Editor’s note: SABR Baseball Cards welcomes new member F. Scott Wilkinson with the second of his 10 articles on the 1972 Topps set, now approaching its 50th anniversary. Click here to start the series from the beginning. This post describes a serendipitous reunion with card-collecting, the 1972 set in particular.
I have explained many times that I am, by Profession, a Gambler—not some jock-sniffing nerd or a hired human squawk-box with the brain of a one-cell animal. No. That would be your average career sportswriter—and, more specifically, a full-time Baseball writer.
—Hunter S. Thompson
I was seven years old when the Topps Company issued their baseball cards for the 1972 season, pushed on us eager kids in their trademark wax packs, each with a chalky pink stick of gum sharp enough to cut the roof of your mouth. That was the year I began collecting cards and somehow they drew me in right from the first pack. My friends Billy, Ricky, and I would buy them uptown at Corso’s, a dusty little old family-run store with worn wooden floors where they sold all kinds of penny candy, soft drinks, and other sundries we didn’t care much about. I’d root those cards out when visiting my grandparents too and remember being darn disappointed after buying a couple laggard packs of ’71’s there when all I wanted were the ’72’s. It was love at first sight, instant infatuation.
A year or two later we were calling those 1972 cards “the colorful year” because they stood out so much compared to the stone-gray lot of 1970, the black beauties of 1971, and all the other staid black and white cards I collected through 1977. Sure, there were the ’75’s (one-off, incongruously colored, tacky-looking things…more on them later), but these babies were strikingly original and visually magical. To me, they still are.
Looking back they clearly smack of the early 1970s, a time that felt like an epilogue to the previous decade…the hangover from a years-long bender of excess, experimentation, social upheaval, violence, and weirdness. I only caught five full years of the 1960s and always felt like I’d missed out on something important. Maybe all kids feel like that? A feeling fed by always hanging around older people—my sisters, their friends and other neighborhood kids who were years older. Our neighbor Big Jim Miller was a good ten years older than me and when he played those new Three Dog Night records in 1969 he seemed to really be on to something. Our world was expanding and anything seemed possible so in retrospect these cards came along at the perfect time.
Today they look like the entire team of Topps designers and photographers (and a few of the players) stayed high on blotter acid and pure cocaine for weeks, jangling along feverishly until the whole 787 card series was finished. They were, and are, that vividly rendered. Of course, Billy and I didn’t think of any of that back then—we just thought they were cool looking and liked the way they made a neat, motor-like sound when we clothes-pinned them onto our bike frame and they hit the wheel spokes just right. Especially all the ones we had of Claude Osteen, “In-Action.” Apparently we didn’t have much respect for Luis Aparicio either.
Like many boys my age I collected cards and played baseball as much as possible, every day, and began playing organized ball around 1971 or 1972, first Tee-ball, and then Little League. Back when baseball was still America’s Pastime. Sports-wise baseball was the first love and some of my fondest boyhood memories are of Dad hitting fungoes to Billy and me in our back yard. I still want to play catch and work on my curve and knuckle balls. Like most ball-playing boys of that age and era I liked to get together to trade cards with my friends Billy, Jeff, Jimmy, and Ricky. We didn’t know much about what we were doing, but it was fun to try to get cards we hadn’t seen by offloading ones we were sick of or had way too many of—players like Horace Clark, Johnny Jeter, Ron Klimkowski, Joe Gibbon, Ike Brown, and Don Hahn. For some reason those guys seemed to be in every other pack.
That went well until one day when Little Ricky came over to my house and somehow made off with three of my most prized 1972 cards—a Frank Robinson, a Hank Aaron, and a Willie Mays. The 1973 Roberto Clemente card disappeared too…all of them apparently lifted while Little Ricky was left to his own devices down in our family room for a few minutes while I went upstairs to use the bathroom.
I still remember the panicky feeling after finding them missing once Ricky left. That sickly tingling nervous feeling in the belly. Even worse, what else could be missing? These were just the obvious ones…they weren’t kept straight with a list, I just categorized them and pored over them…and went with what my young head could remember. There were well over 1000 cards in my collection by the mid-1970s and I always wondered how many others he’d taken. Willie Stargell? Catfish Hunter? Tom Seaver? I did go over to his house one last time and got a peek at the ’73 Clemente to absolutely convince myself he’d done it—it had a telltale look—little ‘bubbles’—a uniquely poor print. Sure enough. Worst of all was seeing an erstwhile friend just sitting there, smiling like a toad. But at age nine or so I apparently didn’t have the emotional tools to confront Little Ricky, so I just cried a bunch and wrote him off passively rather than going deeper and challenging all four feet of him on the thievery.
That event left me so sour that I don’t think I ever traded cards again. It was devastating to my naive sense of permanence, and dope-slap shocking because the practice of stealing just wasn’t relatable. From then on Ricky couldn’t be trusted—he wasn’t allowed in our house, and we drifted apart. The episode chafed at me so much that eventually I didn’t even look at my cards anymore, not as an older boy or as a young man because it was sickening—all I could think of was that Little Bastard Ricky and those long-lost cards. Pathetic, but that awful feeling wouldn’t leave my gut so I put the little drama aside, went off to live a life, and didn’t think about the cards that remained there in my boyhood closet. Sure, I knew they were there the whole time; I just didn’t miss, want, or need them.
