Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about the August release of the 2017 Topps Chrome baseball set:
Jackie Robinson was an athlete who fearlessly broke down racial barriers in major league baseball. He is rightfully called a pioneer, and along with Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe, made a difference in athletics — and in the social history of the United States.
But there are other black athletes who also made a difference, even though many of them have become footnotes in history. Gerald R. Gems attempts to shine a light on those lesser-known pioneers to light in a book of essays he has edited, Before Jackie Robinson: The Transcendent Role of Black Sporting Pioneers (University of Nebraska Press; paperback; 313 pages).
Gems presents 12 essays about black athletes who excelled in sports like horse racing, golf, boxing, baseball, football and even aviation. Even if you are a rabid sports fan, you might not have heard of some of these men and women; Gems brings these athletes to the forefront, and each of the authors he has chosen has written compelling stories about athletes who broke down barriers.
Gems is a professor in the kinesiology department at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. He has written and edited several books, including Boxing: A Concise History of the Sweet Science in 2014. He earned his Ph.D. in sport history at the University of Maryland and is a past president of the North American Society for Sport History. He has been the book review editor for the Journal of Sport History since 1996 and has written about ethnic, racial, gender and social class factors and the role of sports in society.
In Before Jackie Robinson, Gems said his choice of subjects “provides a sense of chronological change” and the transition in race relations in the United States. The reader learns about Isaac Burns Murphy, a jockey who was recognized as the sport’s best from 1883 to 1890. Murphy won the Kentucky Derby in 1884, 1890 and 1891, but his career was curtailed when someone tried to poison him as he prepared to race at Monmouth Park.
John M. Shippen Jr. was one of the first American golf pros and certainly was the first black tournament golfer as he competed during the 1890s. He played at the second U.S. Open in 1896 and was a club professional at several Long Island golf clubs. Sam Ransom starred in football, baseball and basketball during the first decade of the 20th century at Beloit College in Wisconsin, but made a bigger impact by campaigning for civil rights.
Isadore Channels was a tennis and basketball star. She won four ATA national tennis singles titles, from 1922 to 1924 and again in 1926. She also starred in basketball for the Roamers Athletic Club in basketball during the 1920s. Her story reads like a detective novel, because although her athletic achievements were public knowledge, little was known about her personal life.
Tommy Brookins was a pioneer in basketball and jazz, while Bessie Coleman was the first black female aviator. Tidye Pickett was a pioneer in women’s track, and Harold “Killer” Johnson moved easily in athletic and entertainment circles.
The essayists are knowledgeable in their fields. Pellom McDaniels III, who wrote about Murphy (and also wrote a biography of Murphy in 2013), is an assistant professor of African-American studies at Emory University. Sarah Jane Eikleberry is an assistant professor in the kinesiology department at St. Ambrose University in Iowa, while Robert Pruter is the reference and government documents librarian at Lewis University in Illinois. Gems provides a short biography of each contributor at the end of the book.
There is no denying that Robinson, Louis, Owens, Ali and Ashe were trailblazers. But Before Jackie Robinson shows the foundation that was built that made it possible for those athletes to make a difference. These lesser-known athletes led interesting, competitive lives. Some advanced farther than others, and some were relegated to obscurity. Gems and his team of essayists have provided a necessary and useful look at sports in commentary that encompasses racial, gender and social lenses.
Here's a story I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily about the 2016-17 Upper Deck Series 2 hockey set, which will be released on Feb. 15:
Spring training is just around the corner, and anticipation always runs high for baseball fans as pitchers and catchers prepare to report.
Card collectors also eagerly wait for the beginning of February, because that’s when Topps releases its flagship baseball product. And Topps Series 1 is now out, signaling the traditional beginning of the card collecting season.
The 2017 product, however, does break with tradition in a big way. For the first time since 1995, there will be a card No. 7 that is not Mickey Mantle. Since a 1996 commemorative card at No. 7 to mark the passing of the Mick, Topps has chosen either to exclude No. 7 in its print run or use a Mantle card. From 1997 to 2005, No. 7 was left blank, while a Mantle card reappeared from 2006 through 2012.
Gary Sanchez — of course, he’s a Yankee — gets No. 7 this year. Do you remember the last player before then (other than Mantle) to have that number? It was Trevor Hoffman in the 1995 Topps set.
The 2017 Topps set offers a slightly different layout, with cards alternating between vertical and horizontal layouts. Perpendicular lines dominate the bottom of the card with the player’s name running horizontally near the bottom. The team logo lies to the left of the player’s name, with a small silver Topps stamp positioned at the top of the card. The smoky look that was part of the 2016 design is gone, and Topps uses mostly a full-bleed photograph except for the type at the bottom. Some collectors might find the slanting type a little disconcerting; personally, I prefer the type moving across the bottom, parallel to the card edge. But that’s my preference; other collectors might feel differently.
The card backs offer a different look, with Topps using the primary color of the player’s team as the dominant art. So, Clayton Kershaw’s card back is set in Dodger blue, for example. Topps also includes the Twitter handle of those players who have an account, so that’s a good way for social media fans to keep in touch with or follow their favorite players.
A hobby box contains 36 packs, with 10 cards to a pack. Topps is promising an autograph or relic card in every hobby box. Prices should be in the $65 to $75 range for a hobby box, depending on the retailer. There are 350 base cards in Series 1, and the hobby box I opened yielded 312 of them. There are also parallels in the set, with Rainbows falling four to a box and gold parallels (numbered to 2017) dropping at a rate of one in every 12 packs. Other parallels include Vintage Stock, numbered to 99; hobby and Jumbo box exclusive black (66); Mother’s Day Hot Pink and Father’s Day Powder Blue (both numbered to 50); Memorial Day Camo (25); hobby exclusive Clear (10); hobby and jumbo exclusive Negative (1/1); and 1/1 Platinum and Printing Plate cards.
There are plenty of inserts to chase. First Pitch returns, falling every eight packs on average. This subset highlights the ceremonial first pitch tossed by celebrities. It’s not quite as distinct in previous years; at first glance it looks like the base set until you flip over the card. The box I opened yielded four of the 20 cards made for Series 1.
Topps Salute is a 100-card subset that recognizes national holidays, selected players and even themed uniforms. I pulled nine cards from the hobby box I opened. Bowman Then & Now features a player as he looked in his Bowman card debut, coupled with a more recent action shot. I pulled five of the 20 available cards.
Speaking of the past, the 1987 Topps Baseball inserts shows current players in the wood-grain design from 30 years ago. This is a 100-card insert set, and expect to pull nine from a typical hobby box. Five Tool falls every eight packs, and the card displays a five-photo collage of a player with a fiery look.
The final insert I pulled was one from the 10-card MLB Network Set. This set pays tribute to the members of the MLB Network crew, like John Smoltz, Harold Reynolds and Lauren Shehadi, for example. The card I pulled was a wide-angle set of the “MLB Tonight” anchors.
For those collectors that buy retail, packs in blaster boxes will contain one Jackie Robinson Logo Patch card, which will feature one of 50 stars. A 30-card subset, called Jackie Robinson Day, is also available at retail outlets and focuses on modern stars.
As usual, the 2017 Topps Series 1 baseball product delivers the goods. There are some nice inserts to chase, autographs and relics are available for those who buy hobby and jumbo boxes, and the base set is relatively easy to complete. It's affordable, too, and that makes for a nice combination.
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