If you came here to read about the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle or 1989 Fleer Billy Ripken, you came to the wrong place. I’m here to talk about true baseball card icons…these!
These are of course the position icons Topps used on their 1976 flagship set. Now that you see where the post is headed, I’m only going to get the ball rolling and look to you, the readers, to finish it for me.
Use the comments area either to fill a vacant slot or upgrade one of the existing slots. Together I believe we can assemble a team of the most iconic baseball cards ever, and I wouldn’t even be surprised if the entire collection could be had for only a few bucks.
I was reasonably happy with the 1988 Score Bob Boone card, but I suspect there’s something better out there. Terry Steinbach had a couple that were very close but facing the wrong way.
As in the 1973 set, Topps used different icons depending on whether a pitcher threw righty or lefty. Until a better match comes along, here is the iconic 1991 Topps Donn Pall card in the righty slot.
Hunting for the LHP icon proved harder than I thought and introduced me to just how much variation in follow-through there can be from pitcher to pitcher. As with all of these, feel free to upgrade.
No entry yet.
Though not a second baseman, Walt Weiss comes close to the Topps icon with his 1991 Topps card. My guess is one of you will find something better though, and bonus points if your sliding baserunner is a match too.
An honorable mention from the vintage division is found on another shortshop card, the 1956 Topps Pee Wee Reese. (And you thought only his 1953 Bowman was iconic!)
For some reason when I look at the third baseman icon I see George Brett in my head. He has a few near matches like this 1982 Topps In Action. Still, I suspect another player will make for an even closer match.
No entry yet, but I’ll use this third baseman’s card as a placeholder.
No entry yet.
Pinch-hitting for the DH until something better comes along is the 1992 Topps Jay Buhner. For some reason, even though the batter is a righty, this position icon always reminds me of Yaz.
If near matches weren’t what you had in mind, have I got the set for you. Let’s call it the Topps equivalent of participation trophies, a set where EVERY player is iconic: 2004 Topps!
I don’t recall exactly why I walked into Joe’s Department Store on that blustery Saturday afternoon in November 1961. I probably had a dime that was burning a hole in my pocket. But I remember very clearly leaving Joe’s with two very different packs of football cards in my hand—the first packs of cards that I ever owned.
I leaned against the brick façade of the building facing Fenkell Avenue and tried to block the wind while I opened the packs. The first pack I opened was exciting! I still remember three cards from that pack—Minnesota Vikings quarterback George Shaw, who would soon be supplanted by Fran Tarkenton; Detroit Lions running back Nick Pietrosante, one of my father’s favorite players; and Jimmy Brown, the Cleveland Browns’ outstanding running back who even I, at age six, knew was a star player. That card was magnificent! Brown looked like he had been dropped in against a sky-blue background, just having taken a handoff and ready to run. I knew my dad would be impressed!
I shoved these cards—which I discovered later were manufactured by Topps—in my jacket pocket and opened the second pack, which had a completely different design on the wax wrapper. The cards themselves were also very different from the first pack; rather than players posing against a solid background, these cards depicted players on a gridiron that looked like it was on the edge of a forest, with trees and shrubbery in the background. The linemen were depicted charging toward some off-camera target, and the running backs all seemed to be heading straight toward the photographer. I still remember a few of the cards from this pack—San Diego Chargers lineman Ron Mix, Dallas Texans lineman Bill Krisher, and New York Titans running back Pete Hart.
(How, you might ask, can I remember what cards I got in packs that I bought nearly sixty years ago? That’s easy to answer. Those packs were the only ones I bought all year, and I was so enthralled with the pictures that I looked at them every day and read their backs so often that I memorized their stats and details. It was clear that I was hooked on cards within those first two packs.)
I quickly jammed the second pack of cards—which I later realized were made by Fleer—in my other pocket and closed my hands in the pockets so they wouldn’t blow away in the wind on my three-block trip home. (I have no recollection of whether or not I chewed the gum.) When I got home, I quickly showed the cards to my father. As I expected, he was impressed with the Pietrosante card, and upon seeing the Jimmy Brown card, he said approvingly, “He’s a good one!” But when he looked at the cards from the second pack, a puzzled expression came across his face. “Dallas Texans? The Dallas team is called the Cowboys!” “New York Titans? I only know the New York Giants!” I shrugged my shoulders as my dad suggested that maybe these pictures were of college players. Clearly the American Football League had not made an impact on anyone at the house on Patton Avenue in Detroit by the fall of 1961.
After my father handed the cards back to me, I asked him if baseball cards were also sold. Dad said he didn’t know but suspected that some company made them. He said we would have to see when the spring rolled around. I had something exiting to anticipate!
In late March 1962, I was thrilled to discover that Joe’s Department Store and Checker Drugs—just three storefronts down from Joe’s—both carried baseball cards. I loved that 1962 set, and I still do. From the faux woodgrain border to the photo with the lower right corner curled up to reveal the player’s name, team, and position, I thought those cards were perfect. I didn’t have a lot of them, but my parents were generous with their nickels and dimes, and I couldn’t wait to walk down to the store to pick up one or two of those green-wrappered packs of cards. I regularly volunteered to go to Checker’s with a note from my father allowing me to pick up a pack of Pall Malls for him—and to pick up a pack of cards for myself. (Thankfully, my dad quit smoking a few years later. I had to find other excuses to go to the store to buy baseball cards.) I probably had four or five dozen cards from the first and second series—not a lot, but enough to whet my appetite for more. And while I loved the pictures, I also studied the backs of the cards. I enjoyed reading about Roger Maris’ record-setting exploits in 1961, learning that Marv Breeding was the victim of the “sophomore jinx” in ’61 (although I had no idea what that was), and trying to figure out how to pronounce the name of Cleveland utility infielder Mike de la Hoz.
That spring I would go outside after dinner to throw a rubber ball against the steps of my parents’ front porch. I soon discovered that the Brooks brothers three doors down would play catch on the sidewalk in front of their home almost every night. I would wander down and strike up a conversation with Billy, who was in fourth of fifth grade, and Bobby, who was in junior high. They didn’t seem to mind having a little kid talk to them and watch them, and in fact they encouraged it by asking me to play “running bases,” a glorified game of “pickle” where I would start in the middle between them and they had to try to get as close to me as possible and tag me without dropping the ball. Invariably we would all collapse in laughter on the cool front lawn of the Brooks home. Those were wonderful, precious times.
I soon discovered that Billy and Bobby collected baseball cards, just like I did. They collected their cards together and had a lot of the first couple of series of Topps cards in 1962. I did, however, have a few cards that they were missing, and they told me that they would give me three of their doubles for every card I had that they needed. I think I had six cards they wanted, so I got eighteen cards in exchange. That was a nice way to increase my collection. I told Billy that I also collected the cards from the backs of Post cereal boxes and the coins that were in Salada Tea (which my grandmother drank) and Junket desserts. Billy collected the Post cards too but didn’t know anything about the coins. I showed him my burgeoning collection and he looked at them with curiosity, saying he had never heard of Junket. “Really?” I exclaimed. “You haven’t seen the television commercials? ‘Junket rennet custard/The growing up dessert! Helps you grow up, not out!’ Billy stood back from me, eyed me up and down, and said with a grin, “Doesn’t seem to be doing a good job with you.” At first, I thought he was making a cruel joke about my weight, but he nudged me with his elbow and told me he was kidding. We both laughed about it—no harm, no foul.
Once school let out for the summer, the Brooks brothers went on vacation with their parents, and I didn’t see them much once they got back home, but they were my first trading partners and thus had a strong influence on me. I knew that there were other people out there who loved card collecting as much as I did. So thanks, Billy and Bobby, for your friendship and savvy trades all those years ago.
I collected baseball cards throughout the summer of 1962. I probably had about two hundred different cards—a pretty good collection, but not even half of the 598 cards in the set. The cards were issued in seven series, and I never saw any packs of sixth or seventh series cards at Joe’s or Checker’s. I bought one pack of seventh series cards at a drug store my mother visited for a special prescription; those were the only seventh series cards I bought at a store.
By mid-August, baseball cards were supplanted by the new Topps football card set, and I bought those, too. I liked the dark borders but wasn’t thrilled with the small black-and-white action photos that accompanied the larger color still shots. Still, they were cards, and I bought as many as I could.
That fall, my parents bowled in my dad’s Detroit Edison league, so every Friday they would take my older sister and me to my grandmother’s apartment. She would ply us with chocolate pudding and orange slices and let us watch such television programs as “William Tell,” “I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster,” “The Flintstones,” and “The Hathaways.” My grandma lived in a second-story apartment above a convenience store, and each visit also included a trip to the store. I discovered that the store sold football cards, too—a product issued by Fleer that depicted stars from the American Football League (about which I had read over the previous year). I probably had half of the small set of those cards and enjoyed the variety between them and the Topps issue.
When spring 1963 rolled around, and the new Topps baseball set was issued, I was excited, but I was a little let down by the cards themselves. They 1963 cards were colorful, but I liked the 1962 set so much that I was disappointed with this year’s design. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but no matter—I still bought as many as I could. And once again, I never saw any packs of sixth or seventh series cards. All that aside, however, I had an experience that has lived with me ever since and which I wish I could revisit and try to do differently.
One afternoon in June 1963, just after school had let out for the summer, my mother asked me if I wanted to go grocery shopping with her. I liked going because I could look at the baseball cards on the backs of Post cereal boxes and Bazooka bubble gum boxes and shake the Junket boxes to hear the coin bouncing around inside. My mom and I headed to the local Packer grocery store “(Packer’s got the meat/Packer’s got the price/That’s why Packer is twice . . . as . . . nice!”). I soon left my mom to shop on her own while I visited the cereal and candy aisles. I saw what I wanted to see and was heading back down the main aisle when something caught my eye and caused me to halt all movement and gasp for breath. There, hanging from the end of the aisle on a metal bar, were rack packs of Topps baseball cards—three stacks of cards wrapped in cellophane and there for the taking. And not just any baseball cards—they were my favorites, 1962 Topps! And not just any 1962 Topps, but as I discovered by looking at the cards on the top and the bottom of the rack pack, they were the elusive seventh series cards, of which I only had five!!!
I quickly put the rack pack back on the metal stake and hustled off to find my mother. When I saw her, I was out of breath.
“Mom!!! They have baseball cards here!!!!! Please come with me!”
My mother looked at me suspiciously but followed me to the display on the main aisle. I took down a rack pack and handed it to her.
“Can I get this, Mom? Please???”
She looked at the package and asked, “Are these from this year?”
“No,” I replied, “But—”
“No,” my mother said forcefully. I’m not buying you old cards.”
