Monday, March 16, 2015

Lots of great baseball card stories from former Fleer photographer Bob Bartosz

Tonight I spoke with Bob Bartosz, a Fleer photographer from 1982 to 1988, and he spent over an hour and a half telling me so many great stories from his career. 
I started as a photographer at a very young in age in the early ‘50s. I worked for the Philadelphia bulletin, after joining the police force back in 1960. As a cop I wasn’t making much money – $3,800 a year, trying to support a wife and two children. I got a job as a news photographer, paying $125 a week compared to $76 a week as a cop. Worked both jobs for quite a few years. In 1971 the Philadelphia Phillies opened a new stadium. The newspaper was covering the Eagles and Flyers but no one covered the Phillies. I loved baseball and started covering the Phillies. I went to every home game in the 70s and 80s. Back then there was no horde of photographers or autograph seekers. The players were making $18,000 to $20,000 a year, less than a factory worker. The players were really nice. They would meet with their wives and go out to dinner. My wife and I get friendly with them and our children would become friends. They worked as mail carriers, bartenders and stuff, just a part-time job to survive. I still get Christmas cards from players every year. I was invited to a lot of things the normal press wasn’t. The guys trusted me. I was able to get a lot more pictures than the regular press.

My wife and I were trying to put our son through college in the late 70s, and we opened a little baseball store up, thirteen hours a week in the evening and Saturdays. We had a one-room store. Fleer was fighting Topps for many years to put baseball cards out. In 1980 they won the case, and they and Donruss jumped in on it. I get a call from the PR guy from the Phillies. “Bob, we got some guys here that are with this company, Donruss, and they need some pictures they’re going to put in a baseball card set.” I called the guys, and they flew into Philadelphia and they gave me a list of players they needed. I would make postcards up for guys because I knew players around the league. I ended up selling them 90 or so photos for their first set.

They promised me the world and said I could be a staff photographer. It would be real good, I’d retire and work for them. They never came through on their promises, and just used freelancers instead of hiring staff photographers.

One day, my wife was working in the baseball card shop, and this guy looks up on the wall and asks about the pictures on the shop wall. She told him “my husband took them.” He turned out to be the Vice President of Fleer. He says “your work is really great. We are going to hire three professional photographers to work with us. We’ll send you to spring training, pay all your expenses, and we’ll pay you X amount of dollars.” I told him about Donruss, and he said “We’re not going to be like that. We will have three people, one for the west coast, and two for the east coast – Steve Babineau in Boston to cover the American League and you in Philadelphia to cover the National League.” For spring training, Steve did the east coast of Florida, and I did the west coast. I retired from the paper and worked full-time for Fleer. Because I knew so many players I was able to ask people to pose for them, compared to other photographers who were shyer. The players trusted me, knew that I was not an autograph speaker.

I met with the president of fleer, Mr. Peck, and said “why don’t you try something different.” All these photographers get the same picture. One day in Baltimore, sitting on the bench were Bud Black and Vida Blue. I said “switch sides” and got “Black and Blue” for a baseball card.  I told Mr. Peck, “If you make two  cards of this in kids will have to buy more packs to get the one that matched.” Another one of mine that they did was “Holland Tunnel” with Al Holland and Lee Tunnell.
Another time I was down in Baltimore. Bob Boone who had been with the Phillies was traded to the Angels and I’m there to see Bob, am sitting in the clubhouse with him, and this guy comes in, and it turns out it was Reggie Jackson, and I was sitting on his stool. I said, “I’d like to get a good picture of you.” He said, “stay near the clubhouse and I’ll do any picture you want. I won’t pose for anybody else today.”
Crazy cards with Stargell, like one called “Fountain of Youth” with Pete Rose.
One day Pete Rose’s kid is working as a batboy that day and I took a picture, and it became “Pete and Re-Pete.”
One day the Philadelphia Zoo had a zoo day and they brought all these kind of animals, monkeys and turtles and snakes. Glenn Hubbard of the Braves got this snake around his back and he comes up to one of the Braves, I think the shortstop,  and lays the boa’s head on his shoulder, and he thinks it is a hand. He turns around and sees a boa and he screams. He says to me, “Did you get a picture of that?” Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me. He said, “I have to get a picture with this snake.” I was doing color slides for Fleer that day, and knocked a couple of slides out of Hubbard and the snake. Was just supposed to be for Hubbard’s own personal collection but it got sent in with the other pictures for Fleer.
The next spring I’m getting ready to leave to go to Florida. I get a call from Steve Peck, his son was in charge of baseball cards. He said “you might run into Hubbard. He’s all pissed off about this baseball card, but we had a long talk with him and he’s all right now. He’s not mad at you because he asked you to take the pictures.” I said we should have used Larry Bowa of the Phillies, calling it a Bowa Constrictor.

