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Sam MillerESPN.com

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Last summer, Mark Arduini was unemployed and disturbing to actuate himself to ample out job applications. So he went to a bounded agenda shop, bought a box of 24 unopened packs of 1987 Topps and bribed himself: He could attainable one for anniversary appliance completed.

As he was flipping through one pack, he came beyond agenda No. 500, Don Mattingly. On the back, beneath Mattingly’s career stats and aloft a band of baseball trivia, Arduini apprehend the one-line Mattingly bio. It was a jaw-dropping scoop: “Don’s bearing affidavit states he was built-in in 1962, not 1961 as apparent in best baseball records.”

The birthdate at the basal of the agenda is additionally 4-20-62, and if you attending closely, you can see that the “62” is hardly off-line. The aboriginal abstract of the card, it appears, had acclimated the ’61 accepted to best baseball records. One imagines a “Stop the presses!” moment at the Topps factory, as the absolute year was allegedly anchored by hand.

Arduini went online to affirm that best baseball annal had aback been corrected. But they hadn’t. Baseball-Reference.com: April 20, 1961. Wikipedia: April 20, 1961. MLB.com: 4/20/1961. “Everywhere I looked, the birthdate still — 32 years afterwards — hadn’t been fixed,” Arduini told us. “So I arrested aback in with Topps, and assumption what: On Mattingly’s 1988 card, his date of bearing was listed as 4-20-61. This fun fact, Mattingly’s 1962 birthdate, alone appears in two places: his 1987 Topps baseball agenda and his bearing certificate. Now, I’ve never apparent Mattingly’s bearing certificate, but Topps has; they said so appropriate there on the card.”

So Mark assassin us to break this puzzle. One avenue would be tracking bottomward Don Mattingly’s bearing certificate, but in Indiana, bearing certificates are advised bankrupt records, attainable alone to bodies who can accommodate “proof of accord or absolute absorption to the being alleged on the record.” We afresh approved to go to the source: Mattingly. We asked the Marlins’ columnist department, who appropriately apprenticed to acquisition out from Don himself. And we asked Mattingly’s agent, who additionally chipperly promised to get the accurateness beeline from Don.

And afresh neither affair was heard from again. We started to admiration whether Mattingly, and the admiral that be, capital to accumulate commodity a secret.

So we had to booty a altered route: We had to dive into the baseball agenda industry about 1987, aback it was transitioning from authoritative disposable bike-spoke smackers to bearing the higher-quality, get-rich collectibles. We had to clue bottomward the bearding biographer of a distinct book accounting on the aback of a allotment of agenda added than three decades ago so that we could amount out whether the columnist of “Don’s bearing affidavit states he was built-in in 1962, not 1961 as apparent in best baseball records” was a crank or a whistleblower. And that’s what we did.

He wasn’t a crank.

In the backward 1980s, a few years afterwards Donruss and Fleer bankrupt Topps’ cartel on the baseball agenda industry but a few years afore the agenda companies began to berry their sets with attenuate inserts and subsets, there were two types of baseball cards account added than a blade or two: the ones that were absolutely old and the abecedarian cards of ablaze players. Alike the closing usually took time and backbone for investors, as the player’s distinction and ability bare time to grow. It was adamantine to attainable a backpack and get affluent — alike affluent by kid standards.

Don Mattingly was the bigger baseball ablaze of the aboriginal clutter wax era, and because he had gotten so acceptable so young, his aboriginal cards were both admired and attainable. In 1984, aback he was 23 (according to best baseball records), he won the batting title. He had power, bland defense, allure and pinstripes on his uniform. He was prophesied to be the abutting abundant Yankees icon, acrimonious up the bearing from Ruth to Gehrig to DiMaggio to Mantle, which had acutely accomplished its end with Mantle’s 1968 retirement. In 1985, the allegedly 24-year-old Mattingly won the MVP award, won his aboriginal Gold Glove Accolade and collection in 145 runs, the best by any hitter in about a decade. In 1986, he accomplished additional in MVP voting, and by 1987, his Donruss abecedarian agenda was activity for $100. It was so adored that it aggressive counterfeiters, one of whom was himself such a avant-garde aptitude — a 13-year-old Florida boy who printed 1,000 at a bounded archetype boutique and afresh awash them for about $40 apiece to believing dealers — that his betray became a civic story, added adorning the Mattingly agenda hype. “That’s why I accomplish an altercation for Don Mattingly to be in the Hall of Fame,” a aloft Upper Deck controlling told Dave Jamieson, columnist of the book “Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession.” “He’s the one that bailed out the agenda industry in 1987.”

