At home with John Orton

John Orton popped up again the other day.

Not in the sense of skying one to the second baseman. Rather, I mean he resurfaced. Came to the top.

He doesn’t live with the rest of my baseball cards — he lives on countertops, or on the edges of bookshelves — and it’s common for him to just show up every so often, like a wild cat wandering from time to time into the yard of a farmhouse.

# # # # #

I found him in the fall of 2018, or perhaps the spring of 2019; the circumstances would have been the same at either point.

IMG_E3767

I was jogging in Walpole, Massachusetts, near the two-room apartment where I’d moved after taking a new job in Boston in September 2018. My wife and younger son were still in Pennsylvania, with plans to sell our house there and join me in New England after the school year ended.

Most of the time between September 2018 and June 2019, I was either on a train headed to or from the city for work, or on a highway driving to or from Pennsylvania so I could spend a weekend packing, cleaning, and reminding my family what I looked like. What little time was left was spent in the two-room apartment, which my younger son christened the Sad Dad Pad. (Perhaps sensing that this cut a little close to the bone, he renamed it the Dad Cave, which it remained.)

Back to the jog: I was probably looking down, gauging a bumpy and unfamiliar stretch of sidewalk, when I saw John Orton — 1991 Topps Stadium Club #591, to be precise. The Doug Drabek card from the same set was sitting nearby, in similar condition, and a shuffling of additional weather-worn cards were spread further out in the yard.

I didn’t feel comfortable going into some stranger’s yard to look at the other cards. But John Orton (and Doug Drabek, who vanishes from the narrative hereafter) was right next to the sidewalk. So I picked him up. If some little kid didn’t want the company of the former Angels backstop, I’d take it.

As it turned out, we had something in common. I was the New Guy In The Office, trying to prove myself, and so was he.

IMG_E3764

It’s possible that John Orton and his comrades were lost, not intentionally thrown away. But I tend to think they were discarded. There were enough cards in the yard to make me think that any half-attentive owner would have noticed the absence of their bulk and volume if they’d been dropped by mistake.

No, instead, I figured some kid had bought a repack of cards, or had been gifted some old cards by a friendly uncle, and had decided to shed the ones he didn’t like — perhaps while walking from one house to another, flicking the wrist, the way one would casually discard the wrapper of a candy bar eaten in transit.

Some cards had blown farther from the sidewalk. Others had stayed where they fell. And a few went home with me — such as “home” was. I didn’t have a whole lot of counter space, but John Orton claimed some of it, wedged onto a sort of kitchen “eating bar” area where my computer lived.

# # # # #

The move worked out in the end. All the usual hurdles and speed bumps presented themselves, but the rest of the family moved to Massachusetts and rejoined me under a new roof as planned, and the sale of the house in Pennsylvania closed a month or two later. (I breathe multiple sighs of thanks and relief each day that we tackled this maneuver in 2018-2019, and not a year later.)

I probably gave some thought to chucking John Orton as I cleaned out the Dad Cave — him being emblematic of a time now over, and all that. But I kept him. I’ve never been one to throw out cards, not even teams I don’t like or players I don’t care about.

I should probably think about filing him in the boxes and binders that house the rest of my cards. “John Orton finally finds a home” would be a nice sentimental conclusion, I suppose.

But for now he’s still an outside cat, so to speak, living on countertops and desktops, getting buried by paper ephemera and then coming up again with each new cleaning. I think he fits nicely in that role, to serve as an intermittent reminder to both of us to be thankful for how life has improved since the day we met.

To An Athlete Dying Old

I haven’t wanted to write about Tom Seaver.

One reason is that there have already been great pieces about his meaning to, and effect on, those who loved him. Mark Armour wrote one of the best, right here on this blog. Another reason is that I get too emotional. I participated in a podcast Hillel Kuttler did with several Seaver fans and broke down twice in the few minutes I had.

Still, Seaver is on my mind daily. It’s easy to say the pat things – “He was great!” “He made me a Mets fan,” “I lost a piece of my childhood when I heard he died.” They’re all valid sentiments. None of them capture what he meant to me, and I won’t claim to capture all of it right now.

