Editor’s note: SABR Baseball Cards welcomes new member F. Scott Wilkinson with the fifth of his 10 articles on the 1972 Topps set, now celebrating 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
This post tries to make some sense of how all 787 cards of the 1972 set are organized, and takes a look at some of the sub-series offerings of the lot…
The ’72 Topps catalogue is divided into six distinct series, marked by canary-yellow checklist cards (numbered 4, 103, 251, 378, 478, and 604) that listed player cards in order so that collectors could keep track of their finds. These cards were losers when we were kids, but good luck finding them in mint condition today! From my experience, many a boy wanted to keep track of what they had (my old cards have pencil or pen marks in many of the square check boxes) and these days pristine cards seem to be somewhat rare and relatively expensive.
On average the first series seems to have the most cardboard in circulation (“commons”) and cards get rarer (and more valuable) as their numbers rise. By the sixth series there are many heavyweights that don’t seem as plentiful, like the last ever Topps cards of Hall of Famers Bill Mazeroski (#760) and Hoyt Wilhelm (#777).
Individual player cards make up most of all six series, but as usual there are trademark Topps theme cards within each series as well. The first series features statistics leader cards (#85–94), which have small photos of the top three leaders of a category (home runs, RBI, batting average, wins, strikeouts, and ERA) on the front and a listing of the top 10 leaders on the back. Even these cards have a distinct color scheme – the American League cards are blue with yellow piping and white lettering, while all the National League cards are green, with orange piping and yellow lettering.
The second series features 10 cards (#221–230) representing the 1971 postseason, all with the same design—bright red with yellow piping, a white border and black lettering. The first two cards of the series show scenes from the NL and AL Championship Series, won by the Pirates and Orioles respectively, with series totals for the two teams on the back.
The remainder chronicle the Pirates’ World Series victory over the Orioles in seven games, showing an action scene from each game on the front and the game’s box score on the back. Here are my two favorites – Brooks Robinson and Mark Belanger in Game 2 and Nelson Briles from his Game 5 two-hit shutout:
Card #230 perfectly captures the Pirates’ moment of victory, with a pack of delirious Pirates players—Manny Sanguillen (#60) smiling widely with arm raised; Luke Walker (#471), and Gene Clines (#152) to the right and third base coach Frank Oceak (wearing number 44 in photo) in the foreground. This card lists the cumulative Series stat totals on the back in tiny font and reminds us that Boog Powell hit only .111 (3 for 27) for the Series. Damn it! The O’s needed just a little more from the 1970 AL MVP.
The dominant overall theme (featured in all six series) is the “In Action” lot, which was just that—candid action shots with the same blood-red-with-yellow-piping design as the postseason cards. As a boy I never wanted to see these—they seemed less valuable somehow, just worthless filler. Bike spoke material. Today they’re far more interesting (and valuable), with some really capturing how intense, chaotic, and violent baseball can be – just look at #700 – Bobby Murcer’s devil-may-care slide into home.
Juan Marichal’s legendary high leg-kick delivery is perfectly captured too, (#568) while John “Blue Moon” Odom (#558) seems to be defying gravity. These are some of the best “In Actions.”
I never liked these next two, but they are pretty cool now. It looks like Seaver (#446) is laughing his ass off at something the catcher just said, but more likely he was having a bad reaction to a called ball he knew was a strike. Meanwhile, Clemente (#310) was maybe showing up the ump with a “that’s not a strike” look or possibly taunting the pitcher with a “No no, son – let’s try that again”. Who knows, unless you were there? Some day there should be a caption contest for these things. And how about The Great One’s big-ass hands with no batting gloves? Old school and fearless.
Each “In Action” card is numbered adjacent to the player’s standard card and there are 12 of these cards in each of the six series, all with the same front—players in various real-game shots—but with different themes on the back. The first series of IA cards has cartoon ads for other cards in the series—not too exciting. The second series has some of those silly ads, as well as some historical data, like a listing of National League pennant winners since 1900 (#178) and American League ERA leaders going back to 1913 when Walter Johnson led the league with a mark of 1.14 (#176).
The third sub-series has some of the ads as well as trivia questions about how to call some uncommon game scenarios. They’re titled “So You’re a Baseball Expert, by Harry Simmons” and here is a typically convoluted example, from the back of the Danny Frisella card (#294):
Scenario: Let’s say the Los Angeles Dodgers and Montreal Expos are tied, 4–4, in the sixth inning of a game at Montreal. With one out, the Dodgers have Maury Wills on third and Wes Parker on second. The Los Angeles batter runs up a count of two balls and one strike, but the scoreboard shows two strikes and one ball. On the next pitch, the batter swings, and misses. The Montreal catcher drops the ball to the ground, however, and the batter, thinking it is a fumbled third strike, dashes for first base. The catcher, confused, throws to first, but his throw is wild and the ball sails into right field. Wills and Parker score. The batter stays on first base. Actually, the batter has no business on first, and should not have run and drawn a throw as—except on the misleading scoreboard—it was the second strike and not the third. How would you untangle this situation?
Solution: The runs count, but the batter must return to bat with the count properly two-and-two. There is no rule to penalize him. The catcher bears the blame for throwing away a live ball when he should have known better.
“In Action” cards of the fourth series contain some history, with newspaper headlines of noteworthy feats on the reverse—one from the Ken Singleton card (#426) shows an article from the Chicago Tribune, June 3, 1971, “(Ken) Holtzman Hurls 2nd No-hitter”. Another, from the Bob Robertson card (#430), has a St. Louis Dispatch article from August 14, 1971, that reads “(Bob) Gibson Pitches No-hitter vs. Bucs”.
