, or good about a WAR of 23.3 accumulatd over a long career.

Rizzuto Phil Plaque_NBLCase Study – “Scooter”

Phil Rizzuto is an instructive example. His career WAR over 13 seasons was 40.8, and he was indisputably a good player for the Yankees. But do we believe for a minute that if Rizzuto never lived, the Yanks would have filled his spot with a bad shortstop like Joe Schmo for 13 seasons? I can’t even imagine it. So let’s look at two alternatives–

  • Rizzuto is replaced by average major leaguers. By definition, the combined WAR of his actual replacements would be 20-25 over those same 13 years. As such, Rizzuto’s career wins above that more plausible substitution would only be around 15-20.
  • Rizzuto is replaced by what Fan Graphs would call a “solid starter”–a player two notches below All-Star but a slight upgrade over role player. Fan Graphs tells us such a player should average about 2.5 WAR per season, hence about 33-34 over thirteen years. And now the real Rizzuto comes in only around 7 wins above that.

A conclusion here is that a good player on a team that churns out good players like there’s no tomorrow actually adds far fewer wins than a good player on a bad team, even if all stat lines and WAR are identical.

9089-157FrCase Study – Wally

A bit more pronounced but not a hypothetical is the case of the American League’s back-to-back home run leader in 1916-1917. This Yankee slugger amassed a respectable WAR of 29.4 from 1915-1924, placing him somewhere between “solid” and “good.” Ten more years of the same, and we might even start hearing about his Hall of Fame credentials behind higher than such luminaries as Harmon Killebrew, Yogi Berra, and Hank Greenberg!

But fortunately (for everyone but him!), Wally Pipp suffered a bad headache one day and forced the Bombers to activate his replacement, Lou Gehrig, who would proceed to start the next 2,130 games at the position. While a headache-free Pipp could have racked up a bunch more seasons in the 3-4 WAR range, we know now that his Wins Above Actual Replacement would have been more like negative 7 per season.

Brett/Aaron or Aaron/Brett?

Something all fans, managers, and GMs know with certitude is that a player with an equally capable replacement is relatively expendable whereas a player with a far worse backup is a tough guy to lose. (Yes, trades and roster moves can smooth out these instances, but at most points in time pretty much every team has at least one situation like this.)

Favre-Rodgers-940Again then, as we ponder value, it is certainly of interest to know how Player X performed vs a fictitious minor league call-up. But it’s also of interest to know how Player X performed against the actual alternatives available to his team. Whatever his numbers, if a guy as good or better rode pine, then value is diminished. In football terms, we can ask if this is Brett Favre with Aaron Rodgers on the bench or Aaron Rodgers with Brett Hundley on the bench. Montana and Young are another famous case of this also.

Special Case: Half of Baseball History

Charleston Oscar_FL w bat 6545.76 PD

“Okay, okay,” you say. “But isn’t it more typical that a guy’s replacement really would be pretty bad?”

In truth, for much of the history of Major League Baseball there were absolute studs who could be added to a team with minimal cost and effort–

  • Honus Wagner can’t play today? Give Pop Lloyd a call!
  • Ty Cobb suspended again? Oscar Charleston is ready to go!
  • Jimmie Foxx a bit under the weather? Put Josh Gibson at the cleanup spot!
  • And let’s not forget Satchel Paige ready to pitch for any team that has the cash!

There was obviously the matter of the “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” but all it would have taken to break it was the will. As such, if we recognize that behind almost every Major Leaguer of the era was a Negro Leaguer as good or better, a tremendous number of the elite, HOF-calibre WARs of the era head below zero and into the negative.

I’m not trying to beat up on these guys–I love them, I have their cards, and I truly believe they were great in their era! But I do believe that a by-product of those segregated times (and clearly nowhere near the worst by-product!) was that so many of the superstars we know and love actually cost their team games compared to players the team could have used, in some cases for pennies on the dollars. Of course we’ll really never know.

Tune in for the next installment where I take a closer look at the W in WAR: wins!

Stats Part 2 – Should vs. Did

This post is Part 2 of a handful that consider the drawbacks of advanced stats on our enjoyment and understanding of baseball history.

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“WAR! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing! Say it again…WAR!” — Bruce Springsteen aka “The Boss”

Okay, I don’t actually believe that. But I do take issue with how swiftly WAR (or its close cousin JAWS) has become the means of ranking players, settling MVP arguments, and evaluating Hall of Fame worthiness. I also wonder just how many of its patrons actually understand the statistic.

If you’ve read this far, you probably already know that WAR stands for “wins above replacement” and represents the number of extra wins a player’s team should expect from having that particular player instead of Joe Schmo. And since baseball is all about trying to win games, it stands to reason that a guy who adds more wins is better than a guy who adds fewer.

Fair enough, but let’s take a closer look. I’ll call this first argument the “should vs. did.”

