Brandon Puffer was the 743rd player chosen in the 1994 MLB Draft and was still pitching in rookie ball when the Minnesota Twins cut him loose in May of 1996. In the years that followed, Puffer backed his way up through the minors. He was a fairly effective 23-year-old closer for the Clinton Reds of the Class A Midwest League in 1999 and got cut anyway. When he signed with the Somerset Patriots of the independent Atlantic League in May of 2000, Puffer had been released by four teams and thrown just eight and two-thirds innings above A-ball. It wasn’t until 2002, when he made the Houston Astros’ bullpen as a 26-year-old rookie, that Puffer was identified as a Future Star.
Jung Bong threw his first minor league pitch when he was just 17 years old, and his path through the minors was as direct as Puffer’s was circuitous. The Braves signed him out of a high school in Seoul, South Korea and held onto him; Bong made steady progress through the Atlanta Braves farm system over five seasons and made his Major League debut when he was just 21 years old. He was hit hard in a spot start in April and sent down the next day; he spent the rest of the season working as a swingman in Double-A. The Braves saw enough in Bong’s 2002 performance to make room for him as a long reliever in the big league bullpen the next year. A young baseball card editor at Topps saw, again, a Future Star.
Or, anyway, he saw an opportunity. Future Stars cards, and please forgive the baseball card jargon here, tended to feature players projected to be stars, in the future. There is no reasonable reason why Jung Bong or Brandon Puffer should have been featured on one of the Future Stars cards inserted in the 2003 Topps Baseball set. For one thing, they were not on the same team. A second, more salient, reason would be that there was no universe in which these two might have been projected as future stars. There is only one reason why the two of them, Jung Bong and Brandon Puffer, would have wound up on the same card. You have probably already figured out what it is.
“Bong Puffer is fucking funny, right?” Wayne Walker said. “I puffed a few bongs at that time, on my free time,” he added. “Never before or at work, I was serious about that. But after? Hell yeah. NYC weed delivery was legit. Thirty minutes or less.”
It was the summer of 2002, and Walker’s time as one of the two baseball editors at Topps was winding down. The 2002 Topps set, which is known within the company as The Flagship, was the first set that he edited at Topps, and 2003’s was his last. In July, he would leave the company and move to the Czech Republic with the woman who would later become his wife. As usual, Walker relied on Jim McKenna, who edited Topps’ more prospect-oriented Bowman products, for some help pulling together the players that would be featured on the ten-card, twenty-player Future Stars subset. In the fullness of time, some of those pairings have come to look better than others. None of them looked like Bong Puffer, even at the time, which was something Walker understood when he put it on the checklist and pulled the necessary photos.
I asked Walker how serious he was about trying to get this particular card through the company’s various editorial backstops and into the set. “About making Bong Puffer? One hundred percent,” he said. “It was happening. Unless JP vetoed it.”
John Perry, then Topps’ basketball editor and Walker’s close friend, was charged with shepherding the Topps baseball set through its final stages after Walker left. “I told him,” Walker said, “‘when you get these sheets for proofing, you might notice that one of the Future Stars cards looks different. One has two guys from different teams.'” Walker suggested to Perry that, should he catch any heat regarding the card, he could “plead overwork” from having to handle his own product lines as well as Walker’s. “I told JP that he could blame it all on me,” Walker said. “He was all good with that.”
The back of Wayne Walker’s perfectly aged Bong/Puffer card. Image courtesy of Wayne Walker
“There’s a card in Topps’ 2003 baseball Series I that’s on the hot list of many dealers and collectors,” John Leptich wrote in the East Valley and Scottsdale Tribune in January of 2003. “While most common 2003 cards are being weeded out, No. 331 is getting a bundle of attention and creating quite a buzz. The Future Stars card shows photos of Houston Astros rookie pitcher Brandon Puffer on the left, and Atlanta Braves rookie hurler Jung Bong on the right. Fired-up collectors refer to the joint effort as the Bong-Puffer card.”
While the other attention that the card got was slightly more understated in its expression, the operative word is slightly. “You got it, it’s the ‘Bong-Puffer’ card,” Keith Olbermann said on his ABC radio show. “Unclear if its publication will cause Topps’ reputation to take a hit.”
Walker, by this point, had married his fiancee and was reading about his cardboard brainchild’s lite infamy from Prague, where he would live for three years teaching English. “I remember being pissed that they set it as Puffer/Bong and not the other way around,” Walker said. “But JP couldn’t exactly send that note out on the proof, you know?” The ordering was, I was told, a strategic choice; it is one thing to try to sneak a Puffer Bong card past the quality assurance department, but Bong Puffer just seemed like pressing your luck.
