In the 1980s, Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth, Roberto Clemente and Lou Gehrig advanced posthumously to a pantheon that few baseball players have entered. As with statesman Benjamin Franklin and abolitionist Harriet Tubman, official homage was paid to each Hall of Famer with a U.S. commemorative postage stamp.
Since 1939, six U.S. commemorative stamps honoring baseball have been issued, and they have proved to be among the Postal Service's most popular. Perhaps the finest of them is the first, a 1939 three-cent stamp issued in honor of baseball's supposed 100th anniversary. The vivid purple stamp illustrates the joys of sandlot baseball.
Though such stamps offer glimpses of American values and sensibilities, a country doesn't have to love baseball to issue a baseball stamp. Worldwide, some 450 individual stamps as well as dozens of sheets of stamps devoted to baseball have been issued by about 40 countries. And the bulk of these issues has been put out by two small nations in the Lesser Antilles, a Caribbean archipelago in which baseball is definitely not the national pastime.
The island stamps began to appear in 1987 when Grenada, the southernmost of the Lesser Antilles' Windward Islands, issued a sheet commemorating the 1987 All-Star Game. The sheet featured Wade Boggs of the Boston Red Sox and Eric Davis of the Cincinnati Reds. Although the stamps were issued about four years after 6,000 U.S. troops had invaded Grenada to evacuate the thousand or so U.S. citizens living on the island (including some 700 students at the St. George's University School of Medicine) and to restore order in the wake of a bloody coup, never in their deepest expression of gratitude did the English-speaking Grenadians dream of severing their distinctively British ties to cricket and soccer. "We are really in the [stamp] business for fiscal purposes," says Laurie Wilson, director general of Grenada's Ministry of Finance.
Grenada was initially persuaded by its philatelic agent, the Inter-Governmental Philatelic Corporation, to issue baseball stamps in the hope that they would kindle an interest among stateside baseball-card collectors. "One of our goals in issuing special major league baseball stamps was to tap into that existing market," says Daniel Keren, spokesman for the New York City-based IGPC, a firm that handles virtually every aspect of postage stamp design, printing and distribution for Grenada and 19 other countries, most of them developing nations.
The idea hasn't exactly caught fire with dedicated card collectors, but it's not for Grenada's lack of trying. In 1988, Grenada followed its unusual All-Star Game stamps with Baseball Series 1, an issue of nine sheets that carry pictures of 79 ballplayers from various eras. (Last summer, the series gained notice, if not land-office sales, when reprints of the sheets appeared in supermarkets in the Pittsburgh and Boston areas, with Pete Rose conspicuously absent.)
St. Vincent, a nation of volcanic islands and cays situated about 65 miles north of Grenada, has also tried to find a niche in the baseball-stamp market. Last year St. Vincent, which is now the world's largest producer of arrowroot, a starch obtained from the underground stems of several tropical herbs—and of baseball stamps as well—began releasing a flurry of stamps commemorating everything from the 1988 World Series to milestones in the career of Nolan Ryan.
To a number of collectors, there is something a little unseemly about these issues. It's no secret that the stamps are rarely, if ever, used to post their nations' mail. Still, to the governments of Grenada and St. Vincent, the stamps are pennies from heaven. Grenada's Wilson estimates that his country, which has an annual per capita income of $1,265, realizes $500,000 a year from the sale of a variety of stamps on the international philatelic market.
Serious stamp and baseball-card collectors, however, have shown little interest in the issues. But despite disappointing sales, major league baseball remains committed to promoting the game on foreign postage stamps. "The idea is strong," says Rick White, president of Major League Baseball Properties, which licenses the worldwide marketing of the stamps through a subsidiary of Inter-Governmental Philatelic. "Sales haven't been as good as had been hoped, but I believe it's a long-term project."
Of course, White may be overconfident. It's entirely possible that baseball memorabilia buffs never will give two licks about these stamps.
Tom Palmer is a free-lance writer who lives in Helena, Mont.