1973 – Ugliest Topps Baseball Set Ever

“This is the best series I think we’ve ever done. I’m very excited about the whole thing already.” Sy Berger, Topps president, prior to 1973 cards hitting the shelves.

(Quote from the book – Baseball Card Flipping, Trading And Bubble Gum)

Rather than binge watch the Tiger King I decided to spend the last 3 nights cataloging my 1973 Topps Baseball cards to see how close I am to having a complete set. I obtained these cards after the great basement flood of 1987. The cards originally belonged to my younger brother. He had stored his baseball card collection in the basement of my parent’s then new home in Maine. Due to some faulty landscaping some water came into the basement during a downpour and damaged some his collection.

My brother no longer wanted the damaged collection and instead of throwing out the cards my mother miraculously called me to see I wanted them. I told her I would gladly take all the cards. A week or so later my parents arrived at my house with a large cardboard box stuffed with cards. My mother had dried out the cards that got wet by laying them on a dry floor and running a fan across them.

The box contained a mishmash of Topps cards that ranged from 1966 to 1980. Most of the cards were in good shape – either no water damage or only a very small water spot. There were also some cards that had seen better days.

There were a lot of cards of hall of famers from various years including this nice 1967 Mickey Mantle.

The bulk of the collection was comprised of 1973 cards. Almost all of the 1973 cards came through the ordeal in nice shape. Even before cataloging the cards I knew I almost had a complete set. I have nearly all the cards of the hall of famers, including the Mike Schmidt rookie card.

Mike Schmidt Rookie -Card Number 615

The Bad and The Ugly

It was also clear before cataloging these cards, that this was the ugliest set ever produced by Topps.

From a pure printing perspective all of the cards lack brightness and pop. The design of the ’73 cards lacks imagination and the white borders contribute to the dullness of the cards.

My biggest beef with these cards is the photography. The quality of the action images used in a significant percentage of the cards is in many cases very low. Most of the action shots were taken during afternoon games creating high contrast situations with the caps shading the faces of the players and the white uniforms reflecting too much light. In a post from 2016, Topps, according to baseball photographer extraordinaire Doug McWilliams, insisted on the use of slow ASA 100 film. This did not help matters when it came to freezing the action, resulting in fuzzy images or images that required a lot of massaging in order to make them acceptable.

I have included in the slide show below a sampling of problematic cards of future hall of famers and stars from this era. There are photos that are zoomed so far out you don’t know who the subject is (image on Bobby Bonds card would have been a better choice for the Willie Stargell card). There are photos where faces are in shadows and photos which have been airbrushed beyond all recognition. There are a few photos that have been cropped bizarrely (I still can’t find Steve Garvey). And there are photos were the composition is mind boggling (Willie McCovey and Johnny Bench checking out a foul ball. The Hit King popping up. Is that really Thurman Munson?).

Slide Show Featuring Some of Ugliest Topps Cards of Hall of Famers and Stars Ever Produced

If you are a Joe Rudi fan you are out of luck. You get another card of Gene Tenace.

The Good

There are some really nice cards in this set. Call me old school, but most of the cards in this set that work for me are the ones with the posed shots. Cards that also work for me are the action shots of Aaron and Clemente which are two of the best in this set. And it was nice that Topps brought back the cards of the playoffs and the World Series.

Slide Show of Good Cards

After cataloging the cards, I have found out that I am only 50 cards shy of having a complete set of 660 cards (not counting the variations in many of the managers / coaches cards). Only two of the missing cards are Hall of Famers.

I even have 22 of the 24 Blue Team Checklist cards that were supposedly only inserted in the last series.

I would be interested on your take on the 1973 set. Let me know by way of a comment if you agree or disagree with me on the 1973 set being the ugliest set that Topps has ever produced.

32 thoughts on “1973 – Ugliest Topps Baseball Set Ever”

  1. Spot on. After modest declines in photo and design quality from 1970-1972, it fell off a cliff in 1973, only to partially recover in 1974. The improvement for the rest of the decade was still marred by lots of inconsistency in photo quality. The photos and designs from the 1960s were remarkable and became the hallmark for baseball card collecting.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Couldn’t agree more on the ugliness of this set. I own the complete sets from this year, 1970, and 1975 among others, and it is not very attractive. Always seemed to me that the pictures were chosen at random. They did rebound nicely with the 1975 set two years later. I also think the 1970 set is wonderful, but that could be a bias of being the first set I ever bought as a kid.

