Topps in 1972, Part 10

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 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 at all. 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.

“Designated” as Designated Hitter

The American League adopted the Designated Hitter (DH) rule in 1973.  Of course, card collectors had to wait for the 1974 set to find cards with the players’ positions “designated” as DH. So, who was the first player to have a card solely labeling him a DH?

The answer is card number 83 in the numerical sequence, the Red Sox Orlando Cepeda.  At this point in Cepeda’s career, the DH rule was a godsend.  The veteran slugger’s knees would no longer allow him to play in the field. Interestingly, Topps would us “Des.” Hitter as the abbreviation for the position.

Several other gimpy, veteran sluggers show up as Des. Hitters: Tommy Davis , Jim Ray Hart, Tony Oliva, Deron Johnson and “Swingin’” Gates Brown.

Topps produced several cards where the position is a hybrid of DH and either 1B or OF. Sometimes the DH appears first, other times last.  I thought this might correlate to the number of games played at each position, but this is not the case.  The placement is entirely random. Topps would also toss a curve ball by labeling Harmon Killebrew as a First Base-DH.

The players who have DH-1B as a position are Ron Blomberg—the first player to come to the plate as a DH—and Tony Muser.

The only 1B-DH combo belongs to Gail Hopkins.

Players whose cards show them as DH-OF are Frank Robinson, Bob Coluccio and Alex Johnson, and the ones as OF-DH are Carlos May and Hal McRae.

Mike Lahoud was one of the Brewers DHs along with Ollie Brown. Both players were traded to the Angels prior to 1974. Lahoud’s card mentions his DH position on the back only.

Oscar Gamble was Cleveland’s main DH in 1973, but his card only lists outfield. However, his 1974 Topps stamp includes DH as a position.

I will let you get back to hitting balls off the tee under the stands to keep warm between at bats. I’m sure this DH thing is just a passing fad.  Soon you will be flashing leather on the field as God and Abner Doubleday intended.

When Topps covers politics

One of the elements of Topps Heritage that routinely catches my eyes are the Heritage News Flashbacks. For a small insert set which is purportedly about the heritage year’s news highlights, I’ve found it to be an interesting window into what kind of things Topps considers mass-market newsworthy.

Given Topps’s coverage of the 1950s–1970s we have a lot of civil rights firsts,* a lot of space exploration, and a lot of Vietnam War related events. All things which are conceivably politically neutral. In many years though Topps also commemorates legislation and other political achievements. These were clearly highly political at the time but also frequently remain political even today. When I look through the insert checklists it’s these cards that catch my eye in the way that they have one foot in both “this is something worth commemorating” territory and “this is what people say we shouldn’t talk about in the hobby” territory.

*The number of “first black” or “first woman” events Topps chose to celebrate is both refreshing to see and an indictment of who has been traditionally allowed to succeed in our society.

Not only do these legislative inserts catch my eye but they frequently have an interesting context outside of the just the card. This 2009 card commemorating the 1960 Civil Rights Act for example came out the same year that Barrack Obama became the first Black President and the year that Congress authorized the Civil Rights History project to collect oral histories from people who were active in the struggle during the 1950s and 1960s.

The thing with these news flashbacks cards though is that they also tend to frame history as a series of accomplishments rather than a continuing struggle and discussion. Looking at this card gives the impression that we’ve achieved equality at the polls and that no further work needs to be done to maintain things let alone improve on them further.

In 2010 we have acknowledgment of how Washingon DC residents were disenfranchised through the 1960 election with a card the commemorates the ratification of the 23rd Amendment. It’s definitely a good thing that their presidential votes count now but the struggle for DC statehood and representation continued after this amendment.

In terms of the context of this 2010 card it’s important to mention DC’s statehood has been endorsed by multiple Presidents now and that there was a referendum in 2016 in which 86% of DC voters expressed a desire for statehood.

Skipping to 2012 and we find a card commemorating the US Government forcing the University of Alabama to integrate in 1963. This isn’t a legislative card but it positions the Federal Government overruling a state government both in the courts and via the National Guard as an inherently good thing.

In 2013 we pick up where 2009 left off with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As with the 2009 card this states plainly that segregation is outlawed as well as discrimination against ethnic, racial, and religious minorities plus women. This card doesn’t note how the Civil Right Act of 1964 is what prompted Southern Democrats to switch parties and drastically rearrange the political geography of the United States.

Coming out in 2013 is kind of some amazing immediate context too. Between the Trayvon Martin murder which spawned the Black Lives Matter movement and the Fisher v U of Texas case that threatened to roll back Affirmative Action the discussion about how relevant the Civil Rights Act of 1964 still was and whether its protections were still needed make this card anything but politically neutral.

The 2014 card which commemorates the Voting Rights act of 1965 is the card which prompted this post. For Topps to publish this the year after Shelby v Holder feels almost like an intentional political comment. With a headline about securing voting equality despite the mechanisms for actually keeping voting equality having just been ripped out of the act this card reads almost as a eulogy for what was rather than a milestone that was reached.

The ensuing decade has confirmed my sense of it being a eulogy as we’ve seen increased attacks on voting access nationwide.

We’ll skip a few more years and land in 2017 with yet another Civil Rights Act, in this case 1968’s, which was in the news a bit that year. This act contains within it the Fair Housing Act which prohibits discrimination in both renting and sales. The list of protected categories started off as including just race, religion, and national origin but has expanded to include sex, disabilities, and children. In 2017 sexual orientation and gender identity were added to this list via the judicial system (but never got anywhere in Congress).

This act also included some anti-riot language which made it a crime to travel between states in order to participate in a riot. It was notably used on the Chicago Seven and came up again in the aftermath of the Unite the Right rally in 2017 in which the courts ruled that its language was over-broad.

While this isn’t a legislative card I’ve included the 2018 card of the 1969 Stonewall Riots because of how much of a lighting rod it would be in today’s political landscape. This is history—both from a Gay Rights point of view and the fact that Marsha P. Johnson was a black transgender woman—which is currently being actively legislated against in multiple states nationwide and Topps just had it as a card only four years ago.

This card also came out in the aftermath of the 2015 Obergefell decision which legalized gay marriage and resulted in years of stories of workers and businesses who refused to acknowledge those rights and insisted that their rights to discriminate were more important.

After having maybe one political card per year, Topps went a bit nuts in 2019 and released four of cards of  things the government did in 1970. Some of these like expanding voting access to 18 year olds don’t require much comment. Others like the PBS card are noteworthy in the timing of how free educational television was moving to streaming services with shows like Sesame Street only releasing new episodes through HBO Max.

The Earth Day and creation of the EPA cards though are fascinating to see in an age of runaway climate change, the complete abdication by the US Government to do anything about it, and the shortsighted focus on immediate profits over a sustainable world.

Way back in 1970 the government realized it had to do something about air and water pollution. But in 2019, in addition to global climate change, the Flint Water Crisis was entering its fifth year and China had stopped taking all of our recycling and there was zero political will to do anything about any of it.

Back to only one card in 2021 but it’s a doozy for a year which was threatening to roll back many of the protections that women fought for in the 1970s as Covid had a greater impact on women’s jobs and abortion is getting outlawed nationwide.

In many ways that the Equal Rights Amendment was even put up for ratification in 1972 is something that surprises me. At the same time, in 2021 the House voted to remove the ratification deadline and the Senate version of that bill has 52 cosponsors.

Which brings us to this year and the commemoration of the 1973 Endangered Species Act. I haven’t seen anything specific about it in the news this year but it does seem like we’ve spent the past decade opening up public lands for development at the expense of habitat and wildlife needs.

In any case it’s pretty clear at this point that the biggest habitat threat is climate change and while the explicit protections and goals of the Endangered Species Act are laudable a larger, more-global, solution will be required moving forward.

And that’s the list. When looked at together it’s easy to reach a conclusion that Topps thinks that discrimination based on race, nationality, and gender is bad, that protecting the environment is good, and that voting should be accessible to all citizens. But it’s also easy to reach a conclusion that Topps considers that all of that has been accomplished already and something we can look back upon and celebrate much in the same way the Major League Baseball commemorates Jackie Robinson as a way of ignoring its current track record on racial equity.

Topps in 1972, Part 9

Editor’s note: SABR Baseball Cards welcomes new member F. Scott Wilkinson with the ninth of his ten 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

For kicks, let’s revisit the four precious cards that Little Ricky stole (see Part 2 of this series) and remember a little bit about the special players they represent. At the time we felt lucky just to be newbie baseball fans while these living legends were still playing, even if they were on the downside of their careers, so to us any cards of theirs were like gold. That was one thing. I was also doubly crushed because I was so in love with the home run back then. Most kids are and to a certain extent I probably still am. There’s just something enchanting about the act of hitting a round ball with a round bat so squarely and so far, and when I was a kid these guys were the active kings of the round-tripper.

Surely random, but it’s appropriate that the 1972 wrecking crew were presented in the primary colors – blue (Robinson), yellow (Mays), and red (Aaron). It’s not much of a stretch to say that these guys compose what must be the most prolific right-handed power-hitting outfielder lineup of all time. And while we’re at it, wouldn’t Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr. and Babe Ruth have to be the all-time left-handed power-hitting outfielder lineup? Discuss. (Note: Solely out of ignorance I am not considering Negro League players here).

