Baseball Cards in Art

When William Klein died I tweeted out a quick RIP from the official account where I stated that he was one of the blog’s favorite photographers. If you were browsing Twitter on your phone it would’ve been easy to miss the details in the photo and realize why I tweeted it. For me as both an art museum goer and a card collector though, Klein represents one of the few genuine overlaps in my interests. Yes it’s great to be able to visit the Burdick Collection at The Met but it’s even more fun to see cards pop up in other parts of the museum.

I’ve started a small themed collection of cards that I’ve noticed in other artworks and I’ve found enough now to put a post together on here.

Baseball Cards, William Klein, 1955

I’ll start with Klein both because he’s what prompted this post and because this is the oldest piece. And yes, the title of this photo is indeed “Baseball Cards.” I’m not going to write a ton about him as a photographer on here but his book of street photos in New York is justly famous in part because of how it taps in to imagery that where you not only feel like part of the scene but suggests that the scene may be familiar to you.

Sometimes, like with “Gun 1,” the familiarity is disturbing. Other times, such as with “Baseball Cards” the scene is one that should resonate in a pleasant way with every reader of this blog. Kids showing off their stacks of cards. Kids showing off a favorite player. It’s why we started collecting and in many ways the feeling we’re trying to hold on to while we keep collecting.

If you only saw the tweet on your phone you might not have noticed that the kids were holding stacks of 1955 Bowman. Blowing up the image you can see that the central card is one of the few light wood borders and is pretty obviously Gil McDougald. I had to comb through the set to identify the other card. I’m pretty sure it’s Randy Jackson—the dark background plus the long sleeves plus the placement of name box is pretty distinct—but there are a decent number of righthanded batters which I had to choose from.

Anti-Product Baseball Cards,
Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1979

I’ve written about these before on here so there’s no need for me to write much more. That said, at the time of first writing I hadn’t identified everyone in the cards and it took a committee effort in the comments of that post (as well as on Twitter) to both identify the actual 1979 Topps cards that were the basis for these.

I don’t think anyone’s identified the Rookies card but the other five are Steve Henderson (JOE), Bob Randall (JERK), Steve Kemp (HOT DOG), Ed Glynn (BUS PASS), and John Matlack (WALLY). The Mets Team Card meanwhile shows up on what we’re using as the checklist for these.

Pete Rose, Andy Warhol, 1985

In true Warhol fashion, multiple prints of this exist. While the one in Cincinnati is probably the definitive version I’ve only seen the one in the Smithsonian. Also, Paul Ember has written pretty extensively about these (and even gave a SABR presentation) so there’s not much for me to add here.

Most of us here probably recognized immediately that Warhol used a new photo and didn’t just copy either of Rose’s 1985 Topps cards. But the cards are clearly part of the piece. One of the things I like about Warhol’s Rose prints is how they combine the Campbell’s Soup elevation of industrial design into Art™ with his larger-than-life pop culture celebrity portraits and it says a lot about baseball cards and Topps that they were worthy of this treatment.

And yeah. A small short checklist so far which I hope to be able to add to in the future. But also a very fun one that speaks to baseball cards’ larger importance as part of our culture.

Team collecting foibles and follies

As if I didn’t already have enough different things to collect, the recent progress my SABR Chicago bud John has made on his Cubs team sets, 1956-present, got me thinking…what about me?

For the last several years I’d been working on roughly one Dodger team set per year. For example, last year’s project was 1951 Bowman.

1951 Bowman Dodgers

This year’s project has been T206, which I’m now only two cards from completing. (Remember we’re talking team set here, not the entire Monster!)

Like so many other collectors, I frequently found myself wondering what was next. As much as I’d love to go “Full Hoyle” and chase every card ever of my favorite team, a focus on the 1970s or perhaps the “Garvey Era” (1971-83) was what felt most tenable.

Sometimes all you need is just the right nudge, and it came when another SABR bud, Dave, emailed me to let me know he was putting much of his collection for sale. As it turned out, he had plenty of 1970s Dodgers and even a decent stack from the 1960s. Dave’s collection was a fantastic start to my new binder and even got me thinking if I might extend my ambitions to include the 1960s as well, if not the entire Los Angeles era.

In the time since, I’ve made some deals on Twitter, grabbed plenty of cards off eBay, and whittled my 1970s want list down to less than two dozen. Though I’m less committed (for good reasons you’ll soon see) to the 1960s, I’ve also added some very cool cards from that decade that look great in the binder, even by themselves. My favorite so far is this 1960 Leaf Duke Snider.

As I’ve worked on this new collecting project here are some of the “rookie mistakes” I’ve made along the way, on purpose of course to make the adventure that much more challenging, right?

