Great baseball cards have value that captures baseball at its best, stirs your nostalgic soul and perhaps even enriches your bank account.
But strange baseball cards have value, too. They bring not just the stats but the laughs, thanks to poor production, confounding composition or unflattering photography.
We’ll let the auctioneers and the hobbyists harp on the great cards. Here, we aim to explore the messiness and the mysteriousness of some of the most bizarre baseball cards of all-time.
Player: Orel Hershiser
Card: 1994 Topps Stadium Club (#400)
Value: $0.99 on eBay
Topps’ Stadium Club sets, first introduced in 1991, were envisioned as a high-end alternative to the company’s usual units -- a response to the fancy offerings from Upper Deck. Big, rich photos and premium printing were the cards’ key characteristics. The idea was to give collectors the top-end Topps.
But then there’s … this thing.
Immediately, it inspires questions. Why is a bespectacled Orel Hershiser -- in his gameday jersey but sans cap -- lifting what appears to be hay out of a grocery cart? And why is an anonymous member of the Pirates (we can at least make out that much from the black and gold pinstripes) bent over behind him?
From a pure photographic standpoint, the card is a real piece of crop. The close-up shot robs us of all context.
Surely, then, there must be some explanation on the back, right?
Nope, sorry, the back, with its standard stats and bio information, bravely but ineffectively attempts to act as if this is all very normal, as if it is our fault for even asking what the heck is going on here. There is a note about Hershiser raising more than $1 million to fight cystic fibrosis (good on you, Orel) and a rating system for his various skills (he scores an 8.1 out of 10 for holding runners!). But nothing about the audacious image on the front.
So we have no choice but to dig up Hershiser’s number. No, not his hay-baling rating. His phone number.
And as it turns out, that’s not hay at all.
“We were the Sod Squad,” the Dodgers legend explains. “We couldn’t win on AstroTurf.”
A check of the numbers confirms. In 1993 (the year the photo would have been taken), the Dodgers lost each of their first nine road games in facilities with artificial turf.
“So I got the grounds crew at Dodger Stadium to give me some of the backup grass that they grow in the greenhouse and use on the field if they have a dead patch,” Hershiser continues. “I said, ‘We need to take some of that on the road with us.’ So we laid it out and traveled with it on the plane and everything. We laid it out, watered it and took care of it.”
On Memorial Day weekend, the ‘93 Dodgers’ “turf” luck finally abated with a series win over the Pirates at Three Rivers Stadium. It seems reasonable to assume that’s when this photo was snapped. It depicts Hershiser and an unnamed Pirates clubbie laying out the sod in the visitor’s bullpen before a game.
“We probably had three or four patches on the ground in the bullpen and the dugout,” Hershiser said. “Guys would put their gloves on it, rub baseballs on it, spit on it. Anything to feel at home.”
With sod on their side, the Dodgers won 17 of their final 28 games on AstroTurf. Alas, they were just 81-81 overall.
Yet he had no idea his Sod Squad duties were being captured for cardboard.
“But you know, as a big leaguer, anything you do is going to get photographed if it’s out of the ordinary,” he says. “I was just doing my job as the road grounds crew.”
See? Even bad cards can have a good story.