Editor’s note: SABR Baseball Cards welcomes new member F. Scott Wilkinson with the final installment 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
On the way to accumulating all 787 cards of the ’72 series I dove in and soaked up as much hobby knowledge as possible. As much as I’d been into collecting as a boy before long it became obvious that I knew nothing about any of the finer points. Good grief, is there ever a lot to learn…
Traditionally, cards with numbers ending in “00” or “50” are reserved for the most iconic players, though naturally not all selections have aged well. For 1972 there’s an interesting time capsule of 15 such cards, including: Willie Mays In Action (#50), Frank Robinson (#100), Norm Cash (#150), Lou Brock (#200), Boog Powell (#250), Hank Aaron In Action (#300), Frank Howard (#350), Tony Oliva (#400), Mickey Lolich (#450), Joe Torre (#500), Brooks Robinson (#550), Al Kaline (#600), Sal Bando (#650), Bobby Murcer In Action (#700), and Willie Horton (#750). Considering the year, it looks like Orioles are appropriately represented, Tigers are overrepresented, and pitchers and Pirates are underrepresented. Roberto Clemente (#309) for Sal Bando or Willie Horton, anyone?
Lower-numbered cards are more common while higher cards tend to be more rare and valuable/expensive, though I did happily find many decent high numbered cards in my spotty boyhood collection. Reportedly many regions of the country just never received higher series cards.
As with numismatics, the grade of “good” is a misnomer – about the worst grade there is – though “fair” and “poor” are valid too. Venders will note that those lesser grades are “just so you can say you have a card” – they’re placeholders, and barely worth the paper they’re printed on. Early on, Willie Stargell (#447) got tossed into the recycling bin – regrettable and maybe foolish, but the card was so warped and bloated from water damage I had to say goodbye. Tough to know where to draw the line though. Sorry, Willie.
An incorrigible collector/space filler from way back, I got lost in searching for the best deals…trying to be disciplined and unemotional, patient and thorough…which isn’t easy when all you want is to instantly have these things in your hands so you can turn them over and over and stare at them. At first it was fun to buy random large lots of cards to get the ‘best’ value (at that point I was thinking “Okay, about a dollar a card—not too bad…”), but the shine wore off soon as it sank in that many cards vendors sent were (perhaps) thin fakes or otherwise comically off-center, with rounded, fuzzy corners, frayed edges, and faded print on the back due to aging/oxidation or “paper loss”. The broad appeal of sports cards almost invites all kinds of creative ways to damage them.
They can have gum, wax, water, oil or tape stains, pencil/ink writing, staple holes, divots or indentations, blisters, rubber band constriction marks, and innumerable other blemishes caused by careless handling. Bernie Carbo (#463) arrived wearing one of those ’70’s style punch labels on his back and there it remains after inducing a tear. Don’t think I revisited that vendor. Maybe worst of all is a crease (or “wrinkle”), both soft (showing on one side or the other) and hard (showing on both sides). Then you read about card trimming, presumably to enhance centering and pricing. Really? Isn’t that a petty, chintzy scam! One could just measure the dimensions of the card in question…though by then the seller may be long gone.
Here are just a few of the bad things that can happen with your cards…
Miscut (Dock Ellis, #179), staining (Ken Wright, #638), pen marks (Ross Grimsley back, #99).
Sticker added (Bernie Carbo, #463), paper loss and bent corners (Hal McRae, #291), offset printing (Ross Grimsley, #99).
Hard crease (1st Series Checklist, #4), blister/mystery blemish (John Odom, #557), rubber band constriction marks (Steve Huntz, #73).
For me eventually very good, fine, and even “Excellent” cards weren’t satisfying enough…usually due to creases, stains, dog-ear corners and/or off centering…so then you go for “Near Mint” or “Mint.” Who would guess that over the course of a lifetime one could go from putting “In-Action” cards into bike spokes to obsessing about centering and perfect corners? Not me, until now.
After buying loads of cards I started to receive free ones tacked onto orders from familiar online vendors, a nice show of goodwill for being a reliable customer. Most of them were cheesy, value-less, but hey – they’re free, so no complaints. But speaking of “cheesy” – how about two Topps “Chrome” cards from 2001 —Roberto Alomar (#365) and Omar Vizquel (#452), featuring outdated cartoon caricature Indians logo and unavoidable reflection of phone and fingers.
Then along came a 1991 Fleer Dwight Evans (#93) and a 1996 Upper Deck Jim Abbott (#292) – pretty sweet.
One time it was a 1983 Donruss card featuring the “The (San Diego) Chicken”(#645)—okay. Another was a 1985 Fleer card of Al Oliver (#U-84) wearing number “0” and looking serious in a Dodgers uniform— very cool.
There was even a 1990 Upper Deck card of a thin, mustachioed Edgar Martinez (#532) when he still played third base for the Mariners—nice! The most generous gift was 15 Fleer cards from the charmed 1986 Mets team that won the World Series from the Red Sox, including Series MVP Ray Knight (#86). Much appreciated.