BAD ≠ CHEAP

When collectors think Dodgers, 1958-1980, they rightfully imagine having to spend real money on the likes of Sandy Koufax, Duke Snider, and Don Drysdale, but they might need a minute to remember Ken McMullen. Despite the absence of Hall of Famers, this is NOT a cheap card!

Ditto the rookie card of Tom Paciorek!

Though the Penguin is a true Dodger legend, his second year card also ups the tab much more than one would hope.

The list goes on and on, with high priced rookie card cameos and high numbers (pre-1974) selling on par with Hall of Famers. My solution at the moment is to proceed full speed ahead on the 1970s but hold off on any earnest attempts from 1958-1969 even as I’ll happily scoop up the occasional dollar common from those early years.

1975, PART ONE: BEWARE OF MINIS

Beware?? I know many of you love the mini set, and hey, I’m not saying I don’t. I’m just not there yet. Still, in the process of building my standard 1975 Dodgers team set, I’ve opened two different eBay envelopes only to find mini versions inside. One goof was on me for not fully reading the description; the other was a goof of the seller, who forgot to include “mini” in the listing. Either way, the lesson learned is you can’t tell a mini from the picture alone…unless that picture is of your binder!

1975, PART TWO: DARN THOSE WORLD SERIES CARDS!

When I was seeding my 1975 Dodgers set at Dave’s place, I went off the team checklist at Trading Card Database. Not wanting to take up too much of his time, I barely looked at each card as I pulled it from the box. It was not till I got home that I realized the five season cards I grabbed all had a common theme: DODGERS LOSE!

If I had it to do all over again, I might have passed on every single one of these cards. Of course the thinking changes once cards are already in hand, at which point you almost have no choice but to add them to the binder. Soon enough I was able to soften the blow by adding the NLCS and WS Game 2 cards, both reflecting Dodger victories.

1975, PART THREE: THEY PLAYED WHERE?!

As mentioned, the Trading Card Database team checklist was my source for which cards to buy from Dave or subsequently seek out elsewhere. The problem is I only looked at the Los Angeles Dodgers, meaning none of these four cards made the cut.

Naturally, it won’t be a big deal to chase these cards down. I just feel stilly that I whiffed on the chance to do so when they were right in front of me.

HOW MANY GARVEY ROOKIES DO I NEED?

When I was at Dave’s I was pleasantly surprised to find a Garvey rookie in with his 1971 Topps partial set. Knowing this would be one of the most expensive cards I’d be buying that day, I had to think for a minute whether I really needed the card. After all, I already had two of them.

One was at my office as part of my framed Steve Garvey display. The other was hanging on my wall at home as part of my “Top 100” display.

Cards 51-100 of my “Top 100” display

In case you haven’t already guessed, my conclusion was YES, I definitely would need a third Garv for my burgeoning 1970s Topps Dodgers binder. What exactly would an acceptable alternative even be?!

Fortunately, I was able to side-step a similar quandary with what is actually the NL Iron Man’s most expensive card, his 1972 high number. Until fairly recently I only had one of these, and it resided in my office display. Fortunately, my wife gave me a second one for Fathers Day, signed no less, and I was able to add it to my 1970s Dodgers binder where it looks fantastic.

A LITTLE TIMES A LOT IS…A LOT!

The final lesson learned was one of basic mathematics. Even with most cards averaging a dollar or so, a decade of Dodgers is still a good 300 cards. The result is that all these little bargains quickly add up to much more than it would take to add a banger like this one to my collection.

NO REGRETS

Despite the minor pitfalls along the way, I am really enjoying this new project. For one thing, I feel like these are sets I should have. (How could I take myself seriously as a Dodger collector if I didn’t even have a 1976 Manny Mota card?) For another thing, it is a treat to flip through the binder and see a team of “oldtimers” like Willie Davis and Maury Wills evolve into the squad of Garvey, Cey, Lopes, and Russell that I worshipped as a kid.

Finally, and this is no small thing, it’s hard to take on a project like this and not end up with some doubles. If you’re lucky, they’ll be as beat up as mine!

“¡Yo la tengo!” – Fact Check

Topps 1960 Card #543

Elio Chacón

If you are not familiar with former major leaguer Elio Chacón welcome to the club. I was not aware that Elio played a total of 228 games in the majors from 1960 to 1962 with the Reds and Mets until very recently.

Topps only issued two mainstream cards of Elio. Card number #543 in 1960 when he was a rookie with the Reds and card number #256 in 1962 when he was with the Mets. The 1962 card is an airbrushed, no cap, Reds photo that features Hall of Famer Frank Robinson in the background. If you do a search on eBay you will also find a 1967 “Venezuelan Topps” card, a Venezuela Sport Gráfico Ovenca card produced in 1970, and a Venezuelan Show card with the same photo Topps used in 1962.

