The Game’s The Thing

The late 1960s and early 1970s were a golden age for kids who liked Topps inserts and separately packaged oddball sets.  You could dabble in coins, deckle-edged cards, posters, cartoon booklets, giants-sized cards, stamps, decals, and more.  All Topps.  Unlike the inserts of today, many of which are homages to this period, they were not used as “chase cards” or “short prints” — they were just more things to collect, and for the most part readily available.

The best Topps insert set — I will brook no argument here — were the “Game Cards” found in packs of 1968 Topps cards, specifically the 3rd series.  I was seven at the time, and a rabid collector.  As I have written before, I did not start collecting baseball cards because I loved baseball — it was quite the reverse.  I fell in love with cards first, and then thought, “Hey, these same guys are on TV playing too?  I think I’ll watch, and use my cards to follow along.”

With the 1968 Game Cards, I could not only play a game — with a friend, or even by myself — but I also could learn who the good players actually were.  The Topps base set was basically democratic — Paul Popovich and Roberto Clemente each got a card — but with this insert Topps was elevating 33 players to special status. Moreover, within those 33 players there was a method to Topps’ madness.  When it came to time to dole out the game events, Topps took the process seriously.

KChanceKLonborgKHarganKMcCormickKPetersHBPOsteen

I admit that there was a brief period when I thought Topps was insulting these six players.  Eventually I figured out these were PITCHERS, and being on these cards was a complement.  Strikeouts and double plays were, my TV announcers helpfully told me, pitchers’ best friends. As I pulled this Lonborg card, my region was praying for his recovery from a broken leg, which … never mind, I still can’t talk about it.

Those are the only six pitchers in the set, so happiness all around.  In the case of Peters, who allowed a stolen base on his strikeout, it was a bit of mixed bag.

FoulMcCarverPopGonzalezFoulSanto

As I worked it out, it made sense that McCarver, a catcher, would get the Foul Out card.  Again, this is a GOOD event.  Stretching things a bit, surely Santo caught a lot of pop ups in the Wrigley sun.  I am sure this card made him happy.  As for Tony Gonzalez, well, at least he got to be in the set.  Gonzalez was a fine player — which I knew, because he had earned the second slot on the NL Batting Leaders card (between Roberto Clemente and Matty Alou).  Nonetheless, he’d have to settle for a Pop Out this time around. Do it again, maybe we’ll give you a stamp next year.

GBCarewGBRoseGBTorreGBCepedaGBFregosi

These cards posed a bit of a problem for a kid learning the game.  Note that the Carew and Rose cards specify no runner advancement, while the others have the runners moving up.  How did that work?  You have runners on first and second, and a ground out advances no one? I eventually assumed Topps meant this to be a fielder’s choice with the lead runner retired.  Still, they could have made this clearer.

Carew and Rose would have many more go-rounds as Topps honorees, but in 1968 they were just establishing themselves as top-flight players.  Torre and Fregosi were stars, certainly, but there was tough competition for the big events to come.  Cepeda, the reigning MVP, wasn’t even getting respect.  Hey, the game needs outs.  This was 1968 for crying out loud. Its a wonder Topps didn’t just make them all outs.

FkyWynnFlyAlleyFlyMondayFlyKalineFlyStaub

Clearly Topps should have made Alley a ground out, and moved Rose into this group of outfielders.  The interesting cards here are Monday — because Topps always insisted on having at least one person from every team in all of their oddball sets — and Wynn/Staub, who are hatless because of the shenanigans with the Astros. This is one of best cards of Staub’s red hair.

Kaline and Staub, you will notice, get the RBI if there is a runner on third.

LineScottLineHowardLineAllen

When I played, I always loved turning one of these cards over.  Sure I just stranded runners on second and third in a one run game, but that ball was a ROCKET.  And Topps knew what they were doing, choosing three muscle-bound sluggers for these wonderful cards.

ErrorAlou

My first reaction, like yours, was “What did poor Matty do to deserve this?”  But I soon realized the, err, error of my thinking.  Obviously Alou got this card because his speed made the other team commit errors.  They didn’t throw the ball into the stands (note that the card specifies only one base of advancement).  It was more like the infielder got so anxious he bobbled the ball and likely burst out crying.  Safe at first!