This is the last Topps card (#100) showing “The Judge” as an Oriole and it’s a pleaser. Frank radiates confidence in those warm-up sleeves and happily looks like he might still be in his prime. Interestingly, “Pencils” still holds the record for most home runs on opening day (8), including one in his first at-bat as player-manager for the Cleveland Indians in 1975. While I’ve sufficiently sung Mr. Robinson’s praises previously, this one slugging feat is worth mentioning:

On May 8, 1966, Robinson became the only player ever to hit a home run completely out of Memorial Stadium. The shot came off of Luis Tiant in the second game of a doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians, and the home run measured 541 feet (165 m). Until the Orioles’ move to Camden Yards in 1992, a flag labeled “HERE” was flown at the spot where the ball left the stadium.

Similarly, this is the final Giants card of Willie Mays (#49) and it’s nearly perfect. Willie looks vital, the uniform is classic, those hands are huge, and the stands are packed. It pains me to say that I never got to see Mr. Mays play live – I gather he not only makes the strongest case for best five-tool player of all time, but also that not many players come close. Just ask these guys:

  • Leo Durocher (#576): “If somebody came up and hit .450, stole 100 bases and performed a miracle in the field every day, I’d still look you in the eye and say Willie was better.”
  • Don Zimmer: “I’ve always said that Willie Mays was the best player I ever saw…he could have been an All-Star at any position.”
  • Willie Stargell (#447): “I couldn’t believe he could throw that far. I figured there had to be a relay. Then I found out there wasn’t. He’s too good for this world.”
  • Felipe Alou (#263): “Mays is number one, without a doubt…anyone who played with him or against him would agree he is the best.”
  • Roberto Clemente (#309): “To me, the greatest who ever played is Willie Mays.”

(Again, Negro League players like Oscar Charleston and Turkey Stearnes have something to say about all this, but they’re beyond the scope of this 1972-centric post).

Fun facts: Willie Mays still holds records for most putouts by an outfielder (7112) and most extra inning home runs (22). At the start of the 1972 season he was actually #2 on the all-time home run list, ahead of Henry Aaron (646 to 639), but Willie was three years older than Hank and only managed 14 more homers in his career. After two truncated summers with the Mets, he retired at the end of the 1973 season with 660 while Aaron played through 1976 and made it to 755.

 

Just one non-1972 card – the 1973 Roberto Clemente (#50), relatively drab maybe, but capturing him in a candid, sweet pose – coiled, ever alert, the action just about to happen. Nice back, but one of those cards where the statistics on the back are unfortunately final. This was the final Topps card of “Arriba,” issued shortly after his death in a New Year’s Eve plane crash while delivering food and supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. What a horrible way to end the year.

Nearly fifty years later it still feels like he should be here telling stories, so we should take a long moment and then some to appreciate the special player and groundbreaking man. Here applies the adage, “Play for the silence that came before you…and also for that which follows”.

Clemente was in a class by himself too and had the power numbers been there he might approach Mays as the top all around player, but his 240 career homers don’t quite measure up. And somehow Roberto managed only 83 stolen bases compared to 338 (RC had 166 triples though! Second in the modern era to Stan Musial’s 177). But it’s probably wrong to compare these legends with raw numbers – that’d be akin to scoring an award-winning McIntosh apple against a perfectly ripe Clementine orange – the intangibles just don’t compute. And yet some people out there are willing to make the case for The Great One being the best all around player ever. Interesting.

 

Sadly, I don’t recall ever seeing Frank, Willie, or Roberto play a full game, even on television. Living in SW Ohio with a 19” black and white Zenith TV and six working channels just wasn’t prime time. Fortunately, we had way more exposure to Henry Aaron (#299, here in a familiar pose – strong on strong, looking like he’s about to put a hurt on whatever comes his way next), who was busy chasing Babe Ruth’s hallowed home run record when I was nine years old. In fact, at my mom’s house, still stowed away somewhere, is a note I frantically scribbled down just minutes after watching Hank break the record by hitting number 715 off Dodgers pitcher Al Downing (#460). I think that note includes the date, time, pitcher, pitch count, pitch thrown, distance the ball traveled, and location it left the park. Oh wait—here it is now:

Hammerin’ Hank seemed to be everywhere in those days and there could not have been a finer gentleman to take Ruth’s record—by all accounts he was as special a man as he was a player. I still remember the first things I read about him when I was seven or eight…how he left home for the minor leagues with a single suitcase and $2 in his pocket, began his career as a shortstop, and how for a long while he didn’t even hold his bat the right way—he had his left hand on top instead of his right, cross-handed, a no-no for a right-handed hitter. Probably helped perfect those forearms though.

With all the home run hoopla in 1974, a contest was arranged in Tokyo between Hank and the Japanese home run champion, Sadaharu Oh, who ended up hitting a professional league record 868 homers for his career. I remember watching that derby and thinking, “No fair—Hank’s designated pitcher is just lobbin’ ‘em in there, but Oh’s is really pitching!”, then years later realized my concerns were silly since it was fair for each player to have his pitches served up however he wanted. Naturally the Hammer won, 10–9, even though he was past his prime at 40, six years older than Oh; after that they became friends. Here’s a picture of the riveting scene, from a Sports Illustrated scrapbook found in my old boyhood closet. Mr. Aaron surely did not shrink from the moment.

Looking at Aaron’s 1972 card you find that he had 639 home runs at the end of the 1971 season and had turned 38 in February before the ’72 season began. How many other players hit another 116 (or more) homers after they turned 38? Well, just one apparently—Barry Bonds with a ridiculous 166, but that’s another story altogether, for another time…

What’s worth mentioning of all these big hitters is that they weren’t especially imposing in their stature, but they were tremendously strong. All hands, wrists, and forearms. Frank was the tallest of the four, at 6’ 1” and 185 pounds. Hank stood 6’ even and weighed 180 lb. Roberto was 5′ 11″, 182, and Willie was 5’ 11”, 170. No steroids for these guys – they didn’t need ’em. Their natural talents were enough of an advantage.


Part of my 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, 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, 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.

Donut hole

I started collecting cards in 1987. Since  my primary purchases were Topps rack packs at Toys R Us I accumulated a lot* of both 1987 and 1986 Topps that year. I also acquired a bunch of repacks—also from Toys R Us—which featured “old” cards back to 1979**

*A lot for a 2nd grader which means a couple hundred or so of each.

**While I found exactly one each of 1976, 1977, and 1978 in those packs, a single 1979 per repack was usually the oldest card.

I say “old” because for me, anything from 1979 to 1984 was old back then. Not only did they predate my being in school* but the relative rarity of the cards in how they didn’t show up en masse in the repacks and how different they looked with their multiple photos, facsimile autographs, or cartoonish caps made them feel distinct.

*Apologies if this post makes anyone feel super old.

1985 though was different. Especially the Topps cards. They showed up more frequently in the repacks and felt similar enough to 1986 to end up being something I never really paid attention to. Not old or different enough to be interesting. Not new enough to be relevant. I accumulated a couple Giants but outside of those I didn’t pay any attention to that set until after I found my first card shop and discovered that there was a super-desirable (especially in the Bay Area) Mark McGwire card inside.

Even with the McGwire knowledge—which I remember feeling at the time as sort of a betrayal of the concept of a rookie card—I never got to know more about the set. I had other newer cards to acquire and shiny things like Score and Upper Deck to covet. All of which left me in an interesting place where to-date, 1985 Topps remained a complete donut hole in my card knowledge.

I neither educated myself about it like I did with older sets nor is it one I had any actual experience with. I did however get a big batch of it last summer and as a result have had a chance to really take a good look at it for the first time in my life.

Looking through that pile was a bit uncanny since, while I’ve mentally treated it as a border between classic cards and junk wax, in many ways it actually functions as this border. Yes I know people draw lines at 1981 and 1974* but the more I looked at the 1985 cards the more I could see the beginnings of what I expected to see in the cards of my youth in a set which wasn’t quite there yet.

*When I periodized this blog I chose to avoid naming eras and just drew lines in places that felt like logical breaks and listed them as date ranges.

1985 is one of those basic Topps designs that so many people wish Topps would return to. White borders. Simple solid colors. A good-sized team set for each team. It dropped the multiplayer cards that marked so many of the previous releases but it still feels like a classic Topps set that serves as both a yearbook of the previous season as well as a marker of the current season.

The photography is mostly the same as previous sets. Action is increasingly creeping in but there’s nothing really fantastic yet. Catchers are clearly leading the way here but there’s nothing like the amazing action shots which we’d see in the coming years. It does however feel that a lot of the action is cropped a bit tighter than in previous seasons. Feet and legs are frequently out of the frame and there’s an overall emphasis on getting closer to the scene.

There are also a few wonderfully casual images which would fit in perfectly with the variety of 1990s photography. We’ve had candid shots ever since 1970 but they really became a staple of 1990s sets.

At a more technical level there’s an increased reliance on fill flash in the posed photos. Skies are underexposed and there’s more contrast between the player and the background. I’ve seen this described as something distinct to 1985 and 1986’s look but the technique itself is something that is used with increasing sophistication as we get into the 1990s as well.*

*This probably helped by cameras becoming much much smarter in the late 1980s. For example the Nikon F4 was released in 1988 and was a game changer in both autofocus and flash photography.

The last part that presages where the hobby would go comes from the multiple subsets. We’re not talking about things like the Record Breakers and All Stars which have been around a long time. Instead we’re looking at the USA Olympics cards and the #1 Draft Pick cards.

These wouldn’t just return in refined forms in later years but would come to dominate the entire hobby. The concept of printing “rookie” cards of guys way before they debuted in Major League Baseball became the tail that wags the dog as Topps, and everyone else, tried to catch the same lightning in a bottle that they caught with the Mark McGwire.