Certain athletes (and musicians, and actors, and other celebrities) strike deep and make a home in one’s soul. They provide a thru line in your own life story and, if you’re lucky, make you think about things, big things, like how to perceive the sport you love, how to truly appreciate the art of sports and the skill, how to carry yourself with intelligence, courage, humor and self-awareness, remaining true to your very essence, while simultaneously giving of yourself in the public arena. Tom Seaver showed me the way and was a worthy guide, from my beginnings to his end.

I was lucky to have a long chat with Seaver once at a Hall of Fame cocktail party. After his rookie year, he told me he drove Nancy to Cooperstown to see the Hall. He wanted to show her Mathewson, Johnson, all the greats that he knew about and drove him. He wanted her to see what was so important to him.

All that was to follow his 1967 season. By the time this card came out, late in the summer, he was well on his way to Rookie of the Year, the future so bright, and so long, for him and all of us.

I first came to Cooperstown in the summer of ‘73. By then, six plus years into his career, Tom Seaver was on his way to another Cy Young and another World Series. He had already made his presence felt in my own life. I was almost 11 years old, a Scholastic Book Club Seaver poster in my room, multiple Seaver books already read, my first letter to a player having been sent, to him, after Leron Lee had broken up a no-hitter in 1972, my first autographed picture returned. Neither of us knew what was lurking four years hence, a heart breaking trade that made me shift my entire focus on baseball to the players who played it and liberated me from team-based fandom (which, in all ways, lead to the writing of Split Season). A triumphant 300th win in Yankee Stadium, the first event I ever bought scalped tickets for. Then, for me, a move to Cooperstown and two memorable interactions with him and Nancy.

At the time of my first visit to the Hall, Chick Hafey had recently died and there were flowers on his plaque. I never dreamed I’d see those flowers around Tom. Yet there they are, his life, and ours, whizzing by like a Seaver fastball, with the unpredictable movement of a Seaver slider.

Back Story: 1971 Topps

Note: This is Part V of a series focusing primarily on the material featured on the backs of baseball cards (previous articles featured the 1956 Topps, 1960 Topps, 1954 Topps/Bowman and 1955 Topps-Bowman sets).

A popular set among collectors, the 1971 Topps baseball card set was truly innovative, offering something a little different on both the front and back sides of the cards. The fronts of the 752-card set—at the time, the biggest ever—featured a black-bordered motif, as exemplified by card No. 100, Pete Rose, and No. 600, Willie Mays.

This was a striking design. But for collectors interested in a card’s condition, the set offered two obvious challenges:

  • With a black, rather than a white, border, any imperfections on the edges showed up much more clearly than on a traditional white-bordered card
  • Unless the card was perfectly centered—and good luck finding perfectly-centered cards—there was usually either too much, or too little, of that slim black border on the left or right side of the card

But hey, this was 1971, and who ever thought people would be shelling out big bucks for baseball cards in mint (or near-mint) condition? Give Topps props for changing things up… and that was even more true of their design of the back side of the 1971 set. For the first time since 1962, Topps eschewed the by-now-standard year-by-year stat line for each player, instead providing the numbers for only the previous season, along with the player’s career totals. With more available room, Topps added a headshot of the player. These headshots came in several styles. Sometimes the shot had a little background; like clouds, trees or the stands of a stadium; No. 450, Bob Gibson, is a good example.

The backgrounds could be a little distracting; more effective were headshots with just the sky as a background. A good example is No. 501, Andy Etchebarren, whose “Wolf-man”-inspired eyebrows offer the viewer enough of a distraction.

And finally, some of the “head” shots were exactly that: just the head, ma’am. The results are, well, interesting. To me, the shots of New York mainstays Tommie Agee (No. 310) and Horace Clarke (No. 715), look like a pair of balloons from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

Whatever their quality, the headshots on the backs of the 1971 cards let the collector know what the guy looked like… albeit via a small black-and-white shot of lower quality. Still, this gave Topps the freedom to do some experimenting on the card fronts. For the first time, the 1971 set replaced the standard posed shot on the front of many cards with a photo taken from major league game action. Way cool!