Topps 1962 Card #256

Born in Caracas, Venezuela, Elio is remembered in Cincinnati for hitting a single off Ralph Terry in Game 2 of the 1961 World Series and then scoring the winning run in the Reds only victory in the Series. In New York, fans remember Elio for getting into a base-brawl with Willie Mays and the “Yo la tengo” incident.

Here is recap of the “Yo la tengo” incident from Elio’s Wikipedia bio. You will also find similar descriptions of the incident in these two books – Richie Ashburn Remembered by Fran Zimniuch – and Richie Ashburn…Why the Hall Not? by Bruce E. Mowday and Jim Donahue.

During the 1962 season, New York Mets center fielder Richie Ashburn and Chacón frequently found themselves colliding in the outfield. When Ashburn went for a catch, he would scream, “I got it! I got it!” only to run into the 160-pound Chacón, who spoke only Spanish. Ashburn learned to yell, “¡La tengo! ¡La tengo!” which is “I’ve got it” in Spanish. In a later game, Ashburn happily saw Chacón backing off. He relaxed, positioned himself to catch the ball, and was instead run over by 200-pound left fielder Frank Thomas, who understood no Spanish and had missed a team meeting that proposed using the words “¡La tengo!” as a way to avoid outfield collisions. After getting up, Thomas asked Ashburn, “What the hell is a Yellow Tango?”. The band, Yo La Tengo, gets its name from this baseball anecdote.

Topps 1963 Richie Ashburn #135 and Topps 1964 Frank Thomas #345

The above story fits in seamlessly with the other hilarious stories from the first year Mets who were managed by Casey Stengel and finished the 1962 season with only 40 wins – but did it actually happen?

Pittsburgh Road Trip

In early July, I went on a road trip from my home near Boston to Pittsburgh. I had planned out a baseball heavy vacation with my two travelling partners – my daughter and her boyfriend. We toured the Clemente Museum, took in a game at PNC Park, snapped pictures in front of the remaining sections of the Forbes Field wall, and pretended we were Smokey Burgess at the site that marks where home plate was at Forbes Field.

Meeting with Frank Thomas

The highlight of my baseball vacation was an in-person meeting with Frank Thomas “The Original One” at his home in Pittsburgh on July 4th. Frank and I have been trading letters back and forth since 2019. We also have had a couple of phone conversations. I told Frank shortly after his 93rd birthday that I was coming to Pittsburgh and would like to see him. He was fine with an in-person meeting. I was expecting the visit to be no more than 20 minutes. My daughter and I had a wonderful time speaking with Frank about his playing days and our families for 90 minutes. He let me record the conversation so I could some of the baseball stories.

My first question was – “Tell me about the Yo la tengo story?”

Frank’s answer – “It never happened. Richie made it up. I couldn’t catch them. Richie played centerfield. I played left field. Chacon played shortstop. I never even came close to them. When he was an announcer in Philadelphia, he made up stories that’s all. Like all great announcers do. All fictitious.”

During our visit Frank mentioned that the Mets called him up and wanted his measurements for a uniform for the Old Timers game on August 27th. “The Original One” is going to be at Citi Field on the 60th anniversary of the 1962 original Mets. I told him I would be there. I already have my tickets.

The Milwaukee Racing Sausages

There are many mascot races in the major and minor leagues these days, but it all began at Milwaukee County Stadium on June 27, 1993, when a modest scoreboard animation suddenly burst into live action on the playing field.

That Sunday afternoon, the original Klement’s Famous Sausages—the Bratwurst, the Polish and the Italian—surged out from behind the left field fence and began running haphazardly toward home plate, weaving uncertainly back and forth in their seven-feet from head to knee lederhosen, red-and-blue striped koszulka, and tall chef’s hat.  

Brainchild of Milwaukee graphic designer Michael Dillon of McDill Design, the racers were an instant hit with the 45,580 Brewer fans in attendance.  At first, the races were only held on dates when a big crowd was expected. Later, the races occurred every Sunday.  Finally, they became a ritual between the sixth and seventh innings at every game.  In the mid-1990s, a Hot Dog was added to the County Stadium line-up.  A fifth sausage, the Chorizo, later broke into the regular line-up.