Should vs. Did

WAR is about expected wins, not actual wins. It’s about what should have happened, not what did happen. Certainly these two things are well correlated, particularly over the course of a long season or career. However, it still matters that they are not the same thing.

Consider these two players, with statistics embellished a bit for illustrative purposes–

  • On the way to winning the NL West, Player 1’s stats didn’t jump off the page this year, but he seemed to come up big when his team needed him most. Of his 25 home runs, 19 of them either tied the game or gave his team the lead. And despite batting only .270 on the season, his average with runners in scoring position was .388.
  • On the way to a fourth place finish in the AL East, Player 2 had a career year, upping his average to .270 with 25 round-trippers. Notably, 21 of the home runs were solo shots, and 17 of them came in losses. Despite otherwise solid numbers, his average with runners in scoring position was an anemic .190.

The descriptions tell us very clearly which player was a difference maker, despite nothing in the descriptions ruling out Player 2 from having a significantly higher WAR (e.g., 6.4 vs. 3.8).

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WAR tells us what a hypothetical player with similar raw stats ought to add to a team, and truthfully that may be exactly what you care about if you’re a GM shopping for free agents. However, when evaluating actual performance (e.g., selecting an MVP), the correct focus is on what did happen.

Bobby Thomson, Bill Mazeroski, Kirk Gibson…these names are baseball royalty because they actually did huge things on baseball’s grandest stage. When the game or the season is said and done, there are a lot of things that could have happened and should have happened, but most important things are the ones that did happen.

Tune in to Part 3 for a closer look at “replacement player” and its unheralded role in the WAR statistic.

Stats Part 1 – Willie, Mickey, or the Duke?

This post is Part 1 of a handful that consider the drawbacks of advanced stats on our enjoyment and understanding of baseball history.

Willie, Mickey, and the Duke

What more can you say about this amazing trio? A combined .299 batting average with over 1600 home runs, 22 pennants, 10 World Series rings, 52 All-Star Games, and the list goes on. And of course, all three playing the same position in the same city at the peak of their careers. No wonder the baseball minstrels sing their exploits!

Thankfully, the baseball geniuses out there have NOT invented a stat to blemish the greatness of New York’s amazing Hall of Fame trio of centerfielders (even if some will be quick to remind us the Duke never quite measured up to Bobby Grich)! But even as Willie, Mickey, and the Duke still occupy a cherished place in baseball lore, a close companion of theirs is approaching extinction.

Willie, Mickey, or the Duke?

Willie, Mickey, or the Duke. Think of the debates that question sparked for decades! I like to imagine brawls broke out, stories were fabricated, innocents were defamed, cousins stopped breaking bread, parents wrote kids out of their wills, and cabbies refused fares–LIVES WERE ALTERED!

On the cardboard side, there were kids who would gladly trade away their freshly pulled 1952 Mick (and then some!) for the mangled Snider card lodged in their ex-friend’s bicycle spokes. And lest any financial implications cause later regret, hardly an issue since both moms soon enough trashed both collections before any windfall could be reaped. THAT, my friend, was the Golden Age of Baseball. We ate, slept, and drank baseball. And some of us could even PLAY it. But most of all, we talked baseball. And it was loud.

But enter the Age of Enlightenment–

FAN #1: “Willie, Mickey, or the Duke?”

FAN #2: “According to baseball-reference.com, Willie Mays had a WAR of 156.2, Mickey Mantle had a WAR of 109.7, and Duke Snider had a WAR of 66.5. So Willie was the best, then Mickey, and then the Duke, who was actually worse than Bobby Grich, by the way.”

Really? Of course, not ALL baseball fans settle the argument just so. At least some modern fans know better than to think you can just look up WAR on a website and call it a day!

FAN #1: “Willie, Mickey, or the Duke?”

FAN #2: “According to baseball-reference.com, Willie Mays had a JAWS of 115.0, Mickey Mantle had a JAWS of 87.2, and Duke Snider had a JAWS of 58.2. So Willie was the best, then Mickey, and then the Duke, who was actually worse than Bobby Grich, by the way.

Never mind the fact that when it came to actual jaws, Snider was unmatched. The reason this argument does NOTHING for me is that it’s not even an argument. I do agree that Willie Mays was the best, but shouldn’t we at least talk about it?

“You’re not wrong, Walter. You’re just an asshole.” — Dude, The Big Lebowski

lebowski Dude Walter DonnieUnless you are an actual GM with a time machine to transport you back to the 1950s or hopelessly addicted to baseball sims, there is zero need for you to know the answer to this question. The whole point of the question is to match your uninformed, biased, and subjective thinking and gut against someone else’s–to passionately disagree, vigorously object, endlessly debate, baffle with occasional bullshit, and fully enjoy.

