Tom Seaver (1944-2020)

Baseball cards are personal. Someone could write hundreds of words about what set is the best, or what card is the best, and what design decisions are the best (guilty, guilty, and guilty), but for many of us, it comes down to how you experienced cards as a child. My story reads like a series of well-worn clichés: saved quarters from allowance, rode bike to neighborhood store, traded with friends, sorted cards on family vacation. The whole shebang.

The first year I bought cards was 1967, when I was 6. Ergo, this was the best set Topps ever made. I talk myself into believing that this opinion is based on a rational collection of factors about picture quality, design, content of the back, etc. But is it really?

A pack of 1967 Topps was a nickel for five cards. I did not have a lot of nickels, but I managed to accumulate a few hundred cards at the end of the season, including card #581.

1967 Topps

By the time I laid eyes on this card, likely in September, the 22-year-old Seaver was already one of the very best pitchers in baseball. He had pitched the final inning of the NL’s 2-1, 15-inning victory in the recent All-Star game, striking out Ken Berry to end it.  I wonder how often a player has played in an All-Star game before their first baseball card hit store shelves?

I might have watched some of this game, but no way I was allowed to stay up until the 15th inning. If I knew anything about Seaver it would have been his appearances in the league leaders that I studied every day in the paper. Very few six-year-olds living outside of the greater New York area had any idea who Tom Seaver was.

Bill Denehy, since you are wondering, finished the year 1-7, giving this baseball card a rookie pitching record of 17-20. Denehy would leave a second mark on baseball history in November when he was traded to the Senators for manager Gil Hodges.

In March 1968, I likely ran into Topps card #45. And it was a beauty.

1968 Topps

Collectors who got to the hobby 10 years, or 40 years, after I did grew up wanting “action” on their baseball cards. I did not–I fell in love with card sets filled with players whose faces I knew better than my own relatives. I did not think of this card as boring, I thought it was magnificent.

Because of the ongoing dispute between Topps and the player’s union, most of the photos Topps used in the 1968 set were taken no later than April or May of 1967, and many of them dated from years before. The photo on Seaver’s 1968 card was taken the previous spring, before Seaver had thrown his first big league pitch. At that same photo shoot, Topps took a beautiful photo of Seaver in his follow through.

1968 Topps that could have been

Unfortunately, some smarty-pants proof-reader noticed that Tom was throwing left-handed (a rookie trying to fool the photographer?) and we were robbed of this masterpiece. 

The next year, with the boycott still in full swing, Topps used the identical Seaver photo for card #480, a fifth series card that would have hit my store around July. By the time it did, Tom Seaver was one of the best and most famous athletes in the country.

1969 Topps

For a baseball-obsessed and baseball card-obsessed kid, there was no 1969 card more precious than this one. Mays and Aaron and Clemente were superstars, and Yaz was my personal hero, but Seaver was like the Beatles. He was whip smart, a beautiful and mechanically-flawless pitcher, handsome as all get out, and younger  (24) than most of my team’s “prospects”.  He and Nancy, smart, beautiful, and glamorous in her own right, were the John and Jackie Kennedy of baseball.

Seaver finished the 1969 season with 25 wins, a truckload of awards, and a World Series trophy. The 1969 Mets are one of the more famous teams ever, but if anything the story of their Miracle seems almost …undersold?  The Mets had been awful for their 7 year existence, and there was no free agency to afford them a quick fix. It was all, dare I say it, Amazin’.

But let’s get real: they were basically a team of (a) role players, (b) guys having their best year of their life, and (c) Tom Seaver. (Maybe Jerry Koosman gets special mention.) Seaver is the biggest hero in the history of his franchise–there is no close second–and one of the most respected and admired athletes in the history of New York.

If you fell in love with baseball when I did, there were two superstars that you grew up with: Seaver and Johnny Bench. I saw Aaron and Mays and Clemente on TV, but most of their careers predated me. I felt ownership of Seaver and Bench, as I did Rod Carew and Reggie Jackson. These four players, who would be named to 58 All-Star teams, all made their big league debuts in my formative year of 1967.  How about that?