One of the latest freebees was a 4955 MFWD John Deere Tractor card (#D26) from 1994—oh boy. But still, I’ll keep it. I have to thank these kind vendors – it was eye-opening to be exposed to such a variety of brands and realize that Topps is just one facet of the sports card landscape.
All in all good luck has been had with online purchases, aside from a few mistakes like not reading the fine print (“Photo is a stock image”) and getting stuck with a crappy card I didn’t get to evaluate. They might send reprints rather than originals—not easily proven but hopefully not too commonplace either, at least with the hobby faithful. Eventually a black light will need to be had to help see if we’ve ever been swindled.
The only gripe I have is minor, but consistent: damn, do most vendors use way too much tape when packing the things up! That would be fine if it was some gentle non-stick tape, but it always seems to bleed tree sap onto a pristine sleeve to keep a card from teleporting out during its travels…or they create a packing tape fortress, covering the entire outside of the package with the infernal stuff. Some seem booby-trapped to keep you from the precious cargo…it’s just beyond the next plastic sleeve, rubber band, or cardboard sheath. But hey – the packages never show up bent so if that’s the worst thing about the process, so be it. Overall I’ve been treated like family, especially by my more reliable eBay sources like The Baseball Card Exchange, The Battersbox, Dean’s Cards, 4SharpCorners, and Sirius Sports Cards) as well as most all of the smaller operations out there, run by studious folks who just seem to love the hobby.
It’s worth mentioning that sometimes the process of finding well-centered cards can be maddening, if you care about that sort of thing. Evaluating the yin and yang of horizontal versus vertical centering is almost a science unto itself. After scouring enough versions of the same card it became evident that certain cards of the highest grade are either temporarily unavailable, exceedingly rare and unrealistically expensive, or simply do not exist and maybe never did. Cards like Dave Campbell (#384), Gil Hodges (#465), Bobby Murcer (#699), Jim Kaat (#709), Ken Aspromonte (#784), and the In Action series in general (e.g., Reggie Jackson (#436)), among many others (e.g., Bert Campaneris (#75), Rennie Stennett (#219), Ken Singleton (#425), Steve Kline (#467) – argh!). Well, the better players and higher numbered cards are pricey, but you can get a light-hitting lower-numbered Campbell in near mint for a few bucks (Sorry, “Soup”!). Here are a few unfortunate duds:
It’s always a trade-off – do you want perfect centering, or crisp corners? What about the print quality and clarity and brightness of the colors? Ultimately it’s almost impossible to find the best of everything in the same card unless you’re willing to pay top dollar, so eventually you settle on something available that passes the eye test and move on.
Speaking of “top dollar”, it’s flummoxing how these things can have any real worth. Unlike gold or other precious metals, they can’t be intrinsically valuable in any way—they’re only paper and ink. I remember hearing about how the bottom fell out of the sports card market in the early 1990’s and thinking, “who cares?”…but values are cresting again these days and even relatively common cards like these are being sold at amazingly high prices. I care now! They’re worth something to someone, the sole requirement for anything to have value.
Example: Probably the most prized 1972 Topps card is an airbrushed Angels/Mets pinstripes Nolan Ryan (#595), and in PSA 9 (mint) condition I’ve seen it listed for as much as $5,999.00, though the vendor may settle for the “best offer.” And you have to think that at some point someone may have paid more than that for a particularly nice one.
So, one must wonder: how can this be? Works of art may sell for millions of dollars – they’re mere canvas and paint, but created by a renowned artist. The most valuable numismatic coins are thin chunks of metal amalgams, but they have specific (low) mintages, making them desirable. Bullion is only metal too, but has intrinsic value – some elements are uncommon and precious. Diamonds are miraculously rare. With this pursuit though…how can there be any real value in cardboard? How can so much money be exchanged for pressed paper slabs when at one time they sold for pennies alongside a stick of bubblegum? These things have no serial numbers…how easy would it be to make a forgery? And if you didn’t know one was a fake, how and why would that matter?
Tough questions, but let’s at least take a shot at distilling down that elusive concept of “value”. Turns out these cardboard gems are much more than just valuable – they’re priceless.
As I’ve tried to explain to a fellow baseball aficionado (a diehard Red Sox fan, who watched miserably when he was 13 years old as Bob Gibson dominated his team in the 1967 World Series), sports cards may be more valuable than gold or diamonds or any other worldly thing because unlike those objects these fleshy old cards are personal. They hold and stir memories, and memories don’t equate with money. Each snapshot is stamped with a certain time and then endures through time, or at least for as long as one can remember. In turn, those memories jog feelings… and aside from knowledge gained feelings may be the most profound, real, persistent, and valuable things that we ever experience and have to hold on to. They live in our blood as much as our minds.
Plus, these days these cards are antique keepsakes – cool niche relics from half a century ago, finite in number. That must count.
Maybe that’s all there is to it, and maybe not. All I know is that these days I feel more like an energized, optimistic little kid again, one who couldn’t care less about Little Ricky and his pilfering of my cardboard friends so many years ago.