9503-11FrHBPBRobinsonWalkDavis

Even as a child I was excited to get these cards because I knew that on base percentage was much more important than batting average and that the most important thing was not making hard contact, but avoiding making outs.

LOL, not really, I probably thought, “swing the bat Freehan, I have better things to do than waste time watching your weak crap.”

SingleMantleSingleYazSingleAaron

OK, now things are getting serious.  Mickey Mantle was no longer MICKEY MANTLE when I started watching the game, but I had plenty of people around me that let me in on what I had missed.  As a Red Sox fan, Yastrzemski was becoming my hero, and was coming off of one of the greatest seasons of all-time.  Aaron was, well, everything.  How is Topps gonna beat these guys?

9503-6FrDoubleKillebrew9503-7Fr

OK, not bad.  I would have put Clemente on the triple — he tripled more than twice as often as Robinson — but these were three top-flight stars at the heights of their powers.  You will note that Killebrew’s double cleared the bases; I assume that he and Robinson both hit the ball over the centerfielder’s head, perhaps in Tiger Stadium, but Killer had to lumber into second while Robby hustled around second with nary a glance to his right, and slid into third ahead of the throw.

And if you think I didn’t literally provide play-by-play to that effect while playing the game, we obviously have not met.

 

HRMays

 

You were expecting someone else?

 

Author: Mark Armour

Long-time SABR member, co-chair of the Baseball Cards Committee, founder and past chairman (2002-2016) of the Biography Project, author of several books and dozens of articles on baseball. See mark-armour.net.

6 thoughts on “The Game’s The Thing”

  1. You’re spot on. This is the best insert set ever. I remember my brother and and a neighbor playing the game for hours. They would add extra Mays “home run” cards to add offense. My set is very worn from constant play. Steve Hargan is a real outlier in the set. His card is based on one good season. Why not put in McDowell or Tiant? Topps 2017 Heritage set includes game cards with modern players. They are regular card size which is disappointing.

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  2. Not the 1968 game cards, but in 1987 we had the Classic game.

    I think the original rules were that you flicked the spinner and then had to answer a question in order to achieve a 1B, 2B, 3B, or HR. If you missed the question I believe that was one out. The original rules are a little fuzzy to me because we quickly got bored with the questions (they were not terribly difficult, we knew many answers already, and the ones we didn’t know we quickly learned) and just created our own game using the cards. We created slips of paper with various baseball outcomes (1B, 2B, 3B, HR, strikeout, sac. bunt, error, etc.) and then we would draw teams from the cards. We would set lineups, put players in their respective position on the game board, and then draw outcomes and move players around the bases.

    Now, our scores were always something like 38-27 because we didn’t have quite the right ratio of outs to non-outs, and Vince Coleman could hit five HRs in a game (I assume they were inside-the-park HRs) because we didn’t change the odds based on the batter. However, we did know that Gary Carter couldn’t possibly steal as many bases as Coleman (we had a separate set of slips for stolen bases), so we did adjust the odds for stolen bases based on the player. Our version of a tabletop game, though I’m assuming I would have purchased (or asked my parents for) APBA or Strat-O-Matic had I known they existed at the time.

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  3. I’ve heard/read many people disparaging this insert set, insinuating no kid in his right mind would bother actually playing the game. Great to see respect paid to it here. 1968 was the first year I collected cards – having moved to the Boston area the summer before and being hooked by the Impossible Dream Red Sox – and neither Topps’ weird but unique “burlap” design on the base set, nor these beautiful little game inserts have ever strayed too far from my baseball consciousness. In fact, I’m a member of SABR’s 19th Century Committee and a couple of years ago I designed and had printed my own “1888” game, modeled on these inserts, copping many an “Old Judge” image for the card pics. I expanded it to 52 cards in order to include more players, and slightly increased the ratio of “safe” to “out” cards to better replicate scoring totals of the era. Sam Thompson is on the Home Run card; Harry Stovey & Pete Browning get singles; Hugh Nicol gets a stolen base. I added a few new wrinkles, such as a Wild Pitch courtesy of Egyptian Healey, and extra Error cards to correspond to the iffy fielding of the times. All this, due to the memory of that little 33-card subset in ’68. Thanks for a great post.

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