Sunday, July 21, 2013

When old was new again: The Senior Professional Baseball Association's cardboard impact

By Dan | @DGood73

Walking away is the hard part.

For most Major Leaguers, a love of baseball emerges in childhood, when growth is measured in glove sizes.

Eventually the field dimensions change. The crowds grow. Pitches accelerate and dip and curve. Checks start coming in.

You spend a lifetime competing, icing and taping and rehabbing, traveling across the country, signing autographs for faceless fans, trying to fully master the game ... and as your mental approach peaks, the physical skills disappear, age's bitter grip taking away the thing that defines you.

All too soon, the boys of summer and men of fall become seniors in winter.

A few decades ago, card companies tried to capitalize on those seniors, players who weren't ready to give up their on-field dreams. The Senior Professional Baseball Association didn't last long - didn't even make it through a second season - but due to licensing freedoms and name recognition, five sets were devoted to the old-timers between 1989 and 1991.

The hoopla seems foolish today. Who was clamoring for another Dave Kingman card ... in a West Palm Beach Tropics uniform?

The midsections were softer. The hair was thinner and grayer. But the names were the same, the stars of the 1970s and 1980s momentarily together again, glimmers of past sunlight keeping us warm for a few more minutes.

Former MLBers regularly wash up in independent league baseball. Rickey Henderson. Ruben Sierra. Oil Can Boyd. Juan Gonzalez. Carl Everett. Roger Clemens. Dontrelle Willis recently struck out seven in a hard-luck complete game loss for the Long Island Ducks.

But those stars - some with dreams of an MLB return, others just hoping to keep playing - share roster space with young unknowns and local legends and A-ball flame-outs. They play in leagues that aren't focused on the past.

That's probably where the SPBA went wrong - that, plus low attendance, shaky financial footing and a slew of other problems.

Jim Morley hoped the success of the Senior PGA (now Champions) golf tour could spill over to baseball.

In the late 1980s, the real estate developer sent a questionnaire to more than 1,000 aging baseball players, gauging their interest in a winter baseball league in Florida.

More than 700 players responded: yes!

Hall of Famers and MVPs wanted to join. Rollie Fingers. Fergie Jenkins. George Foster. Morley lined up owners and venues. The teams would play in stadiums used for MLB spring training.

"I know the players are in shape. I know they can make the plays," Morley told the Associated Press in 1989. "Really, the only outstanding question right now is whether the public will buy it. I hope the fans come out and when they do, they'll know this is not just old-timers baseball. These guys really want to play and still can."

The guys did want to play, and they played for teams nicknamed Pelicans and Tropics and Juice (insert steroids jokes here). The league began play on Nov. 1, 1989 - Earl Weaver's Gold Coast Suns vs. Pat Dobson's Fort Myers Sun Sox.

Highlights from the game exist online. The pitcher delivers. The batter swings. The runner chugs to home. Fans cheer. Same old game.

Card companies saw potential in the new league.

One incentive - no MLB and MLBPA licenses needed. Two, built-in (albeit fading) star power.

Three companies created SPBA card sets during that first season, 1989-90: Pacific, T&M Sports and ... Topps?!

Topps, the exclusive MLB card company from the 1950s to 1980? Topps, the biggest name in the hobby?


"With the rookie-card craze, sets with only 'last' cards probably will be considered a novelty," the Chicago Tribune wrote at the time. "Most SPBA players have been pictured on cards before. Can these cards appreciate, or will collectors shun them? And why three issues?"

Frank Torre, SPBA's licensing director and older brother to Joe, supported the cardboard competition. "Collectors being what they are, there doesn't seem to be any end to what they want," he said at the time.

T&M and Pacific released their sets before Christmas, trying to capitalize on holiday shopping. T&M's set features borderless photographs and shows the players palling around. Pacific's silver-bordered set includes witty text on the card reverses - for example, Clint Hurdle is noted for his "youth." He was only 32 at the time.

Topps waited until March, one month after the season ended, to release a 132-card SPBA factory set.

As the league's first season progressed, attendance floundered.

Sports Illustrated reported that a franchise would have to average 2,000 spectators a game to break even. A few weeks into the season, the attendance average was 1,113. Some games were witnessed by a few hundred fans.

A long, long way from the big leagues ...

The early death toll was sounded by David Letterman, who devoted a "Top 10" list to the league, things overheard at a senior league game. Number eight: "Are those pinstripes or varicose veins?"

Despite the jokes, the league's players presented high-quality action. One of the top players in 1989-90 was West Palm Beach infielder Ron Washington, a 10-year MLB veteran. After batting .359 and driving in 73 runners during the SPBA season, Washington earned another shot in affiliated baseball. He signed a minor league deal with the Rangers, the team he'd one day manage.

A few others received contracts, too. There was still baseball left in some of these bodies.

The box is worn and chipped along its edges. Tape clings to the cover, hanging on since 1990.

The cards inside are fresh, pristine - they might have only been handled once in the past quarter-century. You'd consider grading them if there was a market.

Topps's inaugural offering of Senior Professional Baseball Association cards provides fans a chance to collect their favorites again, one or two (or ten) years removed from the glory days. Luis Tiant. Vida Blue. Bobby Bonds. Hal McRae.