Back when Fleer and Donruss came out with cards there were a ton of errors and stuff. My wife who is a big baseall fan would point out “you know you have so many of these errors and stuff”. Well look at this, this guy didn’t hit 72 home runs. Maybe 7 but not 72. This guy’s name spelled wrong.” They ended up hiring my wife as a proofreader for Fleer. They would get the stats from MLB and put them together. My wife had to work 15-18 hours a night for a week. They sent her blue line proofs. She would sit with the people who put the baseball cards together. Topps and Fleer actually printed their cards in the same set of buildings in Philadelphia. They had police that prevented people working from going from one building to another.

When ‘86 hit the market started to drop. We could see so much greed setting in among the card companies, they were overprinting. We still had the store. We used to buy a case for $75 from Topps. I would resell it for $125. All of a sudden they were selling for $300-400. We actually had doctors and lawyers buy 10 cases of cards to save for investment.

In ‘86 when they started overprinting Topps would sell them for $25 a case. Then there would be Tractor-trailer loads of $.50 - $1.00 a box but you had to buy the whole load. People would then resell them for $3. We could see the decline in baseball cards. Told my customers the market is dropping and don’t want to sell you something that you would be mad at me for.

In ‘87 my wife quit because they wouldn’t follow her, they would send the card to press without listening to her. I still went to Florida to cover games that year. I left the next year. Left in ‘88.

The Ripken card would never have gotten through if my wife had been looking at it. My wife saw the proof sheets – they still mailed them to us after she quit. She would have seen that picture. A lot of collectors said Fleer did it on purpose. But Fleer and Topps didn’t make any money off error cards. The resellers made the money, not the card company. Fleer lost millions of dollars on that card. They started using ballpoint pens to cross the “F” off the card. They were five or six weeks behind Topps and Donruss and quite a few people got fired off of that.

Other stories -
Jay Johnstone was walking around with one of Lou Brock’s umbrella helmets and that’s how I got it.
I was on the field one day and was talking to some players. All of the other photographers were in the press box having lunch. A guy was at a game with his grandson and had a heart attack. I was talking to Doc Medich, who was going to medical school, and I said “Hey Doc, this guy looks like he’s having a heart attack”, and he starts working on this guy, giving him mouth-to-mouth, trying to save his life. Turned out I was the only person to get pictures of Doc Medich on this thing. AP guy said that picture made 90 percent of stports pages that day. UPI picked it up and used it, and   People magazine used it. They paid me $400 or $500 which was big money back then.

At the All Star Game in Pittsburgh. Steve Garvey was telling me that it was his last year in LA, would go to another team the next year. What I did was put a picture of him in his locker putting his stuff away.
I took pictures of guys looking at their cards. When I was in spring training, Fleer would give me boxes of cards to give the players. I would take a picture of them holding the card and tell them that would be next year’s card.
Topps’s guy Sy Berger was after me for at least three years to work for Topps. I said “sorry, I like your company but I’m close to home, 7-8 miles from Vets Stadium, and Fleer lets me do what I want.” I hated New York, hated Yankee Stadium, hated Shea Stadium, I always felt uncomfortable there. I also didn’t like the Atlanta stadium, worst setup for photographers, underground shooting through a mesh wire. Veterans Stadium had the best seating for photographers.

The players started to get nasty as the 80s went on. Always wanted to know how much they were getting. A couple of rookies, I would go up to them to take a headshot for their first card and they would say “How much are you going to give me”?

