Editor’s note: SABR Baseball Cards welcomes new member F. Scott Wilkinson with the third 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 takes a detailed look at the design of the 1972 cards, with a brief comparison to other Topps schemes of the era (1970-75).
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
If memory serves, it seemed like with a little help from the “Dick, Jane, and Spot” books I learned to read by studying Baltimore Orioles box scores at my grandparents’ house, and in those days they got both morning and evening editions of the Decatur Herald & Review – woohoo! Right away I was finding baseball books for kids and taking in old numbers like candy. Ruth’s 714 home runs, Cy Young’s 511 wins, Walter Johnson’s 3508 (now 3509) strikeouts, Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak, Ty Cobb’s career batting average of .367 (now .366), etc…all of those and many more are iconic, seared in there early. Who knows why they were appealing – they just were.
Then you start looking into things like Tris Speaker being the all-time leader in doubles (with 792) and Ted Williams being the last person to hit over .400; turns out he could have sat down for the final two games of the 1941 season (a double-header) to protect the number, but he played both games, went 6-for-8 and ended up hitting .406. Important stuff, right? Yep – because then it’s interesting when players like George Brett, Tony Gwynn, and John Olerud make a run at that .400 barrier.
As fascinating as the facts and figures are, they’re just numbers – entry-level and rudimentary. But baseball is famous for being a true statistician’s game, which ultimately led to Sabermetrics and a deeper analysis of the game by comprehensively crunching and evaluating the numbers ad nauseam, looking for a winning formula. And that’s all fine, but it gets us too far away from the feeling of the game…and the feelings those cards stir up…they’re not easy to describe…but let’s try…so, back to those cards…
There’s so much color and data to take in from the ’72 set – it’s any lifelong baseball fan, art aficionado and/or number-addled stat geek’s happy daydream fully realized. The palette of the series is otherworldly compared to every other Topps year and the design almost reminds of classic Art Deco, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters or pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein or Andy Warhol. If there was a singular influence, likely it was not as antiquated or highfalutin as these, but closer temporally and geographically to the Brooklyn-based Topps Company (like Lichtenstein and Warhol). Namely, this David Edward Byrd poster from the musical “Follies”, which debuted on Broadway, April 4, 1971. The font is a match and the stars on either end are uncanny too.
Whatever the inspiration, the series is defined by the look of the individual player cards which feature their team name bursting off the heading in black 3-D block lettering. The bold team name is highlighted with two colors that complement the main color of the card and is bookended with two small stars that share those complementary colors. Fancy fancy.
Here’s a prime example – the card of Dick Williams (#137), who managed his Oakland Athletics to a World Series win in 1972.
Oddly, the main color of a card often has nothing to do with the team’s actual uniform colors. Example: The Dodger cards are orange, with yellow and white highlights—no trademark Dodger blue anywhere. The Reds are green; the Cardinals and Orioles are blue, the Cubs and Indians are purple, and the Mets and A’s are both red. Still, it all works somehow.
There are 12 distinct color schemes, all bright primary and secondary colors (hues of yellow, blue, red, green, purple, and orange), and well-conceived for the most part. With 24 teams in 1972, Topps assigned each design to both a National League team and an American League team.
Each scheme has three colors, with a principal color for the body of the card, a second color (generally) making up most of the accent coloring of the team’s name in the 3D font, and a tertiary color for the remainder of the 3D accent coloring and the piping that frames the picture and text. All of that within an outermost border of white, with player names at the bottom, in capitalized black font on a small white placard. A simple, elegant design.
Collectors have called the 1972 cards “tombstones” for their unique border and it’s true—the colored portion is shaped like an old-time tombstone. They definitely have a groovy, psychedelic feel, even though the Summer of Love was five years past. Somehow they always made me think of paper trophies. They differ from other years in that the position of the player is not indicated on the front, removing some clutter and borders, and there are no sprawling player signatures either.
The result is so clean and perfect that some of them almost transcend baseball to look more like iconic artistic works than mere sports cards. Think of Andy Warhol’s silkscreened visions of athletes like Pele, Muhammad Ali and Tom Seaver. That’s an overstatement, but some of these look as fresh as any pop art there ever was.
Here are some nice examples including my personal favorite, Horatio Pina (#654), with blue sky and cotton ball clouds in his background. I swear all these look like artful, timeless portraits worthy of a silkscreen or framed oil painting. Really.
