Back Story: 1960 Topps Baseball

Part II of my series about a neglected feature of baseball cards—the material on the back of the cards—continues with the 1960 Topps set. (For Part I, read here.) To my knowledge, this was the third and final “regular” Topps set where the front of the card was in landscape (horizontal) mode, rather than portrait (vertical) mode; the others were 1955 and 1956. So right away, it’s an unusual set. The card fronts feature a large head shot of the player along with a smaller “action” shot, something that Topps did a few times over the years (also 1954-55-56-63; in 1983-84, the head shot was the smaller one). Here’s the front of card No. 1 in the set, 1959 Cy Young Award winner Early Wynn of the White Sox.

Wynn front

As for the backs of the cards, the 1960 set marked one of the last times that Topps opted to present stats only for the player’s previous year and career, rather than a year-by-year rundown. What makes the set unique was how Topps used the extra space made available by skipping the rundown. Along with a cartoon highlighting something about the player, the 1960 set featured bullet points with highlights from the player’s 1959 season. Here is Wynn’s card back.

 

Wynn

Here’s the card back for another of the big stars featured in the set, 1959 National League MVP Ernie Banks.

Banks

The bullet point idea worked very nicely for players like Wynn and Banks who had a lot of 1959 highlights. Topps was more challenged finding positive bullet points for players with lesser performances. Sy Berger and company did their best. Leon Wagner, a year or two away from becoming “Daddy Wags,” batted only 129 times in 1959, with 29 hits, but the bullet points on his 1960 Topps card made him look like the star he would eventually become.

Wagner

Sometimes Topps opted for brevity. In 1959, Carl Furillo of the Dodgers was a little-used sub and pinch-hitter nearing the end of his career. But he had two huge hits that contributed to the Dodgers’ World Series championship, one in the playoff series against the Braves and the other in Game Three of the Series. Those became the only bullet points on his 1960 Topps card—an excellent decision, I think.

Furillo

But there were cases in the 1960 set where Topps seemed to be a little clueless when it came to digging up highlights from the previous season. Relief pitchers seemed to be a particular challenge. Roy Face of the Pirates had a legendary 1959 season, winning his first 17 decisions on his way to posting an 18-1 record. While Face’s season was an early cautionary note against the value of pitcher wins—several of his 1959 victories came after blowing a save—his season included a number of outstanding performances, such as seven games in which he worked three-plus relief innings without allowing a run. Yet Topps could come up with only three highlights for Face’s ‘59 season, and one of them involved a game in which he came back “after being sidelined 10 days with a cut hand.”

Face

In the case of Jerry Staley (the player’s preferred spelling of his first name, rather than “Gerry”), one of Topps’ highlights was a World Series game in which Staley worked the final two innings to “save” an 11-0 victory. Topps completely missed the performance that every veteran White Sox fan would regard as the highlight of Staley’s White Sox career: his one-pitch outing against the Indians on September 22 that induced a double-play grounder to clinch the team’s first American League pennant in 40 years.

Staley

And Topps completely went off the rails with relievers Don Elston and Stu Miller, opting to go with a prose summary instead of bullet points. That seemed particularly short-sighted in the case of Miller, who started nine times, worked over 100 innings in relief, and ranked second in the National League in ERA. Surely there were a few notable highlights in there.

Miller

On the other hand, I have to say that the phrase “his ‘junk ball’ slithered enough to keep the senior circuit hitter confused” might top anything Topps could come up with in terms of Stu Miller bullet points.

But sometimes Topps could be forgiven for failing to come up with either good bullet points, or good prose. Consider the player who, in 1959, played in 152 games and had 527 plate appearances, while amassing a total of 12 (!) extra-base hits and 42 runs scored and posting an OPS+ of 43. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the man described by Topps as “a swifty on the bases” (1959 totals: 6 SB, 9 CS) and “a good clutch hitter” (.584 OPS with runners in scoring position): George Anderson, better known as “Sparky.”