I covered President Ford throwing out the first ball in the 1976 All Star Game. I had been a police officer and working for the newspaper I was chosen to be the only photographer to have clearance to take pictures of the President. I had to be at the stadium four hours before the game. Two Secret Service agents meet me, one of them says Mr. Bartosz, you will be with this agent all the time, you can’t associate with anybody, they search me and my bag. While I’m out there, my wife, who was part of the Philly wives association, had a ticket to the game. It turned out that the president of Gannett decided to go to the All Star Game and decided to sit behind President Ford. The newspaper wanted me to take a picture of the President with the president of Gannett. They call my wife at home to tell her this and my wife comes down to the stadium to tell me. My wife comes down to the field and is waving to me. The secret service agent interrupts her, “says we can’t let you out there.” One of the Philly guards who she knows talks to her, and says he can get me a message. She writes the message down, and the Secret Service agent tells him no one can see this guy. He give the Secret Service guy the note. All of a sudden he lights up like a Christmas tree, starts talking into his earpiece. Says “Mr. Bartosz follow me.” Takes me to the dugout and starts searching me. They search my wife as well. Turns out the note said “when you get done shooting the President, shoot the guy behind him.” He said he understood but they couldn’t take any chances. Twenty minutes later after they called the newspaper it was cleaned it up. Later I got a crazy picture with the Secret Service agent who was stationed in front of the seat with President Ford in it, kneeling down during the game with a baseball glove.

I was on a  first-name basis with Mark Fidrych. He was starting pitcher for the 1976 All Star Game. I’m talking to Fidrych, telling him you’re going to have a tough battle with the National League starter, Randy Jones.” He said, “Who’s he?” I introduced them to each other. Got a lot of crazy shots of him talking to the baseball.

I took the picture of the player from Atlanta who hit four home runs holding four baseballs.

Bo Jackson was in his rookie year, and I went down to the Kansas City when they were in Florida. George Brett was there, Kenny Brett’s brother. I met George when he was a teenager. I was real good friends with Kenny Brett, who brought him to the Phillies clubhouse and I got to meet him. I got sent down to take a picture of Bo Jackson. Everyone was bothering him and he was telling everyone he won’t cooperate, not even with me. I told him he was refusing to honor his contract. He told me to come back tomorrow, but that was the only day I was going to be there. I went down to the clubhouse and told George Brett he wasn’t cooperating. Brett says, “What, he’s a fricking rookie”. Tells clubhouse kid to “tell Bo to get his ass down there.” When Bo comes in Brett tells him, get a clean shirt and give this man what he wants. By the mid-80s the rookies were terrible, they didn’t want their picture taken.
Kirk Gibson, I’m going down to Florida and I stop by the camp in Lakeland. One of the coaches was working for the team Gibson was on. I stopped in to see him, good friends with him. Gibson comes by, and the coach introduces us. Kirk shook my hand and says my picture last year was the worst picture I had in my life. I’m not posing for you guys anymore. I say to him, “I work for the same company, I’ll make sure to get a good picture for you.” He posed with a decent look on his face and I got a good picture.
A lot of the photos looked bad because Fleer’s printing was not good. I called it to their attention but they ignored it, I guess because it cost so much to print it over again. They did have a good thing going because Topps or Donruss had lots of doubles, Fleer hand-cut the sheet and there were no doubles. They would make sure you would get an A sheet, then a B sheet, then a C sheet, then a D sheet, in order. Topps would run a full pallet of A sheets, or C sheets. Kids were happy because they could get a box of cards and get pretty much a full set.

You could see the greed setting in with the players and the card companies in the 1980s.  Back in the 1970s when I used to do the card shows there were a few big money dealers. One guy who was very wealthy, wrote a column for Sports Collectors Digest. He said to me, “start  buying the rookie cards, and we’ll run up the prices on the cards”. They were trying to run up the prices on all the rookie cards. One of the guys was competing against Beckett, and he put this paper magazine out, each one had about eight or nine pages of prices. He would jack up the rookie card to $.25 instead of $.03 or $.05. That’s how that clique got the rookie card stuff going. Beckett went after this guy and sued him because he copied cards off his pricelist. Beckett started putting errors in on purpose, like misspelling someone’s name, and that’s how they got them.   