Team USA cards in 1988, 1991, 1992, 1993. #1 Draft pick cards for all teams starting in 1989. Bowman turning into the pre-rookie card set. The flood of non-40-man-roster players in card sets throughout the 1990s and into he 2000s such that MLBPA had to be explicit about what was allowed in its 2006 license. 1985 Topps is patient zero for all of this.

Unoriginality as the norm

Meet the new set, same as the old set. Or something like that.

You know what I’m talking about, right? Or maybe not. You were thinking this was about the new Topps cards? 😊 Don’t worry, we cover that too, courtesy of my friends Nick and Jeff.

Me? I’m here to channel my outrage at a card producer no longer even around to defend itself. Yes, I’m talking to you, Gum, Inc., as if your very name itself wasn’t a dead giveaway that originality would never be your hallmark. Shall we review the evidence?

PART ONE: 1939-41

The first Gum, Inc., baseball sets were released from 1939-41 under the Play Ball name. Here is the Joe DiMaggio card from the 1939 set.

1939 Play Ball Joe DiMaggio

While some collectors might refer to the card design as “classic” or “uncluttered,” let’s call it what it is: BORING!!! Just a black and white image on a nearly square piece of cardboard. No name, no team, no logo, no anything. This Play Ball brand will be lucky to last three years, give or take!

Gum, Inc., tried a little harder the following year, so I’ll give credit where due.

1940 Play Ball “Charley” Gehringer

Though many collectors are lukewarm on the 1940 Play Ball set, I rather like the working of baseball equipment into the design around the nameplate, and I absolutely applaud the level of effort taken to toggle the images of nearly every repeated player from 1939. Ah, and who doesn’t love nearly every first name in quotes?

Of course, just when we thought the good folks at Gum, Inc., were poised to innovate, they go full-on MP & Company on us.

1941 Play Ball “Charley” Gehringer

Yes, it’s a gorgeous card, but really?? All you did was color in the pictures from the year before? LAZY!!

True, conventional wisdom has it that U.S. entry into World War II is what brought Gum, Inc., baseball offerings to a standstill, but all geopolitics aside could they really have lasted another year with such a tepid creative team? I mean, gosh, what was next in line? Returning the 1941 images to black and white? (TCMA imagined a different path for 1942 Play Ball but unoriginality remained a key feature.)

PART TWO: 1948-52

When Gum, Inc., resumed baseball card production in 1948, the world was a very different place, and change can of course be a scary thing for most. Fortunately, card collectors could take comfort in the fact that time had not simply stood still at Gum, Inc., but actually gone backward. For its 1948 Bowman card design, the Gum, Inc., team–either intentionally or unintentionally–brought back 1939 Play Ball.

1948 Bowman Stan Musial

About the only discernible change to the cards was the use of about a third less cardboard, best shown by turning the 1948 card sideways.

The 1949 cards shrunk even more while “innovating” on the 1939/1948 design in swapping a solid color background into each photograph and colorizing certain elements of the player image.

1949 Bowman Ralph Kiner

In later series, Gum, Inc., even went a little crazy and added names.

1949 Bowman Boris “Babe” Martin

Teaming up with the George Moll advertising agency, the 1950 Bowman cards truly did something new and beautiful. I particularly enjoy the detailed baseball stadium scenes on some of the cards, complete with fans or sometimes “fan” as the case may be.

1950 Bowman Duke Snider

With no way to top the 1950 offering, Bowman adopted a “crop, don’t top” approach in 1951 for more than half of the players included in both sets.

1951 Bowman Duke Snider

Just for fun, here is a trio of 1951 Bowman cards superimposed on the same trio from 1950.

The 1952 cards continued the use of full color artwork and included my personal pick for the most gorgeous card of the entire decade. Facsimile autographs replaced the more pedestrian nameplate of the year before. If you couldn’t get an autographed photo of your favorite player, his 1952 Bowman card would have proved a worthy stand-in.

1952 Bowman Roy Campanella

Unfortunately for Bowman, much like the Campanella card’s background, the writing was on the wall.

PART THREE: 1953-1955

While Topps had some baseball cards of their own in 1951 and even 1948, Topps really got serious in 1952 and ready to compete in earnest for baseball card supremacy. While the Bowman cards had their merits in 1952, the Topps cards were much larger, featured lifelike player images, and even included stats on the back.

How could Bowman possibly compete?

“Hey, guys. I have an idea. How about we make our 1953 cards were larger, feature lifelike player images, and even include stats on the back? Am I a genius or what?!”

The result was that in 1953 the Bowman cards looked even more like Topps than Topps did!

While Bowman played catchup in 1953, Topps took their cards in other directions, going with a rectangular nameplate in the corner and a trivia question on the back…

So naturally Bowman did the same in 1954.

Still, the Bowman design proved no match for the near perfect, three-bordered beast Topps put out that year.

Rather than try to imitate Topps or evolve an older offering of their own, Bowman produced their most original (though perhaps imitative) set of cards to date, and this baseball card revolution evidently would be televised.

Creativity at last, emphasis on last. Just as Bowman’s baseball card minds were beginning to think outside the box, the company was gobbled up by a manufacturer of…wait for it…boxes!

But wait, what’s this? Accounts of Bowman’s demise may have been greatly exaggerated? A shocking claim but then again the cardboard doesn’t lie.

1956 Topps, a collector favorite to be sure, but that landscape format…the reused player photos…another year of background action scenes…the facsimile signatures…undoubtedly the least original cards produced by Topps thus far, or to put it another way “the most Bowman!”

Gum, Inc., is dead. Long live Gum, Inc.

EPILOGUE

All kidding aside, Bowman really did make some comebacks in the Hobby after 1955. Topps brought the brand back to life in 1989 with a set that was at once reminiscent of the much acclaimed 1953 Bowman series and wholly despised.

Even today, Topps continues to pump out sets under the Bowman name with the 2021 Bowman’s Best offering even spawning the “Wandergate” controversy.

Certainly, hockey collectors of a certain age will recognize the strong influence of the 1955 Bowman baseball design on the 1966-67 Topps Hockey set.

Finally, readers may be aware of the 1956 Bowman baseball prototypes, which among other things clearly influenced the 1958 Hires Root Beer cards and perhaps even 1957 Topps football and 1960 Topps baseball.

As Faulkner wrote, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Topps in 1972, Part 8

Editor’s note: SABR Baseball Cards welcomes new member F. Scott Wilkinson with the eighth of his ten articles on the 1972 Topps set, now approaching its 50th anniversary. Click here to start the series from the beginning. The current post shares some of the stories and numbers behind the players on the cards.

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

While curating the 1972 set to completion I was led through a wonderful treasure trail of baseball lore as familiar, long-forgotten, esoteric, and heretofore unknown and infinitely interesting historical tidbits and statistics bubbled up via innumerable online rabbit hole searches…

“Stormin’ Norman” Cash (#150) never wore a batting helmet during his career and admitted years later to using a corked bat when he won the American League batting title in 1961 with an average of .361 (1961 was also the year when Roger Maris hit his 61 home runs. Hmm.). In 1960 he became the first American League player to not hit into a double play all season. In 1961 he became the first Detroit Tiger to hit a home run out of Tiger Stadium. In 1973 he took a table leg to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning of Nolan Ryan’s second no-hitter, but was not permitted to use it. He popped out using a bat instead.

Ron Fairly “Obvious” (as he was known to some Seattle Mariners fans when he provided color commentary for them from 1993-2006), (#405), holds the record for most career home runs (215) of any major league player who never reached 20 home runs in a season. (He hit 19 once—at 38 years old—and 17 twice.) I loved listening to Ron – he really knew the game because he’d seen so much during his 48 years in baseball (including 21 years as a player and three World Series titles with the Dodgers in 1959, 1963, and 1965) but was still prone to saying things like “You’ve gotta score runs if you wanna win ball games”.

Similarly, Milt “Gimpy” Pappas (#208) was the first pitcher to reach 200 wins (209 total) without ever winning 20 games in a season (later joined by Jerry Reuss (#775), Frank Tanana, Charlie Hough (#198), Dennis Martinez, Chuck Finley, Kenny Rogers and Tim Wakefield). On September 2, 1972, Pappas famously lost his bid for a perfect game when he walked pinch-hitter and 27th batter Larry Stahl (#782) on a full count. Legend has it that the pitch Milt threw on the 1-2 count should have been called strike three. Then he threw two sliders just off the plate and didn’t get a break from umpire Bruce Froemming, even with Stahl’s iffy check swing on ball four. Pappas was happy to have the no-hitter but never forgave Froemming for the call(s).

Dock “Peanut” Ellis (#179), ever the free spirit, did Pappas one better by allegedly tossing a no-hitter on June 12, 1970 while under the influence of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and Benzedrine. Another time (May 1, 1974), Ellis became so frustrated with static and intimidation from the Big Red Machine that he set out to bean every Cincinnati batter he faced. He hit Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Dan Driessen in succession then (unintentionally) walked a ball-dodging Tony Perez to force in a run. After throwing two pitches at Johnny Bench’s head he was pulled by manager Danny Murtaugh with a line of 0 IP, 0 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 0 K. On the plus side, Dock got the start on September 1, 1971 when the Pirates fielded MLB’s first ever all-Black and Latino starting lineup and beat the Phillies 10-7. The Pittsburgh batting order for that long overdue contest: Rennie Stennett (2B), Gene Clines (CF), Roberto Clemente (RF), Willie Stargell (LF), Manny Sanguillen (C), Dave Cash (3B), Al Oliver (1B), Jackie Hernandez (SS), Dock Ellis (P). 

