Cardboard Play Ball – Part 1

Mize_1953Something I used to do all the time as a kid and occasionally still do today is take a stack of 50 or so baseball cards and make two teams from it–mine and that of some imaginary opponent. To go from stack to season, there are essentially three things you need to figure out–

  1. A fair and fun draft order
  2. An understanding of player value
  3. How to play a game

In this post, I’ll share some ideas for each of these, along with some preliminaries.


Here are the main types of rosters you might consider for each team. This in combination with the number of teams in the league will inform how many cards you need. Of course, sometimes it works the other way around.

  • Basic – One player per position, including starting pitcher (and DH if you must!)
  • Basic Plus – Same as above, but with a 4-man (or 5-man) pitching rotation, plus optional relievers
  • Full Roster – Full team of 24 or 25 players just like a real MLB ballclub
  • Full Roster Plus – Same as above, but with “minor leaguers”

Draft Order

Here are several approaches, along with some pros and cons. Will assume four teams (A, B, C, D) here, but you can generalize to any other number. Will also assume that the first round draft order is A, then B, then C, then D unless otherwise stated.

  • Basic Order (ABCD ABCD ABCD) – This is the simplest. The four owners simply take turns, always following the same order. The disadvantage of this scheme, naturally, is that the owner who goes first has a decided advantage.
  • Jesus Order (ABCD DCBA ABCD) – This minor variation is sometimes called a “snake draft” in that it sort of zig zags back and forth. Were Jesus a fantasy baseball owner, I suspect this would be his favorite as it fulfills the prophecy that “the first shall be last.”
  • Circular Order (ABCD, BCDA, CDAB, DABC, ABCD) – An improvement upon the Jesus Order in that each owner picks first in some round(s). However, owner D can certainly complain that all the best players are gone by the time he picks first.
  • Random Circular Order – Same as above but each of the four sequences are determined randomly. For example, Round 1 may be CDAB and Round 2 may be ABCD.
  • Random Order – Draft order in each round is determined on the fly by randomly generating a permutation of ABCD. While Random Circular leads to only four possible draft orders, Random now allows for 24. For instance, the sequence DCBA is now possible.

In the most typical approach to drafting, the assumption is that the owner is either selecting from all available players or at least all available players subject to roster limits (e.g., no team can have more than two catchers).

Variations that are much more fun, though they can lead to unfair teams by increasing the role of chance, is to do one of the following–

  1. Position Restriction – Restrict selections to a position selected at random. For instance, owners are forced to draft shortstops in Round 1.
  2. Random Restriction – Restrict selections to a subset of four players, randomly selected from among all players.

Player Value

My goal here isn’t to open the door to any SABR-rattling. It’s simply to acknowledge the big questions that arise when, for example, it’s your turn to draft and you’re choosing between a 1975 Hank Aaron and a 1978 George Foster. Here are several approaches, with the last one being the most complex but still my favorite.

  • Year on Back – Assuming the back has stats, go with the last year shown (e.g., 1974 for Aaron and 1977 for Foster). And if there aren’t stats, look ’em up somewhere.
  • Year of Card – As a minor variation, go with the card’s year of issue. If you are using cards from multi-year issues (e.g., 1934-1936 Diamond Stars), I’ll leave it to you to come up with a scheme.
  • Best Season – Tailor made for Hack Wilson fans! Choose from among “qualifying seasons” only–i.e., avoid 1952 Ted Williams and his 10 at bats, .400 average, and .900 slugging percentage.
  • Career Average – Something like the 162-game average at works here. Or just divide the career stats by the number of seasons.
  • Random Season – Chance reigns supreme here, particularly for players with a single “career season” amid general mediocrity. Again, only include “qualifying” seasons.
  • Random Top Ten – One season is selected randomly from among the top ten qualifying seasons identified by the owner. (Where a player has fewer than 10 qualifying seasons, repeat the player’s worst season some number of times until ten seasons are reached.)