Here are two neat ones – the Tito Fuentes card (#428) has a Philadelphia Enquirer headline boasting “Wise No-Hits Reds and Hits 2 Homers” and the back of the Willie Stargell card (#448) features an article from The Montreal Star proclaiming “Hunt Hit By Pitch 50th Time of Season”, a record-breaking “effort” well before Rudy Stein and Michael Conforto were instructed to “lean into it”.
The backs of the fifth and sixth series are corny, the fifth being puzzle pieces that fit together to create larger pictures of Joe Torre (#500) and Carl Yastrzemski (#37) and the sixth featuring puzzle piece pictures of Tony Oliva (#400) and Tom Seaver (#445). Nice try, but these six-card pictures are goofy and staged and it’s safe to say that my friend Billy and I never bothered to assemble any of them even once. Still, we need to exercise our due diligence, so here’s Yaz! Looking just fine, actually.
For the hell of it, here’s a breakdown of all the players/card numbers of the “In Action” cards of each series. You’d think every card would be of an All-Star (the 4th series is loaded with greats), yet there are plenty of guys here who may have seemed destined for greatness, but ended up being (relative) scrubs:
First Series: Cleon James (#32), Billy Martin (#34), Jerry Johnson (#36), Carl Yastrzemski (#38), Bob Barton (#40), Tommy Davis (#42), Rick Wise (#44), Glenn Beckert (#46), John Ellis (#48), Willie Mays (#50), Harmon Killebrew (#52), Bud Harrelson (#54).
Second Series: Tug McGraw (#164), Chris Speier (#166), Deron Johnson (#168), Vida Blue (#170), Darrell Evans (#172), Clay Kirby (#174), Tom Haller (#176), Paul Schaal (#178), Dock Ellis (#180), Ed Kranepool (#182), Bill Melton (#184), Ron Bryant (#186).
Third Series: Hal McRae (#292), Danny Frisella (#294), Dick Dietz (#296), Claude Osteen (#298), Hank Aaron (#300), George Mitterwald (#302), Joe Pepitone (#304), Ken Boswell (#306), Steve Renko (#308), Roberto Clemente (#310), Clay Carroll (#312), Luis Aparicio (#314).
Fourth Series: Ken Singleton (#426), Tito Fuentes (#428), Bob Robertson (#430), Clarence Gaston (#432), Johnny Bench (#434), Reggie Jackson (#436), Maury Wills (#438), Billy Williams (#440), Thurman Munson (#442), Ken Henderson (#444), Tom Seaver (#446), Willie Stargell (#448).
Fifth Series: Ollie Brown (#552), Wilbur Wood (#554), Ron Santo (#556), John Odom (#558), Pete Rose (#560), Leo Cardenas (#562), Ray Sadecki (#564), Reggie Smith (#566), Juan Marichal (#568), Ed Kirkpatrick (#570), Nate Colbert (#572), Fritz Peterson (#574).
Sixth Series: Curt Blefary (#692), Allan Gallager (#694), Rod Carew (#696), Jerry Koosman (#698), Bobby Murcer (#700), Jose Pagan (#702), Doug Griffin (#704), Pat Corrales (#706), Tim Foli (#708), Jim Kaat (#710), Bobby Bonds (#712), Gene Michael (#714).
For the fourth and fifth series (cards #341–348 and #491–498), Topps thought it was a good idea to go with the theme of “Boyhood Photos of the Stars,” where you find a black and white photo of the player from their youth, often in their Little League or Babe Ruth uniforms, and a description of their youthful exploits on the back. Check out Jim Fregosi posing with his accordion (#346) and clean-cut Jim Perry, (#497) sharing a telling description of what it was like to play high school baseball with his younger brother Gaylord:
When Jim and his younger brother, Gaylord, were kids, they would get a hard rubber ball from their sister Carolyn, the kind girls use for playing jacks. They would wrap it in yarn and thread and cover it with black tape. Jim said, “it didn’t look like much, except it was sort of round. But it did the job and didn’t cost anything.” The Perry brothers played together one season in High School. “I’m two years older,” Jim recalls, “I was a junior when Gaylord was a freshman and I pitched, and he played third base. He had a strong arm and we needed another pitcher, so I worked with him and he became the second starter. When he pitched, I played third. If either of us got into trouble, the other would relieve. We won 7 straight playoff games and the state title, the only baseball championship the school ever won.”
As with most other Topps years there were cards for every team, with all-time team record holders for hitting/pitching listed on the back. Since the Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series in 1971, their team card is #1.
There is a “Rookie Stars” card for each team sprinkled throughout the entire set, with two or three of the team’s most promising rookies pictured on the front and their minor league stats listed on the back. It’s interesting that Ed Armbrister (#524) shows up again on the 1975 “Rookie Outfielders” card (along with Terry Whitfield, Tom Poquette and Fred Lynn); understandably it was tough to crack that Big Red Machine roster. Poor Ed never got even 80 at-bats in a season and his last year in the league was 1977. But we digress.
For whatever reason, one of the two or three most valuable cards in the whole ’72 series these days is Carlton Fisk’s rookie card (#79), which he shares with Cecil Cooper and Mike Garman. I found one in my long-neglected boyhood collection with great color, nice centering…and one big crescent-shaped crease, probably from kneeling on it while it was laid out on the floor during a trading session. Darn kids.
Finally, late in the sixth series there is one nondescript “AL Rookie Stars” (#724) card and two “AL – NL Rookie Stars” cards (#741 & #761). Unclear why these were tacked on – I guess Topps couldn’t squeeze all of the “Stars” onto the 26 team rookie cards (the Astros and Twins had two “Stars” cards each). Here is the best one (#761), anchored by six time All-Star and 1981 World Series MVP Ron “The Penguin” Cey. Sans mustache!
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, Larry Biittner, 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.