It was a nice innovation, and a number of these “player in action” shot are outstanding.
No. 118, Cookie Rojas, turning a double play, is a beauty. I also love the classic pitching motion of No. 520, Tommy John (better known in the Zminda household as “Johnny Tom”).

There are a number of excellent shots of players at bat. The afore-mentioned Andy Etchebarren swinging the bat is very nice, and No. 360, Jim Fregosi, is even better—a stunning action shot in horizontal format.

You can even do “Compare Batting Stances” with the horizontally-oriented cards of the Yankees’ Roy White (card No. 395) and Ron Woods (No. 514). The shots, pretty obviously taken from the same game, both include catcher Duane Josephson of the White Sox. (Pop quiz question: of this trio, who is the only one who does not yet have a SABR bio? Answer at the end of the article.)

However, Topps was brand-new at this action-shot stuff, and sometimes the photos lacked action, or contained needless distractions. Bob Gibson’s card has both problems. His card front shows him just standing on the mound between pitches, with his image dissolving into the crowd in the background. The action shot of No. 513, Nolan Ryan—in his last season with the Mets before being shunted off to Anaheim in a disastrous trade for Fregosi—also has a distraction problem: the pitching motion is nice, but the billboard in the background makes the card look more like an ad for Royal Crown Cola.

Ryan showed up again—this time as a spectator—on the card front of No. 355, Bud Harrelson. There is some nice activity at second base in the shot, with Harrelson tagging an Astro while the ump and the Mets second baseman look on. However, the action is shown from a distance; the foreground includes the back of Ryan’s uniform number as he watches from the mound. A little cropping (as shown below), and this would have been a much better shot, in my opinion.

But overall the action shots worked very well, and proved to be a hit with collectors. Less successful—on both the front and back sides of the cards—was how Topps dealt with the always-tricky issue of players who switched teams after their card photos had been taken. For the airbrushers, the Old English White Sox logo was a particular challenge. Not surprisingly, they had more success with the small black-and-white shots on the backs of the cards. (It’s also likely that some of the shots on the backs of the cards came from other sources for black-and-white headshots, like team media guides.) For Pat Kelly (No. 413) and future Harry Caray whipping boy Tom Egan (No. 537), Topps neatly avoided having to airbrush the cap of the photo on the front by using a shot looking up at the bill of the player’s cap. No logo to mess with!

For Rick Reichardt (among many others), Topps employed the familiar strategy of showing the player capless.

The airbrusher actually did a pretty fair job with the front of John Purdin’s (No. 748) card. As for Don O’Riley (No. 679)… not so much. Even the photo on the back of O’Riley’s card is pretty bad.

Of course, the White Sox were hardly the only challenge to Topps’ airbrushers. In a few cases, late roster moves left Topps with no time to airbrush logos onto either the front or back sides of the cards—resulting in a number of caps with no team logo at all. Jim Qualls (No. 731), forever immortal (and to some, notorious) as the man who ruined Tom Seaver’s 1969 perfect game bid, was dealt from Montreal to Cincinnati so late (March 31) that the back of his card still identifies him as “the Expos’ only switch-hitter.” For me, the red paint job on the on the front of Qualls’ card brought back memories of Holden Caulfield in his red hunting hat.

Marv Staehle (No. 663), signed by the Braves on April 3 after being released by Montreal, wound up looking like the guy who filled your tank at the Sunoco station on Route 23.

By 1971, “Rookie star” Archie Reynolds (No. 664), one of a trio of Reynolds rooks on the same card, had already seen brief action in three major league seasons, and he had been a part of the Angels’ organization since mid-1970. So what’s with that painted-on cap, Arch?

Dick Williams (No. 714) is an even bigger curiosity. Williams was named manager of the Oakland Athletics in late January of 1971, and Topps had time to utilize a non-airbrushed shot of Williams in the familiar white cap worn by A’s managers and coaches on the back of his card. So how did Williams wind up in the goofy green cap on the card front?

One final mystery. Topps had no worries about Hank Aaron (No. 400) changing teams… and surely they had more than a few Aaron images to choose from. Yet they somehow chose to use the same photo—nothing special, to be honest—on both sides of Bad Henry’s card.