Playing the Games

In all honesty, playing the games will be the least fun aspect of all of this, but I’ll offer some ideas in a future post. In the meantime, you already have everything you need to play owner and draft a terrific team–everything except the cards, that is!


My Final Baseball Card Project…probably!

Over the last two years, I was able to check off three collecting goals, two of which I’d started more than 20 years ago–

  1. 1956 Topps Brooklyn Dodgers team set
  2. 1957 Topps Brooklyn Dodgers team set – needed only a $2 Don Elston!
  3. Hank Aaron mini-master set (all Topps regular issue cards + notable magazine covers + bobbleheads + a few random things)

However, I still stood two cards away from my biggest collecting challenge: a framed display of the 50 best baseball players from 1933-1969. As the two said players were Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, I figured it could be a while.

Complex Psychological Transformations

It turns out there are three things that happen (in this order) when you find yourself “only” a Gehrig and a Ruth away from a goal of more than two decades.

  1. You stop making progress.
  2. You miss the thrill of checking players off your want list.
  3. You convince yourself there really are other players you need.

And with that, the project has now been reinvented as a Top 100. The bad news is I now need even more players than two. But the good news is…wait, that was the good news!

Who the Experts Put in Their Top 100

1939 Play Ball Bill Dickey

First on the agenda was trying to figure out which players to include. For help, I looked over Top 100 player lists from SABR, the Sporting News, and ESPN, paying special attention to the players making all three lists. (I later bumped my selections against the MLB All-Century Team nominees and found all were represented for except Goose Goslin.)

While my budget would dictate that there was no point adding deadball era greats like Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson, the review did convince me to go beyond 1969 so I could add a great number of the great players I grew up watching as a kid in the late 70s and early 80s. As a result, my new cutoff was 1980, just before card collecting got totally ridiculous.

Round 1: The Immortals

Reflecting both the variability in such Top 100 lists as well as the significant number of great players whose last card was pre-1933 or post-1980, there were only 51 eligible players who made all three Top 100 lists. Here are the 23 who made the top half of all three lists, along with two honorable mentions I added myself. Rankings on each list are indicated as well:

  1. Babe Ruth – 1/1/1

    1964 Genko card of the Japanese HR King
  2. Hank Aaron – 4/5/5
  3. Willie Mays – 8/2/2
  4. Ted Williams – 3/8/4
  5. Stan Musial – 5/10/8
  6. Lou Gehrig – 2/6/11
  7. Rogers Hornsby – 9/9/15
  8. Mickey Mantle – 12/17/9
  9. Joe DiMaggio – 6/11/19
  10. Frank Robinson – 24/22/20
  11. Johnny Bench – 19/16/26
  12. Jimmie Foxx – 14/15/27
  13. Mike Schmidt – 16/28/16
  14. Steve Carlton – 30/30/25
  15. Tom Seaver – 28/32/22
  16. Bob Gibson – 17/31/33
  17. Roberto Clemente – 20/20/34
  18. Mel Ott – 42/42/37
  19. Sandy Koufax – 21/26/44
  20. Nolan Ryan – 44/41/36
  21. Warren Spahn – 15/21/45
  22. Lefty Grove – 33/23/48
  23. Pete Rose – 48/25/38
  24. Satchell Paige – NA/19/NA
  25. Sadaharu Oh – NA/NA/NA

Round 2: Triple Mentions

And here are the 28 other players who made all three Top 100 lists but fell outside the top 50 on at least one. Definitely some immortals on this list also.