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  3. My least favorite set as a kid. After the 787-card exuberance of 1972 (whatever you think of that set, there’s no doubt Topps was trying hard), my 3rd-grade self was disappointed in the design and craptacular photos throughout the 1973 set. And those 660-card sets (a 16% reduction from the peak of 1972) of 1973-77 were like the 55 mph speed limit of collecting. Clemente and Mays and the all-time HR leaders were nice cards, but I thought Aaron catching a pop up was a poor photo choice. Thanks for letting me vent.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Strong disagree. While the worst of this set is among the worst ever – Rudi card, for sure – many of the actions shots you show are superb (Blue, Killebrew, Marichal, Munson, etc.). And the good ones you show are really good.

    However, I am no doubt blinded by being 10, almost 11 years old in 1973 and, by year, it’s by far the one I have the most cards from.

    Fun post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I turned 8 during the middle of the 1973 season. My brothers, our friends, and I played ball most of the day every day during the summer, but we would take a break to walk to a convenience store a mile away to get a drink and/or buy a pack of baseball cards. We financed our trips by looking for empty pop bottles that had been littered along the railroad tracks and schoolyard on our path to the Village Pantry. The deposit for the bottle (10 cents) and the price for a pack of 9 cards and a stick of stale, brittle gum were the same.
      Once out of the store we tore open the packs, stuffed the gum in our mouths, and walked back to the school playground to compare our latest score. The backs of the cards were just as important as the front. We laughed that Joe Rudi’s middle name was Oden and wondered what billiards were and why Joe Morgan liked to play them. Just who was this Lou Gehrig that hit all those grand slams?
      I could go on and on, but how many people have read this far? Suffice it to say that 1973 was the first year that I began seriously collecting baseball cards. The cards represent cherished memories of childhood with brothers and friends.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I agree the 1973’s are ugly, but equally bad are the 1976’s. My beef with the 73’s (and the 76’s) is the use of the player position “silhouette.” That card real estate could be better utilized with a team logo. I’m also not a fan of those “action” shots. Usually you can’t see their faces. Topps started using those heavy action shots with the 1971 set, but at least the 71’s had a portrait picture on the back.

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  6. I think that’s a fair assessment. The first (?) action shots seem to have occurred in the ‘71 set. Topps likes to save a buck, and with no competition, they adopted that strategy as much as possible. To me, the worst design and photography is 68–blurry pseudo-burlap borders and ancient photos, many with blacked-out hats or big-head no-hat portraiture because of trades, expansion, and the strike against Topps by the players for their legendary cheapness. In a strange way, the ‘73 design was just an obverse of ‘71. Good essay!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Well, it’s beyond doubt that some of the cards in the set are absurdly composed, as if the photographer was a private investigator trying to take surreptitious pictures of his subjects. Too bad, because that Vida Blue shot could have been fantastic if the batter was not in the way and the shot was zoomed a few degrees.
    I think the point here is that Topps had fallen in love with action shots a year or two earlier and quality control was tossed out the window. I can’t help but be reminded of the ‘In Action’ subset from the previous year, which had some great shots, but also some real clunkers (Tom Haller, Ron Santo, Bobby Bonds).
    In the final reckoning, I think this set just has too many outstanding, beautiful portraits to be considered the ugliest Topps set ever. I really dislike cards that use drawings, so I would probably go with any number of the Topps sets from the early 50’s as worst ever.
    By the way, although Joe Rudi fans must be disappointed by the Tenace card, it really is a fantastic shot. I did some scanning, cutting, and pasting and turned it into a passable Tenace card befitting the World Series MVP.

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  8. I’ve come to see 1973 as a a bit of a trainwreck that I both kind of love and hate all at the same time. It’s clearly the first ACTION set but the photographic technology isn’t there yet. Many of the posed photos are great but in the action images you can see the genesis of what Topps Flagship is today. Closer croppings. No consideration of composition or backgrounds. Grunting exertion derpfaces. An emphasis on baseball as a game of all-action. Is interesting to me how many of the people who love 1973 hate current flagship since to my eye the bloodlines are strong.

    I am also morbidly curious how Topps plans to do Heritage in a couple years because the photography is SUCH a part of he look/feel of the 1973 set. Will they go action and try to do what 1973 was trying to do only better? Will they do the same old same old as the 1960s designs and pretend that none of this ever happened? Will there be awful airbrushing variants?

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This was a tremendous post and a solid research report on the 1973 debacle in light of the Burger pre-release marketing statements. All of the comments, either pro ’73 or con ’73, have been highly accurate. Ultimately, the 1973 set is a zero or a ten in so many ways as collectors have accurately demonstrated. The Clemente card is cardboard art while the Reggie Jackson is quite possibly the worst card ever of that year’s MVP and a future Hall of Famer. Who could have possibly thought the Jackson photo was worthy of card status? The seventies man, the seventies…

    Liked by 1 person

  10. In the great philosopher Kenneth Burke’s parlance, nearly all things fall unconsciously into one of five categories: primal (first), lexical (denotative or literal definition), tautological (association), entelechial (perfect), and “jingle” (or logo).