The cards carry characteristics of other Topps baseball releases from the era. Wood borders (1987 Topps). Pinkish hue on the reverse (1991 Topps Tiffany). Angled nameplate (1988 Topps). Yellow frame (1987 Woolworth's Topps).

All of those elements together make the cards feel a bit off, a bit busy. The "Senior League" logo and splashy team insignias don't help, nor do the dual MLB and SPBA stats. Regular baseball cards don't require this much clarification.

You sift through the cards, recalling the players' big league contributions. Kingman was the prototypical all-or-nothing masher. Rollie Fingers was the lock-down closer. Ron LeFlore was the prison inmate turned All-Star.

Tim Stoddard's card is probably the most amusing in the set, showing the former Orioles pitcher, his beard full of gray, signing autographs for what appears to be a strategically-placed crowd of two. A few years after that photo shoot, Stoddard would serve in one of his most lasting roles - the Dodgers pitcher who endures Henry's "pitcher's got a big butt" jabs in the 1993 movie "Rookie of the Year."

Billy Ripken wasn't alone.

Where other SPBA cards have been forgotten, Jim Nettles's 1990 Pacific issue endures.

Nettles played with four MLB teams between 1970 and 1981. After his brother Graig became manager of the Senior League's St. Lucie Legends, Jim joined the team as an outfielder.

Jim was working out one day when a card photographer came by. A bat was handed to Jim - a teammate's bat, he told the Seattle Examiner in 2009 - and he posed for some photos.

About a month later Pacific's set was released.

"We were talking about the cards and a teammate said something like, 'Well your card is going to be worth a lot more than anybody else's.' I had no idea what he was talking about," Nettles told the Seattle Examiner.

The added value on Jim's card comes from the obscenity visible on the bat knob - A--hole. Jim was not amused.

"I don't think it's funny, but I don't let it bother me," he said.

Jim's teammate was correct about pricing. The obscene card is worth 25 cents today. The corrected version has a high-book value for $2.50. Yes, even the old guys can have some fun.

Topps would not release a second Senior Professional Baseball Association set.

T&M also dropped out of the mix in 1990.

But Pacific returned for a second helping. Pacific made cards of everything and anything in the early 1990s, from Elvis and Andy Griffith to about 78 different Nolan Ryan sets.

No vulgarities emerged in year two, but Pacific did include a handful of photo variation cards, as if a single card of Jim Rice or Dan Driessen wasn't enough.

A company called Elite also entered the fray, releasing a set that resembled 1990 Upper Deck baseball.

The league entered the 1990 season on shaky ground.

Following the seldom-attended first season - the St. Petersburg Pelicans won the championship tournament, by the way - four of the teams folded. New teams cropped up in Arizona and California.

A shorter second season began, but it wouldn't finish. That December, Fort Myers general manager Kip Ingle told his players not to report to a Thursday game. With that, the season was suspended.

Officials hoped to relaunch the league the following year, maybe merge with MLB. Those plans never came to pass, and the SPBA went the way of the USFL or ABA or XFL, good ideas that didn't quite work.

Danny Boone was not a true "rookie prospect," not in the traditional sense, anyway.

Boone - a relative of the frontiersman - reached the big leagues in 1981. The reliever spent parts of two seasons with the Padres and Astros before bouncing out of organized baseball. The Senior Professional Baseball Association offered Boone a final chance to return to the game, so he worked on his knuckleball with the Bradenton Explorers.

His 3.16 ERA was good enough for Orioles scouts, and Boone signed a contract with the team and joined Triple-A Rochester. Boone shined with the Red Wings. He even threw a no-hitter.

"I had to fight back the tears the last three innings," he said later.

The Orioles called him up in mid-September. Eight years later, Dan Boone was finally back in the big leagues. In his first game back on Sept. 16, 1990, he struck out Blue Jays players Pat Borders and Manuel Lee.

Boone's story inspired Score to add him to its 1991 baseball set. Card number 715 shows Boone throwing his knuckleball. The card is labeled "rookie prospect."

No, technically the Score card is not Boone's rookie card. The company didn't even exist when Boone's true rookie cards were released in 1982.

But the card serves as a fitting tribute for the Senior Professional Baseball Association. For a few fleeting moments, old was new again.


  1. Great post. I definitely want one of those Topps sets... and of course the Jim Nettles error card.

  2. Great stuff! After I read it, I thought "Man, I wish I'd wrote that".

    I remember the league, I bought a few packs of the first Pacific set - and I was lucky enough to get the Nettles card - but I don't think I knew that there were any other sets. I'll have to keep an eye out for them.

    I seem to remember that part of the problem with the league was that the best players on the field were guys like Ron Washington, and not the big names they'd lured out of retirement. No offense intended, but there wasn't a huge demand to see Ron Washington play.

  3. ...of course, I meant "I wish I'd written that".

    Man, I wish I hadn't wrote that. :-D

  4. It happens ... :)

    I remember opening a few packs too - every once and again I'd find a Pacific pack here or there.

    You're right about the talent pool, no Mantle-esque icons. In Washington's case, he also appears in three 1989 sets on the Indians: Donruss, Fleer and Upper Deck.

    The Jim Nettles is a must-have!

  5. I've got dupes of at least one of the Pacific sets. Found a basket of packs at an antique store. Still looking for a few of my many 70's player collections in these too.