“But Mom, I don’t have ANY of these cards!”
“No, I’m not buying you old cards.”
“Stop, Danny. Put them back.”
I thought about throwing a tantrum right then and there, but I figured it wouldn’t be dignified for an eight-year-old to be so immature. So instead, I decided not to talk to my mom at all for the rest of the day. That would show her!
That incident has stayed with me all these years. I sometimes wonder how valuable those cards would be today, when common seventh series cards can sell for almost $100 apiece in nice condition. Of course, in my hands, they probably wouldn’t have stayed in mint condition, and almost certainly those rack packs would have been quickly ripped open, but still, it’s nice to speculate on their value.
Once again, by mid-August, football cards were on sale, and I bought a lot of those cards. I really liked that set—they were very colorful and had strong visual appeal, plus a lot of my friends also bought them and I could trade with them. I remember, though, that some cards seemed almost impossible to come by—particularly the Philadelphia Eagles cards, which nobody seemed to have. Of course, at that time I knew nothing about short prints, but I would soon find out about them. My parents bowled in the Edison league again that fall, and once again the convenience store below my grandmother’s apartment sold Fleer AFC cards, so I had a lot of football cards to look at. The last time I bought cards there was Friday, November 15; a week later, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and while my parents still bowled that night, the convenience store was closed, and I don’t remember ever seeing Fleer football cards there again after that.
During March 1964, I began to visit Joe’s and Checker’s to look for the new baseball cards. I was surprised to discover, however, that neither store had them. Late March turned to early April, and still no cards were on sale. Rather than coming home from school and then going to the stores, I started to go right from school. I was desperate for my baseball card fix!
The baseball season started on April 13 in 1964, and a couple of days before that, I went to Checker’s and asked for some baseball cards. The woman behind the counter said they didn’t have them yet. She must have seen my disappointment because she leaned forward on the counter and said, conspiratorially, “Do you want to know why there are no baseball cards?”
I moved close to the counter and didn’t say anything but was shocked and stunned when she said, “It’s because of the Beatles.”
I looked at her like she had lobsters crawling out of her ears. “THE BEATLES??? What do you mean?” How could a show business phenomenon have such an effect on my baseball card mania?
The woman explained to me that the Beatles were such a big box office draw that Topps put together an offer to sell bubble gum cards of the band. Those cards sold even better than baseball cards and led to a second series, which sold just as well. She said that Topps was in the process of developing a third series and that the baseball cards would be issued after that third series of Beatles cards was released.
I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know whether to believe her or not, but it seemed logical, and later research proved that she had the details pretty much correct. I went home crestfallen, wondering when the baseball cards would arrive in the stores and cursing the Beatles for making me wait for my fix. Of course, I had loved watching the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” that February, and I had even begun combing my hair over my forehead, like 90% of the boys in my class at school, so I couldn’t stay mad at them for too long. They were on the radio constantly, and my sister collected their cards (she eventually had complete sets of all six series), so once the baseball cards came out, all was forgiven.
Maybe it was because it took so long for them to arrive, but I really liked the 1964 Topps cards., I still remember the first card that I saw in my first pack that year—Milt Pappas, the Orioles pitcher who hailed from the Detroit area. But yet again the sixth and seventh series were nowhere to be found in my local stores, and in mid-August I was surprised to see that Topps was issuing AFL cards rather than their usual National Football League product. In late August, a new company, Philadelphia Gum, began to distribute NFL cards. I liked the Topps cards but LOVED the Philly product—the pictures looked like they had all been taken around the same time in the same location, and I liked the offensive plays that were diagrammed on certain cards. My friends and I spent a lot of time trading cards from both sets but particularly the Philadelphia set. I think I came about forty cards short of a set, which is about the best I had done with any card set up until that time.
There was no such drama when Topps released their baseball cards in late March of 1965. These cards were beautiful! They were bold and colorful, and I loved having the team name inside a waving pennant near the bottom left of the card. I loved these cards, and I wanted to get as many of them as I could.
I bought most of my 1965 early series cards at Joe’s Department Store. Unlike Checker Drugs, where the cards were behind a counter and the druggist had to get them for me, at Joe’s I could grab the packs myself from a box in a candy aisle. If nobody was looking, I was sometimes able to slide down the bottom of the wax pack and see what card was on the top of the pack, thus assuring that I would get a card I didn’t have. I tried not to abuse that privilege, however, because the proprietor was such a nice man.
Joe reminded me of Wimpy from the Popeye cartoons—short, round, balding, with a bristly mustache. He always had a glint in his eye and a smile on his face; he would see me walk into his store and exclaim, “Hello, young man! What can I do for you today?” He always knew that I wanted to buy a pack or two of baseball cards. Joe’s was called a department store, but it was very different from Sears, Montgomery Ward, or J.L. Hudson. It was more like a small warehouse; it encompassed two storefronts and contained men’s and women’s clothing and various other items but was more like a thrift shop than what passed for a department store back in those days. But it was a neighborhood store, and while I don’t remember buying anything besides candy or cards there, I know that a lot of my neighbors regularly visited the store.
Joe and I got to know each other pretty well that spring—so well, in fact, that Joe and his female assistant granted me special favors. The big privilege was that Joe took a box of baseball cards and put them behind the counter so that he would always have some available for me when I came in the store—even if the packs were sold out in the candy aisle. Maybe Joe just didn’t want me to try to open the packs in the aisle, but I thought it was really cool of him to treat me that way. It also gave rise to an idea that served me well for the rest of the year.
One day in late April, I told my mother that I wanted to discuss something with her and my dad over dinner. She seemed surprised that her nine-year-old son would have some deep thought that needed airing and asked if I was in trouble at school. I told her no; this wasn’t a bad thing. So at dinner, I brought up my idea. I received twenty-five cents a week for an allowance, and I spent virtually all of that, plus a penny sales tax, for five packs of baseball cards. I asked my parents if I could instead get $1.25 per month—a 20% increase—if I did more chores around the house. I said that I would cut the grass and rake the leaves in the fall and handle some of the housecleaning that my mother was constantly doing.
My dad was always reluctant to spend more money than he had to. He grew up during the Great Depression, and I think his attitude toward money was a result of those tough times. He rarely enjoyed spending extra money on my sister or me, and even my mom hesitated to ask for certain necessary things because she didn’t want to make him angry. As a family, we never wanted to anything, but we didn’t live a life of luxury, either. We were solidly in the middle class.
My mother asked me why I wanted more money, and I explained my reasoning.
“With $1.25 per month, I could buy a full box of baseball cards each month.”
My dad didn’t even look up from his dinner. “You get a quarter a week” is all he said.
But my mom asked some other questions.
“how many packs are in a box?”
“At five cents apiece?”
“So that’s $1.20. Plus five cents tax, for $1.25. That works out nicely.”
“What do you think, Mom?”
Dad didn’t even look at me. “You get a quarter a week.”
My mother knew how important this was to me, though, and she said, “Let me discuss this with your dad.” Only then did my dad lift his head from his dinner; he looked at both of us and repeated, “He gets a quarter a week.” The look my mom gave me, however, implied that the decision was not yet final.
A few days later, when there hadn’t been any obvious discussion about it, I asked my mother where things stood. She said that she would talk to my dad about it that night.
The following day, when I got home from school but before my father arrived home from work, my mom took me aside and said, “Dad and I have discussed your idea and we have agreed to try it.” I must have been grinning from ear to ear because my mom quickly said, “On three conditions: One, that you do some more chores around the house; two, that you don’t ask for extra money for individual packs; and three, YOU DON’T CHEW THE GUM!” I laughed and quickly agreed to all those conditions. In fact, I told my mother that I would cut the lawn right then. “That can wait until tomorrow,” Mom said. “First, let’s go to Joe’s and get your box of cards.”
When I walked into the store, Joe saw me and started to say, “Hello young man–.” But then he saw my mother behind me and quickly changed his tone to sound more professional. “Hello madam, welcome to Joe’s. What can I do for you today?” My mom looked down at me, and I said to Joe, “I would like to buy a box of baseball cards.”
“Certainly, young man. How many packs would you like?” Joe headed back behind the counter to grab some packs from my special box.
“I would like the entire box, Joe. All twenty-four packs.”
Joe looked confused and glanced at my mother, who smiled and nodded her head. Joe then cocked his head to the side, as if to say, “This is different!” He told me to wait a moment while he went in the stock room to get a full box. When he came back, he opened the box and began shoveling the packs into a bag for easy carrying. I quickly stopped him and asked if he would leave the cards in the box and let me take the box with me as a souvenir. He smiled and said, “Of course!” He also complimented my mother on raising such a polite young man. My mother and I both smiled broadly. I thanked Joe and told him that I would be back for another box when the second series was released. Joe looked a little surprised and said, “I hope you’ll be back before then, even if you’re not buying baseball cards!” That man was a total sweetheart.
When we got home, my mother reminded me not to chew the gum and told me to have fun as she left my bedroom. I then proceeded to open all twenty-four packs and put the cards in numerical order as I opened them to extend the excitement as much as possible. For me opening those packs was like Christmas morning—new pleasures with each pack. As I reached the end of the box, however, it felt even more like the end of Christmas morning, when a kid realizes that he didn’t get everything on his list. I noticed toward the end of the box that I was getting a lot of duplicate cards, and in fact I was about two dozen cards short of the entire series when I was done opening the packs. But I had lots of friends at school who collected cards—Chuck and Rusty in my class, in particular—and I had lots of doubles to trade, so over the next few days I traded for the cards I was missing. Buying cards by the box was really going to pay off!
I relied on Rusty and Chuck to tell me when succeeding series of cards were released, and when that occurred my mother and I would walk or drive to Joe’s for a fresh box. The next few series were smaller in number than the first series, so I was missing substantially fewer cards after opening the boxes, and I was able to trade for everything I needed. Through the first four series, I had the entire set of 1965 Topps cards, and I had a good start on the fifth series when I bought a box of those cards. After trades, I was missing only one card—number 424, Gary Bell, a Cleveland pitcher. None of my friends had this card, and they didn’t know anyone who had it. My mom even broke her own rule and let me buy a few individual packs to try to find it, to no avail. I was stumped.
Then my mom had a suggestion. “Why not write a letter to the Topps company asking them to send you the card? I’ll give you a dime that you can attach to a letter explaining that you have tried hard to find the card but have been unsuccessful.” I thought this was as good an idea as anything I could imagine, and I sat down to write. I don’t remember my exact wording, but it went something g like this:
I am a ten-year-old card collector who has been assembling the 1965 Topps baseball set. I have every card in the first five series except number 424, Gary Bell. I can’t find it anywhere, and none of my friends have it. Could you please send this card to me? I have enclosed ten cents for your trouble and have also enclosed a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Thank you in advance for your attention to my letter. Sincerely, Danny Marowski
A couple of weeks later, my mother came into my room with a large envelope and said with a smile, “You have mail!” My jaw dropped when she handed me the envelope that had the Topps Chewing Gum address in the top left. I carefully unsealed the envelope and discovered three life-changing things inside.
