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: Brian Hunter
Card: 1999 Topps (#274)
Value: $3.95 on eBay
Long before he was depicted as a basestealing bandit by a professional photographer, Brian Hunter had a more homemade approach.
As a child in Vancouver, Wash., he would take scissors to his pristine elementary school photos and decapitate himself, discarding the headless schoolboy and gluing his face on the bodies of his heroes. So it was young Brian Hunter, not Rickey Henderson, looking back toward the camera on the Sports Illustrated cover labeling him, “The Master Thief.” And it was Hunter’s countenance similarly swapped in on images of the electric Vince Coleman.
“I was,” the now 50-year-old Hunter says, “such a fan of stealing bases.”
He came from an athletic, competitive family. His sister, Stefanie, had a full track scholarship at Oregon and ran in the U.S. Olympic trials in Los Angeles in 1984. She’d always beat her brother in sprints on the beach and eventually taught him proper running form to control his movements and maximize his skills.
After getting selected by the Astros in the second round of the 1989 Draft, Hunter got his chance to follow in the fleet footsteps of his sister and his baseball heroes. He was a part-time player for the ‘Stros from 1994-96 and swiped 61 bags in 78 chances over those three seasons. Dealt to Detroit prior to 1997, he got his first legit opportunity as an everyday center fielder and leadoff man.
That’s when Hunter really became a bona fide base burglar.
In that ’97 season, he led the Majors with 74 steals. To juxtapose that against the modern game, there were 17 teams with a lower stolen-base total in the last full season in 2019.
“The best part is that Vince Coleman was my teammate in Detroit that year,” Hunter says. “He was giving me advice about stealing bases. Then I became friends with Rickey Henderson. He’s the king of stealing bases. He’s the mentor for many of us. We’d go to lunch before games, and he’d say, ‘Rickey gives you all this advice, and you end up beating Rickey in stolen bases!'”
Rickey’s still the king, and Coleman ranks sixth on the all-time stolen-base list. But neither had his stealing successes showcased quite the way Hunter did on this wonderfully weird Topps card.
It happened because of a conversation Hunter had with a Topps photographer (he forgets the name) during Spring Training in Lakeland, Fla., in 1998.
“Growing up, I had a fascination with baseball cards,” Hunter says. “I’ve always been a huge fan of cards. That particular day, I was talking to that gentleman and said, ‘I want to do something that has to do with thieves.’”
Months later, during the regular season, the photographer approached Hunter with the perfect prop — the burglar mask. The Tigers played a day game at old Tiger Stadium, and, afterward, the grounds crew brought out some fresh bases for Hunter to hold for the shoot.
“You can see my knee’s got dirt on it,” he says. “That’s from the game. I remember it was a great experience. Everybody had fun with it. I remember Al Kaline coming out and giving a big smile while we were doing it.”
The following spring, Hunter was the one smiling when his kitschy card came out. It instantly became a favorite in his collection. And to this day, he still gets requests to sign it. (That is, when he doesn’t mistakenly get cards sent to him of his era’s other Brian Hunter).
In 1999, the year of his burglar card, Hunter was dealt from the Tigers to the Mariners early in the season and, appropriately, led the American League in steals a second and final time, with 44. But by then his offensive numbers and playing time were beginning to wane. He eventually returned to the Astros, with whom he wrapped up his career in 2003. He went on to do some coaching in the Minors, and today he’s working on refining the swing of a promising young lefty hitter — his 1-year-old grandson, Dasan.
Perhaps the stolen base will one day make a Major League comeback, particularly if some current Minor League experiments take root. For now, though, Hunter’s card has a real retro feel to it, a throwback to a time when a base burglar had the green light to get away with it.
“This card, probably more than any other card, fans definitely commented on it,” he says with a laugh. “It’s kind of a difficult card to get.”
Hunter still has his own copy. Thankfully, nobody’s stolen it.