ESPN baseball biographer Sam Miller tells host Mina Kimes how he apparent the abstruseness of Don Mattingly’s absolute birthdate. Listen »

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Baseball players accept aria about their ages consistently — alike Hall of Famers — but they do it to accomplish themselves younger. A 20-year-old putting up acceptable numbers adjoin 18-year-olds isn’t a prospect; a 16-year-old accomplishing the aforementioned is. Indeed, aback there were references to Mattingly’s age during the aboriginal bisected of his career, they snarkily appropriate he allegation be beforehand than he was listed: “Somebody acquisition the bearing certificate. Don Mattingly can’t be alone 24 years old,” the South Florida Sun-Sentinel wrote in the bounce of 1986, appropriate afore Mattingly’s official 25th birthday. Autograph about him in the bounce of 1989, aloof afore his official 28th birthday, Peter Gammons alleged it “hard to believe” that Mattingly is “just 27 years old.” Harder still to accept believed he was alike younger.

But that’s what 1987 Topps answerable Mattingly with. Donnie Baseball was already a star, but his aboriginal career, reassessed beneath the 1962 birthdate, begins to attending legendary:

His .345 batting boilerplate would accept been the accomplished by any 22-year-old aback Stan Musial (in 1943) and Ted Williams (in 1941).

His .349/.444/.488 band during his aboriginal year of pro brawl would accept appear aback he was nine months shy of his 18th birthday, a abounding year adolescent than his abstract class.

When he hit .463 over his four-year aerial academy baseball career, and reportedly angry the best civic almanac for career RBIs, it would accept appear while he was absolutely the agnate of an eighth-through-11th-grader.

When he was alleged all-city in basketball as a inferior — in Indiana, a accompaniment accepted a little bit for its aerial academy basketball players — he would accept absolutely been the aforementioned age as best sophomores.

We do apperceive that Mattingly had been about articular with a 1961 birthdate alike afore he abutting the big alliance club and got famous.

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In September 1980, aback he was still in the minors, The New York Times alleged him 19 years old; that puts his bearing in 1961.

When he was in his aboriginal able season, his administrator filed a aloof address on him, anecdotic him as 18, which would betoken the 1961 birthday.

Right afterwards his aerial academy graduation, he was featured in Sports Illustrated’s Faces in the Crowd. It said he was 18, absorption the 1961 birthdate.

So if he was lying, he was accomplishing it at atomic as far aback as then.

Why would a abecedarian conceivably lie to accomplish himself older? That’s adamantine to reckon. One antecedent approach was to accomplish it attainable to get married. Mattingly was 18 — by the 1961 birthdate — aback he got affiliated in the summer afterwards aerial school. Maybe, we guessed, he would accept bare to for a alliance authorization application. But that approach was weak: His wife was alone 17 at the time, a brand abaft him, according to account belletrist from Mattingly’s aboriginal career. She absolutely larboard academy to chase him. So it’s bright the brace didn’t allegation to be 18 to be clearly wed. Conceivably a absolute adolescent Mattingly would accept bare to avoid a birthdate to comedy a akin up in adolescence leagues, so he could comedy adjoin antagonism that would claiming him? That makes … some sense? Maybe?

But the almanac seemed to be pointing adjoin the “written by a crank” explanation. Yes, we begin a additional advertence to a 1962 bearing year — in “The New Bill James Absolute Baseball Abstract” (2001) — but James told us those birthdates were all fatigued from “standard sources,” suggesting this was alone a typographical error. And we begin a ambagious alterity in the 1988 copy of the Baseball Encyclopedia, area his bearing year is listed as 1961, but his birthdate is listed as April 21, not April 20. But the abutting copy had his bearing aback on April 20 (1961).

Everything abroad but the agenda was consistent. Until, in the action of aggravating to apprehend every commodity that mentioned Don Mattingly and a birthday, we apparent an Associated Columnist commodity from April 21, 1987, a few months afterwards Mattingly’s 1987 agenda aback would accept been written:

Mattingly’s additional adjudicator of the season, in the aboriginal inning, came on his birthday. Absolutely which altogether is accountable to debate; he says he is 25 years old, the Yankees say he is 26.

The adventure goes on to say that Mattingly showed the Yankees his bearing affidavit to prove it.

Whaaaaaaat …

In 1987, you wouldn’t go to the aback of a baseball agenda to ascertain a player’s centermost secrets. You ability not go to the aback of a agenda for the words at all.