Editor’s Note: All nine players can be found on the Pirates in the 1972 Topps set.

“Beltin’ Bill” Melton (#183) was the first White Sox player to ever lead the American League in home runs (with 33 in 1971) but he missed most of the 1972 season after herniating two discs in his back while trying to break his son’s fall from their garage roof. Familial love triumphed, but Melton’s power was permanently sapped and he never again hit more than 21 homers in a season. Always a liability at third base his play there declined even further and before long he was Harry Caray’s whipping boy. Poor Bill retired at 32 after his 1977 season playing for Cleveland when he had 154 plate appearances and 0 home runs.

Relief pitcher Joe Hoerner (#482) sported a 2.99 ERA over 14 years and held all-stars Bobby Bonds (#711), Johnny Callison (#364), Tommy Harper (#455), Ed Kranepool (#181), Joe Pepitone (#303) and Bill White to a collective batting average of .070 (5 for 71). Even better, he held Hall of Famers Hank Aaron (#299), Ernie Banks (#192), Reggie Jackson (#435), Willie Mays (#49), Bill Mazeroski (#760), Tony Perez (#80), Willie Stargell (#447) and Carl Yastrzemski (#37) to a collective batting average of .101 (9-89).

Jim Grant (#111) was dubbed “Mudcat” by a coach in the minor leagues and never really liked the nickname, but he eventually came to embrace it. He then went on to become the first Black pitcher in the American League to win 20 games in a season (going 21–7 for the Twins in 1965) and later in life wrote a book, “The Black Aces: Baseball’s Only African-American Twenty-Game Winners”, about all 12 (now 15) of the Black 20-game winners in the MLB history. Mr. Grant won the 1972 Mutton Chop Award too.

Jim “Cakes” Palmer (#270) won 20 or more games eight times, never gave up a grand slam or back-to-back home runs, is the only pitcher in major league history to win a World Series game in three decades (1960s, 1970s, and 1980s), was the winningest pitcher of the 1970s (186), is the only man to have played in all six of the Baltimore Orioles’ World Series appearances (1966, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1979, 1983), and has the fourth lowest ERA (2.856) of all starting pitchers who began their career after the advent of the live ball era in 1920 (I’m counting on Clayton Kershaw continuing to stay near his current career ERA of 2.49, otherwise Palmer would be third). Not too shabby!

Bob “Gibby” Gibson (#130) had ring fingers longer than middle fingers, which must have given his grip and pitches something extra. He was so dominant in 1968, with an unheard-of-for-the-live ball-era ERA of 1.12 that MLB lowered the pitching mound five inches (from 15” to 10”) after the “Season of the Pitcher” was over. “Hoot” was so respected (feared?) that Hank Aaron (#299) had this classic bit of advice for Dusty Baker (#764) when Baker was a rookie in ’68:

Don’t dig in against Bob Gibson, he’ll knock you down. He’d knock down his own grandmother if she dared to challenge him. Don’t stare at him, don’t smile at him, don’t talk to him. He doesn’t like it. If you happen to hit a home run, don’t run too slow, don’t run too fast. If you happen to want to celebrate, get in the tunnel first. And if he hits you, don’t charge the mound, because he’s a Gold Glove boxer. I’m like, “Damn, what about my 17-game hitting streak?” That was the night it ended.

If you look deeply enough into every one of these historical snapshots you come to appreciate the oddball one-off players with fleeting one or two year big league careers – guys like Al Severinsen (#274), Stan Swanson (#331), and Ron Cook (#339). They even look like they were in over their heads.

You begin to realize how many players had short, undistinguished pro careers or spent most of their time in the minor leagues, even though they had to have been damn good baseball players. Here are some other examples:

  • Screwball pitcher Aurelio Monteagudo (#458) began his career in 1961 and by 1972 had pitched 101 innings in MLB, with a record of 1-5 and ERA of 5.35. He actually never played for the Brewers or anywhere in MLB after the Angels in 1973, but soldiered on in AAA (Mexico and Edmonton (PCL) until 1983.

  • Billy Wilson (#587) began his career in the minors in 1962 at age 19 and spent seven years there before breaking in with the Phillies in 1969. By 1972 he had pitched 179 innings in the big leagues and had a 7-11 record.

  • Mike Ferraro (#613) began his minor league career in 1962 at age 17 and by 1972 had a MLB resume of 119 at bats, a .160 batting average and 0 homers. He was done at age 28 after spending 1973 season in Syracuse (IL) and Tacoma (PCL).

  • Paul Doyle (#629) debuted for the Braves as a 29-year-old rookie in 1969 after beginning his career in the Detroit Tigers’ farm system in 1959. It took him ten years and five different organizations to realize his big-league dreams, but 1972 was his last year in the league. This card has Paul looking like he knows he’s going to get the hook.

  • Eventual Hall-of Fame manager Tony LaRussa (#451) began playing minor league ball in 1962 and by the start of the 1972 season had accumulated 176 major league at bats, a .199 average and 0 home runs. After one pinch-running appearance in 1973  (where he scored on a bases loaded walk-off walk!), his career as a major league player was over.

There were also scads of players who had longer and more productive careers…somewhat pedestrian, but all with enough of a skillset to give them lasting value – guys like Vic Davalillo (#785), Ted Kubiak (#23), Darrel Chaney (#136), Merv Rettenmund (#235), Manny Mota (#596) and Rudy May (#656).

Some of these guys were darn good players. Davalillo made an all-star team (1965), earned two World Series rings (’71 Pirates and ’74 Athletics) and won a gold glove (1964). Manny Mota, an all-star in 1973, was a pinch-hitting legend, with a career batting average of .304, though he ‘only’ managed 1149 hits over a 20-year career. Rudy May earned an ERA title in 1980 (2.46) and won 152 games during his 16-year career…while also losing 156. Rettenmund batted .318 in 1971—third highest in the AL that year. Kubiak spun his Mendoza Line utility infielder role into three World Series titles with the Oakland A’s (1972-74). Chaney only had a .217 career average over 2113 at bats, but hung in there for 11 years and got his World Series ring with the Reds in 1975.

These guys played full time for only for a few years, if that—otherwise they stuck around, riding the pine, waiting for another chance as the years trickled by. And there were so many other players in the same position, hanging in there for their next at-bat, start, relief call, mop-up job, pinch-running shot – anything – for a chance to make an impression.

Other players like George Culver (#732), Moe Drabowsky (#627), and Jay Johnstone (#233) were there almost more for their humor and hijinks than their baseball ability. Apparently there’s always been a place for funny in the big leagues.

To wit, Culver had a a mediocre nine year career (48-49 and a 3.62 ERA) and Drabowsky wasn’t much better over 17 years, finishing with a record of 88–105, 54 saves, and a 3.71 ERA. Johnstone stuck around the majors for a full 20 years, platooning in the outfield and pinch-hitting, managing 1254 hits and a .267 career average. Though known more for their antics than their play, Johnstone did have some shining postseason moments with the Dodgers, as did Drabowsky with the Orioles, and they each earned two World Series rings.

So what did these jokers actually do for kicks? Well…apparently Drabowsky had a penchant for making prank calls from bullpen phones and pulling startling stunts with props like snakes and fireworks – you can imagine. Maybe his finest achievement was a “hot foot” he gave Commissioner Bowie Kuhn during the Orioles’ 1970 World Series celebration. Now that takes chutzpah. Tellingly, in his legendary book “Ball Four,” Jim Bouton wrote “There is no bigger flake in organized baseball than Drabowsky”.

Johnstone was a fellow hot foot enthusiast who pulled gags like placing a soggy brownie in Steve Garvey’s first base mitt, cutting the crotch out of Rick Sutcliffe’s underwear, locking manager Tommy Lasorda in his office during spring training, and nailing teammates’ spikes to the floor. Sounds like fun!

Meanwhile, Tommy John (#264) had this to say about Culver: “George didn’t get into a lot of games, but he held a vital role as team comic. His antics kept guys loose and kept us in a good frame of mind. When they [the 1973 Dodgers] released him…it upset the chemistry of the team. We couldn’t believe it. It was like cutting out our heart”.

Behold Johnstone and Culver doing their best to seem serious…but doesn’t it look like Moe D. is just itching to give someone a hot foot?

As interesting as the also-rans are, we mostly end up studying and thinking about the heroics of players who made the biggest impressions during their careers—the all-time greats. One, Gaylord Perry (#285) was ‘only’ 134–109 when he entered the 1972 season at 33 years of age. How did he win another 180 games and make the MLB Hall of Fame? Well, he started by posting his career high wins total in 1972, going 24–16 and winning the first of two Cy Young awards, then he kept on tossing Vaseline balls until he was 44 years old.

Another was Willie “Stretch” McCovey (#280), who in his prime was called “the scariest hitter in baseball” by none other than Bob Gibson. McCovey retired as the second most prolific left-handed home run hitter of all time (tied with Ted Williams with 521, second to Babe Ruth) and held the record for intentional walks in a season (45) for 33 years after breaking the record by a full 12 walks. “Willie Mac” is one of 31 major leaguers who played in four decades (1959–80), but he never quite got over the fact that second baseman Bobby Richardson snared his frozen rope line drive to end the 1962 World Series. On the occasion of his being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988, when asked how he would like to be remembered, McCovey replied: “As the guy who hit the ball over Bobby Richardson’s head in the seventh game.”

The very best players just never stop burning to win, eh?