Topps Between Innings, 2014 BI-6, Famous Racing Sausages

The races continued after the Brewers moved to the then-named Miller Park.  On July 9, 2003, Pittsburgh first baseman Randall Simon took a playful tap of the bat at the back of the Italian Sausage as the runners passed the third-base visitor’s dugout.  The poke knocked the mascot to the ground, and the hot dog tripped over the fallen racer.  Young women were playing the role of each racer.  Both suffered cuts and bruises.

Sheriffs at the ballpark took a dim view of Simon’s interference and launched a criminal investigation.  Judicial proceedings ended with a $342 fine levied against the Pirate for disorderly conduct.  Major League Baseball elbowed into the act and suspended Simon for three days.  

Topps Heritage, 2003 156, Randall Simon

Despite the Simon incident, a friendly rivalry evolved between the Sausages and the Pierogies of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the two mascot teams now face off with each other in an annual home and away relay race.

Topps Between Innings, 2014 BI-2, Pierogi Race

But don’t expect anything similar with the Racing Presidents of the Washington Nationals.  There’s some bad blood between the mascots, with the Presidential team mocking the Milwaukee originals as cardboard  “Un-talian sausage,” “No-lish Sausage,” “Not-Dog,” “Not-Wurst,” and “Choriz-No.”

No matter.  The Racing Presidents baseball card is the ugliest baseball card produced so far in the 21st century.

Topps Team Traditions and Celebrations, 2018 TTC-PR, Racing Presidents

Revisiting the 1973 Set – The Ugliest Topps Baseball Set Ever

In my last blog post about the 1973 set I stated that I was 50 cards shy of a complete set. Over the past two years I have picked up all but one of the cards needed to complete my set.

With the recent release of the 2022 Topps Heritage cards that are patterned after the 1973 set, I felt it would be a good time to share some additional thoughts about the set.

The Good

With the election of Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat earlier this year the total number of Hall of Famers pictured on base cards and manger cards is an impressive 40. Hall of Fame coaches with chopped off ears are not included in my total.

The Terry Crowley card was one of the missing 50 that I purchased. I feel that the photo would have been a much better choice than the one Topps used on the 1973 card of Thurman Munson.

One of the major problems that I have with this set – the lack brightness and pop with regards to the photos of the players – is actually a benefit for Through The Mail (TTM) autograph collectors like myself – since just about every card is a good one to send to players to sign if you are a fan of nice, visible signatures.

The Bad

In this section I am going to just focus on some of the 50 cards that I acquired to complete my set.

For the Jim Fregosi card we have another photo of a player popping up. It is a bad photo – but not as bad as the memories it brings back of how bad the Nolan Ryan for Jim Fregosi trade really was.

Picked up a few more “could be anyone” cards due to the afternoon action shots created by high contrast situations that shaded the faces of the player or action shots with too little player information (no uniform numbers, no names on jerseys).

The Ugly

The Checklists are terrible. These ugly cards looked like they were designed in under 5 minutes. For comparison purposes I have included below what I feel is one of best checklist cards produced by Topps.

Two Great Cards

There are two great cards in this set. The Roberto Clemente card (which I mentioned in my first blog post about this set) and the Pat Corrales Card.

The current Topps management team thought so highly of the Clemente card that they included a reprint of the 1973 card in the base 2022 Heritage set.

There have been numerous blog posts and twitter mentions about the Pat Corrales card since the action shot features Hall of Fame pitcher – Ferguson Jenkins – sliding into home and upending Corrales. Jenkins was called out on the play, but if you watch the replay it looks like Corrales missed the tag.

1973 was not the last time that Corrales and Jenkins were on a Topps card together. Pat Corrales was the manager of the Texas Rangers from 1978 to 1980. Corrales and Jenkins appeared together again on the 1979 and 1980 Texas Rangers Team cards.

A Nice 1973 Tribute Card

One of the nicest cards from the Project 70 set was the Roberto Clemente card by Mimsbandz. The card utilizes the 1973 design and features four embroidered scenes from Roberto’s September 30, 1972, game where he collected hit number 3,000.

The Last Card

So, what is the last card I need to finish the set? It is not the Mike Schmidt rookie card. It is the 5th Series Checklist card – number 588. If you include shipping charges unmarked examples of this card are going for over $50 on eBay currently. Slabbed examples range in price from $90 to $339. I refuse to spend over $50 for a checklist – especially an ugly one.

While we are talking checklists, does anyone else think it is crazy that people are sending in checklists to get slabbed?

Topps in 1972, Part 10

Editor’s note: SABR Baseball Cards welcomes new member F. Scott Wilkinson with the final installment of his 10 articles on the 1972 Topps set, now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Click here to start the series from the beginning.

 

I have explained many times that I am, by Profession, a Gambler—not some jock-sniffing nerd or a hired human squawk-box with the brain of a one-cell animal. No. That would be your average career sportswriter—and, more specifically, a full-time Baseball writer.