For fun here are all 12 color schemes, ranked from my most to least favorite, listing in order the NL team, AL team, first color (most prevalent), second color (majority of team name), and third color (piping). [Note: team allegiances may have influenced rankings somewhat!]
- San Francisco Giants/New York Yankees – yellow, orange, red
- St. Louis Cardinals/Baltimore Orioles – dark blue, yellow, light blue
- Cincinnati Reds/Chicago White Sox – light green, blue, yellow
- Los Angeles Dodgers/Detroit Tigers – orange, white, yellow
- Montreal Expos/Boston Red Sox – green, orange, yellow
- Chicago Cubs/Cleveland Indians – purple, green, yellow
- Houston Astros/Texas Rangers – yellow, orange, blue
- Pittsburgh Pirates/Minnesota Twins – light blue, dark blue, orange
- New York Mets/Oakland A’s – red, yellow, orange
- Atlanta Braves/Kansas City Royals – red, green, yellow
- Philadelphia Phillies/California Angels – orange, green, blue
- San Diego Padres/Milwaukee Brewers – dark blue, orange, light green
The ’72 set is defined by organization, with every player on a team sharing the exact same color scheme while the aforementioned 1975 cards have schemes assigned randomly, so that most players on the same team have a different look. This seems a little chaotic and purposeless, but maybe that was 1975 in a nutshell?
Before we get to those unruly ’75 cards, let’s rewind to 1970 to remind ourselves why the 1972 lot stood out so much from all the other Topps cards that came out between 1970-75 (let alone all the cards that came before 1970 and after 1975).
1970: Those gloomy gray borders and cards almost devoid of color. Earl Weaver, who managed the O’s to a World Series win in 1970, would probably be the first to say that he was no Flower Child, and here is proof. Earl looks more like 1960 than 1970.
1971: Similar to 1970, but much better – the black is bolder than the gray, there are showy signatures, and more color in the larger font. For me, Dock Ellis epitomizes the early 1970’s – the bold fashion statements, politics, fearlessness, and renegade demeanor. Plus, for a while he was a hell of a pitcher. If you don’t know why I picked his card to represent this pseudo-psychedelic year (and even if you do) please watch this
Again, 1972: Bill “Spaceman”Lee. Perfectly normal, right? Actually they are, for the most part – the (red-brown) backs saw a return to listing career stats and the pictures are mostly standard (more on that later) – it’s just the team name that’s gone crazy compared to other years.
1973: After the anomaly of 1972 there was a return to drab normalcy, but at least Topps didn’t exactly go backwards. Here’s a good one – one of my favorite pitchers ever (see the silhouette in the bottom right corner? that’s how we know he’s a pitcher!), with one of the most entertaining wind-ups of all time – borderline Hall of Fame prospect Luis Tiant, mugging like a Vaudevillian:
1974: There was some improvement with those banners at the top and bottom and the colored border piping. The cards are still mostly black and white and a little tame, but they almost have a classy look. Here’s another favorite – another borderline Hall of Fame candidate – Dave Parker in his rookie year, with sideburn.
Then came the 1975 set…which more or less amounts to a flaccid reprise of psychedelia. Though I’ve grown to appreciate the ’75 cards for the players they represent and the funky mid-decade style that’s on full display (Oscar Gamble, anyone?), the design feels lazy and simplistic, with one solid color on the top half border of the card, a second solid color on the bottom half, and a third color for the team’s blocky faux-3D name at the top. Overall they lack detail but at least got back to player signatures…and the little baseball with the player’s position is a nice try too.
The worst thing about them has to be the choice of color schemes, with some just damn ghastly compared to the 1972 lot: purple paired with pink and yellow lettering, salmon and teal with red letters, and poop brown with burnt orange and red font—ick. They look cartoonish and haphazard, with off-cuts aplenty. Mid-70s apathy.
And even with all that said…they do have a nice high gloss…and they’re more fun than what came out in 1973 and 1974…some pizazz after two years of relative stodginess.
Check out these gems found happily in my recovered collection—rookie cards of Hall of Famers Gary Carter, Robin Yount, and George Brett.
Maybe they aren’t so bad after all? The jury’s still out!
This is 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, 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.