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 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 prince of a man Mr. Larry Pauley, who gave this project direction when there was none.

In which I get insulted by Topps Heritage

With cards only just making their way into retail stores I haven’t been able to procure even a blaster and so I’ve been unable to keep up with my annual dive into the printing weeds. Given the simplicity of the 1973 design I wasn’t expecting to find enough for a post anyway. No obvious things to improve upon or change like 1969/2018’s photography or 1970/2019’s grey borders. No interesting reveals like 1971/2020’s black borders. And no impending trainwrecks like 1972/2021’s typesetting.

I was mainly hoping for clever homages of the best things that 1973 did such as the Jack Brohamer and Mark Belanger pair of cards. I’m hoping the Twitter hive mind will turn up something like that here.

The only cards I got were my Giants team set courtesy of  case break. At first I was extremely satisfied since at an individual card level things looked mostly nice. Some of the usual Heritage photo smoothing and fake trapping shenanigans* but that’s standard with the territory.

*I haven’t really posted about these since I don’t know how to describe them but in short whatever photo processing Topps is doing to make things look older has bothered me for years.

Then I looked closer and realized that of fifteen cards in the base team set, twelve not only use the same background they in fact use the exact same background. This isn’t wholly unexpected since many teams have been posting photo day shots on Twitter than show players posed in front of a green screen. But I also expected a bit more effort from Topps instead of just pasting each player in front of a single stock background image.

I’ve gone ahead and turned my twelve Giants cards into an animated gif that shows how the backgrounds are identical, right down to the exact same cloud formations. I get it. Lead times are short. Creating a complete set is a lot of work. But still this level of templating is the kind of green screen photos that every family attraction used to ambush us with immediately after we entered the front gates.

It offends me professionally as a designer and it disappoints me personally as someone who loves baseball cards. It also shows that Topps is dialing up the worst qualities of their glory days. As much as I like those cards it’s a sad truth that many of them have the same handful of poses in front of the same kind of stadium background.

The difference though is that even with the sameness of location those cards have life to them. There are random dudes in the background. Players are bundled up against the elements. The photographer moves around the stadium so we end up with multiple views of the same place. Heritage instead is completely sterile and once you see how sterile it is you find yourself wishing for the awkwardness of the 1973 George Scott no matter how bad the compositing is.

Death and Taxes and Baseball Card Litigation [Part II, 1965-1988]

Author’s Note: This is the second in a multi-part series [Part I] that will explore the legal backstories that have shaped (and continue to shape) the baseball card industry. Once considered mere ephemera used to induce children to buy penny confections (or cigarettes!), the industry has been inundated by costly legal battles waged in the name of baseball card supremacy.

Although Fleer had hoped to wield the Federal Trade Commission as its cudgel, the commission ultimately found that Topps’ business practices did not constitute an unlawful monopoly and the matter was dismissed in Topps’ favor on April 30, 1965. Undaunted, Fleer renewed its efforts in 1966 to sign players at spring training camps and issued its “All Star Match Baseball” set, which featured a 66-piece puzzle of Dodgers ace Don Drysdale on the reverse side of the game cards. After this set was issued (and perhaps a result of disappointing sales) Fleer’s resolve faded, culminating in the sale of its entire player contract portfolio—some 3000 players—to Topps later that year for $395,000 (approximately $3.4 million in today’s dollars).

1967 Topps Bill Skowron (#357), Bill Denehy/Tom Seaver (#581), Bob Gibson (#210)

Having dispatched its closest competitor, Topps was poised for sustained dominance in the baseball card market. Indeed, the 1967 set was its largest to date with a checklist comprising 609 bright, colorful cards. Unfortunately for Topps, its newly bought peace would be fleeting. The next assault, however, would be waged not by rival card manufacturers, but by new adversaries—the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) and Major League Baseball (MLB).

Frank Scott and the Proto-MLBPA

A “short, feisty, impeccably dressed man,” Frank Scott was road secretary for the New York Yankees from 1947 through 1950 and developed close relationships with Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and Mickey Mantle. In exchange for a 10% commission, Scott began to represent those players for off-field income opportunities—namely personal appearances and product endorsements—and eventually developed a client list of over 90 baseball stars including Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, and Robin Roberts. At his peak, Scott was earning $250,000 per year (approximately $2.4 million today) pursuing endorsement deals. One of those deals included landing Mickey Mantle a $1500 payment from Bowman for rights to a photo of Mantle blowing a bubble (although no such card was ever issued).

The Sporting News, September 23, 1953

In May 1959, Scott was named director of the nascent MLBPA—an organization originally created to help ensure the players’ player pension fund was being adequately funded. He continued his player representation business and staffed a provisional MLBPA office at a New York City hotel. Although he had been paid $1000 ($9600 today) a year by Topps for his assistance getting players to sign baseball card contracts, Scott ceased all relationships with Topps after becoming head of the MLBPA.

Considered “too smart to meddle in the players’ salary debates,” Scott avoided contract negotiations between his clients and their respective ballclubs. Similarly, the MLBPA was not yet recognized as a union under Scott’s leadership and did not engage in collective bargaining with MLB on behalf of the players. The direction of the MLBPA, however, changed drastically in late 1965 as a search was undertaken to find a full-time director and establish a permanent office.

The Marvin Miller Experience

Though not their first choice, the stars aligned when the players’ landed Marvin Miller, then chief economist for the United Steelworkers. Under Miller’s leadership, the MLBPA saw unprecedented progress for players’ rights and eventually led to his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in December 2019.

2015 Topps Heritage (#NF-9)

Miller’s nomination for Executive Director was ratified by a player vote on April 11, 1966. He was given a two-and-a-half-year contract starting July 1, at $50,000 per year (approximately $430,000 today), plus a $20,000 expense budget. In need of quick revenue to fund association operations, Miller prioritized a group licensing program. With Frank Scott’s help, the MLBPA first inked a deal with Coca-Cola to print player photos on the underside of bottlecaps. The team owners demanded that Coca-Cola pay separately to use of their club logos. Coca-Cola refused, however, so the bottlecaps were printed with blank hats.

At the time Miller took the helm, the players were still being paid $125 per year by Topps to use their photographs, the amount unchanged for over a decade. Miller met with Topps’ president Joel Shorin in the fall of 1966 looking to renegotiate. Shorin was dismissive of the ballplayers’ leverage as he quipped, “I don’t see your muscle.” Miller, however, was ready to play hardball with Topps:

“In early 1967 Miller suggested to the players that they stop renewing their individual Topps contracts and boycott Topps photographers. This was the only way, Miller advised, that they could get Topps to deal with them. Although the action was voluntary, Topps was able to take no more than a handful of photos during the 1967 season, and, with the dispute unresolved, none at all in 1968.”   

(Mark Armour, SABR Baseball Cards)

Around this same time, the baseball club owners established Major League Properties, Inc. looking to monetize the use of their logos depicted in the photos taken of the ballplayers. After initially refusing to engage with the owners for these rights, Topps was warned that future player photos should be taken in “street clothes, or in pajamas or bathing trunks.” Accordingly, uncertainty created by the demands made by the club owners and the MLBPA were the main reason hatless, underbrim, and duplicative photos proliferated Topps’ offerings the second half of the 1960s.

The players’ boycott convinced Topps to pursue further talks with the MLBPA in early 1968. Topps’ opening volley was no olive branch, however. At a meeting on April 23, Shorin presented Miller with a legal opinion stating that the MLBPA’s group licensing program violated antitrust laws. The MLBPA responded with an opinion that Topps’ contracts with the players violated antitrust laws. (Ironically, both Topps and the MLBPA would soon have to defend a lawsuit that alleged that they conspired together to violate antitrust laws.)

Fleer (Briefly) Back in the Mix

In a move designed to enhance the MLBPA’s bargaining position with Topps, Miller proposed giving Fleer exclusive rights, beginning in 1973, to sell baseball cards with gum for up to 80% of the MLB player pool—in exchange for $600,000. Alternatively, the MLBPA offered Fleer immediate rights for all players sold with a product other than gum. Fleer rejected both offers, claiming it was only interested in cards sold with gum, and that 1973 was simply too long to wait.

Detente

Despite the hostile start to their renegotiations, Topps and the MLBPA were able to reach an accord on November 19, 1968 that doubled the player’s annual payment to $250. More importantly, Topps agreed to pay royalties on its annual baseball card sales revenue, resulting in $320,000 (approximately $2.5 million today) paid to the MLBPA in the first year of the deal alone. The deal also allowed the MLBPA to grant a license for any products that were at least 5” x 7” and sold for 25 cents, although Topps reserved the right of first refusal as to any such proposal.

The MLBPA issued numerous trading card licenses during the 1968-1974 period to companies like Beatrice Foods, ITT Continental Baking, Kellogg’s, Pro Star, Inc., Madaras, Inc., Pasco, Inc., and Charles Linnett Associates—several of which were granted over Topps’ objection. In 1969 the MLBPA granted Sports Promotions, Inc., a license to market baseball cards “with cheap novelty rings, iron-on patches, and similar novelties so long as the value of the novelty represented half of the total retail value.” Topps complained to the MLBPA that their rights had been infringed when they learned of the agreement. Topps also objected to Kellogg’s selling baseball cards alone through the mail in 1974. Officially licensed by the MLBPA, Kellogg’s sold sets 54 baseball cards for $1.50, plus a box-top from box of cereal (that typically cost 60 cents). The MLBPA did not revoke Kellogg’s license but obtained a waiver from Topps to allow the continued license for cards sold in that fashion. (Topps could not object to the Kellogg’s cards inserted as premiums in Kellogg’s cereal boxes.)