Anderson

Sparky’s managerial career would include plenty of material for bullet points, at least.

 

Back Story: 1956 Topps Baseball

I love all aspects of baseball-card collecting, but one area of particular interest to me has always been the backs of the cards. Naturally the front design of a card set is going to be the first thing that people remember about it, but what’s presented on the flip side can greatly add to a set’s appeal, and sometimes detract from it. This article is hopefully the first of a few in which I’ll delve into what I consider sets with good—or lame—card backs.

 

I’ll start with the first baseball card set I completed as a child: the 340-card 1956 Topps set. This was their first set since Topps had won the war for sports card supremacy from Bowman, and it was the biggest Topps set since 1952. It’s also a very creative set, both front and back. The fronts feature a head shot superimposed over one of the player “in action.” The quality of the action shots vary greatly, and sometimes they’re even bogus… most famously, the Hank Aaron action shot is actually one of Willie Mays with a Milwaukee cap airbrushed onto him. When they work, they’re great, like this one of Jackie Robinson sliding home.

JRobinson front.jpg

The backs of the 1956 Topps set, however, are almost universally outstanding. The stat lines only included the player’s 1955 stats, plus his career totals, but that left plenty of room for a three-picture cartoon graphic about the player, Those cartoons were simply fabulous. Articles about this set say that the work was done by some of the leading comic-book artists of the time… I would love to know exactly who they were, if anyone has more information. The graphics tell a little three-panel story about the player, in a very creative way. Let’s start with the back of the same Jackie Robinson card, nicely summarizing his greatness.

JRobinson back

What appealed most to me about these 1956 card backs was how creative and downright funny they often were. Here’s Hoyt Wilhelm’s card, starting with a cartoon of his knuckler making a hitter dizzy and finishing with Hoyt having worn a trench between the bullpen and the mound.

Wilhelm 

Earl Torgeson’s card shows him watering some flowers (“Things grow fast in Detroit,” like Earl’s batting average); the oft-injured Torgy jumping out of bed because “The Tigers need a pinch hitter”; and Earl watching a game from first base while reclining on a bed, to note the time he played an entire game at first without making a putout. I love it.

Torgeson

Here’s Wally Moon, breaking out in song because he’s playing ball between school terms (any kid could relate to that); wearing a Roman garland on his hat for winning the Rookie of the Year award; and literally stealing some bases.

Moon

 The sheer irreverence in so many of these cards is pretty wonderful. Windy McCall’s early control problems are depicted by a batter wearing a suit of armour while the pitch clangs off his head; meanwhile the suffering catcher sweats behind the plate with his right arm in a sling. I am fairly certain that if this was 2018 and Windy McCall was a Scott Boras client, this card would not have been made.

McCall

One of my all-time personal favorites, the Erv Palica card lampoons Brooklyn accents by showing a Dodger fan, thrilled with Palica’s fine 1950 season, exclaiming, “When Oiv pitches, da boids choip.” This cracked me up when I was eight years old; it still cracks me up at the age of 70.

Palica

The artists of these 1956 cards were challenged by the frequent presence of 1950s bonus players forced onto major leagues with no prior MLB experience. Cue cartoons featuring bags of money and captions saying things like, “The Redlegs feel Al (Silvera) will be a big star.” (Silvera would have exactly seven at-bats in his major league career, with one hit.) Well, it worked for Harmon Killebrew (card No. 164), and—eventually, as with Killebrew—No. 79, Sandy Koufax.

Koufax

“An Educated Fast Ball,” indeed.

As a child with a reasonable degree of intelligence, I appreciated the fact that these cards weren’t afraid to be clever; they appealed to me in much the same way that TV shows like “Leave It to Beaver” and “Rocky and Bullwinkle” would wink and nod to me as I continued to mature.

But those were TV shows; this is a baseball card set. There’s never been a set quite like it.