Editor’s note: SABR Baseball Cards welcomes new member F. Scott Wilkinson with the fourth of his 10 articles on the 1972 Topps set, now approaching its 50th anniversary. Click here to start the series from the beginning.
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
And now for a swan dive into the spirit of the ’72 cards, with a look at some of the fun poses players struck for these things…and a quick peek at the backs…
All of the individual player cards are artificially staged shots of one sort or another. The sole exception (aside from the “In Action” series) appears to be Norm Cash (#150), looking feisty during/after an actual at-bat (maybe a strikeout?), sporting his trademark no-batting-helmet and pine tar so far up the barrel of the bat that George Brett might be the only one to not take issue with it. Apparently, Norm skated.
One of the more popular player poses is the hokey, staged ‘action’ shot, most with a batter about to swing, or swinging, or swung and tending to look like he’s either, a) overacting, or b) barely even trying. How about the close-up stances of Johnny Bench (#433), Lee May (#480), Dave Cash (#125), and Cleo James (#117)? Despite campy nonchalance, these are glorious scenes with bright blue skies, framing players who almost have their game face on.
Check out Mr. Bob Oliver (#57) doing the splits in front of palm trees, looking skyward with hope, as if he’s expecting a baseball to drop miraculously into his outstretched mitt. I think there’s only one like this.
Many of the pitchers’ shots are even sillier and less convincing – get a load of Cecil Upshaw (#74) Jim Roland (#464), Lowell Palmer (#746), and a feeble-looking Jerry Reuss (#775) and…they all look like small town softball players posing at the team picnic.
Meanwhile, some pitchers already look old and worn enough to be managers (Ron Taylor (#234), Ron Perranoski (#367) and Steve Hamilton (#766)).
Come to think of it, most of the cards show spring training lollygaggers – lots of sluggers in easy poses with bats perched on their shoulders like props (Bill Freehan (#120), Ed Kranepool (#181), Johnny Briggs (#197), Boog Powell (#250) and Willie Stargell (#447)).
Most of the catchers look like they’re out playing catch with their kids (Ken Rudolph, (#271), Buck Martinez (#332), Jeff Torborg (#404)), though Ellie Hendricks (#508) is donning gear and appears to be tracking a phantom popup.
Pitchers are often captured at the top of a lazy delivery (Bobby Bolin (#266), Jose Pena (#322), and Don McMahon (#509)) or in a faux-stretch position, with their glove held at belly level (Sonny Siebert (#290), Ron Reed (#787)).
Worth mentioning of Ron Reed—he is the answer to at least three trivia questions besides “Who is featured on the last (highest-numbered) card of the 1972 Topps baseball series?”:
- Who was the winning pitcher of the game in which when Henry Aaron hit his record-breaking 715th home run?
- Name one of five pitchers in MLB history who compiled at least 100 wins, 100 saves, and 50 complete games (the other four are Ellis Kinder, Firpo Marberry, Dennis Eckersley and John Smoltz).
- Name one of the two players from the 1972 Topps baseball series who played in the NBA. (Reed played for the Detroit Pistons, 1965–67. The other player is Steve Hamilton (#766), who played for the Minneapolis Lakers from 1958–60).
With the help of that special ’72 artwork each card stands up on its own merit, whether it’s relative unknown Ron Klimkowski (#363, smiling deliriously, like he’s just happy to be having his picture taken) or Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda (#195, warily eyeing the camera, like he’s seen it all before).
I have to sheepishly admit that I’d never even heard of most of the players in the series…and it gets me every time when slowly cycling through the binders, happening upon players and swearing it’s the first time I’ve ever seen them. Sorry guys! Last time it was an early stretch of the sixth series: Luis Melendez (#606), Frank Duffy (#607), Joe Decker (#612) and Ted Uhlaender (#614). Who the hell are these scrubs? Well, they’re four of only 22,564-and-counting men who’ve ever made it to the Major Leagues. They’re better than all the guys who never made it. There’s something enchanting about having every player’s card close at hand so we can take measure of what the league looked like at the time. There they all were in 1972, each of them poised to take their best shot at greatness.
On the backs of each player’s card are factoid cartoons with spare, silly drawings of a prototype ballplayer, dropping esoteric bits of trivia via a quiz format, like, “Q: How much must a baseball weigh? A: Between 5 and 5.25 oz.”, “Q: What was Connie Mack’s real name? A: Cornelius McGillicuddy”, and “What was the original name of the spitball? A: The “cuspidor curve””. That, along with the player’s height, weight, birthdate, batting/fielding handedness (L/R), and hometown, all sit atop a detailed list of career statistics, including the minor leagues, no matter how long they spent there.
Somehow even those dry data are interesting and personal. You find that Ollie Brown (#551), Tito Fuentes (#427) and many others played “Midwest” minor league ball in Decatur, Illinois where both of my parents were born and grew up. Many Pacific Coast League and Northwest League players did time in towns I now find familiar, like Portland Oregon; Aberdeen, Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma, Wenatchee, and Yakima, Washington; and Vancouver, British Columbia.
One card (Walt Alston, #749) even has my little boyhood hometown (Oxford, Ohio) printed on it, though Walt actually lived next door to my friend, Sam Stewart, over in Darrtown, a tiny “census designated place” of about 500 people, five miles east of Oxford (population about 15,000 back then). Sam was one of the better ball players I knew growing up and he always liked to tease/torture us with his funny made-up lyrics to the 1981 Terry Cashman song – “Talkin’ baseball…Stew and Campanella…”…
Part of an 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.