First, I saw the Gary Bell card. They had sent it!!! I was ecstatic and yelled out to my mom, “They sent me the card!!!” She was very happy, too. Next, I pulled out a short letter from someone at Topps. I wish I had kept the letter, but I pretty much remember what it said.
Thank you for your letter. While we don’t sell cards to collectors, we were very impressed by your letter and are happy to help you complete your collection of 1965 Topps baseball cards. We have also returned your SASE and your ten cents and have enclosed a catalog for The Card Collectors’ Company. You can buy cards from them for this year and previous years’ sets at reasonable prices. Feel free to contact them for all your collecting needs. Good luck in your pursuit of the full 1965 Topps set, and keep collecting!
I quickly looked at the catalog, and I caught my breath as I realized that I could fill in my sets from the past few years for pennies per card. I ran out to show my mother the catalog—actually, more like a small bifold pamphlet—and said that I wanted to try to complete my older sets through The Card Collectors’ Company of Franklin Square, New York. My mother reminded me that I was spending all of my allowance on current baseball cards, but I noted that the season was almost over and that I probably wouldn’t be able to find sixth or seventh series cards in stores, so I would save my allowance in the fall and order cards through the catalog. Little did I realize the impact that catalog would have on my collection over the next few years.
I waited patiently for Joe’s to have the sixth series of baseball cards, but as in previous years they never arrived, so I figured it would be football card season soon anyway and gave up my pursuit of the Topps baseball set. Imagine my surprise, then, when Chuck told me that a store near him was selling sixth series cards! I quickly hopped on my bike and rode the eight blocks to Chuck’s house, then walked down the street to a small convenience store named Connie’s Corner. Connie was indeed the proprietor, and she welcomed us with a broad smile. Chuck asked for a couple packs of cards and opened them right then and there. Sure enough, they were from the sixth series! We went back to Chuck’s house, and I called my mother to let her know that a new series was out. She told me that we would have to wait until the next day to buy the box, and I worried all night that they would be out of stock by then. My worries were unfounded, however; I bought a box and completed the entire sixth series without needing to trade with Chuck or anyone else. My pursuit of a complete set was still alive!
I never expected to find seventh series cards anywhere in my neighborhood, so I figured that I would have to mail away for them through the CCC catalog. A couple of weeks before school started that fall, however, I began visiting another classmate. Jon was different from most of my other male friends. He wasn’t into sports, concentrating instead on fascinating electronics and oddball devices. His parents were older, and his father worked either in the government or in some science-based position. Their house was full of things I had never seen before, and they were clearly wealthier than most of my friends’ parents. Also, their house was north of Grand River Avenue, a main artery in Detroit that separated middle class residences from old, moneyed families. While most of my friends and I would attend public high school in a few years, Jon attended Assumption, a private academy in Windsor, Ontario. Jon’s world was very different from mine.
I must have visited Jon at his home three or four times over a ten-day period. To get to his house, I had to cross the massive Grand River Avenue, and to do that I crossed at a street that had a traffic signal. On the southwest corner of that street was a drug store named Schnellbach’s. I had never gone in there before because it was a Rexall drug store—noted by the orange sign above the door—and they were notoriously kid-unfriendly, at least in my neighborhood. But after one visit to Jon’s home, I was parched, so I stopped in to Schnellbach’s to get a bottle of orange soda. Before I got my drink, however, I noticed behind the counter a box of baseball cards. I also noticed a small banner on the front of the box that stopped me in my tracks. The banner read, “FINAL SERIES.” There it was! The elusive seventh series!!! I forgot about the soda and rode home as quickly as possible, exploding though the back door to tell my mom that we needed to go to the drug store to get the cards. Mom was making dinner and told me that she would take me after we ate. That night I probably ate my dinner faster than I ever had before.
As my mom a I prepared to go out, my dad asked where we were going. Mom said that she was running an errand with me. My dad looked puzzled and asked if he needed to come along, and my mom told him no, it wasn’t necessary. It hadn’t dawned on me until right then that my dad didn’t have any idea that I was buying baseball cards by the box! On the way to Schnellbach’s I asked my mom if dad knew what was going on. She smiled, said no, and said she wanted to make this decision herself. I gained newfound respect for Mom that day but also wished I could share my excitement with my dad.
When we got to Schnellbach’s and I asked for a full box of baseball cards, the salesperson gave me a box without the banner on it. I pointed to the box behind the counter and asked, “Do you have any boxes with the Final Series banner?” She checked the back room and came out with one such box. “Last one!”
When I got home, I opened the packs and found myself three cards short of a complete set. Oddly enough, two of those cards were of my hometown Detroit Tigers—Jake Wood and Joe Sparma. But Rusty told me that he had found seventh series cards at Connie’s Corner and that I could have his. That left me one card short—I was missing Howie Reed, number 544, a Dodgers pitcher. Neither Rusty nor Chuck had the card, but Chuck told me that a friend of a friend had it, and a connection was soon made. The boy with the Reed card came to Chuck’s, and I told him he could have as many of my doubles as he wanted in exchange for Howie Reed. I think he took a couple of dozen cards away with him, but I didn’t care—I had Howie Reed, and I had the entire 1965 Topps baseball set!!!
That was a red-letter day in my life. I was excited; my mom was happy for me; my friends were thrilled as well. Even my dad found out that I had completed the set and was impressed—although I think he thought I had traded for the majority of my cards. What this did for me personally was give me a hunger for completing future sets and going back and completing older sets as well, first through services like the Card Collectors’ Company and later through hobby magazines and conventions. I remember attending national shows in Troy, Michigan, in the early 1970s and picking up amazing deals on older cards for prices that couldn’t be touched today. Those sets have stayed with me all these years; I have a complete run of Topps sets from 1955-1990, Bowman 1948 and 1954-55, and Fleer 1960-63, plus most Topps football sets from 1955-1990, Fleer football 1960-63, Philadelphia football 1964-67, and my favorite, a Post cereal football set from 1962, as well as hockey and basketball card sets. I took quite a few years off from collecting to pursue work and raise a family, but I’m happy to be scratching the collecting itch again and trying to fill some older sets, including 1950 Bowman baseball and 1961 and 1963 Post cereal baseball.
1965 was the final year that I collected cards though packs. During 1966, I discovered that another Checker Drugs a few miles away sold cards in a vending machine—six cards (or more—sometimes as many as eight) for a nickel. My mom would drive me to the store with a dollar’s worth of nickels, and I would spend them all on the machine. My 1966 and 1967 sets were completed like this; beginning in 1968, I ordered the complete set from the Card Collectors Company, and I kept up that method for many years.
I lost touch with Jon and Rusty over the next couple of years, but I just recently reconnected with Chuck after more than forty years. Unfortunately, we have very little in common anymore. That said, I think back often to those wonderful days when our only worries were whether we could complete a baseball card set. Would that our lives could be like that again!
Yordan Álvarez is depicted on the Topps 2020 Series One Variation short print card #276 in glorious landscape orientation, like a widescreen Panavision vista of mesas and buttes, the fever dream of John Ford ardently lusting after a sunset into which he might send his hero trotting. Álvarez possesses plenty of swagger, but on this card he does not look heroic. He looks defeated as he makes the long walk back to the dugout, a look of frustration on his face, or possibly anger, eyes cast into the middle distance, his mouth a thin, tight line. And this is not the frontier; it’s a ballpark.
Álvarez made his major league debut for the Houston Astros on June 9th, 2019, and this card was issued in February of 2020, which means the photograph was taken sometime during the latter half of the season. Over his shoulder looms the unmistakable sight of Camden Yards’ B&O warehouse, so he’s in Baltimore. Houston visited the Charm City only once that season, for a three-game set in August, so we can assume the shot was taken on one of those three dates.
Further, Álvarez is not wearing the Astros’ standard road greys, nor is he sporting the orange or navy alternate jerseys Houston has been known to wear. He is instead wearing a throwback uniform – a modern version of the getup the Astros donned from 1982 until ’93, the name ‘Astros’ across the chest in an Arial-like sans-serif font, navy blue over a plain navy star. Above that, things get weird: thick racing stripes of navy-red-orange-gold-orange-red-navy drape the shoulders. This was the toned-down version of their 1970s tequila sunrise uniforms, which we can only guess made sense at the time, but now look like a parodic representation of what that decade felt like if you were tuned in, pharmacologically.
His batting helmet is navy, unlike the bright orange lids those ‘70s Houston teams wore – hunter blaze, we’d call that now, usually worn with a full neck-to-toe camo ensemble, the cap designed to make you clearly human and decidedly not ungulate in the eyes of fellow sportspeople lurking in the bush with long guns and trigger fingers made itchy by hours of inaction.
An odd thing about those ’82-’93 Astros uniforms is that there was no true road version. At home they wore white, and on the road they sported the very same uniform in cream. But Yordan Álvarez, it appears to my eyes, is wearing white. Of all the orthodoxies I hold dear to my heart, this is among the strictest: a ballclub should wear white at home and grey on the road. Ever was it thus, ever thus should it be.
The actual home team was commemorating near-glory. August 9th, 2019, a sultry Friday night in Baltimore, was a celebration of the 1989 “Why Not?!” Orioles, a team of scrap and grit that came close to winning the AL East, heading into the season’s final weekend needing a sweep of the Blue Jays to take the division. The Jays won two of three.
But the Frank Robinson-led Orioles had taken their fans on such a great ride that thirty years later, in the midst of a miserable 108 loss season, the 2019 O’s dressed up in ’89 uniforms to mark that exciting run, and the Astros played along by wearing period-appropriate (if not geographically consistent) togs, never mind that in 1989 the Astros were a National League club and so, short of a World Series matchup, would never be in Baltimore to play the Birds.
When commemorating what once was, we usually get the details a little bit wrong.
I pulled Series One Variation #276 from a retail pack sometime back in March, and ever since this card has held me in wild fascination. The effect is oversized in relation to my regard for Álvarez; I’m basically indifferent to him. I’ve only ever given Yordan Álvarez—an imposing, Aaron Judge-like presence in the middle of the Astros’ order—a passing thought as an avatar of modern baseball.