Ah, but I protesteth too much; despite the occasional slip-ups, this is a wonderful card set. Both the front and back sides of the cards contain interesting innovations… and while the use of action shots is the primary innovation on the front side of the cards, there are some wonderful posed shots as well. Here are a few of my favorites.

Quiz answer: Ron Woods, who would be traded by the Yankees to the Expos in June of 1971 in exchange for former 1969 Mets hero Ron Swoboda, still awaits a SABR bio.

Oh, Oh, Oh Oh Jackie Blue

Grass cutting money is how it was paid for. One of the kids in the neighborhood knew a guy. He would come to the house with binders of the old stuff. We would peruse through and buy the goods. From this came my 1956 Jackie Robinson. It was a nice example of the last card from his playing days, probably Vg-Ex if you’re grading at home, good color, centered well. I was into card collecting, working on the new stuff and researching the old. It wasn’t as easy as it’s been the last 10–15 years with all the interweb and eBay and Twitter Trading and gargantuan national and regional card shows – once this Covid/Lockdown has run its course, or course, on the latter. Back then a young collector needed his old man’s or older brother’s cards or maybe his older sister’s current flame to possibly be a conduit for getting to the older stuff. Of those options, zippo came through for me. No brothers and since I was a bit of a surprise to my 40 year old parents and soon to be graduating high school sister in May of 1965 that left the mid to late 70’s barren in terms of getting the prized shoe box passed down. Reneta Galasso ad ads in Baseball Digest. Left to my own devices it was the two local drug stores for Topps, the Winn-Dixie for Hostess and Kellogg’s and trading with other kids until word stated to spread about the Binder Guy.  Of course he seemed old in my eyes but was probably in his early 30’s back then and may have ended up being a local owner of one of the card shops that sprung up in Louisville in the early 80’s or worked the shows at the local malls and flea markets we would visit once driving gave the freedom to move around town.  It was those binders where I first saw and handled cards I’d only seen in my Sports Collectors Bible or in Reneta Galasso/Larry Frisch

laminate Back to the Jackie, that card in particular provided my first real hard lesson in life about unintended consequences resulting from poor decision making.  Why I had such a mental block as to the final outcome I cannot understand to this day but you can be sure that I am an ardent supporter of fully understanding a situation before acting. Laminate, that’s what it said “PROTECT Laminate in PLASTIC”, it read like a major advance for scientific progress as I stood there debating between the three choices I could make with my quarter. An NFL Mini Helmet, one of those Horoscope scrolls or the Laminate. starscroll Walking home with a 25 cent investment in the preservation of a then twenty two year old artifact was the act of a person wise beyond his years for Mr. Robinson would be preserved for the ages! There’s no suspense left, by now you have, no doubt, shook your head in disbelief.  This goofball actually laminated that card! Yep, I did it. Immediately the profound and irreversible error of my decision fell on me. A personal albatross around my neck, no need to wait for Iron Maiden’s 13 minute 45 second retelling of Coleridge’sThe Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in 1984, oh no! iron_maiden_-_powerslave The experience was mine then and there. Selling my collection of cards, including the entombed Jackie, in the Summer of 1983 to fund a not very exciting coming of age trip to Florida provided no exorcism either. To this day I can’t bring bring myself to fold, staple or mutilate a card. While @HeavyJ28 is doing his tremendous work of currently creating custom cards from existing cardboard to raise funds and awareness for some fine causes and museums, IMG_6738 this sweet Josh Gibson being an example, I “feel that old familiar pain”, to quote Dan Fogelberg, each time I see his scissors on Twitter. But as with baseball in general, there is always a shot at redemption and when our grandson was born on April 15th 2017 I purchased the card again, albeit in a socially acceptable form of sarcophagus this time.

IMG_6739

This one will be passed down in the proverbial shoe box to that grandson one future day along with an explanation of who Jackie Robinson was, the transcendent things he accomplished and why learning from your mistakes can pay greater dividends than the initial loss.  Still wish I would have went with the helmet.bucs helmet

Should a reader happen upon this post and currently have the card which they use as an example of idiots in action, please let me know, it calls to me even now. Which is both a Bob Seger and a Barry Manilow reference, but I probably shouldn’t mention that…

Lou Brock (1939–2020)

Baseball is a game which traditionally (if not stereotypically) is passed down from fathers to sons. My story is a little different. While I certainly have baseball memories shared with my dad, it was primarily my mom who passed the game on to me.

