While flipping through the April 1998 edition of Sports Card Magazine and Price Guide, I stumbled upon a fascinating article authored by T.S. O’Connell titled “Collector Issues” with a subheading that read ‘Once upon a time in the hobby, there weren’t enough cards for collectors to collect (no kidding)… so TCMA, Larry Fritsch, and Mike Cramer filled an important niche.’ It inspired me to write a series of articles as a baseline for future writing, dedicated to these hobby pioneers who gave collectors “something other than good ol’ Topps” cards to collect. In this particular piece, I’ll spotlight Mike Aronstein and his company, TCMA, along with a few of their key sets and cards.
The Baseball Card Hobby in the 1970s
O’Connell wrote that some folks called the 1970s the hobby’s ‘Dark Ages’ because there wasn’t a lot of newly printed material. That’s why collector issues became a thing – card shows were also still a few years away. O’Connell also shared that Fleer’s Robert Laughlin sets, released from 1970-74, showed the hobby had room for more than Topps and probably continued to motivate Fleer to push against the Topps monopoly.
TCMA probably gets the most credit for “championing the collector issue,” according to O’Connell. Aronstein started the company with Tom Collier, so they used their initials “TC” and “MA” to name the company TCMA. Aronstein bought out Collier two years later and changed the company’s name to The Card Memorabilia Associates. They produced hundreds of sets, often in black-and-white and without a license.
The company re-printed older sets, made postcard-size sets of league leaders’ cards, and made a big push into the minor-league market. But, I know them most for their great teams of the past sets; they made over 50 of them from 1974-88. They also produced a few larger sets like “The 1960s,” with 293 cards in 1978, and “The Baseball History Series,” focused on the ’50s with 291 cards – the sets used the 1953 Bowman Color set design. The company was headquartered north of New York City in Westchester County. TCMA eventually sold to Impel Marketing.
Mike Aronstein, SSPC, and Donruss
Aronstein grew up around Yankee Stadium in the Bronx and collected cards as a kid. While he didn’t hold the first hobby convention, the one he had on March 15, 1970 (with 19 attendees) was the largest meet-up to that point, and you can read all about it in SABR’s Baseball Cards Research Committee article called ‘50 years ago today…‘ Before that, in 1968, Aronstein made a Sports Starts Publishing Company set with his uncle but dropped it because they couldn’t keep up with the demand. Then, with Collier, a hobby friend, Aronstein decided to do reprints of old cards and founded TCMA in 1972. Sports Collectors Digest has a lot more details about Aronstein, the early days of TCMA, and its history in this article, but there are two other stories I want to highlight.
First, in a separate venture in 1975, Aronstein produced the Sports Starts Publishing Company (SSPC) 630-card set, which featured current players. Topps sued and settled, but demand for the ~10k sets that TCMA distributed showed how much room there was in the hobby for competition. And second, because of that success, in 1980, when the Topps monopoly ended, TCMA became the exclusive distributor for Donruss baseball cards.
Key TCMA Sets and Cards
1972 TCMA The 1930’s
This set has over 500 cards and was one of TCMA’s first ventures. Because the “set” was issued in 21 series of 24 cards each, the designs have some variety. Most cards are black-and-white except Series 18-19, printed in blue. TCMA reportedly printed ~1000 sets, with the key cards being hobby icons Lou Gehrig and Joe Dimaggio.
1973-80 TCMA All-Time Greats Postcards
These postcards represent one of the longest collectors’ series issued by TCMA. Six series of unnumbered cards were issued, so you will usually see them checklisted alphabetically.
1973-78 TCMA League Leaders
These League Leaders cards were the same postcard size as the All-Time Greats and honored statistical leaders in each league from the 20s through the 50s. The key card is Mantle’s.
1977-80 TCMA The War Years
This set is one of the pricer sets of cards and featured players on MLB rosters circa 1942-46 when sets weren’t being produced.
I already mentioned that TCMA released a ton of Team Sets; I was really into the 1975 TCMA All-Time New York Yankees set when I returned to the hobby as an adult (they also had sets for the Giants and Dodgers All-Time greats the year)
TCMA Minor League Cards
A few of the great minor league cards produced by TCMA include the 1981 Pawtucket Red Sox Wade Boggs card and the 1981 Rochester Red Wings Cal Ripken Jr.
I highlighted TCMA in an article about John Elway’s 1984 Topps Football Rookie Card and 1982 TCMA Minor League Baseball Card). Collectors are also pretty crazy about the 1979 Rickey Henderson card that features him on the Ogden A’s.
Wrap-Up and Further Reading
It’s not always easy to find every TCMA card you want, and I’m not sure there’s a complete checklist of everything they created that’s easily accessible, but the company and its sets are really important in hobby history for influencing the boom that started in the 80s.
I’ll continue to highlight Aronstein, TCMA, and its sets in future articles and deep dives on the Oddball Archive in the future, but first, be on the lookout for collector issues articles focusing on Larry Fritsch and Mike Cramer in the next few weeks.
- Be sure to subscribe to The PostWarCards Newsletter because I’ll be sharing the two sample sheets that TCMA released in 1972 in a future release.
- While TCMA mostly printed baseball sets, like the 1979 TCMA Baseball History Series, in 1980, they released a 45-card set featuring Continental Basketball Association players, and in 1981, they released a hockey card set.
- If you’re into minor league cards and TCMA, I highlighted 6 Great Early 1980s Minor League Baseball Cards in April 2022.