But the card is mesmeric, a small object around which gravity bends subtly but perceptibly. This is what the best cards do, I think, whether they’re of our favorite players, or feature some odd quirk or error, or otherwise manage to imprint themselves in the folds of our soft brains and stick there. They carry a series of signals betraying disparate and competing energies, emitting a persistent, high-pitched buzzing.
This one buzzes with questions that zip like unruly voltages. Like: why that uniform? What date? And given that it is clear from his carriage that he has just struck out: is there still room for shame in a post-shame world?
Álvarez’ slow, simmering post-K saunter is anything but exceptional; it’s what he did in over 25% of his plate appearances last season. Historically speaking that’s remarkable, but in the narrow trough of these launch-angle days, it’s par for the course: the average strikeout rate across baseball was 23% in 2019, an astonishing new historical high. Graphed, it resembles a bull market.
When tabulated, collated, filtered, and parsed, the numbers tell us that the Rob Deer approach of Three True Outcomes – i.e., steadfastly refusing to put the ball in play – wins ballgames. It’s a style of baseball condoned by the cubicle-dwellers for whom the ones and zeroes of absolute efficiency trump all aesthetic arguments, because The Datapoints Do Not Lie.
But here’s the friction: despite what the numbers say, the human soul still harbors a strong vestigial dislike of failure, and the one-on-one nature of the hitter-pitcher dialectic makes the called third strike, or the big-swing-and-a-miss look unmistakably like failure. The strikeout elicits micro-scale stirrings of shame. It can’t be helped. Nobody likes to whiff, and Álvarez is no exception, though his debut campaign would suggest an attempt at immersion therapy.
Álvarez’ photo on Series One Variation #276 reflects the unavoidable distaste. His face is captured in a candid moment of naked emotion, a sliver of time tucked beneath the game’s joints and surfaces, when he should no longer be the focus of attention, having ceded it to Carlos Correa, who followed him in the lineup. But the camera found him, and the result is a wonderful photo, with echoes of the great John Dominis shot of Mantle dejectedly throwing his batting helmet while retreating to the Yankee Stadium dugout in 1965.
Anyway, what Álvarez did in 2019 when not striking out was noteworthy: .313, 27 HR, 75 RBI in 369 plate appearances after his early June callup, and a unanimous selection as 2019 American League Rookie of the Year. That trophy was supposed to belong to Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., but Vladito turned in a performance that evinced mortal fallibility and not the demigod we’d been promised, while Álvarez came in and raked. The choice was clear.
The game log informs us that Álvarez singled in the top of the first to score Alex Bregman from second; in the top of the third, Álvarez struck out swinging on Baltimore starter Dylan Bundy’s 1-2 offering; struck out swinging again in the top of the sixth, once more Bundy’s victim, on an 0-2 pitch; in the eighth, deep into the Orioles’ bullpen, Álvarez hit a fly ball to left off Paul Fry that was caught by Anthony Santander for the first out. That was Álvarez’ night: 1 for 4 with a single, an RBI, and two strikeouts. The Astros won 3-2.
The photo in question must be from the first K, in the third inning, because the sky behind Álvarez’ head, over the great brick warehouse, is purplish, heavy-seeming, but not yet dark. At that time of year, in that part of the world, the sun sets shortly after 8:00, and first pitch that night was 7:05. By the time Álvarez struck out for the second time, in the sixth, night had fallen.
The next night the Astros walloped Baltimore 23-2, with Álvarez homering three times, including a grand slam, for a total of seven RBI. But the Yordan Álvarez of Friday night’s third inning strikeout is of greater interest to me. He stands at the nexus of innumerable convergences: strains of information, history, prognosis and apology, wayward currents pinched to a single point in space. He’s an individual upright but unguarded, caught in 1/100th of a second and preserved against a background, that great brick facade vivid but blurred, which suggests that he is stalked by uncertainties. The thick, hazy air of a dog day’s evening makes time’s immateriality evident. Much has come unmoored.
There’s a lot to be said about the Houston Astros circa 2017-19, both about those accusations preserved in Official Accounts and related disciplinary reports, and those many things suspected but unproven. Nobody’s linked Yordan Álvarez’ great rookie season to electronically abetted sign stealing, but the suspicion may follow him anyway, as it will everyone connected to that team during those years. Stains spread.
It’s also possible that you don’t think what Houston is purported to have done constitutes anything but the logical progression of a time-honored baseball tradition. But it feels safe to assert that the Astros are emblematic of those shifting values and practices that make modern baseball feel morally ambiguous. For a hundred years there was, at least, a Right Way to do things, and a Wrong Way. The in-game definition of virtue was skewed and problematic, but it was at least a definition. Now a cold integer logic means fewer stolen bases and fewer manager ejections, and it makes homers feel cheaper by virtue of oversupply. We’ve allowed the old gods to die and replaced them with Win Probability. You might understand why these things have happened, and yet still long for the old structure the way an atheist envies the adherent’s certainty.
Yordan Álvarez is connected to all this, but not implicated. He plays baseball the way he’s been taught and trained to play it, and he does it well, and the rewards are plain. Series One Variation #276 is just a baseball card. But I look at it in something like the narcotized daze of phone hypnosis, this smooth and glossy cardboard rectangle, hints of the mystery with which all such mementos are imbued, images of figures in collision with history, men bound by contracts, time working its silent will. The tracers are barely visible but strangely evident, those countless converging forces, smell of popcorn and beer, close summer nights full of love and torpor, and all our accidental associations.
Editor’s Note: For more of Andrew’s award-winning writing, visit his website. Of particular note is his book of baseball essays, “The Utility of Boredom.”
“This is a very complicated case Maude. You know, a lotta ins, a lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous.”
In the 1960s, the dudes who ripped wax had to abide by one rule of acquisition, your odds of pulling a Sadowski were very high. The best approach was to remain calm and mellow while adding the cards to the duplicate pile.
Prior to the 1963 Season, infield prospect Bob Sadowski rolled like a tumbling tumbleweed from the White Sox of Chicago to the City of Angels, where he joined the Los Angeles Angels of Chavez Ravine. Topps thought enough of his potential to float his head on a 1962 Rookie Parade card (him and three other guys). When Bob the infielder showed up for spring training, he discovered that the Halos had another Sadowski on the roster.
Catcher Ed Sadowski was selected from the Red Sox organization in the expansion draft prior to the 1961 season. Ed’s weak stick marked his destiny as a backup catcher. He hung on with the Angels in that capacity through 1963, at which point Ed was ordered to stay out of Malibu.
Ed did not receive a solo card after 1963, but was teamed with Bob “Buck” Rogers on the “Angels Backstops” combo card in 1964.
One could hazard a guess that Ed was taken aback by the presence of the new infielder, Bob Sadowski, since he had a younger brother named Bob who was working his way up as a pitcher in the Braves chain. (How ya gonna keep em down on the farm once they’ve seen Karl Hungus?!)
Bob Sadowski the pitcher (the other Bob Sadowski) was called up to Milwaukee in 1963 resulting in two Bob Sadowskis being active on major league rosters. You can imagine their first meeting—”Okay sir, you’re a Sadowski, I’m a Sadowski. That’s terrific, but I’m very busy, as I can imagine you are. What can I do for you sir?”
Brother Bob had enough stuff to hang with the Braves through 1965 before he was peddled to Boston, where in 1966 he traded his spikes in for a pair of bowling shoes. Strong men also cry.
But, my friends, this is not the end of the Sadowski saga. In 1961, Topps issued a card for the third Sadowski brother, Ted. (Ahh, separate incidents). The Twins prospect received the rookie “star” on his one and only card. Not exactly a lightweight, Dude. Like his brother Bob, Ted was a thrower of rocks. He made 43 appearances with the Senators/Twins between 1960 and 1962.
Incidentally, on May 27, 1962 (the day after Shabbos) Ted faced Bob the infielder (no relation) in a league game (Smokey) between the Twins and White Sox. This Sadowski showdown resulted in Bob collecting two singles with two RBI in two plate appearances. Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes… well, he eats you. And sometimes the bear’s name is Bob Sadowski, who would henceforth be referred to by all other Sadowskis as His Dudeness (or Duder, or El Duderino, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing).
If you are still with me, you are undoubtedly hoping I will wrap it up soon. “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” For I happen to know there was another little Sadowski on the way.
Jim Sadowski, nephew of the three Sadowski brothers, surfaces with the Pirates in 1974, pitching in four games before returning to the minors. Topps did not issue a card for Jim, but we got some leads about a publicity still and a Venezuelan Winter League sticker that exist. We’ve been working in shifts to find them.
The non-related Bob hung on in the minor leagues though 1969, which netted him a Seattle Angels popcorn card in 1966. “Did you ever hear of the Seattle Angels? That was me… and twenty four other guys.”
And finally, like a rug can really tie a room together, I will wrap a bow on this post by showing you a page I have from a San Francisco Seals autograph book signed by Ed Sadowski. With that, I bid you farewell. I’m going to go see if they got any of that good sarsaparilla.
Editor’s note: Thanks to guest editor, good friend, and Big Lebowski scholar, Russ, for his help with this piece. He’s a good man…and thorough.
For most of baseball card history there have been two basic types of card designs. Either the photo is placed in a box* or the player is silhouetted onto a background.** Both of these designs are pretty straightforward with their image requirements in that designers only have to think about what is and isn’t shown in the photos.
*Straightforward but none more pure of an example than 1953 Bowman.
**1914 Cracker Jacks, 1949 Bowman, 1958 Topps, and many of the inserts from the 1980s to today.
There’s a third design though which took over cards in the 1990s and has made photo cropping difficult ever since. Rather than putting photos in boxes the trend toward full-bleed cards has created design after design that layers text and other graphic elements on top of the photo itself.
While it’s true that this design took over in the 1990s and was made extremely easy to do by foil stamping, it’s important to realize that its ancestry has been in cards for decades and in fact tended to surface every decade. So let’s go back to one of the first such designs.
Yup. 1957. I sometimes jokingly refer to this as proto-Stadium Club except that the photos themselves are pretty standard Topps photos that you’d expect to see until about 1991 or so. Posed shots showing a player’s upper body, headshots, and a few full-body “action” (at this point still posed) images.
The first thing to point out here is that Topps likes to put the players’ heads as high in the frame that it can. The next thing to look at—specifically in the Kluszewski and Thompson cards—is how Topps deals with the text overlapping the image. Topps likes to crop at players’ waists and at their necklines. In 1957 this is frequently where the top of the text starts but there’s another half inch of image visible under the text.
On the upper-body portraits this extra half inch can give us a little more information about the location of the photo and allow us to see the field and stadiums.
Photographically, these photos were also composed somewhat loose since the image area of the film is huge* and the photographer knew things would be cropped later. This is why in the Gomez card there’s so much grass in the foreground.