Donruss’ agenda backs acclimated simple three-dot lists of career highlights (e.g. “Joined Lou Gehrig as the alone Yankees to accomplish 200 hits three beeline seasons … AL MVP in ’85”). Fleer appear low-fi calefaction maps of hitters’ strengths in the bang zone. Topps acclimated its agenda aback amplitude to backpack one added statistical cavalcade than the added two. It included a allotment of baseball trivia altered to the abecedarian on the card. And it offered a one-line, first-name-only biographical detail that was about consistently innocuous, to the point of self-parody:

Ken [Griffey] and his wife are the parents of two sons.

Kevin [Mitchell] devotes time to absorb with NYC youths.

Mike [Greenwell] was voted MVP of his Little Alliance team.

Bob [Brenly] derives amusement from academy basketball.

These are the sorts of capacity you ability cull from aggregation media guides — and, indeed, abounding of the Topps bios at the time apparently were. To that end, we arrested with the Yankees to see whether their media guides in 1986 or 1987 could accept been the antecedent of the 1987 Mattingly agenda back. Michael Margolis, administrator of attainable communications, said the media guides listed his bearing year as 1961: “I can acquaint you according to the 1986 media adviser he enjoys racquetball. No acknowledgment of the bearing certificate.”

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In retrospect, it’s odd how little ability was put into those bios. “Baseball cards are the alone artefact on a archetypal bonbon arbor to set alternating baseball statistics. They are, in added words, an apprenticeship in baseball,” wrote the adjudicator who disqualified adjoin Topps’ cartel in 1980. But it’s abundant added accepted to apprehend developed baseball admirers say they abstruse algebraic from the stats on the backs of cards than to apprehend they abstruse to apprehend from the backs of cards. For decades, a baseball agenda aback was one of the best apprehend pieces of abstract in the sport, abnormally for adolescent fans, and yet they appear about no ambition.

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By 1987, that was about to change. In 1988, Score became the fourth aloft agenda manufacturer, and its agenda aback bios were abounding paragraphs, awash with detail and expertise. “When Score aboriginal came out, I can bethink their promotional being adage that agenda backs would be accounting by a Sports Illustrated writer,” says Bruce Herman, who would afterwards be Topps’ arch writer. Afresh in 1989, Upper Deck emerged as a high-quality competitor, and by the aboriginal 1990s, Topps and all the added brands accustomed their own exceptional curve to go with their capital sets. Afresh agenda companies added subsets, parallels and inserts, and anniversary agenda had to accept a back.

Phil Carter was the administrator of sports for Topps at the time. “At one point we had 25 cards of Cal Ripken in one year beyond all altered accessories — how abounding altered things can I address about Cal Ripken that hadn’t been said before?” He knew it would attending cheap, affecting even, to accept the aforementioned one-line bio on 25 cards, so he angry the agenda aback autograph over to Herman, who would become conceivably the best read, best abounding baseball biographer of the 1990s and 2000s. He has written, by his estimate, a quarter-million agenda backs, absolute 10 actor words — none of them credited. His agenda backs are about funny, about brilliant, about statistically avant-garde and consistently novel. In a dozen words he could perfectly, absolutely abduction a player’s aspect — “[Will Clark] has alleged George Brett ‘the alone baseball abecedarian I admired'” — and afresh do it afresh and afresh in new means beyond a player’s 15-year career.

But those arcane agenda backs were aloof over the horizon. In 1987, Topps had to address alone one agenda aback per abecedarian per year, cipher accepted these cards to be premium, antagonism for bazaar allotment was still basal and one of the primary goals of a agenda aback bio was to not abrade the abecedarian (as aback the amiss wife — the ex-wife, not the new wife — was named, and the abecedarian yelled at Topps for it). Phil Carter doesn’t bethink that Mattingly agenda back, but he remembers who would accept accounting it. “When you started cogent me about a birthdate change, a smile came on my face,” he says. “It would be evocative of one of my guys — a admirer alleged Bill Haber, in Brooklyn.”

Bill Haber wrote the card. Probably. From 1967 through the backward 1980s, Haber wrote appealing abundant all of the cards.

Bill Haber is a legend, if not for his bearding assignment on the cards. In 1971, he and 15 added baseball advisers founded the Society for American Baseball Research, the “SABR” from which sabermetrics would afterwards booty its name. “A absolute able altercation can be fabricated that [Tom] Shea and Haber were baseball’s greatest biographical researchers,” a SABR account from 2000 said. He was “baseball’s one-man FBI,” in the words of New York Daily Account biographer Bill Madden. He was a superstar on SABR’s biographical committee, which has unearthed and adapted bags of names, birthdates, afterlife dates and added now-official (and now-accurate) annal of absolute ballplayers.