When I was six or seven years old, it was Mom who often threw me ground balls and pop ups in the back yard, just far enough from me that I had to dive to catch them—just like I wanted!

Lou Brock’s Statue Outside Busch Stadium

It was also Mom who took me to games at Busch Stadium in our home town of St. Louis. She had grown up watching the great Cardinals teams of the 60s, and her favorite player was Lou Brock. Naturally, he quickly became mine as well, even though he was, at that time in the late 70s, in the twilight of his career.

When we went to a game, Mom would always pack us lunches, and we’d make sure to get to Busch hours before game time. Seating in the bleachers in those days was done on a first-come, first served basis, and we wanted to make sure we would get to sit in the front row in left field, as close to our idol as possible. No doubt, countless Cardinals fans had done the same over the years, because we all agreed: Lou was the greatest!

While playing at Southern University, he had been discovered by the legendary Buck O’Neil, and signed to a contract with the Chicago Cubs, joining their St. Cloud team in the Class C Northern League. After just one season in the minors, Brock was a September call-up in 1961.

That leads us to the summer of 1962, the summer, coincidentally, portrayed in the movie The Sandlot. I mention this because Lou (kind of) makes an appearance in the film. You see, the kids in the movie were apparently as prescient as they were precocious. When they covered the walls of their treehouse with their favorite baseball cards, they included the rookie card of a certain Cubs outfielder who had yet to accomplish much of anything in the big leagues.

Those kids not only knew their baseball history, they knew their baseball future!

Though the kids from The Sandlot apparently started collecting Lou’s cards right from the beginning of his career, I didn’t get started until much later. Granted, you can’t really blame me—I wouldn’t be born for almost a decade after that rookie card came out! Unfortunately, that meant I couldn’t collect Lou until the end of his Hall of Fame career.

In the years that followed though, I picked up a Brock card here and a Brock card there, either buying them at a card show or during trips to my local baseball card store. I didn’t have a big budget for my collection (still true today!), but I was able to acquire most of Lou’s cards, especially if I wasn’t too picky about them being in perfect condition. Of course, I always wanted to get that Lou Brock rookie card from 1962, and eventually I found one that was in mediocre enough condition that I could actually afford it.

After collecting throughout my childhood, I stayed involved in the hobby for a few years after college, actually thinking at one point that I might pursue a career in the industry. Things went other directions—both in terms of career and collecting—and my cards largely sat boxed in the basement for a couple decades. A few years ago though, I decided to get back into the hobby.

One of the first things I did was bust out my Lou Brock cards, and though I thought I’d already acquired all of Lou’s Topps cards from his playing days, in looking through them, I came to the realization that I was missing two: 1963 & 1967.

I scanned eBay to see if there were any good deals on these cards, and stumbled upon an auction for 1963 cards of a pair of all-time greats who both wore the number 20. I was thrilled to win the auction, and add not only one of the two Brocks that I needed, but also a vintage Frank Robinson!

Perhaps even more typical of Lou than having a bat in his hands though, is him having a smile on his face. Lou ALWAYS seemed to be smiling, even over the last decade of his life as he faced numerous health issues. His warmth and his likeability as a person marked his life just as much as his great ability on the diamond. Sportswriter Tim Kurkijan put it well this past week, writing, “I will remember Lou Brock as one of the kindest, sweetest, gentlest men I have ever met.”

In the wake of his death, the outpouring of tributes on Twitter from players, media and fans alike have echoed Kurkijan’s sentiments:

Lou Brock was one of the finest men I have ever known. Coming into this league as a 21-year-old kid, Lou Brock was one of the first Hall-of-Fame players I had the privilege to meet. He told me I belonged here in the big-leagues. He was always willing to help and to share his unlimited knowledge of hitting and the game of baseball with me as a young player. Most importantly, he showed us all how to live our lives on and off the field with character and integrity. 1975 winner of the Roberto Clemente Award, Lou always understood his role in giving back to his community. He was a Godly man who lead his family with Christian principals and love. He was a dear friend to me. I loved him very much.