*at least 2 and a quarter inches square and quite likely more like 4 inches by 5 inches.
Now we flash forward a decade. On a lot of other sets* before this the image frame is knocking off a corner of the photo. This isn’t the same kind of design/photography issue since most of the photos are somewhat centered so there’s rarely something of import in the corners.
*eg. 1962, 1963, and 1965. Plus in 1966 there’s a layering effect in the corner.
1967 though is exactly like 1957 only there’s text at both the top and the bottom of the card now. Topps is doing the same thing as it did in 1957 too except that the players’ heads are now a little lower in the frame so that the names and positions can fit. The waist and neckline croppings though are pretty close to the 1957 croppings.
The net result here is that we get to see a lot more stadium details in many of the cards—giving the set a photographic character which differs from the other 1960s Topps offerings.
The Fuentes card though shows the dangers of this kind of design. Unlike the 1957 Gomez, Fuentes’s feet—and even his glove—are covered by the team name. This isn’t a big problem with a posed “action” photo but becomes much more of an issue when we move into the age of action photography.
I’ll jump to Japan for the 1970s since the Calbee sets of that decade deserve a mention. It’s obviously doing something very similar with extending the photo under the text. At the same time the simplicity of the text almost makes it an absence of design. In a good way.
It might be because I can’t read the text but the way it’s handled encourages me to not see it. Not because it’s not readable. Quite the opposite in fact. The way the text changes from black to white on the Sadaharu Oh card is handled masterfully in how my brain barely notices it. It’s there as information but manages to not take anything away from the photos.
It is worth noting though that the cropping on Oh and Davey Johnson is pretty similar to Topps’s standard cropping. And that third card of Hisao Niura tying his shoes has enough foreground space to give the text plenty of room to be legible.
Toppswise I skipped 1969 since it’s such a photographic nightmare that I don’t feel like it’s a fair to look at the photos. (Offhand though it’s interesting to note that it tends to crop the photos tighter at the bottom than 1967’s or 1957’s designs do.) 1980 is close, super close, to being included but it still feels like more of a corner-based design. Which brings us to 1988.
Not much to note with 1988 except for the layering of the player on top of the team name which is on top of the background. This is a wonderfully subtle bit of design that allows the photos to feel like they’re cropped similarly to the rest of Topps’s cards. Instead of getting more image area the layering doesn’t affect the image too much.
1991 brought us Stadium Club and the beginning of the full-bleed era of cards. Looking at this first set shows both that Topps was being pretty considerate with its cropping and how things would start to break.
Where earlier sets had the benefit of posed photos which could be cropped, as action photography began to be the priority for card companies the room for cropping started to decrease. For every card like Kent Anderson where there’s enough room for the graphics there’s a card like Damon Berryhill where the graphic is starting to intrude into the image.
1992 Stadium Club shows an alternative to just slapping a graphic on the bottom of the card. That Topps moves the graphic depending on where it best fits the photo is fantastic.
It’s also a lot of work since it requires each card to be designed individually. Instead of positioning an image into a template, this design requires the image and graphic to be adjusted until they work together. Find the best cropping, then adjust the graphic. This extra amount of work is probably why this approach hasn’t really been revisited since 1992.
By 1993 the standard operating procedure had been set. This design captures the way most sets ever since have been designed. A basic template, drop the picture in. Don’t worry if the graphic obscures an important part of the photo.
One of my pet peeves in the full-bleed era is when there’s a photo of a play at a base and the graphic obscures the actual play. The Bip Roberts is a textbook example of this. Great play at the plate except the focus of the play is obscured by the Stadium Club logo.
This is a shame since in 1993 Upper Deck showed how to do it right. The layering effect like 1988 Topps at the top allows the image to be cropped nice and tight at the top of the frame. Upper Deck though selected photos and cropped them to have empty space at the bottom.
You wouldn’t crop photos in general this way but as a background for the graphics it works perfectly. It forces the photos to be zoomed out enough that you can see the entire player and get a sense of what he’s doing within the game.
Most of the 1990s and 2000s however look like these. I could’ve pulled a bunch more sets—especially from Pacific and Upper Deck—here but they’re all kind of the same. Big foil graphics that cover up important parts of the photo. Some sort of foil stamping or transparency effect that cuts off the players’ feet.
Instead of cropping loosely like 1993 Upper Deck most of the cards in these decades feel like the photos were cropped before being placed in the graphics.
It’s easy to blame the card companies here but this is also a photography thing. Portrait photographers often find the crop after they take the photo. They use larger-format film and understand that the publication might need to crop to fit a yet-to-be-determined layout. Action photographers though get in tight and capture the best moment. This is great for the photos but not so great with baseball cards.
Baseball is a horizontal sport and there’s no reason to include dead foreground space. The only reason to include that space if you know that you’re shooting for a baseball card design that’s going to need it.
We’ll make a brief stop at 2008 though. This isn’t a transparency or overlay design but it’s doing something similar. Rather than the usual cropping at a corner of the image box, Topps placed its logo in a uvula at the top of the image box. Right where it would normally place the players’ heads.
The result? Very similar to 1967’s effect where the photos get zoomed out a little and you see more background. The problem? These photos are already somewhat small and the change to mostly-action means that in most of them you’re just seeing more blurry crowds.
Fred Lewis is emblematic of the standard cropping. Small player image with lots of wasted space in the upper corners. That the posed photos like the Matt Cain are often bare skies at spring training locations instead of in Major League stadiums makes the added “information” there generally uninteresting.
All of this is a shame since the Tim Lincecum shows that when a selected photo is not impacted by the uvula, not only is the photo area not that small but the design can actually look pretty nice.
Okay. To contemporary cards and Topps’s recent dalliance with full bleed designs in flagship. I’m looking at 2017 here since it’s kind of the worst but 2016 to 2018 all do this. The transparency at the bottom of the cards is huge now. Yes it gets blurred out a bit but the photo information still needs to be there and as a result the cropping has to be even tighter.
As much as Topps was drifting toward in-your-face all-action shots, the actual designs of these cards sot of prevents any other kind of action. They also prioritize action that focuses in the top half of the frame. Any plays at a base gate stomped on by the design and even photos like the Chase Headley which don’t focus low in the frame are pretty much ruined too.
It’s easy to blame the TV graphics in Flagship but even Stadium Club—a set I love—has this same problem. On action photos the name/type often gets in the way of the image (compare Tim Anderson to the 1993 Upper Deck Lou Whitaker) but it’s the otherwise-wonderful wide-angle photos which fare the worst.
As the angle gets wider and the players get smaller, the odds that the text becomes intrusive increase tremendously. On Dexter Fowler’s card he’s the same size as the text and, as great as the photo is, the design of the card ruins it. Same goes with the Jose Berrios where the text is covering the entire mound and the ground fog Topps adds for contrast covers the whole playing field.
Which brings us to 2020 and a design that gets a lot of flak because it features sideways names.* What isn’t mentioned very frequently is how moving the transparency effect to the side of the card results in tremendously better photos and photo cropping.
*I don’t mind the sideways names except that I think they should’ve been rotated 180° so that when paged the horizontal cards don’t end up upside down.
All of a sudden we can see players’ feet again. Images aren’t all as in-your-face. We can have action images at second base where you can actually figure out what’s going on. Instead of cropping out the bottom of an image which a photographer has already framed, this design uses the space the photographers already provide for players to “move into.”*
*In action photography you’re generally trying to give the subject some room to move into the frame.
More importantly, it opens up the possibility for great photos that would never have worked in the previous full-bleed designs. For example, Omar Narvaez’s image is impossible to use in any design that puts transparency at the bottom of the card. Even Stadium Club. But 2020 Topps is flexible enough that it can use a wider variety of images.
I hope Topps learns some lessons from 2020 and that if we’re to see further full-bleed designs that they’ll be done in such a way so as to not get in the way of the images or to take advantage of the Transparency to give us more interesting photos.
I started collecting cards in 1967, at the age of 6. I had no idea who any of the players were–I was a geography nut, so I started off just knowing the cities and states, then gradually added the team names, the positions, and a basic understanding of the statistics on the back, and eventually started to figure out who the players actually were. Soon, I was an expert in separating the scrubs from the regulars, the stars from the superstars.
Eventually, not right away, I could pull a card like this Jay Johnstone, and realize that he was a superstar. He had 3 home runs in 1966, and home runs were obviously good things. Soon I realized that Topps used certain card numbers to designate the best players in the game, which made things easier.
For example, I learned, by deduction, that Topps set aside card #213 for a really special player. I did not see this for years, hence my delay in understanding how great Johnstone was–had I known that they had given Fred Newman #213 in 1966, obviously I would have connected the dots. In these days before hobby magazines, I had to figure out this pattern for myself.
My second year collecting, Topps came back hard with this legend, fresh off an -0.3 WAR season with the Reds. When you put Chico’s card together with teammates Pete Rose, Lee May, and Tony Perez, and with rookie Johnny Bench showing promise, my friends and I began to call them the Big Red Machine. Honestly, I felt like this nickname should have caught on, as almost all of these players remained stars for many years.
I am embarrassed to admit that even after pulling this PSA-10 Arrigo out of a pack, I still had not put together the #213 pattern! Of course I understood that this was an inner circle star, but I just didn’t pay attention to card numbers back then. This was a 3rd series card, likely coming out in May, and the only excuse I can offer is that I was too distracted with the Apollo 10 launch to follow the tense Arrigo-Seaver duel for the Cy Young Award.
I have written about the genius of the 1970 bat rack photos before, and it is only right that Topps put one of them on #213. And not just anyone, they didn’t waste the slot on Harmon Killebrew, they gave it to the starting catcher (against left-handed pitchers) for the best team in baseball. In addition, it must be said, he was the best looking player in baseball. This was the year — finally! — that the light came on about the glories of 213.
Most famous for hitting two home runs in 1911 World Series, earning the nickname “Home Run,” the ageless Frank Baker was still hanging on 60 years later. While not quite the superstar he had been, you can’t blame Topps for giving the old legend the prime card spot one last time.
Kinda ballsy of Topps to anoint not just one, but THREE, players with the superstar position in the set. Obviously they knew something, as these three hot prospects ended up racking up -0.1, -1.5, and -0.5 *career* WAR, for a mind-boggling total of -2.1. All on one card! Good luck finding this beauty at an affordable price. Clearly, the 213 Gambit paid off for Topps Bubble Gum, Inc.
What can I say, Topps just blew it. Not only did they put a no-name on the card, someone destined for mediocrity, but we can’t even see his face! The only thing I can think of is that they meant to give #213 to Joe “Say Hey” Lahoud, but some intern swapped the images and Joe ended up on #212. Sad, but Topps had built up so much good will in my house by this point in my life that I decided to let it go.