  1. Ernie Banks – 27/38/53

    These DeLong cards are tough finds
  2. Jackie Robinson – 36/44/54
  3. George Brett – 29/55/30
  4. Yogi Berra – 26/40/58
  5. Joe Morgan – 37/60/18
  6. Rickey Henderson – 60/51/14
  7. Bob Feller – 22/36/61
  8. Rod Carew – 51/61/55
  9. Willie McCovey – 62/56/59
  10. Eddie Mathews – 31/63/39
  11. Hank Greenberg – 35/37/65
  12. Reggie Jackson – 67/48/57
  13. Harmon Killebrew – 69/69/66
  14. Juan Marichal – 58/71/71
  15. Carl Yastrzemski – 45/72/40
  16. Al Kaline – 59/76/46
  17. Brooks Robinson – 32/80/43
  18. Charlie Gehringer – 46/46/81
  19. Eddie Murray – 82/77/67
  20. Duke Snider – 68/83/82
  21. Robin Roberts – 83/74/80
  22. Ozzie Smith – 56/87/62
  23. Frank Frisch – 72/88/88
  24. Jim Palmer – 57/64/90
  25. Paul Waner – 71/62/92
  26. Willie Stargell – 93/81/85
  27. Al Simmons – 66/43/99
  28. Paul Molitor – 81/99/78

Round 3: Double Mentions

In this next round are the 17 players who made two of the three Top 100 lists. Two standouts here are Roy Campanella and Carl Hubbell, who made the top 50 with SABR and the Sporting News but failed to crack the ESPN list at all–not even among their 101-125 Honorable Mentions.

  1. Carl Hubbell

    Terry_1935_DS_no case
    One of my very favorite cards!
  2. Roy Campanella
  3. Mickey Cochrane
  4. Whitey Ford
  5. Bill Dickey
  6. Dennis Eckersley
  7. Pie Traynor
  8. Lou Brock
  9. Dizzy Dean
  10. Rollie Fingers
  11. Bill Terry
  12. Robin Yount
  13. Joe Cronin
  14. Ralph Kiner
  15. Carlton Fisk
  16. Fergie Jenkins
  17. Gaylord Perry

Round 4: Single Mentions

There were 14 players who made only one Top 100 list. As this was a somewhat weak criterion for inclusion, I chose to include only 11 of them. Omitted were Lefty Gomez, Early Wynn, and Goose Goslin.

  1. Bert Blyleven

    Who knew this guy used to be young?
  2. Luke Appling
  3. Johnny Mize
  4. Gary Carter
  5. Dave Winfield
  6. Joe Medwick
  7. Ron Santo
  8. Hoyt Wilhelm
  9. Luis Aparicio
  10. Chuck Klein
  11. Phil Niekro

Round 5: The Final 19

From my perspective, I had already ensured inclusion of all of the must haves. From here, while I was definitely interested in considering the best remaining players, I wanted to ensure I kept spots open for some sentimental favorites, record holders, and pioneers of the game. I also received some terrific input from the baseball experts at net54baseball.

  1. Don Sutton

    The T206 Wagner of late 1970s Brentwood Science Magnet
  2. Lou Boudreau
  3. Billy Williams
  4. Don Drysdale
  5. Hack Wilson
  6. Lefty O’Doul
  7. Gabby Hartnett
  8. Arky Vaughan
  9. Monte Irvin
  10. Richie Ashburn
  11. Minnie Minoso
  12. Larry Doby
  13. Roger Maris
  14. Steve Garvey
  15. Thurman Munson
  16. Rich Gossage
  17. J.R. Richard
  18. Andre Dawson
  19. Jim Rice

Honorable Mentions

In addition to Gomez, Wynn, and Goslin, I left off the two great shortstops of the 1950s (Rizzuto, Reese), a couple top stars from the late 60s/early 70s (Allen, Tiant), and several perennial all-stars from my youth: Dave Parker, George Foster, Fred Lynn, Dale Murphy, and Bruce Sutter.

Then What?

Once I finally get the three cards I still need for my framed display, I really do think I’m done. Building a collection like this was my biggest and maybe only dream as a kid. And for all the times I had my cards thrown away or stolen, I don’t think I ever really got over any of them. Yes, I know there are other ways to gain closure on past traumas, but this is the route I’ve chosen. Good chance it proves no more expensive than real therapy would have…plus I end up with something really awesome for my wall. Long live cardboard therapy!