—Hunter S. Thompson

On the way to accumulating all 787 cards of the ’72 series I dove in and soaked up as much hobby knowledge as possible. As much as I’d been into collecting as a boy before long it became obvious that I knew nothing about any of the finer points. Good grief, is there ever a lot to learn…

Traditionally, cards with numbers ending in “00” or “50” are reserved for the most iconic players, though naturally not all selections have aged well. For 1972 there’s an interesting time capsule of 15 such cards, including: Willie Mays In Action (#50), Frank Robinson (#100), Norm Cash (#150), Lou Brock (#200), Boog Powell (#250), Hank Aaron In Action (#300), Frank Howard (#350), Tony Oliva (#400), Mickey Lolich (#450), Joe Torre (#500), Brooks Robinson (#550), Al Kaline (#600), Sal Bando (#650), Bobby Murcer In Action (#700), and Willie Horton (#750). Considering the year, it looks like Orioles are appropriately represented, Tigers are overrepresented, and pitchers and Pirates are underrepresented. Roberto Clemente (#309) for Sal Bando or Willie Horton, anyone?

Lower-numbered cards are more common while higher cards tend to be more rare and valuable/expensive, though I did happily find many decent high numbered cards in my spotty boyhood collection. Reportedly many regions of the country just never received higher series cards.

As with numismatics, the grade of “good” is a misnomer – about the worst grade there is – though “fair” and “poor” are valid too. Venders will note that those lesser grades are “just so you can say you have a card” – they’re placeholders, and barely worth the paper they’re printed on. Early on, Willie Stargell (#447) got tossed into the recycling bin – regrettable and maybe foolish, but the card was so warped and bloated from water damage I had to say goodbye. Tough to know where to draw the line though. Sorry, Willie.

An incorrigible collector/space filler from way back, I got lost in searching for the best deals…trying to be disciplined and unemotional, patient and thorough…which isn’t easy when all you want is to instantly have these things in your hands so you can turn them over and over and stare at them. At first it was fun to buy random large lots of cards to get the ‘best’ value (at that point I was thinking “Okay, about a dollar a card—not too bad…”), but the shine wore off soon as it sank in that many cards vendors sent were (perhaps) thin fakes or otherwise comically off-center, with rounded, fuzzy corners, frayed edges, and faded print on the back due to aging/oxidation or “paper loss”. The broad appeal of sports cards almost invites all kinds of creative ways to damage them.

They can have gum, wax, water, oil or tape stains, pencil/ink writing, staple holes, divots or indentations, blisters, rubber band constriction marks, and innumerable other blemishes caused by careless handling. Bernie Carbo (#463) arrived wearing one of those ’70’s style punch labels on his back and there it remains after inducing a tear. Don’t think I revisited that vendor. Maybe worst of all is a crease (or “wrinkle”), both soft (showing on one side or the other) and hard (showing on both sides). Then you read about card trimming, presumably to enhance centering and pricing. Really? Isn’t that a petty, chintzy scam! One could just measure the dimensions of the card in question…though by then the seller may be long gone.

Here are just a few of the bad things that can happen with your cards…

Miscut (Dock Ellis, #179), staining (Ken Wright, #638), pen marks (Ross Grimsley back, #99).

Sticker added (Bernie Carbo, #463), paper loss and bent corners (Hal McRae, #291), offset printing (Ross Grimsley, #99).

Hard crease (1st Series Checklist, #4), blister/mystery blemish (John Odom, #557), rubber band constriction marks (Steve Huntz, #73).

For me eventually very good, fine, and even “Excellent” cards weren’t satisfying enough…usually due to creases, stains, dog-ear corners and/or off centering…so then you go for “Near Mint” or “Mint.” Who would guess that over the course of a lifetime one could go from putting “In-Action” cards into bike spokes to obsessing about centering and perfect corners? Not me, until now.

After buying loads of cards I started to receive free ones tacked onto orders from familiar online vendors, a nice show of goodwill for being a reliable customer. Most of them were cheesy, value-less, but hey – they’re free, so no complaints. But speaking of “cheesy” – how about two Topps “Chrome” cards from 2001 —Roberto Alomar (#365) and Omar Vizquel (#452), featuring outdated cartoon caricature Indians logo and unavoidable reflection of phone and fingers.

Then along came a 1991 Fleer Dwight Evans (#93) and a 1996 Upper Deck Jim Abbott (#292) – pretty sweet.

One time it was a 1983 Donruss card featuring the “The (San Diego) Chicken”(#645)—okay. Another was a 1985 Fleer card of Al Oliver (#U-84) wearing number “0” and looking serious in a Dodgers uniform— very cool.