—Albert Pujols

Lou Brock was the first person from the @Cardinals organization that I met. I walked into the spring training clubhouse put my stuff down, turn around, and here comes Lou… walking right towards me. He hands me a ball and says, “Will you sign this for me?” I say, “Hi Mr Brock…I think you have that backwards.” He responds, “No I don’t. You’re going to be special and I want your autograph.” Lou always amazed me with how cool and calm and professional he was at all times. He was one of the best encouragers I’ve ever met. He was one of the main ones setting the example for all the Cardinals who came after him in how to play and how to live. I will forever be grateful for the times I got to listen to Mr Lou tell stories in that smooth voice he had. RIP Mr Lou…we love you and will miss you.

—Adam Wainwright

Mr. Brock had amazing baseball talent, but he was a truly great man. Lou was Humble, gracious, gentle & God fearing. He always made time for others. He cared about people. I am blessed to have known him. He will be missed. What a legacy. Prayers for Jackie & family. #RIPLouBrock

—Andy Benes

Deeply saddened by the passing of Lou Brock, one of the greatest people I’ve ever known. Toughest Cardinal ever. And the most gentle human being you’d ever meet. Lou loved people, loved the fans. He is everything you’d want an all-time player to be. I love you, Lou.

—KMOX Radio’s Tom Ackerman

There was a light inside of Lou Brock that brightened every place and space he entered. A light that warmed every person he encountered. Grace. Dignity. Class. Joy. His generosity of spirit touched so many. I’ve never known a finer man. #RIPLou … Long may you run.

—St. Louis sportswriter Bernie Miklasz

Lou Brock was my first favorite ballplayer as a kid. I had several chances to meet him and talk to him in life, and he could not have been more gracious, humble, and kind. A true gentleman and a great Cardinal. This one hits hard. 

—Cardinals fan John Rabe

RIP to one of the best Cardinals ever. A true gentleman and a revolutionary player. The game of baseball is better because of guys like Lou. Met him several times as a kid and I remember he was always smiling. Always. Rest easy to one of my heroes #20

—Cardinals fan RMcardsfan

Given the way that he is remembered by those who knew him well or had even met him, it’s only appropriate that throughout the heart of Lou’s career, he so commonly was pictured smiling.

As I mentioned before, almost Lou’s entire career took place before I started collecting. The first year I actually collected cards was 1978. I was six years old, and I can still remember when my grandfather bought me that first pack. It only makes sense that the ’78 card was the first Lou in my collection.

In 1980, with Brock having retired, Topps didn’t include a base card for him. But card #1 of that year’s set was a “1979 Highlights” card that spotlighted the fact that Lou Brock and Carl Yastrzemski (star left fielders for their respective teams and the two leading hitters from the 1967 World Series) had become the 14th and 15th players to enter the 3,000-Hit Club.

I was actually present at Busch Stadium the day BEFORE Brock would get his milestone hit of Cubs hurler Dennis Lamp. Twenty years later, I would pull off the same accomplishment with Tony Gwynn, missing his 3000th hit by a day as well!

Since Lou’s retirement, card companies have continued to produce Brock cards to the point that the majority of Lou Brock cards produced were probably made AFTER his career. I’ve been working my way through acquiring many of those cards, a few dollars at a time throughout this past year or so.

One of these cards stands out as deserving special notice. Graig Kreindler has for some time been my favorite artist. His portraits of old baseball players do an amazing job of bringing players to life who have long been dead. Recognizing his unique talents, Topps commissioned him to produce 20 portraits for their 150 Years of Baseball series.

Topps released these limited edition cards online one at a time, and I would invariably wait in anxious anticipation every few weeks until the next card was revealed. Imagine my joyful surprise when the 20th and final card ended up being Lou!