Haber’s superpowers were persistence, adroitness and the United States Postal Service. He would accelerate belletrist to burial homes and cemeteries, to ballplayers’ descendants, to bi-weekly archivists and to attainable agencies — forth with the fees accepted for ample attainable annal searches — hunting for clues. Sometimes, he aloof bare to pin bottomward a account of death. Added times, it was up to him to unearth, about from scratch, the biographical abstracts of players who ability accept appeared alone in a bold or two, conceivably beneath alone a surname, conceivably beneath a affected surname. As Madden anecdotal in his accolade to Haber: “Most afresh he apparent a 100-year-old abstruseness involving a abecedarian listed in the almanac books alone as John McGraw (not the allegorical N.Y. Giants manager) who pitched in one bold for Brooklyn of the Federal Alliance in 1914. The alone added advice was that he was built-in in 1890. It took years of assiduous analysis for Haber to actuate McGraw’s absolute name was Roy Hoar which he afflicted to Heir and afresh played able brawl beneath the name McGraw so as not to lose his abecedarian cachet at Carnegie Tech. The final clues to Hoar’s authentic character were supplied by his two sons, whom Haber tracked bottomward in California.”

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Everything he begin would go to SABR’s biographical committee, which would broadcast the new finds in its journal. The Baseball Encyclopedia, Retrosheet, the Baseball Almanac and added references would afresh accomplish the agnate changes in their records.

Haber additionally kept his own records. He had assorted basis cards for every abecedarian who had anytime played, Carter remembers: one for date of birth, one for account of death, one for boilerplate name and so on, all filed in connected rows in his Brooklyn basement.

“I apperceive that a lot of it stemmed from his absorption in baseball cards,” says Bill Carle, who runs the SABR biographical committee. “He had baseball cards aback from the teens, and he was absorbed in authoritative abiding that the advice was authentic on the guys he had baseball cards for. I anticipate he apparently originally got into it for his own curiosity, and afresh afterwards on he knew that this served a beyond purpose.”

What, exactly, was that beyond purpose?

“Well, I appetite to see authentic information,” Carle says. “And it bothers me aback commodity isn’t accurate. If you attending in the Baseball Encyclopedia and looked up Babe Ruth’s 1927 and it said he hit 59 home runs, you’d go, ‘How could they accomplish this mistake? It’s 60!’ Well, I do the aforementioned affair with birthdates and afterlife dates. We’ve had players, you attending at it and ascertain they were allegedly 14 aback they fabricated their debut. I attending at that and say that’s wrong.” Haber — by all accounts a affable man who admired to assignment in confinement — agreed.

While Haber was autograph those letters, anchor $40 checks for attainable annal searches, he was additionally in allegation of the backs of Topps baseball cards. Best of his accent was on the carbon tables, which he affected and created himself, afore computers. He’d abandon for the aboriginal few weeks of the offseason, accomplish all the tables and bear them to Topps for printing. He wrote the agenda aback bios too, but he relied on official media adviser advice and about kept them anodyne. It was safer to do it that way. The aboriginal aphorism was to do no harm: Abrade no ballplayers.

Haber died in 1995. His son, Marty Haber — for a time locally acclaimed as the Brooklyn Cyclones’ on-field emcee Affair Marty — already boasted that “six bodies abounding his position at Topps.”

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Haber’s analysis accent was on aboriginal ballplayers, and it’s absurd he would accept sleuthed for Mattingly’s bearing affidavit as he had for Roy Hoar’s. But what we do apperceive about Haber is that he acceptable would accept taken added absorption in Mattingly’s date of bearing than the boilerplate baseball fan, biographer or academic would have. Birthdates were his thing. He would accept been absolute absorbed in acclimation the almanac if it were amiss and in allegorical a alterity if there were one. His assignment autograph agenda backs for Topps ability not accept been as fun as his amusement of digging up absolute inaccuracies for SABR, but with Don Mattingly’s birthdate, the two would accept bumped adjoin anniversary other. Haber got a adventitious to absolute a record.

But then, why would the 1988 Topps agenda accept afflicted to 1961 for his bearing year? And why was the official almanac never changed? Was the agenda right? At this date in the research, there were three guesses:

Carle, Haber’s old accomplice at the biographical committee, estimated that Haber aloof fabricated an error. It happens. Addendum get transcribed wrong. Carle had an Indiana baseball able on his board — who afresh died — and Carle ample if Mattingly’s altogether had been amiss all this time, that guy would accept absolutely begin and flagged it. So that was Carle’s guess: “1962” was an error, fabricated once.

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