Three years ago, the only cards Jeff Rogovin ran off in his Collegeville, Pa., print shop read something along the lines of HIERONYMUS SMITH, YOU'RE IN GOOD HANDS WITH ALLSTATE. But one afternoon, as Rogovin finished stacking orders, he muttered to himself, "Forms! Envelopes! Wedding invitations! You can only run off so many letterheads before you go stark raving mad."
With that, he left the shop and headed over to the field at Springford High, where he managed the Springford Giants of the Babe Ruth League. Once there, he impulsively said to John Metzger, the Giants coach and a fellow printer, "Let's run off a set of baseball cards for the Phillies." Rogovin meant the Phillies that played in Reading, 30 miles away, a minor league affiliate of the National League team.
Metzger, 32, and Rogovin, 42, pitched the idea to Joe Buzas, who owned the Reading Phillies, and he loved it. Buzas still has his own baseball card from 1947, when he played shortstop for the Seattle Rainiers in the Triple A Pacific Coast League. The Centennial Pancake and Waffle Flour Company sponsored those cards.
Metzger and Rogovin, who each collected cards as kids, hired a photographer and printed up approximately 3,000 Phillie sets of 25 cards each. The sets sold faster than Centennial hotcakes, so Rogovin stopped muttering and concentrated on printing baseball cards. He and Metzger formed ProCards Inc., which now dominates the minor league baseball card industry.
This season ProCards is printing cards for 105 of the 154 minor league franchises. That's 2,600 players, managers and coaches—more than three times the number that Topps, the No. 1 major league card producer, covers. And there's no gum in any ProCards packet.
Until ProCards came along, the bush leagues were pretty much uncarded. A few teams put out their own sets, but there didn't seem to be much profit in it. After all, who would want to collect the card of a utility infielder who hit .138 for the Medicine Hat Blue Jays in the Pioneer League? But Rogovin figured he could at least have fun and maybe break even. So, in the fall of 1985, ProCards flooded the minors with samples. Sixteen teams signed up.
Metzger and Rogovin then went to the 1985 winter meetings in San Diego. "We figured we could turn a decent profit if we got a dozen more teams," says Rogovin. "We came back with 51."
Some franchises simply sell the sets at their concession stands; others use them as promotional giveaways. ProCards prints between 2,000 and 7,000 copies of each card. (Topps runs off more than 600,000 of each major league player.) Free-lance photographers take the players' photos, with varying results. The Peoria Cubs this year look as if they posed during an eclipse.
The flip sides of the cards tend to carry only basic information. The most extensive bios, three lines, are reserved for Triple A players. There are no jokes or cartoons, either. The minor leagues are a serious business.
ProCards has added a new dimension to collecting baseball cards. A big league star's rookie card used to be the one prized by collectors. Now Metzger and Rogovin have created a market for what are called prerookie cards. For example, Cleveland slugger Cory Snyder has already made the 1986 Maine Guides set worth $15. It originally sold for $3.50.
But Metzger insists he's still a printer at heart, not a speculator. "For every Snyder, there are 500 who'll never make it," he says. "The only baseball cards they'll ever be on are ours."
Because the team sets are largely determined by Opening Day rosters, Pro-Cards sometimes lands a big fish who is just convalescing in a small pond. Kirk Gibson and Willie Hernandez of Detroit are included in the current Toledo Mud Hens set. And connoisseurs will immediately covet the 1987 edition of the Tidewater Tides, because that team briefly harbored Dwight Gooden before his return to the Mets on June 5. ProCards also goes after some players. It scrambled to get a shot of Ken Griffey Jr., the top amateur draft pick, in a Billingham Mariners uniform.
The current Phoenix Firebirds set may become a collector's item, too. Atlee Hammaker, the sore-armed San Francisco Giants pitcher, is decked out in catcher's gear on his card. "There's a joker on every team," says Metzger. Waterloo Indians coach Lenny Randle's card shows him trying to push an infield dribbler over the foul line by blowing on it. Marvin Freeman of the Guides posed for his mug shot holding the sign 03759281, DEATH ROW, although that photo didn't make it onto the card. "It seems like a lot of players think of the minors as a prison," observes Metzger.
Or as a plantation.
"You won't believe this, Jeff," said Metzger as he scanned the names on one strip of negatives. "Take a look."
Rogovin looked. "Who the heck is Kunta Kinte?" he asked. Fortunately, Metzger knew. "Otherwise," says Rogovin, "we might have issued the first baseball card of a slave."