It’s one of the great missed opportunities of the modern hobby that neither of the Big Two manufacturers issued a Joe DiMaggio baseball card before The Yankee Clipper retired at the end of the 1951 season.
DiMaggio, of course, was one of the many great players of his era who lost significant playing time due World War II. He also played his best baseball in the 1930s when the United States was ravaged by The Great Depression, and paper production was curtailed.
As a result, DiMaggio’s career was not chronicled in cardboard to the same extent as other immortals of the game like rival Ted Williams and teammate Mickey Mantle.
Oh, DiMaggio did make one appearance in a major post-War set, as card #1 in the 1948 Leaf issue. But when Bowman came calling that same year, DiMaggio passed.
He did the same in 1949, 1950, and 1951.
And you think he would have agreed to appear in a “playing card” set by upstart Topps in 1951? Not the regal Joe D.
By 1952, DiMaggio was gone, so even if he’d been willing to sign on with Topps, it’s debatable whether he would have had a card in that classic set. The Old Gum Company was pretty stringent about their rules back then and generally didn’t make cards for retired players, even if they had played the year before and even if they were legends.
Just ask Sandy Koufax.
And, while DiMaggio appeared on a couple of late-career oddball issues like the tiny R423 card in 1950, collectors were mostly left wanting.
But there was an intriguing story in the hobby that goes mostly untold, and it bestowed on us Joe D’s last two in-career cards.
Get Your Popcorn ‘Cause There’s Going to Be a Show!
For decades, veteran hobbyists have worked with a vague knowledge that there was a third “major” set in 1951, in addition to Bowman and Topps.
Loaded with players from the New York teams — Yankees, Giants, Dodgers — the Berk Ross “Hit Parade of Champions” issue was distributed in two-card perforated panels for a total of 72 cards distributed across four series. At 2-1/16″ by 2-1/2″ and featuring colorized images, the cards resembled the previous year’s 1950 Bowman set, though without the paintings.
The next year, “Hit Parade of Champions” was back, this time sans the Berk Ross identifier. Expanded to 2″ x 3″ and still sporting color images, the 1952 issue featured a clean front design with nothing but the player photo and a white border. Card backs showed the set name and basic player information, including 1951 stats.
A quick glance would make long-time collectors think of other sets from the era or perhaps of the 1976 SSPC “pure” set.
As it turns out, a clean design was not all that SSPC and Berk Ross had in common.
Hobby legend Bob Lemke did some research on the Berk Ross issues in 2012 and came across a snippet in an issue of The Sporting News from 1952 that caught his attention:
SEVEN GIANTS POP POPCORN
Two popcorn firms have been asked by Supreme Court justice Samuel Gold of New York to show cause why they should not be stopped from placing pasteboard photographs of seven members of the Giants inside bags of their product. Larry Jansen, Bobby Thomson, Sal Maglie, Wes Westrum, Montia Kennedy, Dave Koslo and Bill Rigney also instituted action to recover $50,000 each from the companies on the ground that their pictures were used without their consent.
Lemke went on to explain that the defendants in the above-mentioned case included a group of legal entities all owned by one Harry Horowitz. Among those was a property titled “Hit Parade, Inc.”/
In the end, each player was awarded $20, and Berk Ross ceased card production.
They had made their mark, though, and as Lemke points out, the cards may have been offered with gum in addition to popcorn.
So Long, Joe
And so it is, that the unauthorized production of sports pasteboards nearly 70 years ago yielded the last in-career cards of Joe DiMaggio, as, unrestrained by pesky laws and regulations, Berk Ross included DiMaggio in both 1951 and 1952.
Not only did collectors get their mitts on The Clipper during his last season, then, they were treated to one more reminder of his graceful, twisting swing in 1952, even when they knew he was gone.
It must have been sweet and painful at the same time, especially for Yanks fans.
Either way, the 1952 Berk Ross “popcorn” issue pulled the coup that neither Bowman nor Topps could — the last contemporary Joe DiMaggio baseball card.