Despite some occasional complaints to the MLBPA, several years of prosperity followed for Topps and by 1974, its sales of baseball cards and gum approached $6 million annually (approximately $34 million today). Pleased with their arrangement, the contract between Topps and the MLBPA was extended through 1981.

A Fleer in the Ointment

In 1974, Fleer’s president Donald Peck approached the MLBPA seeking approval to market 5” x 7” satin patches to be sold for 25 cents each. The proposal appeared to exploit the product size loophole granted by Topps but appears to have been bit of clever subterfuge in hindsight suggested by Fleer’s paltry $25,000 guarantee on projected sales of $1 million. Moreover, Fleer was likely aware Topps and the MLBPA routinely discussed whether proposed licenses infringed upon Topps’ rights.

Topps took the bait and advised the MLBPA that Fleer’s proposal “was probably not worthwhile.” Without explicitly asking that the license be denied, Shorin warned that the large-format satin patches proposed by Fleer would sit on store shelves and likely depress the sales of Topps’ baseball cards, along with the players’ royalties. Not surprisingly, Topps declined its right to claim the license for the satin patch product.

Miller presented both Fleer’s proposal and Topps’ criticism to the players’ executive board for consideration. Fleer’s offer was rejected unanimously because of fears “Fleer’s product would remain unsold on store shelves, prompting store owners to cut back on orders of Topps’ baseball cards.” Additionally, the executive board was skeptical of Fleer’s sales projections and inadequate guarantee. Miller suggested several changes that might secure a license for the product, but Fleer declined. By April 1975, Fleer had dropped its 5” x 7” product proposal all together.

Peck met with Joel Shorin on April 17, 1975 and threatened to file a lawsuit unless Topps granted Fleer the rights to sell “stickers, stamps, and decals depicting active major league players.” Shorin refused, so Fleer approached the MLBPA about joining in a lawsuit against Topps. The MBLPA declined.

The Monopoly Defense, Part Deux

Even though it had apparently abandoned a desire to produce baseball cards of current players by selling off its contract portfolio to Topps in 1966, Fleer kept a toe in the water by selling team logo cloth stickers with its gum from 1967 through 1972. While Curt Flood’s antitrust case captured headlines throughout the early 1970s and pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally played out their 1975 seasons without contracts in an effort to gain free agent status, Fleer pursued an antitrust case of its own in July 1975, filing a federal lawsuit against Topps and the MLBPA alleging they were co-conspirators in an illegal restraint of trade under the Sherman Act.

1970 Topps Curt Flood (#360) – Flood never played for the Phillies but appears on this card, a perfect example of the “underbrim” shot favored by Topps’ photographers.

Donald Peck claimed that “Topps’ methods had made it impossible for a competitor to bid for rights to the players’ pictures, that the players had been deprived of a chance to maximize their income,” and “the gum and candy industries had been deprived of open competition.” In its complaint, Fleer alleged that it had attempted to obtain the rights needed to produce a set of current major league baseball 5” x 7” cloth stickers as recently as 1974 and was otherwise equipped to reenter the market, but for its lack of “suitable contracts with baseball players.” 

Now united, Topps and the MLBPA vowed to vigorously defend the case, which made antitrust accusations eerily similar to those Topps had successfully defended just a decade earlier in the FTC matter. Joel Shorin remained confident that Topps “had complied with all relevant laws.” Likewise, Marvin Miller was satisfied with the Topps’ arrangement and “would not like to see it disrupted.”   

In response, Topps filed a motion to dismiss asking the court to find that Fleer was a de facto party in the FTC matter, alleging “Fleer took such an active part in the FTC hearings, and its interests were so aligned with those of the FTC complaint counsel, that it had a “full and fair opportunity . . . to present its evidence and arguments on the claim.” Because the FTC matter had already been resolved in Topps’ favor, they felt it unfair to allow Fleer another bite at the apple.

It seems reasonable to infer that Fleer had no intention of ever issuing a set of 5” x 7” satin stickers, especially when they rebuffed Miller’s attempts to restructure the deal. Most likely, Fleer’s proposal was engineered to be rejected by the MLBPA, both by its puny guarantee and bold expectation Topps would exert its influence to sink the project. By perpetuating this bluff, however, Fleer could allege the requisite intention and capacity to reenter the baseball card market necessary to prove its antitrust case.

The court found that Fleer had undertaken substantial steps to compete in the marketing of current baseball player picture cards and had sufficiently pled that the alleged conspiracy between Topps and the MLBPA prevented them from entering the market. The defendants’ motion to dismiss the case was denied on May 28, 1976; Fleer survived round one.

The Pure Card Set

In late 1974, Topps was alerted that Mike Aronstein and Sports Stars Publishing Company (SSPC) was interested in issuing cards featuring current baseball players. Topps notified the MLBPA, who issued a cease-and-desist letter to Aronstein asserting Topps’ status as the “exclusive licensee for baseball cards sold alone or together with confectionary products” of the MLBPA. Up until Fleer’s request for a license to issue its 5”x7” cloth stickers, the MLBPA had refused but one license request—Aronstein’s—because the SSPC cards conflicted with Topps’ rights to sell cards alone.

1976 SSPC cards: George Brett (#167), Steve Stone (#302), Ron Cey, back (#75)

Undeterred by Topps’ monopoly and after success with Mets and Yankees team sets and a 24-card “puzzle back” set in 1975, SSPC set its sights high for 1976, with plans to issue a massive 630-card “Pure Card Set” inspired by Aronstein’s admiration of 1953 Bowman’s clean design. SSPC partner, Bill Hongach, (former Yankees’ batboy and Renata Galasso’s husband) helped obtain the photographs. A young Keith Olbermann wrote the card backs. The issuance of the Pure Card Set in 1976 (though copyrighted 1975), however, involved a fair bit of daring.

Two of Mike Aronstein’s other partners in SSPC were attorneys who opined the company could legally issue the cards because (1) the current players were public figures and (2) SSPC was simply disseminating editorial information about each player. They believed the SSPC format (despite its dimensions corresponding precisely to those of a Topps baseball card) was not substantively different than a photograph of a player accompanying a magazine article. Regardless, Aronstein said they “waited to be clobbered by Topps” once the set was advertised for sale.  

Distribution of the Pure Card Set—printed and ready to ship as of January 21—was stopped in its tracks when Aronstein received notice that Topps had been granted a temporary restraining order. Despite Topps’ later admission it had no issue with TCMA’s minor league and reprint sets (as long as they did not contain any cards of active MLB coaches of managers under contract with Topps), the order also halted distribution of all TCMA card sets and otherwise attempted to put Aronstein’s Collector’s Quarterly magazine out of business. The SSPC operation was small (i.e., no employees) and had gone $40,000 in debt to print the Pure Card Set.  Topps, on the other hand, tallied $8 million in revenue (approximately $40 million today) on sales of 250 million baseball cards produced in 1976. 

Photos courtesy Andrew Aronstein

Eventually, Aronstein was able to reach a deal that allowed SSPC to distribute the Pure Card Set to anyone who had ordered it on or before February 20, 1976. Aronstein was thrilled—SSPC had sold some three million cards (distributed as complete or team sets), which allowed them to cover the printing costs and claim a tidy profit. The deal also permitted SSPC to produce cards of current players in sizes other than the standard 2½” x 3½” size, which led to SSPC’s creation of fully sanctioned 27-card uncut sheets that the Phillies and Yankees included in their 1978 yearbooks.             

Closing out the 1970s

In 1976, Topps and Fleer began to lose market share with their flagship hard bubblegum products (“Bazooka” and “Dubble Bubble, respectively) due to the introduction of “Bubble Yum,” a soft bubblegum product. Despite its new competition, revenue remained healthy for Topps through 1978, with total sales about $67 million (roughly $290 million today), $9.2 million of which (approximately $40 million today) originated from the sales of baseball cards. With revenue of $15.2 million in 1978 (about $66 million today), Fleer surely salivated at the opportunity to issue baseball cards as a way to close its revenue gap.

In 1978, royalty income for the MLBPA approached $1.1 million (approximately $4.7 million today). Topps’ royalty payments accounted for about $847,000 (approximately $3.65 million today) of that total. That Topps payment comprised more than 75 percent of the MLBPA’s total licensing revenue neatly explains why the MLBPA was reluctant to cross Topps.

The Bubble Bursts

Fleer’s antitrust case against Topps and the MLBPA rolled on for the better part of four years in Pennsylvania without much publicity until the defendants were dealt a massive blow on June 30, 1980. After trial on the matter, the district court issued its decision finding that Topps and the MLBPA had acted in concert to exclude Topps’ competitors and were in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act by having restrained trade in the baseball card market. Damning to be sure.

In order to arrive at its decision that Topps and the MLBPA conspired to monopolize, the court had to find a “specific subjective intent to gain an illegal degree of market control.” As a result, Fleer was entitled to monetary damages and the court was empowered to grant equitable (non-monetary) relief that could levy restrictions on Topps and the MLBPA and/or impose mandatory injunctions that would require defendants to perform specific actions. The equitable relief granted by Judge Clarence Newcomer would change the baseball card landscape forever. 