This right here is what makes baseball something special–

FAN #1: Call me crazy, but I’d take the Duke! I once saw him smack four homers in a single game!

FAN #2: Nah, dude. That was Gil Hodges.

FAN #1: Shit…maybe so. But either way, the Duke was good as they come. He used to buy cigars at my uncle’s shop–even signed a ball for him once. THAT was a ballplayer!

FAN #3: Get serious! Nobody–I mean NOBODY–tops the Mick! He had it all…fast as lightning, strong as a brick shit-house, and looked like a goddamn movie star with that blond hair and those blue eyes of his…

FAN #2: Blond hair and blue eyes? For real? What kind of Aryan Nation racist bullshit is that? Mays was just as fast, hit the ball almost as hard, and was ten times better in the field. I got two words for you: The Catch! Not to mention over a hundred home runs more than Mantle…

FAN #1: (Breaking a beer bottle over Fan #2’s head) Oh yeah? That’s what I think of your Say Hey Kid. Who needs his glove when Duke’s hitting four home runs every night?

In the next several installments of this series, I’ll spend some ink examining the technical issues of WAR and other modern stats in comparing the game’s all-time greats. But for this inaugural piece, I’ll simply lament the precious things we surrender as baseball fans when we decide we’d rather be right than happy. We’re not GMs. We’re fans. Let’s enjoy!

“When I reach for the edge of the universe, I do it knowing that along some paths of cosmic discovery, there are times when, at least for now, one must be content to love the questions themselves.” — Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Rating the Hank Aaron all-star cards

Hank Aaron played on a record 25 all-star teams at the Major League level, a record that will almost certainly last forever. Four were “extras” in that there were two all-star games each year from 1959-1962, but duplicates notwithstanding it’s hard to imagine any player making the all-star team 21 straight years like the Hammer did from 1955-1975. (Mays and Musial were all-stars for 20 seasons, while the “modern” record goes to Cal Ripken with 19.)

All in all, Aaron’s all-star accomplishments were reflected four different ways by Topps:

  • All-star subset (one player per card): 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1968, 1970
  • All-star subset (two players per card): 1974 with Dick Allen
  • All-star designation on Highlights card: 1975

It’s easy to see that the nine cards identified above fall well short of 21, and there are two main reasons for this:

  1. As Wax Pack Gods notes, Topps did not have all-star subsets every year. During Aaron’s cardboard career (1954-1976), all-stars were only noted from 1958-1962, 1968-1970, and 1974-1976. (I am not counting the 1965 Topps Embossed set since all 72 players were identified in that set as all-stars, which just wasn’t true!)
  2. Hank Aaron was not always a starter. The games he started were in 1957-1960, 1963, and 1965-1974. (Credit Roberto Clemente for earning the nod in RF those other years of the 1960s.)

Accounting for these two explanations, the only “missing” All-Star card for the Hammer was in 1969. However, it’s also important to realize that while Topps sometimes honored the all-star game starters, they chose other years to go with the all-star sections of either Sport Magazine (1958, 1960) or the Sporting News (1959, 1963, 1968-1970). For example, while Don Drysdale started the 1968 All-Star game for the National League, the 1969 Topps set instead chose Bob Gibson, who (for very obvious reasons!) was named the Sporting News All-Star at pitcher over Drysdale. And sure enough, the Hammer was nowhere to be found in the magazine’s all-star outfield of Curt Flood, Pete Rose, and Billy Williams. (As a weird aside, Topps gave Billy Williams’ spot to Lou Brock, who was neither selected by TSN nor an ASG starter.)

So of the nine Hank Aaron all-star cards, how do they rate? Here are my rankings from worst to best.

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9. 1974 Topps

Nothing against Dick Allen, but the 1974 card takes last place simply by virtue of being a multi-player card. Topps could have paired the Hammer with Jesus Christ himself, and I’d still vote the card into ninth (and perhaps pay dearly in the afterlife). Fact is, Hank Aaron always deserves his own card! I also dock some points for Aaron’s position being first base. This wasn’t any fault of Topps since Aaron really was a first baseman that year; still, the legendary hero we all think of when we think of Hank Aaron is definitely an outfielder.

1970

8. 1970 Topps

On the plus side, I’m a big fan of this particular Sporting News design, also used in 1961. I’m also a fan of the Atlanta hat logo shown on the card. However, I’m otherwise not much in love with the photo. First off, Aaron is neither smiling nor looking mean, which really are the only two acceptable expressions on an awesome baseball card. (And depending on the situation, a look of intense concentration might work too.) Additionally, the drab color of his uniform practically disappears into the equally drab background, giving the shot something of a driver’s license photo look. And overall, combined with the colorless card design, the overall look of the card is somewhat dull.