I also heard a rumor that Topps *wanted* to put Rader on #213 in 1973, but didn’t want to jinx the kid with only one fine season under his belt. But once he put up his .229 batting average with nine home runs in 1973, he kind of forced their hand. After the Garvey Debacle, it must have been a relief for Topps to have this slam dunk candidate to carry the torch.
Oscar could play, or at least hit, and one can imagine a different timeline where he holds a full-time job for 10 years and makes a bunch of All-Star teams. And, of course, everyone dug Oscar’s ‘fro (the second best in his family), which made him a household name in all the cool households that dropped the names of platoon outfielders in casual conversation. But, let’s not kid ourselves. Oscar got the coveted #213 slot for his trendy top-hand-only batting glove game, which we all knew would catch on.
Everyone knows that Heaverlo was the Mariano Rivera of the late 1970s, but, truth be told, Topps gave him star billing in 1976 because of his head. Fashioning himself the “Anti-Oscar,” Heaverlo was the first baseball player to shave his entire dome. Unlike Seattle Supersonics star Slick Watts, our hero did not get the credit he deserved because tradition dictated that he always don a cap. Perhaps in admiration for this sacrifice, Topps gave him a sort of Mr. Congeniality nod with the #213.
Until 1976 Leon seemed destined to live in the considerable shadow of his father Sergio, the acclaimed director of such Spaghetti Western classics as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. Heroically, young Max finally broke through with his monster 2-win, 44-strikeout performance in 1976. By the time I first saw the 1978 cards hit the store shelves in Ledyard, CT, suffice it to say that there was little remaining suspense about who #213 was going to be.
It has been said of Willie Mays that an admirer could enumerate myriad reasons for his greatness without even mentioning his power, his 660 home runs. There was just so much to brag about.
It’s kind of like that with Alan Bannister too. On his 1978 card, one of a long line of Rembrandt-level cardboard in his great career, Topps spent so much time waxing rhapsodically about his speed (including his mind-blowing 27 steals at Triple-A Eugene in 1973) and versatility (playing both infield and outfield), that they ran out of space before they could even mention that he hit a league-leading 11 sacrifice flies in 1976. Think about that for a second. They ran out of space.
What more needs to be said, at this juncture, about Bill Travers?
In retrospect it seems like a bold move on Topps’s part to delay the anointing of Jorgensen until several years into his career. But it paid off in spades after he put up 9 and 16 RBI in back-to-back seasons with the Rangers. In 1979 he took a run at Hack Wilson’s all-time single-season record, before cooling off in September and falling 175 RBI shy. By the time this card got in our hands, Jorgensen had been traded to the New York Mets, and he proved the missing piece in their extraordinary leap forward from 65 to 69 wins.
I could go on, but you likely knew all this already. By 1981 Topps had competition and things became a bit of a mess. But for most of my glorious childhood, I could point to Topps baseball cards numbering as the primary way I learned how to figure out who the great players were. There were other premium numbers, to be sure–#329 had a run of Phil Roof, Rick Joseph, and Chris Cannizzaro that is hard to beat–but I will always have a soft spot for #213.
I’d been sitting on the idea of this article for a while, and I finally decided to “check it off” when I saw an exchange between fellow SABR Baseball Cards blogger Matt Prigge and prewar savant Anson Whaley (with a guest appearance by Jeff Smith) on the first numbered baseball cards.
Interesting question. The N48 cards are generally cited as being from 1886. These featured women as baseball players and since those are some of the earliest baseball card sets in general, I’m thinking those could be it. No guarantees. Just a guess. https://t.co/5uO0MlW67B
Today the idea of numbered cards goes hand in hand with that of a (contemporaneously published) checklist. However, that was not always the case. While numerous examples abound, one famous numbered set with no checklist was 1933 Goudey. Likewise, we will encounter sets that had checklists but no numbered cards. This article will not be exhaustive, so don’t use it as a checklist. Rather, it will just highlight some of the variety attached to what in my collecting heyday was considered the most boring card in the pack.
Had I written this article a year ago, I might have assumed erroneously that on-card checklists were a hobby dinosaur. After all, why waste a card in the set when it’s easy enough to post a checklist online? However, the lone pack of 2019 Topps update I bought last fall included a surprise on the back of my Albert Pujols highlights card.
Though I have to imagine the past three decades of baseball cards have more of a story to tell, I’m going to quickly jump all the way back to what otherwise was the last time I remember pulling a checklist from a pack.
The very last packs of cards I bought before entering my long “real life took over” hiatus were in 1992. I don’t recall buying any mainstream sets that year, but I liked the Conlons and their close cousins, the Megacards Babe Ruth set, of which I somehow still have the box and three unopened packs.
The Ruth set had no checklist, but the Conlon issue had several, much in the style of the Topps cards of my youth, right down to the checkboxes.
While there’s something to be said for the familiar, I was an even bigger fan of the checklists I pulled from packs of 1990 Leaf.
Checklists adorned with superstar players was new to my own pack opening experience. However, as with most “innovations” in the Hobby, it wasn’t truly new, as we’ll soon see.
This was my absolute pack-buying heyday, and it was a great time to be a checklist collector, assuming there is such a thing. Yes, we had the standard checklist cards each of those years…
…but we also got team checklists, either on the backs of manager cards…
…or on the back of team cards.
As a quick aside, I’ll note that EVERY collector I knew in 1978 sorted his cards by team and used the team card to mark progress, making the set checklists (e.g., 1-121) completely superfluous.
Though I’m skipping most years, I’ll make a quick stop at 1974 to highlight two features in particular. In addition to the standard checklists AND team photo cards without checklists, the 1974 Topps set used unnumbered team signature cards as team checklists. (Aside: Though unnumbered cards had a mile-long history in the Hobby and are hardly extinct today, I rarely ran across them as a kid apart from the 1981 Donruss checklists or the 1981 Fleer “Triple Threat” error card.)
A final note on these team checklists: they did not include late additions from the Traded set (e.g., Santo on White Sox), so a separate “Trades Checklist” was provided also.
If I had to declare a G.O.A.T. checklist it would come from 1967-69 Topps, all possible inspirations for the 1990 Leaf card I showed earlier. (In fairness, 1984 Fleer might have played a role.)
At first glance I mistakenly thought these checklists brought more than just a bonus superstar to the mix. Take a look at entry 582 on the back of card below.
Could it be? Were we looking at the pinnacle of 1960s artificial intelligence technology: checklists with the self-awareness to check themselves off? Sadly, no. We were just looking at an abbreviation for “Checklist – 7th Series.” After all, this “smart checklist” was card 504 in the set and the ostensibly checked off card was a completely different card.
While our friends at Topps were having a ho-hum year, checklist-wise, as if there’s any other kind of year to have, checklist-wise, I do want to provide recognition to the efforts at Fleer. Haters of the Keith Shore #Project 2020 designs will probably not be fans, but I’m a sucker for this cartoony, colorful approach to checklists.
Even the title, “Player Roster,” is a nice twist, don’t you think?
The first appearance of numbered checklist-only cards from Topps came in 1961. Each checklist featured a baseball action scene on both the front and back of the card, and collectors can have fun trying to identify the players. (Side note: I believe these are the first ever game-action photos ever used by Topps.)
While the image on the back persisted across the set, the images on the front differed with each card. For example, here is Mr. Cub on the front of the second checklist. (Banks also appears prominently on the fifth checklist!)
Meanwhile in Philadelphia, Fleer introduced its first ever checklist cards.
The series one checklist featured Home Run Baker, Ty Cobb, and Zach Wheat well past their playing days, while series two did the same for George Sisler and Pie Traynor.
Incidentally, a similar approach was used 15 years later by Mike Aronstein in the 1976 SSPC set.
While Fleer had baseball sets in 1959 and 1960 as well, neither used checklist cards. However, this was not because the concept had not yet dawned on them. On the contrary, here’s a card from one of their more notable non-sport issues way back in 1959!
Note that the card pictured is #63. Cards 16 and 64 in the set are also known to have “checklist back” variations. However, the much more common versions of these same cards simply feature humorous descriptions or jokes.
I referred to the 1961 Topps cards as checklist-only because there were in fact numbered checklist cards issued in the 1960 set. The 1960 cards were the perfect (or anti-perfect) hybrid of set checklists and team cards, perhaps offering a glimpse of the “why not both!” direction Topps would ultimately adopt.
Shown below is the Braves team card, but the back is not a Braves checklist. Rather, it’s the checklist for the set’s entire fifth series!
But wait, how does that even work? The set only had seven series but there were 16 teams, right? Yes, somewhat inelegantly Topps repeated checklists on the back of multiple team cards. For example, the A’s and Pirates each had sixth series backs.
Ditto 1959 Topps…
We have to go all the way back to 1957 to see checklist-only cards. Aside from being unnumbered and landscape oriented, these cards check off all the boxes of the staid checklist cards I grew up with.
The 1956 set did the same but with an unusual turn, and not just the 90-degree reorientation. While the 1957 card shown includes the first and second series, the 1956 cards included non-adjacent series. The card below is for the first and third series, while a second card has series two and four.
The 1956 checklists also featured the first (that I could find) appearance of checkboxes. As such, it wouldn’t be wrong to regard (or disregard!) all predecessors as mere lists, unworthy of the checklist title.
The crumbiest card in the set?
It may have looked like Topps was blazing new trails with their checklist cards in 1956 and 1957, but take a close look at the second card in this uncut strip from the Johnston’s Cookies set, series one.
You may need to be the judge as to whether this qualifies as an actual card in the set vs a non-card that just happens to be the same size as the other cards.
On one hand, why not? On the other, how many collectors would consider the “How to Order Trading Cards” end panel a card?
When is a checklist not a checklist?
In 1950, Chicago-based publisher B.E. Callahan released a box set featuring all 60 Hall of Famers. The set was updated annually and included 80 Hall of Famers by 1956, the last year it was issued. At the very end of the set was what appeared to be a checklist for the set, but was it?
As it turns out, the card back wasn’t so much a checklist as it was a listing of all Hall of Famers. Were it intended as a checklist, it presumably would have also listed this Hall of Fame Exterior card and perhaps even itself!
Simple logic might also suggest that a checklist would have been particularly superfluous for cards already sold as an intact set; then again, stranger things have happened.
No checklist but the next best thing?
Prior to 1956 Topps a common way to assist set collectors, though a far cry from an actual checklist, was by indicating the total number cards in the set right on the cards, as with this 1949 Bowman card. Note the top line on the card’s reverse indicates “No. 24 of a Series of 240.”
