Back Story: 1971 Topps

Note: This is Part V of a series focusing primarily on the material featured on the backs of baseball cards (previous articles featured the 1956 Topps, 1960 Topps, 1954 Topps/Bowman and 1955 Topps-Bowman sets).

A popular set among collectors, the 1971 Topps baseball card set was truly innovative, offering something a little different on both the front and back sides of the cards. The fronts of the 752-card set—at the time, the biggest ever—featured a black-bordered motif, as exemplified by card No. 100, Pete Rose, and No. 600, Willie Mays.

This was a striking design. But for collectors interested in a card’s condition, the set offered two obvious challenges:

  • With a black, rather than a white, border, any imperfections on the edges showed up much more clearly than on a traditional white-bordered card
  • Unless the card was perfectly centered—and good luck finding perfectly-centered cards—there was usually either too much, or too little, of that slim black border on the left or right side of the card

But hey, this was 1971, and who ever thought people would be shelling out big bucks for baseball cards in mint (or near-mint) condition? Give Topps props for changing things up… and that was even more true of their design of the back side of the 1971 set. For the first time since 1962, Topps eschewed the by-now-standard year-by-year stat line for each player, instead providing the numbers for only the previous season, along with the player’s career totals. With more available room, Topps added a headshot of the player. These headshots came in several styles. Sometimes the shot had a little background; like clouds, trees or the stands of a stadium; No. 450, Bob Gibson, is a good example.

The backgrounds could be a little distracting; more effective were headshots with just the sky as a background. A good example is No. 501, Andy Etchebarren, whose “Wolf-man”-inspired eyebrows offer the viewer enough of a distraction.

And finally, some of the “head” shots were exactly that: just the head, ma’am. The results are, well, interesting. To me, the shots of New York mainstays Tommie Agee (No. 310) and Horace Clarke (No. 715), look like a pair of balloons from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

Whatever their quality, the headshots on the backs of the 1971 cards let the collector know what the guy looked like… albeit via a small black-and-white shot of lower quality. Still, this gave Topps the freedom to do some experimenting on the card fronts. For the first time, the 1971 set replaced the standard posed shot on the front of many cards with a photo taken from major league game action. Way cool!

It was a nice innovation, and a number of these “player in action” shot are outstanding.
No. 118, Cookie Rojas, turning a double play, is a beauty. I also love the classic pitching motion of No. 520, Tommy John (better known in the Zminda household as “Johnny Tom”).

There are a number of excellent shots of players at bat. The afore-mentioned Andy Etchebarren swinging the bat is very nice, and No. 360, Jim Fregosi, is even better—a stunning action shot in horizontal format.

You can even do “Compare Batting Stances” with the horizontally-oriented cards of the Yankees’ Roy White (card No. 395) and Ron Woods (No. 514). The shots, pretty obviously taken from the same game, both include catcher Duane Josephson of the White Sox. (Pop quiz question: of this trio, who is the only one who does not yet have a SABR bio? Answer at the end of the article.)

However, Topps was brand-new at this action-shot stuff, and sometimes the photos lacked action, or contained needless distractions. Bob Gibson’s card has both problems. His card front shows him just standing on the mound between pitches, with his image dissolving into the crowd in the background. The action shot of No. 513, Nolan Ryan—in his last season with the Mets before being shunted off to Anaheim in a disastrous trade for Fregosi—also has a distraction problem: the pitching motion is nice, but the billboard in the background makes the card look more like an ad for Royal Crown Cola.

Ryan showed up again—this time as a spectator—on the card front of No. 355, Bud Harrelson. There is some nice activity at second base in the shot, with Harrelson tagging an Astro while the ump and the Mets second baseman look on. However, the action is shown from a distance; the foreground includes the back of Ryan’s uniform number as he watches from the mound. A little cropping (as shown below), and this would have been a much better shot, in my opinion.