I got a picture back when Aaron was going for his home run, I had taken a picture of him crossing the plate after his 16th grand slam. Everyone was in the picture, including the catcher for the Phillies, the other three players with their hands out. When I got back to the paper I printed up extra pictures, and gave a copy to everyone in that picture, baserunners, umpire, batboy, catcher. Everyone signed one for me but Aaron. He said he was happy to get the picture (didn’t say thank you). I said to Hank “would you sign that picture for me”, but he said “I don’t have time.”

In the early 1970s I went to a Hall of Fame Game. Back then if there were 150 people there were a lot and they gave the plaques upstairs, not outside. The players walked the town. Hotel and motel didn’t have AC in them. Hot as hell in August. I used to take my son up there with me, he was 8, 10 years old at that time. He would get autographs on bats. My wife met Mrs. Ruth and Mrs. Gehrig. The next year I got her a baseball and they signed the baseball for my wife.

That year that Aaron hit the grand slam, Atlanta was playing up there. The players would change clothes in a school locker room. I walked in there and Aaron was with a half dozen reporters. He was too embarrassed not to sign it for me so he did.

I got a picture with all the umpires with President Ford. All the umpires signed the picture but couldn’t get Ford.

I used to collect cards myself but I was never a big collector. I collected when I was a teenager in the 40s and 50s, Topps and Bowman, put them in the bicycle spokes. The Mantle card was no different than another, still the same price.

I never charged a player anything for a picture. If a guy got his first hit, HR, win, I would give the guy a picture. All I would ask is that they sign an extra picture and they would. I never took any money, but a lot of them would give me a hat or a bat. I ended up with 300+ hats and 600+ bats. Some would send me a shirt or something. Even mothers and grandmothers would write letters thanking me for pictures. Back in the ‘70s I made some postcards up, and word got around, and players would say, “hey Bob, would you make a postcard up for me.” They were mostly in black and white, some in color. This printer would make me 500 postcards, and charge me $20-25 for it. I’d say to the player “give me $50 for them”. Sports Collectors Digest has a list of all my baseball postcards.

I kept hats from the big guys, llike Bench, Carlton, Rose, Schmidt. Still have some of their bats. I gave most of the bats and hats to my daughter and son or sold the rest.

Back when they were having the 100th year of baseball in 1976, the year before that I got a bat off of Greg Luzinski, and I took the bat and got a huge piece of wood, took it over and had it on a lathe at a machine shop and they made me a five-foot-long bat. I had two labels made up saying National League 100th Anniversary, 1876-1976, and I took it over on the first game with the Phillies and I had all the Phillies sign the bat with the sharpie, and all the Mets signed it. I kept it there all year and in the end only two people in the National League didn’t sign it. Willie Montanez was traded before I could get him to sign it, and the other guy was a pitcher for LA, who wouldn’t sign autographs, Mike Marshall. Mike said to me the guys were busting his chops for it. Mike said to me “I’m sorry, I don’t even sign anything for my teammates. The only things I sign are my paycheck and my contract.” He gave me as a gift his  All Star Game bat. But he wouldn’t sign that bat.

I called the guys at the Hall of Fame and tell them “I have this bat.” They said, “you’ll have to hold on to it for a little while, because we didn’t have any room.” They have a room with hundreds and hundreds of boxes of things that they didn’t have room to display. I was moving from one house to another house, and I ended up putting the bat in one of the major auctions and it sold. I sold a lot of stuff when I moved to a smaller house. I still have probably 25 or 30 boxes of signed baseballs. I have 25 or 30 boxes of signed photos. I used to get everybody who set foot on the field in Veterans Stadium, I got a picture of them with their autograph. I have over 100,000 35mm negatives written with the description of the game.

I always wanted to put out a book of oddball pictures, like triple-exposure pictures of a pitcher delivering. I always wanted to use it as a baseball card but they never did.