But on February 7th, 2019, all of those rotten memories permanently faded into the ether. What’s so special about that date? Well, ironically, that’s the day that Frank Robinson died. When the news came in I sat there shocked and saddened for a minute, then eagerly read his obituary and other articles, trying to hold on to the man and immortal player I’d admired for so long. I hadn’t considered him in years but it was still oddly devastating that he was gone so soon…so abruptly. It wasn’t right. But somehow as I sat there feeling old and lost, a thought slowly began to take hold… the realization that I had to have and hold his 1972 card…and there on eBay were hundreds of them, all bright blue and yellow, showing that smiling swing I hadn’t seen in decades. Then I realized how easy it would be to get the 1972 Aaron and Mays cards too, so those were found and bought. Phew. Next up? The ’73 Clemente card, of course.
Here it should be mentioned that aside from being way too materialistic, the reason I was so depressed when the cards first went missing was because they were just gone, with no way to reasonably replace them. Sure—I should have gone over to Rick’s, slugged him, and demanded them back, but at the time a bold potentially ugly confrontation wasn’t in my wheelhouse. Buying a slew of new packs might have worked too, but they weren’t affordable…so instead I opted for self-pity and distractions. Fast forward and nowadays we can find just about anything with a few keystrokes, for better or worse. Probably for worse – no personal interaction – but in this case eBay was my best new friend. Just knowing those cards were on the way to my house somehow left me feeling refreshed.
Not that I had dwelled on it in years but somehow my psyche felt lighter, healthier. After decades, The Ricky Caper suddenly didn’t matter…I’d finally gotten past it and was looking forward rather than backward—at least regarding that old kid card chase. But cards are colored paper…ornaments on a shelf…while Life is flesh and bones, work, friends and kinship…risk-taking and globetrotting. Big Ideas. It had to be worth trying this mindset with everything; be in the moment, don’t dwell on the past, least of all the episodes that dredge up those paralyzing, negative memories. That outlook was worth embracing.
After a while I almost wanted to go find Rick so we could talk about the old days, though we hadn’t seen each other since high school. It just didn’t matter anymore. Sounds silly as hell now that it ever did matter. It’s hard to believe that a few baseball cards could make such a difference, but for some reason an obscure yet critical internal valve had opened up and started functioning again. And after all those years, Mr. Robinson had been the catalyst.
Frank was special for so many reasons, they’re tough to track and list completely, but here are a few:
- Still the only player ever to win the MVP in both leagues.
- Triple Crown winner in 1966 (albeit with the lowest Triple Crown batting average (.316) in MLB history).
- Two-time World Series Champion (1966 and 1970) and MVP of the 1966 Series.
- Retired fourth on the list of all-time home run hitters with 586.
- First Black manager in the majors when hired as player-manager for the Cleveland Indians in 1975.
He was meaningful to me personally because he had led the Baltimore Orioles dynasty teams of the mid-1960s to early ’70s. My sisters were born in Baltimore (1960) so my parents got to see and tell me about some of those early greats like third baseman Brooks Robinson, whom my mom said caught “everything.” So, they were my team from the beginning, even though I was born in Ohio four years after my sisters. And they continued to be my team even after we moved to the Cincinnati area in 1969, when I began to watch and learn about those fledgling years of the Big Red Machine.
Later in 2019 I went home to visit my mom (still a die-hard, long-suffering Reds fan after over 50 years) and was finally ready to get those cards and take them back to the West Coast with me. They were taking up space in that closet and my mom and sisters wanted them out of there. There they were in the same large, lidded metal box they had been in since the 1970s, organized alphabetically by team, with each team’s name printed out neatly in my mom’s trademark perfect cursive writing. I don’t remember why, but apparently I’d asked Mom for help, maybe to give the collection a classier look. Ha-ha. Early telltale signs of a budding curator and amateur sports historian.
Funny aside about my sports-loving mom: to this day she will poke fun at me for the time I came to her when I was eight years old, talking excitedly about “the Clemente Brothers.” “Clemente Brothers? What are you talking about?” she said. “You know, Bob, Robert, and Roberto!” I said eagerly. She just laughed. To my credit, I do have a 1969 “Bob” Clemente card and had probably heard him called “Robert” at some point, but even an eight-year-old should have been able to figure out they were all the same person. So it goes…
The first thing I went through at Mom’s house were the football cards that were collected/inherited contemporaneously—“they’re not all that interesting” I thought, but they were a jumbled mess in their brown “pleather” sticker-covered box, so needed to be organized; leave the baseball cards for dessert. Unexpectedly, it was a wonderful warm-up to go through those old NFL cards—I had completely forgotten what was even in there, so it was like a treasure hunt. They’re all from the 1960s and 1970s, a mishmash of well-known and obscure players, time capsules from an era when players looked entirely different than they do today, mainly because of the outstanding hairdos of the time—long stringy hippy hair, greasy handlebar moustaches, mutton-chop sideburns, Afros, comb-overs, etc. Different also because the typical constitution of any player looks stronger, with features bolder and broader, even though they were considerably smaller than the behemoths of today. All those looks reflect that sentimental favorite decade right there in my formative youth, the 1970s.