In order to calculate any monetary damages owed to Fleer, the court assumed that, absent the conspiracy to monopolize, “the MLBPA would have granted Fleer a non-confectionary license for some product” at the market price. The court, however, considered the realities of Fleer’s chances for success in the market, “Fleer has never had a great deal of success marketing trading cards of any type (Topps and Donruss are the leaders in the field), and had it obtained an expensive license, its expertise would have been greatly tested. Fleer’s distribution system is not as effective as that of Topps (Topps uses its own sales force; Fleer works through brokers and wholesalers), and Topps could have been expected to have beaten Fleer to the shelves in the spring. Finally, Topps’ product has a great deal of market acceptance among retailers and consumers.” The court admittedly could not find that “Fleer would have been the company to succeed at the endeavor,” but it at least should have had the opportunity to try.

Damage, Inc.

Generally, monetary damages must be provable in order to be recovered. Unfortunately for Fleer, the court found that trying to quantify Fleer’s losses depended on “an unacceptable amount of speculation,” especially because Fleer was “not a particularly robust company at the moment.” Its sales were roughly a fifth of those of Topps and both companies were suffering loss of market share at the hands of soft bubble gum products sold by larger competitors. Moreover, Fleer had never sold a trading card item that achieved $750,000 in sales.

Even without any conspiracy between Topps and the MLBPA, “Fleer would have faced two obstacles between it and its first dollar of profit. First, it would have had to obtain a license from the MLBPA to market a set of cards. Second, it faced the significant market power of a firmly entrenched competitor.” Because of this uncertainty, the court awarded Fleer symbolic damages of $1 (which was trebled to $3 pursuant to statute). The defendants were also ordered to reimburse Fleer its attorneys’ fees—likely hundreds of thousands of dollars incurred to pursue the protracted litigation.

More importantly, the court permanently enjoined Topps from enforcing the exclusivity clause in its player contracts and prohibited Topps from entering into any player contract that gave Topps the exclusive right to sell that player’s photograph. Wow.

The MLBPA was ordered to carefully consider any applications it received for licenses to market baseball cards and was explicitly required to enter into at least one such licensing agreement before January 1, 1981 “to market a pocket-size baseball card product, to be sold alone or in combination with a low-cost premium, in packages priced at 15 to 50 cents.” Fleer was granted right of first refusal as to any such license. The MLBPA was also cleared to grant as many similar baseball card licenses as it chose to.

Fleer and Donruss Enter the Fray

1981 Topps Bill Buckner (#625), 1981 Fleer Mark Fidrych (#462), 1981 Donruss Pete Rose (#131)

Following the court’s decision in June 1980, Fleer scrambled to assemble its 1981 set. At 660 cards, it was by far the largest set the company had ever produced. President Donald Peck was downright giddy, “I don’t know why we succeeded this time. I guess our case was just presented better. . .We’re just having a lot of fun competing in this area.” He predicted Fleer would sell less than Topps, but “more than Topps thinks.”

In 1980 the standard Topps wax pack contained 15 cards and a stick of gum for 25 cents. Topps included 15 cards and a stick of gum for its 1981 set but increased the price to 30 cents per pack. It also added “The Real One” tagline to its boxes and wrappers for the first time.

1981 Topps Wax Box

Fleer tried to outdo Topps by inserting 17 cards and a stick of gum in its 1981 wax packs, sold for 30 cents. It also included two extra packs in each wax box, promising retailers “60 cents extra profit”! Fleer’s 1981 issue was the first to market.

Donruss was an experienced player in (mostly non-sport) trading cards but had to scramble to produce a set once it was granted a license by the MLBPA in September 1980 (reaping the rewards without having to engage in expensive litigation. Although not a party, Donruss personnel was involved in the Fleer case only as witnesses).

Donruss’ president Stewart Lyman reached out to New York sportswriter Bill Madden, who was hired to write the backs for the 1981 set. Mike Aronstein was granted the exclusive right to sell complete hobby sets that year. Donruss sold its wax packs, 18 cards and a stick of gum, through its established distribution channels.

Unfortunately, the 1981 Fleer and Donruss issues were plagued by errors as they rushed to produce their sets, prompting collectors to question whether the errors were included intentionally to stimulate publicity. Fleer corrected some of its errors in its second printing, some more in its third. By June 7, Donruss was in its third printing and had made corrections to most of the errors that dogged its hastily assembled set. Lyman denied Donruss had intentionally included the error cards as a way to increase sales, “I’m embarrassed we made any errors, but I’m proud so few were made considering the timetable we had to put out the set.”

Can you spot the errors?
1981 Fleer Fernando Valenzuela (#140) and Graig Nettles (#87), 1981 Donruss Bobby Bonds (#71)

Interestingly, the district court observed that as of 1980, “no baseball cards are marketed which include statistics on stolen bases or fielding percentage, game winning hits, successful sacrifice attempts, or any number of other statistics which a competitor might choose to offer to attract baseball card purchasers.” Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Topps and Fleer both included stolen bases on their card backs in 1981.    

The Appeal

Despite having prevailed, Fleer was not fully satisfied and appealed the district court’s decision. Fleer wanted the court to bar Topps from the baseball card market for at least one season and to require Topps to deal only with the MLBPA rather than through its exclusive individual player agreements. In addition, Fleer sought reconsideration of the award of nominal damages ($3). Topps appealed as well, seeking a reversal of the court’s findings of liability, damages, and injunctive relief.

In a bit of déjà vu, the Third District Appellate Court found that the agreements in place between Topps and the MLBPA “were neither unreasonable restraints of trade. . .nor monopolization of the relevant market.” Topps had won the appeal (again). The court held that just because Topps had managed to obtain licensing agreements with the overwhelming majority of major league players “did not make the aggregation of these contracts an unlawful combination in restraint of trade.” They noted further that Fleer chose to leave the trading card market in 1966 and sold all its existing licensing agreements to Topps.

In addition, Fleer had admitted it could compete against Topps for license agreements in the minor leagues, but it would take several years before it could produce a marketable product. The court found that this argument simply “identified a characteristic of Major League Baseball, rather than an illegal restraint of trade” or “an indictment of Topps’ licensing agreements.” While a Fleer may not have been able to sign major league players already under contract to Topps, it could still compete for player licenses at the minor league level. That this might take six or seven years to bear fruit did not make Topps’ agreements anticompetitive.

An examination of licenses granted by the MLBPA for the sale of trading cards with non-confectionary goods demonstrated that the fear of decreased royalty payments did not stop the MLBPA from licensing products competitive with Topps. As a licensor, “the MLBPA is free to grant licenses to any competitor, or none at all.” Ultimately, appellate court held that Fleer had not proven any intent on the part of Topps and the MLBPA to monopolize the trading card market.

In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Fleer’s appeal, which made final the Third District’s decision.

Restitution in Delaware

No longer free to market their cards with gum, Fleer and Donruss set about to distribute their cards in 1982 with a non-confectionary premium to exploit the loophole in Topps’ exclusive rights to market cards alone or with gum, candy, or confectionaries. (Fleer did not resurrect the cookie packed with cards in 1963.) Though Topps presumably protested to the MLBPA that Fleer’s team logo stickers and Donruss’s Babe Ruth puzzle pieces were simply “sham” products tantamount to selling cards alone, the MLBPA continued to officially sanction Fleer and Donruss, presumably content with the fruits of the royalty arrangements with each.  

In May 1982, shortly after Fleer’s appellate recourse was exhausted, Topps filed a lawsuit in Delaware’s chancery court alleging Fleer was unjustly enriched by “sales of products to which Topps had the exclusive rights to manufacture and sell.” Topps sought to recover the profits Fleer realized on its $4 million in sales (approximately $12.4 million today) of 1981 cards. Fleer president Donald Peck dismissed the charges as meritless and assured that Fleer had no intentions of pulling its 1982 cards from the market. Regardless, in the course of the lawsuit Fleer acknowledged that did owe some amount of restitution but urged that disgorgement of its profits was unreasonable.   

While the Delaware case was pending, Topps filed a separate lawsuit against Fleer in the Southern District of New York on March 29, 1983 seeking to recover all of Fleer’s profits for 1982 and 1983—along with $3 million in punitive damages—claiming that Fleer’s team logo sticker was a “sham product.” This lawsuit was settled confidentially in 1985, with Fleer given consent to “continue with the baseball cards and team logo stickers, as before.”

Back in Delaware, Fleer filed a motion asking the chancery court to declare that Topps was not entitled to recover Fleer’s profits “because those profits were earned under the protection of a court order and not as the result of any illegal infringement of Topps’ exclusive contract or licensing rights.” The court denied Fleer’s motion, finding that even though Fleer had legally marketed its 1981 cards in accordance with the Pennsylvania district court’s order—once the decree was reversed by the appellate court, it was as though Fleer had infringed on Topps’ exclusive rights all along.

In 1988, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling that Fleer had issued cards in 1981 under a wrongfully issued injunction and were responsible to reimburse Topps damages equal to the “net profits received by Fleer arising out of Fleer’s use of Topps’ previously exclusive license agreements.” The matter was returned to the lower court for an accounting. It is unclear how the chancery case ultimately resolved, but it seems likely that the parties reached confidential settlement. (No newspaper articles reporting on the resolution of the case have been located and no information is available remotely from the court.)

1988 Topps Jose Cruz (#278), 1988 Fleer Edgar Martinez (#378), 1988 Gregg Jefferies (#657), 1988 Sportflics Wade Boggs (#50), 1988 Score Bo Jackson (#180)

Otherwise, the MLBPA began preparing in 1988 for a potential work stoppage in 1990 when the collective bargaining agreement with MLB expired. At the time, baseball card royalties paid into the MLBPA garnered each player roughly $18,000 per year in additional income (approximately $43,000 today). The MLBPA used those royalty payments (only $5000 of the $18,000 total was distributed to the players) to fund a war chest, which proved a savvy move when the owners implemented a 32-day lockout that delayed the start of the 1990 season.