I lost all interested in baseball in the 90s because of the greed. My wife still watches but I don’t. I grew up as a kid in a neighborhood with a lot of firefighters and police. My first photography job was as with a volunteer fire company in 1954. I published a couple of books of fire pictures.

Another guy I got real close with was the Max Patkin, Clown Prince of Baseball. He started off in the 40s. In the army with Joe DiMaggio. He ends up with Bill Veeck, who liked him and hired him as a coach. Max ended up going doing the minor leagues. Would travel 100,000+ miles a year in his car, all over the South doing a game each day. He lived in Philadelphia and would come to the Phillies. He would do publicity stuff in the off-season. I made some cards up for him. He would tell me the crazy things he did in the old days. I used to tape record these funny stories, and I got dozens of his stories on tape. Was hoping to give that to the HOF.

Back in the 80s and stuff, the teams decided to have photo day. They would send out a press release, like “Cincinnati will have their photo day March 10th.” All the papers and card companies would show up. The Blue Jays were at a stadium next to the Phillies in Clearwater. All the players started coming out with their gear. I hung with this guy from Philly who was an AP photographer. They lined the players up and gave you 10 seconds with each player. One of the guys from Toronto was traded from the Phillies and he had jersey 28 on, and on my list it had 18 on it. I said to him “why do you have 28 on,” and he said “were’ getting all new uniforms, so we all have different uniforms right now. I just picked up size 42 that fit.” Everybody was wearing the wrong uniforms. I tell this to the AP guy, “these jerseys don’t go with the number”. We threw the film away and walked away. All the other photographers didn’t realize. There were probably a lot of errors from that one.

I had a t-shirt made up that said “smile, you’re on a Fleer card”. They made me stop wearing it. I wore it for a week and then didn’t use it. Still have the shirt.

Tug McGraw was a crazy guy, he was on the DL, and he comes over to me, and Danny Ozark is the manager of the Phillies, Tug comes up to me and says “I want you to stand back here at 12:00. Take my picture at 12:00.” He goes to the clubhouse kid, and says “you open the door at 12:00.” I wonder what the hell he is doing. I go back and 12”00 comes and here comes Tug McGraw driving a motorcycle into the clubhouse, though one door of the manager’s office and out the other. Ozark has his hands on his head saying “what is he doing, he is on the DL!”

Tug McGraw and Jay Johnstone were real pranksters. You had to walk in front of the Phillies dugout to get to the photographers dugout. With new photographers they would always yell out “you dropped something” making people look for something that wasn’t there. One time a photographer from a new all-sports newspaper comes walking out right before the game and they say “you dropped something”. She is down on her knees, and the ump says “get off the field, we’re about to start the game. She goes down and they’re all laughing. After the third or fourth inning she walks down the tunnel we share with the grounds crew and asks one of them, “Who were those guys who did that to me? He says “That‘s Honus Wagner and Cy Young.” She writes the names and says “I’ll get them SOBs”. Those two guys were a lot of fun.

I have a lot of Tugger’s pictures, and I’ve been trying to get a hold of his son, the cowboy singer, just want to give them to him. Lots of pictures of him socializing, doing wiffleball advertising, etc. Want to give to his son. I’ve tried to reach out to him but he never gets back to me.

I haven’t followed baseball at all since I left in the late 1980s. Wasn’t fun anymore with all the greed from the players and the card companies. It’s a shame, they have the news with the people inducted into the Hall of Fame and I don’t even recognize them. But I still stay in touch with a lot of the players from my time.

 Thanks for the great stories!


  1. This was awesome! Thanks for sharing.

  2. And this is why we need blogs like this, because there are no longer any print publications to carry this sort of thing. Great stuff!

  3. I really enjoyed reading this. Thanks!

  4. I could've made a great story out of this interview. Great insight and nice work getting the story told.

  5. Incredible story. Awesome stuff. Bob never ceases to amaze me!

  6. Thanks to Junior Junkie for linking to this. I missed it the first time around.

    Incredible story. Well done!

  7. Great stories! Thanks so much for sharing!