Coincidentally or not, 1972 happened to be a watershed year for change in MLB. For one it was the last season of the full-time hitting pitcher; the designated, or as we called it in the backyard, the “all-time” hitter rule was instituted the following year and after that baseball, at least in the American League, was never the same again. It was the year of the first-ever player strike, resulting in the first 10 days of the season being missed and varying numbers of games missed by each team. It was also the year when the old-fashioned wool flannel uniforms began to be phased out, replaced by new lighter synthetic materials like nylon and rayon. And it was the first year of the Texas Rangers franchise, when the expansion Washington Senators moved to Arlington (the original Washington Senators had moved to Minneapolis in 1961 to become the Twins), removing baseball from Washington D.C. until the Expos, based in Montreal since 1969, moved to D.C. in 2005 to become the Washington Nationals.
Yet even while change was afoot the divisions were arranged archaically, with Cincinnati and Atlanta in the NL West (along with Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego), though both of those cities lie well east of Chicago (Cubs) and St. Louis, both in the NL East. Similarly, at the time the Brewers were still in the AL East and the White Sox in the AL West, though Milwaukee is slightly west of Chicago.
After getting back home, I slowly, reverently, started plowing through all the precious baseball cards I hadn’t seen in decades. Part of me didn’t even want to…what if I just keep putting it off so I’ll always have that thing to look forward to? Take a page out of Uncle Larry’s Theory of Delayed Gratification. Right. Of course, once I did dive in – what a treat! So many warm memories came flooding back.
The bulk of the collection covers 1970-1977, with the 1975 cards most plentiful, probably because I had more paper route money by then; after that, the numbers piddle out. And yet…almost immediately I was struck by the recognition that all I cared about were the ones from 1972. Even finding a 1966 Whitey Ford, a 1968 Hank Aaron, and Colt 45’s cards of Joe Morgan (1967) and Jim “The Toy Cannon” Wynn (1966), all of which I’d completely forgotten about, didn’t excite me the way the 1972’s did. And it was oddly disappointing to see so fewer of the ‘72’s than I remembered. So…even before making my way a third of the way through all that original collection, I put it on hold and went back to eBay… knowing that I had to have all 787 cards from the 1972 series. Out of nowhere my inner 8-year-old was back, elbowing the boring late middle-aged self aside, hungry for those colorful cards like they’d nourish me somehow. No joke.
And so began the fantastic journey of not only finding and acquiring all those cards, but studying them, poring over them, and researching all the players and their careers. I hadn’t planned on taking all of that on—it just happened. I was energized beyond recognition and dove in like it would make me rich. Ridiculous? Kind of. Weird? Probably. Obsessive? No question. Unexpected? Surely. Materialistic? Uh huh. But in the end, was the process entrancing, fulfilling, cathartic and just plain fun? Well, hell yes! Stoked by those happy feelings I gave away loads of the best doubles to friends who might appreciate them, with pithy quotes cartooning out of the players’ mouths. Trying my best to spread that cool kind 1972 vibe, it was invigorating and incredibly fun. Who would have ever thought this could happen after tamping down all that bad card juju forever? Whatever the reason, I was just looking forward to getting at more of the long-lost hobby…
This is the most personal part of my ode to baseball and the early 1970s in general, and to the Topps Company and the special 1972 set specifically. Thanks for the memories, Topps – both the old ones and the new ones! Apologies for the pronounced wordiness here, but the 50th anniversary of the set warrants some indulgence.
Dedicated to my sports-loving mom, Caroline B. Wilkinson, who never threw my cards away, and to all the players from the 1972 Topps Series, especially those who passed during the writing of this article: Henry Aaron, Dick Allen, Ed Armbrister, Glenn Beckert, Hal Breeden, Lou Brock, Oscar Brown, Horace Clark, Billy Conigliaro, Chuck Dobson, Paul Doyle, Ed Farmer, Ray Fosse, Bill Freehan, Bob Gibson, Jim Grant, Grant Jackson, Bart Johnson, Jerry Johnson, Jay Johnstone, Al Kaline, Lew Krausse, Angel Mangual, Mike Marshall, Denis Menke, Lindy McDaniel, Roger Moret, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, Bob Oliver, Don Pavletich, Ron Perranoski, Juan Pizzaro, J. R. Richard, Mike Ryan, Tom Seaver, Richie Scheinblum, Rennie Stennett, Bill Sudakis, Don Sutton, Tony Taylor, Dick Tidrow, Bill Virdon, Bob Watson, Stan Williams, and Jim Wynn.
Special thanks to Baseball-Almanac.com, Baseballhall.org, Baseball-Reference.com, and Wikipedia.com for kindly compiling and sharing their vast treasure troves of data.
Extra special thanks to Jason Schwartz and Nick Vossbrink for their timely encouragement and warm welcome into the SABR community.
Much gratitude to Mr. Larry Pauley, who gave this project direction when there was none.