There was even a 1990 Upper Deck card of a thin, mustachioed Edgar Martinez (#532) when he still played third base for the Mariners—nice!  The most generous gift was 15 Fleer cards from the charmed 1986 Mets team that won the World Series from the Red Sox, including Series MVP Ray Knight (#86). Much appreciated.

One of the latest freebees was a 4955 MFWD John Deere Tractor card (#D26) from 1994—oh boy. But still, I’ll keep it. I have to thank these kind vendors – it was eye-opening to be exposed to such a variety of brands and realize that Topps is just one facet of the sports card landscape.

All in all good luck has been had with online purchases, aside from a few mistakes like not reading the fine print (“Photo is a stock image”) and getting stuck with a crappy card I didn’t get to evaluate. They might send reprints rather than originals—not easily proven but hopefully not too commonplace either, at least with the hobby faithful. Eventually a black light will need to be had to help see if we’ve ever been swindled.

The only gripe I have is minor, but consistent: damn, do most vendors use way too much tape when packing the things up! That would be fine if it was some gentle non-stick tape, but it always seems to bleed tree sap onto a pristine sleeve to keep a card from teleporting out during its travels…or they create a packing tape fortress, covering the entire outside of the package with the infernal stuff. Some seem booby-trapped to keep you from the precious cargo…it’s just beyond the next plastic sleeve, rubber band, or cardboard sheath. But hey – the packages never show up bent so if that’s the worst thing about the process, so be it. Overall I’ve been treated like family, especially by my more reliable eBay sources like The Baseball Card Exchange, The Battersbox, Dean’s Cards, 4SharpCorners, and Sirius Sports Cards) as well as most all of the smaller operations out there, run by studious folks who just seem to love the hobby.

It’s worth mentioning that sometimes the process of finding well-centered cards can be maddening, if you care about that sort of thing. Evaluating the yin and yang of horizontal versus vertical centering is almost a science unto itself. After scouring enough versions of the same card it became evident that certain cards of the highest grade are either temporarily unavailable, exceedingly rare and unrealistically expensive, or simply do not exist and maybe never did. Cards like Dave Campbell (#384), Gil Hodges (#465), Bobby Murcer (#699), Jim Kaat (#709), Ken Aspromonte (#784), and the In Action series in general (e.g., Reggie Jackson (#436)), among many others (e.g., Bert Campaneris (#75), Rennie Stennett (#219), Ken Singleton (#425), Steve Kline (#467) – argh!). Well, the better players and higher numbered cards are pricey, but you can get a light-hitting lower-numbered Campbell in near mint for a few bucks (Sorry, “Soup”!). Here are a few unfortunate duds:

It’s always a trade-off – do you want perfect centering, or crisp corners? What about the print quality and clarity and brightness of the colors? Ultimately it’s almost impossible to find the best of everything in the same card unless you’re willing to pay top dollar, so eventually you settle on something available that passes the eye test and move on.

Speaking of “top dollar”, it’s flummoxing how these things can have any real worth. Unlike gold or other precious metals, they can’t be intrinsically valuable in any way—they’re only paper and ink. I remember hearing about how the bottom fell out of the sports card market in the early 1990’s and thinking, “who cares?”…but values are cresting again these days and even relatively common cards like these are being sold at amazingly high prices. I care now! They’re worth something to someone, the sole requirement for anything to have value.

Example: Probably the most prized 1972 Topps card is an airbrushed Angels/Mets pinstripes Nolan Ryan (#595), and in PSA 9 (mint) condition I’ve seen it listed for as much as $5,999.00, though the vendor may settle for the “best offer.” And you have to think that at some point someone may have paid more than that for a particularly nice one.

So, one must wonder: how can this be? Works of art may sell for millions of dollars – they’re mere canvas and paint, but created by a renowned artist. The most valuable numismatic coins are thin chunks of metal amalgams, but they have specific (low) mintages, making them desirable. Bullion is only metal too, but has intrinsic value – some elements are uncommon and precious. Diamonds are miraculously rare. With this pursuit though…how can there be any real value in cardboard? How can so much money be exchanged for pressed paper slabs when at one time they sold for pennies alongside a stick of bubblegum? These things have no serial numbers…how easy would it be to make a forgery? And if you didn’t know one was a fake, how and why would that matter?

Tough questions, but let’s at least take a shot at distilling down that elusive concept of “value”. Turns out these cardboard gems are much more than just valuable – they’re priceless.

