I started collecting cards in 1967, at the age of 6. I had no idea who any of the players were–I was a geography nut, so I started off just knowing the cities and states, then gradually added the team names, the positions, and a basic understanding of the statistics on the back, and eventually started to figure out who the players actually were. Soon, I was an expert in separating the scrubs from the regulars, the stars from the superstars.
Eventually, not right away, I could pull a card like this Jay Johnstone, and realize that he was a superstar. He had 3 home runs in 1966, and home runs were obviously good things. Soon I realized that Topps used certain card numbers to designate the best players in the game, which made things easier.
For example, I learned, by deduction, that Topps set aside card #213 for a really special player. I did not see this for years, hence my delay in understanding how great Johnstone was–had I known that they had given Fred Newman #213 in 1966, obviously I would have connected the dots. In these days before hobby magazines, I had to figure out this pattern for myself.
My second year collecting, Topps came back hard with this legend, fresh off an -0.3 WAR season with the Reds. When you put Chico’s card together with teammates Pete Rose, Lee May, and Tony Perez, and with rookie Johnny Bench showing promise, my friends and I began to call them the Big Red Machine. Honestly, I felt like this nickname should have caught on, as almost all of these players remained stars for many years.
I am embarrassed to admit that even after pulling this PSA-10 Arrigo out of a pack, I still had not put together the #213 pattern! Of course I understood that this was an inner circle star, but I just didn’t pay attention to card numbers back then. This was a 3rd series card, likely coming out in May, and the only excuse I can offer is that I was too distracted with the Apollo 10 launch to follow the tense Arrigo-Seaver duel for the Cy Young Award.
I have written about the genius of the 1970 bat rack photos before, and it is only right that Topps put one of them on #213. And not just anyone, they didn’t waste the slot on Harmon Killebrew, they gave it to the starting catcher (against left-handed pitchers) for the best team in baseball. In addition, it must be said, he was the best looking player in baseball. This was the year — finally! — that the light came on about the glories of 213.
Most famous for hitting two home runs in 1911 World Series, earning the nickname “Home Run,” the ageless Frank Baker was still hanging on 60 years later. While not quite the superstar he had been, you can’t blame Topps for giving the old legend the prime card spot one last time.
Kinda ballsy of Topps to anoint not just one, but THREE, players with the superstar position in the set. Obviously they knew something, as these three hot prospects ended up racking up -0.1, -1.5, and -0.5 *career* WAR, for a mind-boggling total of -2.1. All on one card! Good luck finding this beauty at an affordable price. Clearly, the 213 Gambit paid off for Topps Bubble Gum, Inc.
What can I say, Topps just blew it. Not only did they put a no-name on the card, someone destined for mediocrity, but we can’t even see his face! The only thing I can think of is that they meant to give #213 to Joe “Say Hey” Lahoud, but some intern swapped the images and Joe ended up on #212. Sad, but Topps had built up so much good will in my house by this point in my life that I decided to let it go.
I also heard a rumor that Topps *wanted* to put Rader on #213 in 1973, but didn’t want to jinx the kid with only one fine season under his belt. But once he put up his .229 batting average with nine home runs in 1973, he kind of forced their hand. After the Garvey Debacle, it must have been a relief for Topps to have this slam dunk candidate to carry the torch.
Oscar could play, or at least hit, and one can imagine a different timeline where he holds a full-time job for 10 years and makes a bunch of All-Star teams. And, of course, everyone dug Oscar’s ‘fro (the second best in his family), which made him a household name in all the cool households that dropped the names of platoon outfielders in casual conversation. But, let’s not kid ourselves. Oscar got the coveted #213 slot for his trendy top-hand-only batting glove game, which we all knew would catch on.
Everyone knows that Heaverlo was the Mariano Rivera of the late 1970s, but, truth be told, Topps gave him star billing in 1976 because of his head. Fashioning himself the “Anti-Oscar,” Heaverlo was the first baseball player to shave his entire dome. Unlike Seattle Supersonics star Slick Watts, our hero did not get the credit he deserved because tradition dictated that he always don a cap. Perhaps in admiration for this sacrifice, Topps gave him a sort of Mr. Congeniality nod with the #213.
Until 1976 Leon seemed destined to live in the considerable shadow of his father Sergio, the acclaimed director of such Spaghetti Western classics as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. Heroically, young Max finally broke through with his monster 2-win, 44-strikeout performance in 1976. By the time I first saw the 1978 cards hit the store shelves in Ledyard, CT, suffice it to say that there was little remaining suspense about who #213 was going to be.
It has been said of Willie Mays that an admirer could enumerate myriad reasons for his greatness without even mentioning his power, his 660 home runs. There was just so much to brag about.
It’s kind of like that with Alan Bannister too. On his 1978 card, one of a long line of Rembrandt-level cardboard in his great career, Topps spent so much time waxing rhapsodically about his speed (including his mind-blowing 27 steals at Triple-A Eugene in 1973) and versatility (playing both infield and outfield), that they ran out of space before they could even mention that he hit a league-leading 11 sacrifice flies in 1976. Think about that for a second. They ran out of space.
What more needs to be said, at this juncture, about Bill Travers?
In retrospect it seems like a bold move on Topps’s part to delay the anointing of Jorgensen until several years into his career. But it paid off in spades after he put up 9 and 16 RBI in back-to-back seasons with the Rangers. In 1979 he took a run at Hack Wilson’s all-time single-season record, before cooling off in September and falling 175 RBI shy. By the time this card got in our hands, Jorgensen had been traded to the New York Mets, and he proved the missing piece in their extraordinary leap forward from 65 to 69 wins.
I could go on, but you likely knew all this already. By 1981 Topps had competition and things became a bit of a mess. But for most of my glorious childhood, I could point to Topps baseball cards numbering as the primary way I learned how to figure out who the great players were. There were other premium numbers, to be sure–#329 had a run of Phil Roof, Rick Joseph, and Chris Cannizzaro that is hard to beat–but I will always have a soft spot for #213.