A remarkable thing about Seaver, and this is equally true of Bench, is that his public persona never really changed. He was a mature team leader as a rookie. Despite playing the heart of his career in a period of rapidly changing hairstyles and flamboyant personalities, Seaver remained the confident, fascinating, brilliant superstar that hipsters and squares could all admire. My friends and I had opinions about Reggie Jackson or Pete Rose or Steve Carlton. No one had opinions about Seaver. What was there to say, honestly?

I am not going to run through all his cards, as much as I’d like to. I have been known to criticize Topps’ early attempts at action photos, but it came as no surprise that when Topps used game footage of Seaver they turned out these pieces of magic.

1974 Topps
1977 Topps
1981 Topps
1983 Topps

My favorite Tom Seaver card, if forced to choose, is from 1975. The best part of 1970s and 1980s sets is that Topps used a nice mix of posed, action, and (my personal favorite, as here) candid photos. The 1975 Topps card shows Seaver at rest, almost (but not quite) looking at the camera. What might he have been thinking?

He was 30 when this card came out, the best pitcher in baseball (he would win his 3rd Cy Young Award that year, and could have won others), one of the most famous, most admired athletes in America, a clothes model, a sportscaster. He was Terrific, and you get the feeling he knew it. How could he not?

Rest in peace, Tom Seaver. 

 

Author: Mark Armour

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

14 thoughts on “Tom Seaver (1944-2020)”

  1. I don’t know how or why ….. but during the 72 hours preceding the announcement of his death, I had been thinking a lot about Tom Seaver, and this sense of dread came over me ….. I mean I knew about his dementia diagnosis from 2019 ….. but SOMETHING in me felt like he was taking a turn for the worse now …… and since I didn’t have many cards of his, I spent those last 72 hours, and especially the last 12 hours, buying graded cards of his from his early years. I was debating spending $$$ on his rookie card when I heard he passed. I bought the rookie card and I will cherish the cards I have.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. A very nice tribute from a home town fan of the Mets, and an obvious huge fan of Tom Seaver. I agree with you, he was the best pitcher of his day. A classy man all the way. R.I.P.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wonderful post. Seaver was an interesting case for me as a late-80s kid. He was legendary but also somewhat underrated by then, lumped in with guys like Don Sutton and overshadowed by Nolan Ryan. Seeing posts like this and realizing that (until I started building 1978) my oldest Seaver card was from 1985 reminds me how much my childhood impressions still shape my initial reactions to things.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I too am a fan of the cards where you can see their face. Some of the cards have almost a full action shot and still one can see their face. Back in the fifties this was the only way we could see what the players looked like because going to the ball game was not always available in a separated family with a working mother.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Tom Seaver had an entire pack-based product dedicated to him – 1992 Pacific Seaver or 1992 Pacific Tom Terrific. I know the card market was different in the late 1980s and early 1990s than it was prior to that or today, so perhaps it’s part luck in the sense of timing, but there aren’t a lot of players who get an entire pack-based product dedicated to them. 110 cards of awesomeness (posed, action, casual, pitching, hitting, non-playing – even some card backs have photos). Very few cards without a Mets logo or team name make it into my Mets books – that entire set did.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The 1968 card was in one the first packs I opened as a 6 year old. I still have the card, which is in a display in my memorabilia room. Excellent tribute. I had a crush on Nancy.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Wonderful, touching piece illustrating, among other things, the power of baseball cards as historic documents, and that is even without reference to the backs. As a Yankee fan growing up in that era I had to grudgingly respect Seaver. He broadcast Yankee games later and was wonderful, basically using the opportunity to conduct year – long interviews of his broadcast partner Rizzuto. RIP.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Mark, the 1967 All-Star Game was a day game played at Anaheim Stadium. I was also just six years old, but I remember staying up until the end of the three-hour 41-minute contest, so don’t sell yourself short!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Love this post, Mark. I was born in ’76, too late to see Seaver pitch (my main memories are seeing him in the Red Sox dugout in the ’86 World Series, and his brief 1987 comeback attempt with the Mets; I was not yet tuned in enough to baseball to have noticed his 300th win). But I did a book report on him in 5th grade and he became my favorite Met and my favorite player who I never saw play, even on TV. I remember looking up his rookie card in those Beckett price guides I bought in my late-80s, early-90s collecting heyday and imagining what it would take to come up with that kind of money. I have his cards back to 1970, but those first three were always a little out of my reach. Now that I can make purchases of that nature, I’m going to have to fill in the blanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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