    The ’73 set was the first I ever attempted to complete in earnest (’71 & ’72 final series just never came available in my rural childhood locale) and I did complete it. It is therefore my primal set and — truth be told — my favorite. 787 cards. Willie Mays in a Mets uniform. A classic Seaver portrait. As a Mets fan, it was also the series that accompanied their improbable run to the pennant. That makes it also my tautological set. Sure, looking back over each and every card — an undertaking I made recently — some of the photos are certainly cringe worthy (I didn’t know that was not Joe Rudi). And I didn’t like the conflation of league leaders on a single card. Broke a long standing tradition. I do — as others have noted — love the Vida Blue card. Makes me feel like the umpire.

    One of the aspects the kansabre did not include in his assessment, however, is the BACK of the card. I can’t find a better layout on any card from any series. Before or since. Easy to read. Includes the cartoon and the brief narrative. Where the player was BORN (continued on the ’74 cards) as well as where he called home (yawn). I’m not sure why runs scored wasn’t included in the stats but that was a minor oversight for an 11-year old kid who was obsessed with the offensive trifecta of HR-RBI-AVG (ABs, 2Bs, & 3Bs were also included). The pitchers had G-IP-W/L-SO-ERA. Nothing else is necessary. And all of this data encapsulated with a confident black border (and backs of cards is where black borders belong).

    So while the ’73s aren’t likely to satisfy anyone’s entelechial idea of a baseball card, they will probably always be my favorite.

    Great post, despite my difference of opinion.

    You Gotta Believe!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. If you want a truly ugly set, how about the one that preceded this one – the 1972 set? With its wild psychedelic colors and design, it would have been super in ’67 or ’68 when psychedelia was at its peak. By ’72, it was long gone. And I personally wouldn’t give the 1975 set an award for greatness either -such color schemes, many of which don’t go together all that well…! And whoever said the 1953 set was bad – shame on you – that set is a classic – it’s wonderful artwork shrunken down to card size so everyone can enjoy it.

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  12. Topps reflects the times, 50s we’re classic Goofy and innocent, 60s believed in America and growing , but thx to Vietnam the 70s were injured and uninspired BUT still loved and hopeful. I love all the 89s sets despite what was happening in the hobby, 1990 is one of my top five sets ever, 90s I’m starting to get now cause married with kids happened . I’m coming around to what I missed, 99 is gorgeous. So is 2000 01, 15 , and 19 .life is still good guys and let’s face it 73 is great

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  13. I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I absolutely love this set and just started to collect it. I can’t argue the photo astetic points made, and have to admit their is some bad shots. However there is also a lot of good shots. And a lot of the action shots have a nostalgic quality as if a fragment of a memory. And some are pure art like the Clemente (3000 hits on the back). The Nolan Ryan portrait is pure gold with the halo on his uni hovering oh so high over the lower case a (bring back that uni). I find this a compelling set with a rookie of the best third baseman in history and just littered with HOFers and semi-stars. Fun post. I will follow.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. From a photographic standpoint I also really like the 1973 Willie Mays card. However it is just not right to see him in a Mets uniform.

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  14. Hard disagree. This set was so much fun since it was the first one to show all the teams’ new double knit pullover uniforms. Also, the first set to show long hair, beards, mustaches on many players. Also, there is tremendous charm in the raw, shadowy photos (much more heroic than stale posed shots). I want to see what a player looks like in the field (eye black, sweat, dirt, sunglasses, etc.). And the player position silhouettes were awesome. Kids love to organize by colors and shapes. The stretched font for the player names was epic. Also, this set introduced many kids to heroes like Ruth, Gehrig, Cobb, Johnson, etc. My favorite set of all time. Imperfectly perfect and so accurately encapsulates the year in which it came out.

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    1. Absolutely no disagreement with any of this. I stopped collecting in 1971, so the ensuing sets and their designs have seemed too nouveau to take seriously. However, they are growing on me, even the least sightly of the 70s sets.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. I gotta say, I’m a big fan of the design work on the 73 Topps set…. Simple typography stacked on the left that highlights the players last name and downplays the the ball club… and, oddly engaging “position” silhouettes tucked nicely into the bottom right corner. Even those blurry action shots (like Reggie’s) put you right in the chaotic action of a big league game…

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