As I’ve tried to explain to a fellow baseball aficionado (a diehard Red Sox fan, who watched miserably when he was 13 years old as Bob Gibson dominated his team in the 1967 World Series), sports cards may be more valuable than gold or diamonds or any other worldly thing because unlike those objects these fleshy old cards are personal. They hold and stir memories, and memories don’t equate with money. Each snapshot is stamped with a certain time and then endures through time, or at least for as long as one can remember. In turn, those memories jog feelings… and aside from knowledge gained feelings may be the most profound, real, persistent, and valuable things that we ever experience and have to hold on to. They live in our blood as much as our minds.

Plus, these days these cards are antique keepsakes – cool niche relics from half a century ago, finite in number. That must count.

Maybe that’s all there is to it, and maybe not. All I know is that these days I feel more like an energized, optimistic little kid again, one who couldn’t care less about Little Ricky and his pilfering of my cardboard friends so many years ago.

Valuable or not, the truth is I love everything about these cards. The way they feel in my hands. The way they look. The obscure statistics, geographical info, and nostalgic trivia on the backs. The fantastic fashion and trademark styles of 1972. All the heroes of my youth. They were there at that impressionable age when the boy fell in love with baseball and started buying his first packs of cards, so they’ll always be the sentimental favorite. More than anything it’s about all those warm, eye-candy colors and that funky, festive vibe they shout out all 787 times. Unless you feel similarly it’s not easy to explain how these things are tethered to the soul.

It took about five months to acquire the whole set, then about five months later I took them off the shelf and began to pore through the albums, unexpectedly finding exactly 50 that were horribly centered. After replacing those, I started over at card #1 and found many more that were troubling, with fuzzy gray corners, creases, stains, and iffy centering. How did I miss them the time before? After that time through I started at the beginning again and found that standards had risen even higher so that about every other one looked replaceable. Sheesh. So here we go again…

But why? Is the goal to have the world’s ‘best’ collection of 1972 Topps baseball cards? Maybe. Let’s just call it the Collector’s Conundrum. We all have different standards and reasons for loving the hobby and ultimately we curate, caretake, and enjoy them our way before leaving the hoard behind as treasure for someone else to discover.

As of this writing at least two-thirds of the worst looking cards have been swapped out and as the eyes adjust it seems like there’ll always be one or two more that aren’t quite up to snuff. In fact, the other day (over two years after beginning the 1972 Topps Project) I went through everything yet again to make sure all the cards had individual plastic sleeves and found over 100 more that are off-center, have bad edges, divots, little creases, nicked corners, or small stains. Astounding. The process has been a little like upgrading from stereo to a googlephonic system with a moon rock needle and realizing it still “sounds like shit“.

When will it ever be finished? When is enough, enough? A fuzzy–edged card is fine, right? Doesn’t that get the point across? Well of course…especially if it’s a T206 Honus Wagner, but boy, there’s nothing like a clean, well-centered card with four sharp corners. Remember, many of them are works of art and deserve perfect framing. And let’s face it, collectors never finish – this and everything else are just fun works in progress until time’s up.

Sometimes I think that none of them really matter and yet all of them matter—the “Good” all the way up to the “Mint.” Every one is a treasure and for now I’m at peace with being stuck in or around 1972, probably the only series I’ll bother to fully assemble…though those colorful 1975s are starting to look better and better. Everything from neighboring, earlier, and even later years is more interesting too.

Somehow I’ve managed to get ahold of all 51 Hall-of-Famers from the 1972 series (plus Pete Rose), encapsulated in plastic PSA cases, most graded ‘8 – NM-Mint”, with some 7’s and a few 9’s. Then the thing was acquiring full teams of my favorites as winners – the 1966 and 1970 Orioles and the 1975, 1976, and 1990 Reds. After that came PSA 8’s of the entire 1972 Reds squad. Next may be collecting cards from every year of a player’s career. Guys like Joe Morgan, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Dock Ellis, Nolan Ryan, Luis Tiant, Bob Gibson and/or Henry Aaron. Oy vey. Better not give up the day job.

Serendipitously, I’ve been reacquainted with a rich, fascinating hobby that will entertain, energize, and educate this boy until the end of days. As a reasonably present husband, father, brother and son, cards can hold only one bit of attention…but what a great library to have when there’s time to go peruse ’em for fun. And joining SABR has been a joyful discovery of long lost brothers and sisters I never knew I had – people who are just as fascinated by this stuff…and know infinitely more. Perfect!

From here we’ll just keep working on what the unexpected detour has taught us up to now: Default to a smile whenever possible. Grudges aren’t worth holding, no matter how many cards of any kind are involved. Be ready for joy to find you when you least expect it. Keep on learning and having fun. Look back in time occasionally, but not too often and not for long. Focus forward and cultivate a kind, curious, and open mind. Pay attention. Try to do better all the time. Always be on the lookout for new friends.

