Editor’s note: SABR Baseball Cards welcomes new member F. Scott Wilkinson with the seventh 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
This post concerns those ’72 Topps cards that lack a certain…uh…standard of quality…
It’s fair to say that for all my raving about how awesome these cards are no doubt many folks hated them back then and continue hating them to this day. They’re garish and have a comic book quality about them. The colored portion is extravagant and intrudes on the player pictures, almost crowding them out…and why all that gaudiness just for the team name? I get it. But as the saying goes, “there is no accounting for taste” and in any case I wouldn’t be the one to write a review disparaging these beauties.
Still, to be fair let’s point out a few questionable efforts —not all 787 cards can be great, right? I wouldn’t even say these are bad cards, but they are bewildering and a bit off compared to the rest of the lot. Or maybe they just lend more depth and nuttiness to the whole unwieldy series…
Take Astros players Rich Chiles (#56) and Roger Metzger (#217). Please! They’re noticeably off-center, with tiny unfocused coaches in the background that distract…if you even notice them. It makes these guys look like unimportant players…afterthoughts. Chiles is ignoring his little suspended toy coach and Metzger is bent over, ostensibly fielding a grounder while a tiny man walks out from his hindquarters. Both cards are a swing and a miss…but still endearing somehow.
As a kid I disliked my multiples of this Corrales card (#706) and today it still doesn’t bring me any joy. Where is the “action” exactly? Is Pat C. tanning that beefy forearm? Looks more like “Still Life With Tools of Ignorance”.
Another lousy In Action catcher shot (#570) – it looks like Ed’s trying to shake a spider off of his face mask…or maybe he’s confused about how the dang thing even works?
Yet a third catcher in crisis – Bob Barton (#40), looking like he’s trapped in a cage and maybe contemplating a career change.
Here’s Ron Theobald (#77) in a bunting pose, appearing almost grandfatherly, even though he was only 29 years old at the time.
Similarly, Bill Rigney (#389) is only 54 years old here, but could easily pass for 80 – maybe it was all that sun they got playing ball?
There’s Fred Patek (#531) off-center and in fielding-a-grounder pose, all 5’ 5’’ of him crouched over, looking about 14 years old—not his fault, just questionable staging or editing maybe. I hate to say it, but Billy and I laughed out loud at Freddie P. for this card. Many times. But he was a legit player who made three All-Star teams and stole 385 bases, so he does get the last laugh. At one point in his career when asked how it felt to be the shortest player in the major leagues, Patek took the high road, opining that it was “better than being the tallest player in the minors.” And who am I trying to kid—this is still a pretty cool card!
Here we have bespectacled Fred Gladding (#507), looking like he’s just been jumped by paparazzi after posting bail for some petty crime. Or maybe it’s just the look of a guy who would end up with a career batting average of .016 (1 for 63).
What about Rich Reese (#611), with the barrel of his bat swung way out in front, huge and blurry, taking over the picture, like it’s about to smash the camera lens? This one actually has a neat perspective, one of the better examples of a theme that shows up in other ’72 cards and other years too. Fine.
There’s the unfortunate close-up of Jim Beauchamp (#594), highlighting too much of his fleshy face with half-mast eyes, making him look like a sleepy plumber who might be hungover.
And get a load of pitcher Dennis Higgins (#278), pictured at the top of his wind-up with a foggy gray background, looking like an apparition or a full on translucent wax statue.
Another one I never liked or understood – why is Bobby Bonds (#712) laughing so hard at a meaningless pop-up? We will never know.
I hate to keep picking on the In Action cards, but will anyway – here’s another questionable effort.
The only way we can sort this one out is by knowing that Ron Santo (#556) never played catcher. Looks like another toothless pop-up.
The final three cards are not “bad” at all but they are outliers, so a reasonable way to wrap this up. How about this beauty? It’s the one and only team card in the ’72 series with disembodied heads and for that I am thankful. Some folks love these things and they are better than conventional team cards in one big way – you can actually make out the faces. But honestly, the signatures are tiny scribbles and those heads just look silly.
The best thing we can say about this one is that it features Hall of Famer Ernie Banks (in the center, just below the logo). Mr. Cub’s last year as a player was 1971 (the year seen within that logo), but he made the ’72 set (#192) as first base coach with the Cubbies. There’s Joe Pepitone’s big mug too, (#303), to the right of the logo…Manager Leo Durocher (#576) on top and Don Kessinger (#145) to the left. Is that you too, Burt Hooton? (#61)
Meanwhile, Tigers manager Billy “The Bird” Martin (#33) purportedly got so mad at the photographer who came out to take pictures in spring training that for his shot he furtively flipped off the camera, middle finger extending down the shaft of a bat so it blended in and cleared censors. You go, Billy! Turns out this one’s much more brazen than the 1989 Fleer Billy Ripken, and easily wins the prize for Naughtiest 1972 Topps Card.
Finally, there’s the one we’ll amiably call “The Billy Cowan Card” (#19). What is it with the Billys? Probably a fair amount has been written about The Billy Cowan Card, and rightly so—the card is ridiculous looking, even for the time. It features the Angel outfielder in a relaxed batting pose, photo taken from around home plate looking toward the outfield, with the halo of Anaheim Stadium perched perfectly over Cowan’s head so that he looks like an enormous bat-wielding angel with burly sideburns. One has to wonder if Cowan was in on the joke—surely he was— he at least reportedly autographed this card for many a fan after his playing days were over. A classic.
Part of an ode, fifty years on, 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, Gene Clines, 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.