But overall the action shots worked very well, and proved to be a hit with collectors. Less successful—on both the front and back sides of the cards—was how Topps dealt with the always-tricky issue of players who switched teams after their card photos had been taken. For the airbrushers, the Old English White Sox logo was a particular challenge. Not surprisingly, they had more success with the small black-and-white shots on the backs of the cards. (It’s also likely that some of the shots on the backs of the cards came from other sources for black-and-white headshots, like team media guides.) For Pat Kelly (No. 413) and future Harry Caray whipping boy Tom Egan (No. 537), Topps neatly avoided having to airbrush the cap of the photo on the front by using a shot looking up at the bill of the player’s cap. No logo to mess with!

For Rick Reichardt (among many others), Topps employed the familiar strategy of showing the player capless.

The airbrusher actually did a pretty fair job with the front of John Purdin’s (No. 748) card. As for Don O’Riley (No. 679)… not so much. Even the photo on the back of O’Riley’s card is pretty bad.

Of course, the White Sox were hardly the only challenge to Topps’ airbrushers. In a few cases, late roster moves left Topps with no time to airbrush logos onto either the front or back sides of the cards—resulting in a number of caps with no team logo at all. Jim Qualls (No. 731), forever immortal (and to some, notorious) as the man who ruined Tom Seaver’s 1969 perfect game bid, was dealt from Montreal to Cincinnati so late (March 31) that the back of his card still identifies him as “the Expos’ only switch-hitter.” For me, the red paint job on the on the front of Qualls’ card brought back memories of Holden Caulfield in his red hunting hat.

Marv Staehle (No. 663), signed by the Braves on April 3 after being released by Montreal, wound up looking like the guy who filled your tank at the Sunoco station on Route 23.

By 1971, “Rookie star” Archie Reynolds (No. 664), one of a trio of Reynolds rooks on the same card, had already seen brief action in three major league seasons, and he had been a part of the Angels’ organization since mid-1970. So what’s with that painted-on cap, Arch?

Dick Williams (No. 714) is an even bigger curiosity. Williams was named manager of the Oakland Athletics in late January of 1971, and Topps had time to utilize a non-airbrushed shot of Williams in the familiar white cap worn by A’s managers and coaches on the back of his card. So how did Williams wind up in the goofy green cap on the card front?

One final mystery. Topps had no worries about Hank Aaron (No. 400) changing teams… and surely they had more than a few Aaron images to choose from. Yet they somehow chose to use the same photo—nothing special, to be honest—on both sides of Bad Henry’s card.

Ah, but I protesteth too much; despite the occasional slip-ups, this is a wonderful card set. Both the front and back sides of the cards contain interesting innovations… and while the use of action shots is the primary innovation on the front side of the cards, there are some wonderful posed shots as well. Here are a few of my favorites.

Quiz answer: Ron Woods, who would be traded by the Yankees to the Expos in June of 1971 in exchange for former 1969 Mets hero Ron Swoboda, still awaits a SABR bio.

Author: Don Zminda

A SABR member since 1979, Don Zminda writes about all kinds of baseball-related matters.

7 thoughts on “Back Story: 1971 Topps”

  1. Great post and great set. Take a look at the 71T Ernie Banks card – it is begging for a caption contest.
    The backs that year are very readable, not something you can say about many of today’s blingy cards.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very well done, Don. This is the first of your series that is on a set that I collected in real time. The front design remains an all-time favorite. An issue I had with the backs is that this was the first time Topps used the grey card stock, rather than the white, since 1962. This is why I consider the 63-70 period the Golden Age of card backs, especially now that I use reading glasses!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Always loved the black borders and the photography in this set. Less enthralled with the backs. I have never been fond of extra photos on the back. That’s what fronts are for. Backs should be reserved for stats and important factoids like ‘Which player set the Phillies’ record for walks in one season?’.
    BTW, when will we be allowed to see Pete Rose on a baseball card again? Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

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