Valuable or not, the truth is I love everything about these cards. The way they feel in my hands. The way they look. The obscure statistics, geographical info, and nostalgic trivia on the backs. The fantastic fashion and trademark styles of 1972. All the heroes of my youth. They were there at that impressionable age when the boy fell in love with baseball and started buying his first packs of cards, so they’ll always be the sentimental favorite. More than anything it’s about all those warm, eye-candy colors and that funky, festive vibe they shout out all 787 times. Unless you feel similarly it’s not easy to explain how these things are tethered to the soul.
It took about five months to acquire the whole set, then about five months later I took them off the shelf and began to pore through the albums, unexpectedly finding exactly 50 that were horribly centered. After replacing those, I started over at card #1 and found many more that were troubling, with fuzzy gray corners, creases, stains, and iffy centering. How did I miss them the time before? After that time through I started at the beginning again and found that standards had risen even higher so that about every other one looked replaceable. Sheesh. So here we go again…
But why? Is the goal to have the world’s ‘best’ collection of 1972 Topps baseball cards? Maybe. Let’s just call it the Collector’s Conundrum. We all have different standards and reasons for loving the hobby and ultimately we curate, caretake, and enjoy them our way before leaving the hoard behind as treasure for someone else to discover.
As of this writing at least two-thirds of the worst looking cards have been swapped out and as the eyes adjust it seems like there’ll always be one or two more that aren’t quite up to snuff. In fact, the other day (over two years after beginning the 1972 Topps Project) I went through everything yet again to make sure all the cards had individual plastic sleeves and found over 100 more that are off-center, have bad edges, divots, little creases, nicked corners, or small stains. Astounding. The process has been a little like upgrading from stereo to a googlephonic system with a moon rock needle and realizing it still “sounds like shit“.
When will it ever be finished? When is enough, enough? A fuzzy–edged card is fine, right? Doesn’t that get the point across? Well of course…especially if it’s a T206 Honus Wagner, but boy, there’s nothing like a clean, well-centered card with four sharp corners. Remember, many of them are works of art and deserve perfect framing. And let’s face it, collectors never finish – this and everything else are just fun works in progress until time’s up.
Sometimes I think that none of them really matter and yet all of them matter—the “Good” all the way up to the “Mint.” Every one is a treasure and for now I’m at peace with being stuck in or around 1972, probably the only series I’ll bother to fully assemble…though those colorful 1975s are starting to look better and better. Everything from neighboring, earlier, and even later years is more interesting too.
Somehow I’ve managed to get ahold of all 51 Hall-of-Famers from the 1972 series (plus Pete Rose), encapsulated in plastic PSA cases, most graded ‘8 – NM-Mint”, with some 7’s and a few 9’s. Then the thing was acquiring full teams of my favorites as winners – the 1966 and 1970 Orioles and the 1975, 1976, and 1990 Reds. After that came PSA 8’s of the entire 1972 Reds squad. Next may be collecting cards from every year of a player’s career. Guys like Joe Morgan, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Dock Ellis, Nolan Ryan, Luis Tiant, Bob Gibson and/or Henry Aaron. Oy vey. Better not give up the day job.
Serendipitously, I’ve been reacquainted with a rich, fascinating hobby that will entertain, energize, and educate this boy until the end of days. As a reasonably present husband, father, brother and son, cards can hold only one bit of attention…but what a great library to have when there’s time to go peruse ’em for fun. And joining SABR has been a joyful discovery of long lost brothers and sisters I never knew I had – people who are just as fascinated by this stuff…and know infinitely more. Perfect!
From here we’ll just keep working on what the unexpected detour has taught us up to now: Default to a smile whenever possible. Grudges aren’t worth holding, no matter how many cards of any kind are involved. Be ready for joy to find you when you least expect it. Keep on learning and having fun. Look back in time occasionally, but not too often and not for long. Focus forward and cultivate a kind, curious, and open mind. Pay attention. Try to do better all the time. Always be on the lookout for new friends.
Why focus on pain and losses when there’s so much to be done and gained? As poet Oscar Wilde said, “Life is much too important to be taken seriously.” Sure, “Ricky’ll be Ricky,” and there’ll always be more thieving Ricks out there lying in wait—that’s their problem. Life goes on and on every day of every season. Best to get on with it.
That’s it – the final portion 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!
This was written for everyone out there who loves the 1972 Topps baseball card set as much as I do (if that’s possible).
Dedicated to my sports-loving mom, Caroline B. Wilkinson, who never threw my cards away.
Also dedicated to all the players and managers 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, Tommy Davis, Chuck Dobson, Paul Doyle, John Ellis, Ed Farmer, Ray Fosse, Bill Freehan, Bob Gibson, Jim Grant, Joe Horlen, 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, the Trading Card Database, and Wikipedia for all that data.
Extra special thanks to Larry Pauley, Jason Schwartz, and Nick Vossbrink for their kind help, patience, and encouragement.