Also in 1988, newcomer Score joined Topps, Fleer, Donruss, and Sportflics (who began producing sets in 1986) as a major set manufacturer. Deep in the throes of the junk wax era, Dr. James Beckett expected some five billion cards would be manufactured in 1988. Predictably, more industry players would mean more fighting.

To be continued…

Sources/Notes:

Websites

www.baseball-reference.com

www.retrosheet.com[JS27] [JR28] 

www.tcdb.com

www.mlbplayers.com

Cases

  • In re Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. 67 F.T.C. 744 (1965).
  • Flood v. Kuhn, 407 U.S. 258 (1972). In January 1970, Curt Flood filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of New York against the Commissioner of Baseball (Bowie Kuhn), the presidents of the two major leagues (Joe Cronin and Chub Feeney), and the 24 major league clubs after he refused an October 1969 trade from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood’s complaint alleged violations of federal antitrust laws, civil rights statutes, and the imposition of a form of peonage and involuntary servitude contrary to the Thirteenth Amendment, which had abolished slavery. Flood refused to report to the Phillies in 1970, despite a $100,000 salary offer, and sat out for the season. He appeared in 13 games for the Washington Senators in 1971 but left the club, and organized baseball, for good on April 27 unsatisfied with his performance. On June 19, 1972, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in the Flood v. Kuhn matter, holding that, in accordance with Federal Base Ball (1922), the business of baseball—including the reserve clause—was exempt from antitrust laws. No other business (i.e., vaudeville, professional boxing, National Football League) that had sought antitrust exemption in reliance on Federal Baseball had been successful. Accordingly, MLB had (has) the only legally sanctioned monopoly in the United States. Despite candidly admitting that “professional baseball is a business and it is engaged in interstate commerce,” a majority of the Supreme Court ruled against Flood, imploring any change to the law be had “by legislation and not by court decision.” 
  • Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 415 F.Supp. 176 (E.D. Pa. 1976).  With regard to the FTC matter, “Fleer’s representatives were star witnesses and, in proportion, carried the burden of making the record in this proceeding. They were in constant attendance throughout the hearing. . . In retrospect, much of the struggle for contracts with ballplayers seems to be Fleer’s private struggle with Topps . . .The Hearing Examiner is, however, of the opinion that the delegation of the Commission’s ‘adjudicative fact-finding functions’ does not embrace a policy question going to the public interest.”
  • Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 501 F.Supp. 485 (E.D. Pa. 1980). The only trading card product ever to outsell baseball cards was Wacky Packages in 1973-74. The court noted that the slab of gum weighed “4.30 grams” in 1978. Fleer had a net operating loss in 1978 and its net income (loss) was as follows: 1977—$346,621; 1976—$502,257; 1975—$720,274; 1974—($309,261); 1973—$382,354; 1972—$268,926; 1971—$148,494; 1970—($200,016). Roughly two thirds of baseball cards purchased are purchased by “heavy” buyers (i.e., those who purchase more than 200 cards per year.)  
  • Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 658 F.2d 139 (3rd Cir. 1981). The number of players included in each licensing agreement varied. Some contracts, like those with Coca-Cola and Kellogg’s covered all the players, while others included “not less than 72, and not more than 300.”
  • Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., cert. denied, 455 U.S. 1019 (1982).
  • Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. v. Fleer Corp., 547 F.Supp. 102 (D. Del. 1982).
  • Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. v. Fleer Corp., 799 F.2d 851 (2nd Cir. 1986). Fleer’s contract with the MLBPA required that the production cost of the logo sticker had to be “not less than 15 percent of the production cost of the baseball cards in a package.” No evidence was presented to show the production costs for the team logo stickers.
  • Fleer Corp. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. 539 A.2d 1060 (Del., 1988). “Restitution serves to ‘deprive the defendant of benefits that in equity and good conscience he ought not to keep, even though he may have received those benefits honestly in the first instance, and even though the plaintiff may have suffered no demonstrable losses.’”

Articles

  • “Mickey’s Bubbles Busted by Ol’ Case,” The Sporting News, September 23, 1953: 17. Mantle was redressed by Yankees manager Casey Stengel for having the audacity to blow a bubble while playing in the outfield.
  • Dick Young, “Young Ideas,” (New York) Daily News, December 2, 1967: C26.
  • Richard Wright, “Off-Season Paydirt for Pro Stars,” Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan), December 8, 1968: 59.
  • “Lawyer Probed on Ballplayers’ Complaints,” Detroit Free Press, November 2, 1970: 30.
  • Don Lenhausen, “Lawyer Linked to Tigers Is Accused of Misconduct,” Detroit Free Press, December 17, 1970: 16.
  • “Bad Check Charge Lawyer Sentenced,” Detroit Free Press, July 28, 1971: 17.
  • “Competitor Sues Topps Over Players’ Pictures,” Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) Times Leader, July 10, 1975: 4.
  • “Gum Firm to Pop Rival’s Bubble,” Detroit Free Press, July 10, 1975: 25.
  • “The battle of the baseball cards,” The Record (Hackensack, New Jersey), March 10, 1976: 62.
  • Mike Aronstein, “The Great Card War,” Collectors Quarterly, Summer 1976.
  • “The Topps-sponsored Bubble Gum Blowing Championships of 1975,” The Tampa Tribune, September 5, 1976: 118. In 1976, Topps issued a card honoring Milwaukee Brewers infielder Kurt Bevacqua as the “Joe Garagiola/Bazooka Bubble Gum Blowing Champ.” The win netted Bevacqua a first prize of $1000 ($5200 today) for his 18¼” bubble. Phillies catcher Johnny Oates was second with a 14½” bubble that won him $500. 
  • Andy Lindstrom, “Kids still trade their baseball heroes,” News-Pilot (San Pedro, California), September 10, 1976: 11.
  • Michelle Mitkowski, “Baseball Card Collectors Have Field Day at Show,” Daily Record (Morristown, New Jersey), January 12, 1981: 19.
  • Paul Marose, “Just like runs and cards, errors part of the game,” The Dispatch (Moline, Illinois), June 7, 1981: 13-14.
  • “Bubble gum game goes into extra innings,” Baltimore Sun, June 1982: 38.”
  • “No Hits, Runs, Errors Yet in Chewing Gum Lawsuit,” Scranton Times-Tribune, March 30, 1983: 11.
  • “Topps gum firm agrees to buy-out,” Philadelphia Inquirer, November 17, 1983: 121.
  • “Gumming up the works,” Santa Fe New Mexican, April 8, 1985: 11.
  • “Investment in Baseball Cards is Topps,” Record-Journal (Meriden, Connecticut), April 18, 1988: 14.
  • Claire Smith, “Players saving for strike in ’90,” Hartford Courant, June 18, 1988: 191, 194.
  • Frank Litsky, “Frank Scott, 80, Baseball’s First Player Agent,” New York Times, June 30, 1998: Section B, Page 9.
  • Mark Armour, “The 1967-68 Player Boycott of Topps,” SABR Baseball Cards Committee Blog,  https://sabrbaseballcards.blog/2017/01/03/the-1967-68-player-boycott-of-topps/, January 3, 2017.
  • Michael Haupert, “Marvin Miller and the Birth of the MLBPA,” Baseball Research Journal, Spring 2017.

Interview

Mike Aronstein, telephone interview with author, March 10, 2022.

Miscellaneous Notes

  • The players’ first choice for Executive Director was Milwaukee County Judge Robert Cannon, who turned down the offer because his request to place the MLBPA office in Milwaukee or Chicago was refused and the association would not guarantee him a pension equal to what he would have received as a county judge.  Cannon was later instrumental in moving the Seattle Pilots franchise to Milwaukee. The licensing deal with Coca-Cola was $60,000 per year for two years and was instrumental in securing funding needed to keep the MLBPA solvent until dues were first collected in May 1967. Topps agreed to pay an 8% royalty on the first $4 million in sales and 10% thereafter.
  • The MLBPA group licensing program applies to any company seeking to use the names or likenesses of more than two Major League Baseball players in connection with a commercial product, product line or promotion must sign a licensing agreement with the MLBPA. The license grants the use of the players’ names and/or likenesses only and not the use of any MLB team logos or marks.
  • Presumably a deal was reached between Topps and Major League Properties considering team logos appear in every set of the 1960s, but the terms of this deal have eluded the author.
  • The author has been unable to identify any products marketed under the name “Sports Promotions, Inc.” although this appears to be a company linked to Livonia, Michigan attorney Edward P. May, who along with Tigers pitcher Joe Sparma sold Tiger player caricatures in 1968 and had attempted to “merchandise bubblegum cards on a nationwide basis.”   May had represented Al Kaline, who complained to the Wayne County prosecutor’s office that May had defrauded him out of $14,000 tied to a health club named for the slugger.  Denny McLain complained he lost $100,000 on an ill-fated paint company venture May arranged. The MLBPA complained May had not paid royalties on baseball cards sold and accused him of forging the signature of a printing company executive on a document that guaranteed those royalties. In 1971, May was placed on three years’ probation for writing bad checks and suspended indefinitely from practicing law in Michigan.
  • Before 1981, Topps had only included stolen base statistics on the backs of its 1971 cards.

Special Thanks

Special thanks to Jason Schwartz for reviewing this article and offering several helpful suggestions.

Topps in 1972, Part 7

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, 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 actually 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.