It was a Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1990. Baseball cards were as popular as New Kids on the Block, the racy FOX cartoon called The Simpsons, and Hulkamania.
My fandom over the past 12 months had been Chicago Cubs baseball cards. When that 1989 Topps Cubs team set arrived in the mail I was instantly hooked. As I flipped through those 1989 Topps Cubs cards, one card in particular stood out. It wasn’t Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson, or that beautiful gold cup Mark Grace card. No, it was some guy I had never heard of before, and he wasn’t wearing a Cubs uniform.
Ty Griffin. Topps did not make a mistake and include a non-Cubs player into the team set. Griffin was the Cubs first round draft pick the year prior. The same year he starred for the 1988 Team USA baseball squad. That was my introduction to the Major League Baseball Draft and minor league prospects.
So, that year (1989), a high school slugger from South Carolina named Earl Cunningham was drafted by the Cubs in the first round. Just like Griffin, Cunningham received a first round draft pick card in the Topps set. Unlike Griffin, Cunningham was included in many more 1990 baseball card products like Bowman and Score.
Score had become my favorite baseball card brand by 1990. I felt like I struck gold in every pack I opened. I had a lot of Score baseball cards, and the Earl Cunningham became my favorite of the bunch.
In 1990, my small rural Illinois hometown of 800 residents sat within 12 miles of six local baseball card shops. Today…zero card shops are within 30 miles any direction of Annawan, Illinois. Home Run Alley was located 12 miles south on Route 78 in Kewanee, Illinois and was one of the more veteran card shops in the area having opened up in 1988 just ahead of the hobby explosion.
Home Run Alley sponsored card shows in Kewanee, and on July 15, 1990 it hosted a show in the Knights of Columbus featuring a pair of Cubs top prospects: Earl Cunningham and Pedro Castellano.
Sharing this story reminds me of Richard Dreyfuss narrating Stand By Me. Here I am thirty years later recounting a card show with my friends. My friends’ dad took us to that card show in the family station wagon. We probably packed six of us kids in the car, and I don’t remember who all went. My friends were Brandon and Aaron. To this day, Brandon and I still talk about the hobby and we even trade. The last time I was back home, I stopped over at his place as he had a box of Cubs for me, and I’ll be sending him a box of Barry Sanders and Larry Johnson cards.
Surely, Brandon was after some Barry Sanders cards at the Knights of Columbus. He was die-hard Detroit Lions fan (still is to this day) and had quite the impressive Barry collection. LJ was still hooping at UNLV, but would become a member of the Charlotte Hornets a year later.
I was excited to get Earl Cunningham’s autograph. The 1990 Score #670 was the item I chose to bring to get signed. I appreciate this card much more today than I did as an eight-year old thirty years ago. The front of the 1990 Score baseball cards are very bright with a clear picture. There’s Earl, Cubs hat slightly titled up complete with a Cubs logo gold chain.
The back of the card intrigues me. Only recently, maybe three or four years ago, did I come across a blog outlining the photo on the back of the Cunningham card. You don’t really notice anything at first glance.
But, look closer. The bat knob. Now, this was 1990, and error cards were all the rage. It was also one year after the infamous 1989 Fleer Billy Ripken F*** Face card. Was Earl trying to play a trick on the Score photographer?
It appears the bat knob has been airbrushed. I’ve been in search of a contact that knows anything about Score photography from 1990, or where original images could be found. I would like to know the truth behind that bat knob.
Earl signed my 1990 Score baseball card in bright blue sharpie. Man, did that signature pop on this card. I loved it. Cunningham became one of my favorite Cubs, even though he was just out of high school and playing in Peoria. In fact, the autographed 1990 Score Earl Cunningham card was in a card saver and displayed in my family’s living room on the entertainment center. For the youth, an entertainment center was a huge piece of furniture that held your 25 pound console 27″ TV, VCR player, Nintendo, and a library of VHS tapes. The top of the entertainment center (at least in our house) was cluttered with framed photos, a Pinewood Derby trophy, probably a really bad clay ash tray I made in art class, and an Earl Cunningham signed baseball card.
I’m not sure how long Earl was a part of our family on the top of the entertainment center, but I do remember at some point trying to take the card out of the card saver. The card was not inside a penny sleeve, and moisture got the best of Earl. Pulling the card out, the front peeled away from the card and it was ruined.
The ruined Earl Cunningham card probably bothered me for just a short time, because I moved on to basketball cards, then pro wrestling magazines, and then it was typical high school and college activities that took most of us out of the hobby. At some point in the 2000’s, that memory of the Earl Cunningham signed Score baseball card came back and I wanted to find one. Around 2006 or 2007 I became heavily involved in through the mail (TTM) autographs. I sent to Earl Cunningham two or three times with nothing returned.
Five or six years ago, I went on a mission to obtain this card signed in blue sharpie. I created an Earl Cunningham search on eBay and was notified when new items were listed. I actively searched for sales and TTM forums. Nothing.
About two years ago I sent out a few more requests to Cunningham. I even found the company he works for, and sent to his work address. Still….nothing. And then…I found an Earl Cunningham success reported in a Facebook autograph group. I sent a private message to the collector and he shared the address on the promise I would not share it. I was ecstatic. Finally, after all these years I am going to get my blue sharpie signed Earl Cunningham 1990 Score baseball card.
Using this address with a recent success, I wrote a long note to Earl. Since I began the One Million Cubs Project, two of his former teammates in the minor leagues have reached out to me asking if I had his contact information. I included this in my letter to Earl with their cell phone numbers so he could reach out if he wished. I included my own blue sharpie and let him know how many great memories that card had for me. I sent the package in a bubble mailer, and waited. And waited. And I’m still waiting.
I’m never giving up my search for this darn 1990 Score Earl Cunningham card signed in blue sharpie. It’s gonna happen. Admittedly, I don’t check my eBay search for Cunningham every day. So, when I received a tweet last week….I raced to eBay.
Could it be? Yes! Not only was a 1990 Score Earl Cunningham baseball card….signed in blue sharpie for sale on eBay….there were three of them. AND…even better….they were not outrageously priced (I’ve seen Earl Cunningham signed cards listed as high as $75). Each of them were priced at $10 or best offer. I decided to test fate and send a best offer. I know…I shouldn’t have taken the risk and just clicked buy. But….accepted. ACCEPTED!
I bought two of them for $7.50 each, and today they arrived. As I opened the package I couldn’t believe it. I have been searching so long and hard for this very card only to come up empty so many times. I think it’s only necessary for me to display one of these next to my TV for old time sake.