1968

7. 1968 Topps

I’m just not a fan of pretty much anything Topps did in 1968, so it’s hard for me to rate this card highly. The burlap border is practically a death sentence, and the card loses additional points for relegating Aaron to only about half the real estate. To beat a dead horse, the “68” reminds me of one of those tests you take at the eye doctor to see if you’re color blind. And finally, the background behind Hank is a bit hard to make out. It almost looks like he’s in the desert.

 

1960

6. 1960 Topps

I tend to prefer the portrait layout over landscape, which tends to bias me against pretty much all things Topps from 1960. However, I do find a lot to like about this card. In contrast with the 1968 design, which gives half the card to the year, Topps was skilled here in putting the year in the background while still making it readable. (Of course, the year is also given in the top red bar, so maybe it’s still kind of a lame design.) The black outlining or shadowing of Aaron’s photo works for me here and keeps Hank’s uniform from disappearing onto the card background. Overall though, there’s still too little Hank for the card, which I think tends to be the case just about any time you go to a landscape layout–1971 Thurman Munson excepted.

 

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5. 1962 Topps

I’m not crazy about the wood grain (though I’ll take it over 1968 burlap), but I do like some things about the design of this card: the borderless white frame around the picture matching up with the borderless white Sporting News banner. The oval name placard bugs me and the “outfield” line seems a bit crammed to the bottom, but let’s call those things minor. As another small point, I like the color the uniform adds here, but I wish both fours in 44 were visible. If I were the photographer, I would have said, “Please, Mr. Aaron…if you could just turn a bit more toward me.” Or maybe I’d just move a step or two myself. The pose itself is also a bit mysterious to me. I suppose Aaron is demonstrating how he takes the ball out of his glove after making a catch, but something about it doesn’t look quite right.

1975

4. 1975 Topps

Before talking pluses and minuses, I’ll first note that Topps did something unique here. All other all-stars in the set have their designation on their base card. However, in Aaron’s case, Topps threw it onto his “Highlights” card. I suspect the main reason for this was because Hank’s base card depicted him as a Brewer, and it would have been too strange to have an NL All-Star designator on a Milwaukee Brewer card. (Not anymore, I guess. But this was back in 1975 when the Brewers were an AL team.) Then again, look carefully at 1975 Topps Bobby Murcer, and you’ll see an “AL All-Star” designation on a Giants card. But alas, onto the pluses and minuses!

On the plus side, “Aaron Sets Homer Mark” is about as bad ass as a baseball highlight can get. As far as baseball history goes, I’d put this in second place all-time behind only Jackie Robinson’s major league debut on April 15, 1947. Another plus is the shot itself. This is obviously not a young Hank, but the age captured in the photo only adds to the magnificence of Aaron’s record and career. You can juxtapose this shot with Hank as a rookie and realize, “Wow, that’s how long he had to be awesome!” As for negatives, I’m a bit on the fence as to whether the All-Star/Highlights combo really works for me or not. It’s definitely the best Highlights/Record Breaker card of all-time, but the purist in me might have preferred Hank’s all-star designator to fall on his base card.

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3. 1961 Topps

I was tough on the 1970 card of similar design, but I am actually a big fan of this one. I know some collectors aren’t fans of hat-less cards, but I think it works here. The outdoor background behind Hank is a bit blurry but still adds just enough color and contrast to make the overall card a winner. No smile or menacing glare, but again I can live with it, perhaps because there’s something nonetheless regal in Hank’s gaze. And adding to the allure of the card is the faux headline of the Sporting News that day. It’s pretty unusual to start a sentence (or even a headline) with the verb “Grabs,” which made me think it might actually be a proper noun here. However, the only baseball player I could find with that name or nickname was Billy “Grabs” Grabarkewitz who would have been a young teenager at the time this card was issued.

59topps5612. 1959 Topps

This card has a ton going for it. The bold red background with the white outline logo of the National League is fantastic. Combined with the Sporting News banner, these elements give the card a timeless quality and connect Aaron’s all-star selection the history of organized baseball itself. The bottom of the card also does a good job capturing various pertinent elements in an economical manner. (Team is omitted, but this was true all the way until 1974!) The pose is a good one, but I’ll knock it a little for having Hank’s bat blend in with the background a bit too much and also for Hank’s eyes being mostly closed.

654551. 1958 Topps

I know a lot of collectors who put the 1958 All-Star subset as one of the very best that Topps ever did. I’m no exception–I just love these cards. I’d give top honors to the cards of Mantle, Banks, Spahn, and Mays, but the Aaron is still very much a winner. The photo itself is not identical to but greatly recalls the photo from Aaron’s rookie card. So there’s that big plus. But most of the big points this card scores come from the simple but awesome design. This is just a beautiful set to look at, particularly when you intersperse the American Leaguers and their red backgrounds. Then you’ve solved the puzzle, pairing the blue and red backgrounds with the white stars to see baseball as the Great American Game that it was.