Though this was the only Bowman set to cue size, Gum, Inc., took the same approach with its Play Ball set a decade earlier. The advertised number of cards in the set proved incorrect, however, as the set was limited to 161 cards rather than 250.
Goudey too overestimated the size of its own set the year before. The first series of 24 cards seemed to suggest 288 cards total…
…while the second series indicated 312!
Add them up and you have a set of 48 cards evidently advertised as having more than six times that number. In fact, some collectors have speculated, based among other things on the similarity of card backs, that the 1938 issue was a continuation of the 1933 (!) issue. Add the new 48 to the 240 from 1933 and you get 288. Perhaps, though the number 312 remains mysterious either way.
Tobacco card collectors are no stranger to the advertised set size being way off. Consider the 1911 T205 Gold Borders set for starters. “Base Ball Series 400 Designs” implies a set nearly twice the size of the 208 cards known to collectors and perhaps hints at original plans to include Joe Jackson, Honus Wagner, and many other stars excluded from the set.
As for its even more famous cousin, the 1909-11 T206 set. How many cards are there? 150 subjects? 350 subjects? 350-460?
The return of set checklists
While I’ve just highlighted several non-examples of checklists, there are several, probably dozens, of sets pre-1956 Topps that include checklists. The most common variety involved printing the entire set’s checklist on the back of every card in the set, as with the 1933 George C. Miller card of Mel Ott shown here.
As evidenced not only by Ott’s name but also brief biographical information unique to Master Melvin, the Miller set provided a unique card back per player in the set. As we travel further back in time to examine earlier checklisting, you’ll see that a far more common approach involved applying the same card back to multiple players in the set, often by team, by series, or across the set’s entirety.
The return of team checklists
It’s been a while since we’ve seen team checklists, but some great early examples come our way from the 240-card 1922 American Caramel set.
As the small print indicates, the set included 15 players apiece from each of the 16 teams, leading to an even 240 cards. As the Ruth back suggests, all Yankees in the set had identical backs, as was the case for all team subsets within the set. Rival caramel maker Oxford Confectionary produced a much smaller set (E253) the year before and was able to fit the set’s entire 20-card roster on the back of each card.
The golden age of checklists
Though neither the T205 nor T206 sets included checklist cards, many other sets of the era did. A fun one, checklist or no checklist, is the 1912 Boston Garters set. Note the back side (of the card, not the player!) lists the 16 cards in the set. (These are VERY expensive cards by the way. For example, the card shown is easily the priciest Mathewson among his various cards without pants.)
Another such set was the 1911 Turkey Red set where, as with the 1922 American Caramel cards, every card was a checklist card (subject to back variations). Low numbered cards had a checklist for cards 1-75 or 1-76, and high numbered cards had a checklist for cards 51-126.
The 1910 Tip Top Bread set provided collectors a much kneaded set checklist and team checklist for their hard-earned dough. Of course, this was by default since all the subjects in the set were all on the same team. While the checklist suggests numbered cards, individual cards have do not include a card number as part of the design.
The 1908-1910 American Caramel E91 cards similarly provided a checklist for each year’s set and the three teams that comprised it. For example the 1910 set (E91-C) listed Pittsburg, Washington, and Boston players.
And just to show these sets weren’t flukes, there are the 1909 Philadelphia Caramel (E95), 1909 E102, 1909-1910 C.A. Briggs (E97), 1910 Standard Caramel (E93), 1910 E98, 1911 George Close Candy (E94), and 1913 Voskamp’s Coffee Pittsburgh Pirates, and various minor league issues of the era.
Size isn’t everything
Another early approach to checklists is illustrated by the 1909-1913 Sporting News supplements.
The picture backs were blank, but sales ads provided collectors with the full list of players available.
By the way, the highlighting of “SENT IN A TUBE” provides a hint that collectors even more than a century ago cared at least a little bit about condition.
Obak took this approach a step further in 1913 by including a complete checklist in every cigarette box.
Though not technically a card, one could make some argument that this Obak insert represents the very first standalone checklist packaged with cards.
I don’t know enough about this 1889 (!) checklist of Old Judge cabinet photo premiums to say whether it was inserted with the cigarettes and cards as was the Obak or lived somewhere else entirely as did the Sporting News ad.
Either way, it won’t be our oldest example of a checklist.
Where it all began…almost
There aren’t many baseball card sets older than the 1888 Goodwin Champions and 1887 Allen & Ginter World Champions issues. Ditto 1887 W.S. Kimball Champions (not pictured). Take a look at the card backs, and it becomes evident that checklists are almost as old as baseball cards themselves.
And while most of the card backs I’ve seen from these issues are rather dull, here is one specimen that makes me smile.
It’s not the easiest thing to see, but I do believe the collector crossed Kelly off the checklist…
…before running out of money, running out of ink, or just moving on like any good player collector.
As my examples demonstrate, baseball card checklists have taken on many forms, and the question of which baseball card checklist was first is one that depends on your definition of a checklist and perhaps even your definition of a baseball card.
Though it’s risky to infer motives from men long since dead, it seems reasonable that the creation and publication of baseball card checklists indicates a recognition that the cards themselves were not simply throwaway novelties but items to be collected and saved. What’s more, this was evidently the case as far back as 1887!
Note also that these checklists weren’t simply offered as courtesies. They reflected the at least an implicit assumption that set checklists were more valuable (to the seller!) than other forms of advertising that would otherwise occupy the same real estate whether the product was bread, tobacco, or candy. A standard Hobby 101 education teaches us that cards were long used to help sell the products they were packaged with. What we see here is that the allure wasn’t simply a baseball player or his likeness on cardboard but also the set of such likenesses that kept the pennies and nickels coming.
I started this article with a question. Are checklist cards the most boring cards in the set? By and large, yes, I think they are. However, that’s only true most of the time.
For with every checklist, at least those put to purpose, there is that one moment of glory, of sweetness, and of triumph when the checklist—formerly mocked and yawned at—informs collectors young and old that their springs and summers were not spent in vain but rather in pursuit of the heroic, the noble, and the—holy smokes, it’s about damn time!—DONE!
That’s a pretty obvious way to start this, right? Pretty much anyone who has spent time in the baseball card hobby knows how that digit and that name go together, that Andy Pakfo, as a Brooklyn Dodger, was card #1 in the landmark 1952 Topps baseball card set.
I’ve often wondered why Andy Pafko, of all people, got the fabled #1 spot in that set. But did it matter in 1952 that he was card #1? When it card #1 start mattering? The earliest example of a card set with a clear numbering system was the 1909 Philadelphia Carmel set. The cards aren’t individually numbered, but rather featured a numbered listing on the back for the 25-card set, with Honus Wagner is the #1 spot. Wagner was (and is) a huge name in the sport, but given that 10 of the 25 subjects of the set are Hall-of-Famers, it’s likely that Wagner was listed first, well, just because he was listed first. The 1910 Philadelphia Carmel set had the same numbering system, this time with Athletics’ first basemen Harry Davis is the #1 spot, with the checklist arranged by team and Davis in the top spot for no obvious reason.
The first true #1 seems to be Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown in the 1911 Turkey Red Cabinets set. This set, too, features a list of all subjects in the set on the backside of each card, but each card is also numbered, with “No. 1” gracing the backside of Brown’s card. The number system had a purpose – smokers could collect coupons from certain Turkey Red products and exchange them for the cards, instructed to “order by number only.” As for Brown’s place in the #1 spot, it isn’t clear whether not is was supposed to mean anything. There’s a haphazard alphabetical ordering to the set, but many of the names are out of place, including Brown’s. And while Brown was one of the biggest names in the sport at the time, the set is loaded with similarly famous names. The 1914 and 1915 Cracker Jack sets were also numbered, with no clear system to their assignment. The #1 card in each (the 1915 set re-issued most of the 1914 set) was Otto Knabe of the Baltimore Terrapins of the Federal League. Knabe had a few good years with the Phillies of the National League, but was hardly a star in Baltimore and was out of baseball by the end of the 1916 season. Again, we find a #1 with no obvious reason behind it.
The 1933 Goudey set is a landmark in hobby history, but no one cared to memorialize this occasion with it’s opening card. The spot went to Benny Benough, a career back-up catcher who had played his final season in 1932. But in the 1934 Goudey set, Jimmie Foxx – winner of the AL MVP award in both of the previous seasons – was given the lead-off spot. This is the first obvious example of the #1 used as an honorarium. And it would be the last until 1940, when the Play Ball set devoted the first 12 spots in its 240 card checklist to the four-time defending champion New York Yankees, with the #1 spot going to reigning MVP Joe DiMaggio. But in 1941, Play Ball went with Eddie Miller as card #1. Miller was an all-star the year before but, as a member of the moribund Boston Bees, was hardly a household name.
The first two major post-war releases honored a pair of reigning MVPs with their #1 spots – 1948-49 Leaf with Joe DiMaggio and 1948 Bowman with Bob Elliot. But Bowman got a little more obscure with their 1949 #1, picking Boston Braves rookie Vern Bickford – a member of a pennant-winning club, but hardly a national stand-out. Bowman’s 1950 #1 was Mel Parnell, an all-star and a sensation on the mound in ’49, and in 1951 they opened with rookie Whitey Ford, who’d helped lead the Yankees to another World Series win. Both were stand-out players and names collectors would have known, but neither are as convincing as purposeful picks for #1 as Foxx, DiMaggio, or Elliot. For Topps’ 1951 Game release, there were a pair of #1s (for both the blue and red back sets) – Yogi Berra and Eddie Yost – who, like Parnell and Ford, don’t really indicate any obvious attempt to use the number as an honor, particularly given the small size of 1951 issue.
