In researching the prehistory of Fleer, I was curious to see what Maury Wills cards were issued before his 1963 Fleer rookie card. It was one of these three early Wills cards that ultimately inspired this article.
Take a close look at that third one, Maury’s 1962 Post Cereal Card. Look at the card number. 104. Gulp! The card somehow knew what was about to happen.
This is what’s known as Cardboard Clairvoyance, the uncanny knack for a trading card to reveal the future to us. Sometimes the fortune-telling is kind of easy, as with this Topps card issued when Hank Aaron was sitting on 713 home runs.
And sometimes the prediction truly requires a tapping in to the supernatural, such as this 2008 Topps “gimmick” card of Johan Santana, which documented the first no-hitter in Mets history FOUR YEARS BEFORE IT HAPPENED! (Hat tip to Twitter user @mjpmke for pointing me to this.)
Beckett Baseball editor Chris Olds profiled the card here and had this to say of the card’s mysterious origin?
“Why was it made? I don’t recall Topps’ answer.”
Was even that little teaser more than Chris was meant to say? A few years later the once omnipresent Mr. Olds seemed to disappear.
First, the Beckett message boards…
Next, the Net54 Baseball Water Cooler Talk section…
Jesus replied, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority. — Acts 1:7
P.S. Lest anyone truly panic, Mr. Olds appears to be alive and well at the moment.
The search for more clairvoyant cardboard would not be an easy one. Certainly we could rule out many of baseball’s most famous feats. For example, it would be quite a stretch for any set to have a card 4192 (or 4191 for the less traditional), much less assign it to Pete Rose in 1985. And on the other end of the spectrum, it would be hard to picture Bob Gibson on a card 1.12 in any 1968 set.
Therefore, it seems best to turn our attention to some famous baseball achievements captured by whole numbers under about 800. For example, did Barry Bonds have a card 73* in 2001? It turns out he did, but the card was issued in December 2001, making it decidedly non-clairvoyant. (Ditto for Sammy Sosa 1998 Pacific Home Run History #66.) Next best thing for Barry was his 2000 Upper Deck Black Diamond card, which was a full year early in its prediction.
Now you may say, “Hey, wait a minute! You’re counting the Santana card that was FOUR years early, but not the Bonds that was ONE year early?” Fair point, and I have only two arguments in my defense:
- The Santana card’s prediction scored massive extra points for specificity.
- Star players from the 1990s to the present have so many zillions of cards that they practically have a card for every number in the book.
Twitter user @mjpmke (thanks again!) offered this McGwire example from 1989 (nine years early) that serves to illustrate my second point.
For true cardboard clairvoyance, it would be better to have a 1961 Roger Maris #61 or a 1941 Joe DiMaggio #56, right? Sadly, neither one exists, though this pseudo-hybrid from the 1941 Play Ball set is a pretty good tease. And just look at Vince’s telling expression: “Sorry, Jason. Our secrets are better hidden than that!”
We should also be open to career achievements, in which case the rookie card would be our first choice to tell the story. Sifting through my shoe boxes I was unable to find a Cy Young RC #511 or even an Ernie Banks RC #512, but I did run across this one in my Dwight Gooden binder–
Okay, not exactly as famous as 511 wins, but the Good Doctor did finish his career with a .634 winning percentage. Similarly, fellow flamethrower Sandy Koufax certainly had his share of 1-2-3 innings!
Admittedly, these last few have been a bit of a stretch. It’s almost as if cardboard clairvoyance wasn’t meant to be. Take this Diamond Stars card, for example. As the Diamond Stars release extended over several years, it’s not easy to pinpoint a date for this card, but late 1936 to early 1937 is most likely.
If there ever were a card to portray the St. Louis Browns transfer of power from Rogers Hornsby to Jim Bottomley, this would be it. The only problem is Bottomley didn’t take over for Hornsby as manager until July 1937. So wait, doesn’t that mean this card is predicting the future?
There’s only one problem. While the card, along with 11 others, was designed and evidently sent to a printer, it never made it past the proof stage. Some hobby historians will cite declining revenues and profit at National Chicle for the set’s early demise, but I prefer to think this card simply knew too much.
Another case of cardboard clairvoyance came not once but twice in 1954 and involved the great Willie Mays! As you read about the web gem on his Bowman, Red Man, and Topps cards you’d swear you were reading about his famous World Series catch off the bat of Vic Wertz months before it happened!
Before we switch gears a bit, I want to offer one last episode of Cardboard Clairvoyance that is either a sign of my pending lunacy or the creepiest prognostication of them all.
We’ll begin with this T206 card of Hall of Fame infielder George Davis. Those of you familiar with the set can attach a date range of 1909-1911. We are peak Dead Ball era, exactly the time when a soft hitting, fleet-footed glove man like Davis could attain superstardom.
Of course the game was just a decade away from seismic changes. You could practically look to baseball’s horizon and see the coming of Babe Ruth and the rise of the long ball. Or you could look to the horizon of this George Davis card. Some of you won’t see it. The rest of you won’t be able to un-see the Bambino in his classic home run follow-through. I’m obviously in that latter camp! (C’mon…work with me now.)
Now as a final note, I want to recognize that maybe we’ve been doing this all wrong. After all, the Wills, Santana, and Bonds cards simply told us things we already know, even if we didn’t know these things at the time. Wouldn’t it be far more valuable to find cards that are telling us things we don’t know yet?
I recently wrote a piece in which I predicted Mike Trout’s final WAR and landed at 148 using rigorous statistical analysis…not! 🙂 But depending on your definition of rookie card, we may already know the answer! It’s either 89 or 175. Either way, Ruth is safe.
I’m hoping collectors will send me even more examples I can include. Please drop me a line in the Comments or on Twitter and I’ll be sure to give you credit for your tip.