The response within the company was muted: “That’s funny, now don’t ever do it again,” one person who was in the room said. Topps had made errors in previous years, generally of the swapped-photo variety, and it had also engaged in what Walker called “baseball card malarkey.” The Bong Puffer card, however, off-brand its entendre, fit into a broader tradition of pursuing this prehistoric version of virality. “There was no disciplinary action taken,” said Frank Amadeo, who was the company’s Creative Services Manager at the time. “Remember, those subject lists were brand manager approved and sometimes combinations that would cause an eyebrow raise were done to create buzz.” When Perry left Topps at the end of 2004, shortly before I was hired, it was under his own power, for a job at Fleer. The Bong Puffer card was already fading from memory.
Claude Raymond had his best season in 1966 when he served as the closer for a 72-win Houston Astros team. In his Topps card from that year, the Quebecois reliever is photographed with his eyes cast upwards through horn-rimmed glasses the size of cruise-ship portholes, as if watching his catcher assess a harmless foul pop; an empty ballpark sprawls behind him, sun-bleached and vacant. It is impossible not to notice that the fly on Raymond’s uniform pants is down. Raymond is seemingly more focused in his 1967 Topps card, this time striking a pose that suggests he has just released a pitch. Again, the fact that he is standing in foul territory in an empty spring training stadium takes away somewhat from the verisimilitude of the thing. Again, Raymond’s fly is yawning open; the neat script of his reproduced autograph on the card serves as a sort of cursive underline.
Reasonable parties can disagree about what this says about Claude Raymond’s sense of humor or attention to sartorial detail, but the collectible market has spoken. Raymond’s ridiculous baseball cards are exactly as valuable as any other common card from those sets, which is to say that ones in very good condition are rare and fairly valuable and ones that are not, which are not, do not. The player on the front of the card has some impact on a card’s value to collectors, but what really makes baseball cards valuable to collectors—the only thing, really, that consistently does it—is scarcity. There is no more convincing testament to how unprepared the business was for the brief and retrospectively hilarious period in the 1990’s when otherwise functional adults saw baseball cards as a viable financial investment than the fact that card companies responded to all that new demand by furiously printing many hundreds of thousands of the same cards.
It was only later that the companies learned to build scarcity into their sets, which they did most effectively by creating numbered parallel versions; where there were untold thousands of white-bordered base cards in the world, there were discrete numbers of parallel versions with different-colored borders, all of them shrinking towards an exceedingly scarce one-of-one version. In later years, Topps took to cutting up the metal printing plates used for producing the cards and inserting those into packs, each marked 1-of-1 and affixed with a sticker certifying their authenticity. On baseball card forums like BlowoutCards, you can find collectors debating whether they are truly one-of-ones, given that there are actually four different printing plate cards for every player, one for each of the four color process used in producing the cards.
The icon himself. Image courtesy of Wayne Walker
By this grim logic, nothing is more important about a baseball card than how difficult it is to find. When Billy Ripken showed up on his 1989 Fleer card with the words FUCK FACE written on the knob of his bat, the result was a bit of crude art. Fleer scrambled to fix it, creating more than twenty flubby alternate versions in which the profanity was obscured by various scribbles, blobs of white out, black boxes, airbrushing, and a notch cut into the card by a power saw. “To the best of my knowledge, the ‘Circle Scribble’ versions are the toughest [to find]—by far,” said Jon Pederson, who runs BillRipken.com, a website dedicated to the card. “There are four distinctly different varieties of ‘Circle Scribble,’ each with varying levels of black airbrush coverage.” He estimates that fewer than 100 of those cards are out there in the world; he himself has seen fewer than 40. The original card, which is the only one in which the legendary words are clearly visible, is the least valuable of the many variations; an estimated 100,000 of those FUCK FACE cards made it into packs, which makes it the easiest one to find.
Topps never withdrew the Bong/Puffer card; there was nothing to correct, really, beyond the central goofy fact of its existence. It’s less an error card and more on the order of Claude Raymond’s poker-faced x-y-z moments, although in this case, the punchline is the existence of the card itself. There doesn’t seem to be any real collectible market for it at all, although someone on BlowoutCards offered to pay $25 for a black border parallel of the card back in 2015; he received no replies. Of course, what the Bong Puffer card is or isn’t worth has nothing to do with its value to that lone seeker on BlowoutCards or to Walker, who keeps a heroically tattered copy of it in his wallet to this day. The reasoning of the market does not and by definition cannot account for this type of value.
“The collector mentality is, by definition, irrational,” said Jeff Katz, the author of Split Season 1981 and a contributor to the SABRs Baseball Card Committee. “So few things are truly rare and worth scrambling for … they trigger memory and emotion, which is where the real value is.” Understood this way, there is no such thing as a common card—every one of these disposable things is tied to a memory or a moment that imbues it with something that is not otherwise there to find, and which is specific to the person who treasures it.
“It’s funny,” Walker said. “I’ve been an ESL teacher over the years, and the card has come in handy, just to explain what a baseball card is to foreigners.” The card has stayed in Walker’s wallet for nearly 15 years in large part for sentimental reasons, but there’s something practical about it, too. Whenever he needs to, he can reach into his pocket and show someone exactly what a baseball card is.