Why focus on pain and losses when there’s so much to be done and gained? As poet Oscar Wilde said, “Life is much too important to be taken seriously.” Sure, “Ricky’ll be Ricky,” and there’ll always be more thieving Ricks out there lying in wait—that’s their problem. Life goes on and on every day of every season. Best to get on with it.


That’s it – the final portion of an ode to baseball and the early 1970s in general, and to the Topps Company and the special 1972 set specifically. Thanks for the memories, Topps—both the old ones and the new ones!

This was written for everyone out there who loves the 1972 Topps baseball card set as much as I do (if that’s possible).

Dedicated to my sports-loving mom, Caroline B. Wilkinson, who never threw my cards away.

Also dedicated to all the players and managers from the 1972 Topps Series, especially those who passed during the writing of this article: Henry Aaron, Dick Allen, Ed Armbrister, Glenn Beckert, Larry Biittner, Hal Breeden, Lou Brock, Oscar Brown, Horace Clark, Gene Clines, Billy Conigliaro, Tommy Davis, Chuck Dobson, Paul Doyle, John Ellis, Ed Farmer, Ray Fosse, Bill Freehan, Bob Gibson, Jim Grant, Joe Horlen, Grant Jackson, Bart Johnson, Jerry Johnson, Jay Johnstone, Al Kaline, Lew Krausse, Angel Mangual, Mike Marshall, Denis Menke, Lindy McDaniel, Roger Moret, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, Bob Oliver, Don Pavletich, Ron Perranoski, Juan Pizzaro, J. R. Richard, Mike Ryan, Tom Seaver, Richie Scheinblum, Rennie Stennett, Bill Sudakis, Don Sutton, Tony Taylor, Dick Tidrow, Bill Virdon, Bob Watson, Stan Williams, and Jim Wynn.

Special thanks to Baseball-Almanac.com, Baseballhall.org, Baseball-Reference.com, the Trading Card Database, and Wikipedia for all that data.

Extra special thanks to Larry Pauley, Jason Schwartz, and Nick Vossbrink  for their kind help, patience, and encouragement.

“Designated” as Designated Hitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Topps covers politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Topps in 1972, Part 9

Editor’s note: SABR Baseball Cards welcomes new member F. Scott Wilkinson with the ninth of his ten articles on the 1972 Topps set, now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Click here to start the series from the beginning.

I have explained many times that I am, by Profession, a Gambler—not some jock-sniffing nerd or a hired human squawk-box with the brain of a one-cell animal. No. That would be your average career sportswriter—and, more specifically, a full-time Baseball writer.”

—Hunter S. Thompson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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


Part of my ode to baseball and the early 1970s in general, and to the Topps Company and the special 1972 set specifically. Thanks for the memories, Topps—both the old ones and the new ones! Apologies for the pronounced wordiness, but the 50th anniversary of the set warrants some indulgence.

Dedicated to my sports-loving mom, Caroline B. Wilkinson, who never threw my cards away, and to all the players from the 1972 Topps Series, especially those who passed during the writing of this article: Henry Aaron, Dick Allen, Ed Armbrister, Glenn Beckert, Larry Biittner, Hal Breeden, Lou Brock, Oscar Brown, Horace Clark, Gene Clines, Billy Conigliaro, Tommy Davis, Chuck Dobson, Paul Doyle, John Ellis, Ed Farmer, Ray Fosse, Bill Freehan, Bob Gibson, Jim Grant, Joe Horlen, Grant Jackson, Bart Johnson, Jerry Johnson, Jay Johnstone, Al Kaline, Lew Krausse, Angel Mangual, Mike Marshall, Denis Menke, Lindy McDaniel, Roger Moret, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, Bob Oliver, Don Pavletich, Ron Perranoski, Juan Pizzaro, J. R. Richard, Mike Ryan, Tom Seaver, Richie Scheinblum, Rennie Stennett, Bill Sudakis, Don Sutton, Tony Taylor, Dick Tidrow, Bill Virdon, Bob Watson, Stan Williams, and Jim Wynn.

Special thanks to Baseball-Almanac.com, Baseballhall.org, Baseball-Reference.com, and Wikipedia.com for kindly compiling and sharing their vast treasure troves of data.

Extra special thanks to Jason Schwartz and Nick Vossbrink  for their timely encouragement and warm welcome into the SABR community.

Much gratitude to Mr. Larry Pauley, who gave this project direction when there was none.

Donut hole

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

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

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

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

*Apologies if this post makes anyone feel super old.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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