So that brings us to “Handy” Andy Pafko. And tells us… well, not much. Sometimes the top spot was used to pay tribute and sometimes it was just used and sometimes it’s kind of stuck in between. But after Pafko, Topps would use the #1 spot for a variety of purposes, some honorific, others utilitarian. The 1950s were a mixed bag: a jumble of superstars (Jackie Robinson in 1953, Ted Williams in 1954, 1957, and 1958), executives (AL President William Harridge in 1956 and commissioner Ford Frick in 1959), and a postseason hero (Dusty Rhodes in 1955). The 1960s featured award winners from the year before (Early Wynn in 1960, Dick Groat in 1961, Roger Maris in 1962, and Willie Mays in 1966), mixed in multi-player league leader cards and a tribute to the 1966 Baltimore Orioles World Series win. Between 1970 and 1972, the #1 card honored the World Series winner with a team photo. 1973-1976’s top spots went to Hank Aaron, honoring his chase and breaking of Babe Ruth’s home run and RBI records. But this run of #1s could have been little more than a coincidence. After Aaron’s 1974 card (which is actually his base card, the front given a unique design to commemorate the home run records that he hadn’t actually set yet) was a pure #1 honor spot. But the ones that followed fit into a pattern that Topps would mostly use for the next decade – opening the set with either Record Breakers or Highlights and ordering those cards alphabetically. A fellow named “Aaron” setting records and making highlights was bound to take those top spots. (You can find Beckett’s visual guide to Topps #1s here)
Despite an boom in card production, the 1980s would see dark times for #1 cards. Fleer and Donruss joined Topps in the baseball card market in 1981 and both companies put player base cards in their #1 spots. Fleer honored the veteran Pete Rose and Donruss led off with young shortstop Ozzie Smith, a decision that – in the context of the great work on the ’81 Donruss set by Jason in a recent post here – seems to not have been much of a decision at all, leaving their brand’s Hall of Fame leadoff man more of a coincidence than a tribute. But by 1982, all three companies had locked themselves into numbering formulas that left little room for creativity at the top. Topps went with Record Breakers or Highlights, bottoming out in the #1 game in 1983 when Tony Armas took the honors with a card commemorating him fielding 11 fly balls in a single game, breaking a five-year-old record. Donruss debuted its famed ‘Diamond Kings’ subset in 1982 and opened each set of the 1980s with it, leading to some big names at the top, but never really lining up the assignment with any big event from the prior year (only Ryne Sandberg’s #1 card in 1985 followed up on a major award win). Fleer, arranging its checklist by team, opened up each set with the previous year’s World Series winner. But with the players within each team arranged alphabetically, their #1s went to guys like Doug Blair and Keith Anderson as often as they went to stars. What’s more, Fleer goofed in 1989 and opened the set with the Oakland A’s (Don Baylor at #1), even though the Dodgers won the World Series in 1988. And just two years later, Fleer would make the same mistake, handing the A’s a premature crown for the 1990 season by leading off with catcher Troy Afenir, who had 14 at bats the year before and hadn’t played at all in the postseason. Their habit of honoring (or at least attempting to honor) the World Champions at the open of their set was dropped after that year.
The truest honorary #1 spot from the big three in the 1980s was the 1986 Topps Pete Rose. His base card – a “pure” card – was given top billing and followed by a series of career retrospective cards to commemorate his breaking of the all-time hits records in 1985. It was the first time since Willie Mays in 1965 that a player’s pure base card was given #1. 1986 also saw the debut of Sportflics, a gimmicky set, but one that took its #1 seriously. George Brett led off the set and, for the next four years, the set would always open not just with a star, but with a player sought after in the hobby. In 1988, the Major League Marketing, parent company of Sportflics, debuted the more standard Score set, which opened with Don Mattingly at #1, continuing the trend set by Sportflics and bringing it into the collecting mainstream.
1989, of course, would be the year Upper Deck changed the hobby forever, in no small part to opening up their debut set with – for the first time ever in a major release – a player who has yet to make his Major League debut. This card, of course, was the iconic Ken Griffey Jr. rookie. It would become one of the hobby’s most recognizable cards and would join the Pafko as a famed #1. But oddly enough, it didn’t really change the trajectory of #1s. In fact, Upper Deck, who owed so much to that one card, didn’t even bother putting a player in the #1 spot in 1990 or 1991 – using that spot instead for checklists. The next big deal rookie to get a #1 spot from any brand was Mark Wohlers in the 1992 Donruss set. And who remembers that?
The heart of the junk wax era saw some interesting uses of #1. In 1990 and 1991, Donruss’s new Leaf Set – among the first line of upscale releases – didn’t even have a card #1, instead opening with unnumbered card with the Leaf logo. The 1991 Bowman set opened with a tribute to Rod Carew. Intended as a fun set for kids, Donruss’s 1992 Triple Play set opened with a card of Skydome. And to showcase the classiness of its first upscale set, Topps put Dave Stewart at the 1 slot for its debut Stadium Club set – dressed in a tuxedo and a baseball cap. There were a few true head-scratchers from this era as well, such as 1993 Donruss opening with journeyman reliever Craig Lefferts. Or Bowman giving its #1 in 1993 to Glenn Davis, who was 30 games away from the end of his career (it was actually Davis’ third straight year getting a #1, as he got the spot in 1991’s Studio set and 1992’s Fleer Ultra due being the first alphabetical player for the Baltimore Orioles, the first alphabetical American League team).
By the mid-1990s, nearly all major releases – save for Fleer, who clung to their team-based numbering system that gave no attention to #1 – had taken up the practice putting a base card of a star player with hobby appeal in the top spot. That trend continues today, with Topps offering an online vote to determine who gets #1 each year, and the winning players – Aaron Judge, Mike Trout, Ronald Acuna, very much fitting that mold. So it ended up not being the legacy of Andy Pafko or Ken Griffey Jr. or Diamond Kings or broken records or hot rookies that live on as #1 in our binders today, but that of Sportflics and Score, who made things no more complicated than taking a player both talented and popular and putting him at the top of stack.
“This is the best series I think we’ve ever done. I’m very excited about the whole thing already.” Sy Berger, Topps president, prior to 1973 cards hitting the shelves.
(Quote from the book – Baseball Card Flipping, Trading And Bubble Gum)
Rather than binge watch the Tiger King I decided to spend the last 3 nights cataloging my 1973 Topps Baseball cards to see how close I am to having a complete set. I obtained these cards after the great basement flood of 1987. The cards originally belonged to my younger brother. He had stored his baseball card collection in the basement of my parent’s then new home in Maine. Due to some faulty landscaping some water came into the basement during a downpour and damaged some his collection.
My brother no longer wanted the damaged collection and instead of throwing out the cards my mother miraculously called me to see I wanted them. I told her I would gladly take all the cards. A week or so later my parents arrived at my house with a large cardboard box stuffed with cards. My mother had dried out the cards that got wet by laying them on a dry floor and running a fan across them.
The box contained a mishmash of Topps cards that ranged from 1966 to 1980. Most of the cards were in good shape – either no water damage or only a very small water spot. There were also some cards that had seen better days.
There were a lot of cards of hall of famers from various years including this nice 1967 Mickey Mantle.
The bulk of the collection was comprised of 1973 cards. Almost all of the 1973 cards came through the ordeal in nice shape. Even before cataloging the cards I knew I almost had a complete set. I have nearly all the cards of the hall of famers, including the Mike Schmidt rookie card.
The Bad and The Ugly
It was also clear before cataloging these cards, that this was the ugliest set ever produced by Topps.
From a pure printing perspective all of the cards lack brightness and pop. The design of the ’73 cards lacks imagination and the white borders contribute to the dullness of the cards.
My biggest beef with these cards is the photography. The quality of the action images used in a significant percentage of the cards is in many cases very low. Most of the action shots were taken during afternoon games creating high contrast situations with the caps shading the faces of the players and the white uniforms reflecting too much light. In a post from 2016, Topps, according to baseball photographer extraordinaire Doug McWilliams, insisted on the useof slow ASA 100 film. This did not help matters when it came to freezing the action, resulting in fuzzy images or images that required a lot of massaging in order to make them acceptable.
I have included in the slide show below a sampling of problematic cards of future hall of famers and stars from this era. There are photos that are zoomed so far out you don’t know who the subject is (image on Bobby Bonds card would have been a better choice for the Willie Stargell card). There are photos where faces are in shadows and photos which have been airbrushed beyond all recognition. There are a few photos that have been cropped bizarrely (I still can’t find Steve Garvey). And there are photos were the composition is mind boggling (Willie McCovey and Johnny Bench checking out a foul ball. The Hit King popping up. Is that really Thurman Munson?).
Slide Show Featuring Some of Ugliest Topps Cards of Hall of Famers and Stars Ever Produced
If you are a Joe Rudi fan you are out of luck. You get another card of Gene Tenace.
There are some really nice cards in this set. Call me old school, but most of the cards in this set that work for me are the ones with the posed shots. Cards that also work for me are the action shots of Aaron and Clemente which are two of the best in this set. And it was nice that Topps brought back the cards of the playoffs and the World Series.
Slide Show of Good Cards
After cataloging the cards, I have found out that I am only 50 cards shy of having a complete set of 660 cards (not counting the variations in many of the managers / coaches cards). Only two of the missing cards are Hall of Famers.
I even have 22 of the 24 Blue Team Checklist cards that were supposedly only inserted in the last series.
I would be interested on your take on the 1973 set. Let me know by way of a comment if you agree or disagree with me on the 1973 set being the ugliest set that Topps has ever produced.
Sometimes inspiration strikes when you least expect it. With everything going on in the world, I had put almost no time into my collection and for the first time in well over a year had no new articles in progress. Then, from my home-office-bunker in the basement I looked up at my framed 1957 Topps Brooklyn team set and didn’t love one of the cards.
It wasn’t just that my “Oisk” was off-kilter. (Try saying that to a normal person and see what kind of reaction you get!) It’s more that it just didn’t pop the way some of the other cards in my display did.
I headed to the Bay on my lunch break and quickly remedied the situation. (And if you can’t tell the difference between this card and the one above it, congratulations! It just means you are a normal person. It also means collecting vintage will be a lot cheaper for you than for some of us.)
Of course you all know how collecting works. Now that I had this beaut in the shopping cart, was there anything else I needed? The Erskine seller seemed to have an extensive inventory, and there was of course the added benefit that I’d save on shipping if I found other cards to order. In fact, I didn’t end up buying anything else. (And maybe like some of you I’ve found it hard to spend real money that can be used for food and toilet paper on little squares of cardboard…even if, yes, if we get really, really, really desperate…okay, let’s not go there.)
What I did come across, however, was a reminder: 1957 Topps is a gorgeous set. Here then, in no particular order, are some of my favorite shots in the set. Other than Ted Williams, I challenged myself to avoid Hall of Famers. This kept my focus on the card rather than the player.
And as a special bonus for the Dodger fans out there, here’s my new Brooklyn team set, complete with Erskine upgrade, nearly ready to frame back up.
So that’s it. That’s the post! Stay safe, stay home, and stay sane. If you have a favorite card from the 1957 set, let me know about it in the comments.
Particularly with some of the cards in the set, there seem to be two versions. Side by side, one appears a bit more dull (which sometimes works!) and the other seems more green.
Initially I dismissed the differences to fading over time or the scans themselves, but having owned “pairs” of a couple players now, I think the differences are real. If you prefer one look over the other, don’t buy the first card you see. There doesn’t seem to be any pricing premium for one over the other, so go with what looks best to you.