There’s one last story I’d like to share that isn’t really card-related. A couple decades ago when I was working for Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Lou rented a van from us. I knew he was going to be coming in, so I when I came to work that morning, I brought a red Sharpie and the newspaper I had kept from when he stole his record setting 893rd base. When I asked him to add his autograph to it, his eyes lit up, that familiar smile spread across his face, and he acted as if I was doing him a favor by having him sign it. He genuinely got a kick out of the fact that I had held onto the paper all those years. I ended up meeting with him a couple other times as well, and each time he was nicer than the last.

I’ve heard it said that as an adult, you should never meet your childhood ideals because they’ll only disappoint you. Whoever it was that said that obviously didn’t have the same childhood idol I did. Rest in peace, Base Burglar.

My Player Collections – Jim Gantner

Editor’s Note: Similar to the “Favorite Common” series, here is a chance to see and read about some of the player collections out there. If you have a player you collect, let us know!

Jim Gantner was my favorite Brewer when I was growing up, and he still is today. He was a fixture at second base for the Brewers during his 17-year career. Gantner teamed up with Hall-of-Famers Robin Yount and Paul Molitor for a Major League record 15 seasons (Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera have since broken the record with the Yankees).

Gantner was not a power hitter (47 home runs in his career), but he made contact, as evidenced by his .274 career batting average and the fact that he only struck out more than 50 times in a season once (51 in 658 plate appearances in 1984).

Gantner’s tenacity and blue collar attitude made him a fan favorite. His defense was solid and he finished with a .985 fielding percentage that places him in the top 50 all time at second base. His grit showed when he came back 10 months after a torn ACL and MCL he suffered at the age of 35.

His collection was relatively easy. Since I only collect Topps Main and Update (or Traded) sets, there are only 15 cards. Technically, I already had all of them in my Brewer collection, but I felt that I needed to have another set of them to properly showcase one of my favorite players. He was never an All-Star, so there is only one card each year from 1979 through 1992, as well as a 1977 Rookie Infielders card.

Speaking of that Rookie Infielders card, that is the only card in my collection that I have had signed. I knew I was going to bring a card when I saw the announcement about his signing at AJ Collectibles, but it took a while to figure out which one. I finally settled on his rookie card. It was amazing meeting one of my idols and shaking his hand.

Interestingly, of his 15 cards, eight of them show him with a bat in his hand, one is of him by the batting cage, and the rest are portrait cards. For a man known more for his glove than his bat, it is surprising that not one of his Topps cards showed him in the field.

My favorite of the set is 1983. It has a head to toe shot of the follow through of his swing from a game in 1982, which is the only year that the Brewers made it to the World Series. He’s also wearing the powder blue uniform, my favorite Brewer uniform. On top of all that, 1983 Topps is one of my top five favorite series.

One card that I was sure would be worth some money when I first laid my hands on it was his 1987 card. The image is flipped and the logo on his hat is backwards. Unfortunately, Topps did not correct it, so it remained a common card.

So there it is, my smallest non-current player collection. Jim Gantner will forever be my favorite player.

Tom Seaver (1944-2020)

Baseball cards are personal. Someone could write hundreds of words about what set is the best, or what card is the best, and what design decisions are the best (guilty, guilty, and guilty), but for many of us, it comes down to how you experienced cards as a child. My story reads like a series of well-worn clichés: saved quarters from allowance, rode bike to neighborhood store, traded with friends, sorted cards on family vacation. The whole shebang.

The first year I bought cards was 1967, when I was 6. Ergo, this was the best set Topps ever made. I talk myself into believing that this opinion is based on a rational collection of factors about picture quality, design, content of the back, etc. But is it really?

A pack of 1967 Topps was a nickel for five cards. I did not have a lot of nickels, but I managed to accumulate a few hundred cards at the end of the season, including card #581.

1967 Topps

By the time I laid eyes on this card, likely in September, the 22-year-old Seaver was already one of the very best pitchers in baseball. He had pitched the final inning of the NL’s 2-1, 15-inning victory in the recent All-Star game, striking out Ken Berry to end it.  I wonder how often a player has played in an All-Star game before their first baseball card hit store shelves?

I might have watched some of this game, but no way I was allowed to stay up until the 15th inning. If I knew anything about Seaver it would have been his appearances in the league leaders that I studied every day in the paper. Very few six-year-olds living outside of the greater New York area had any idea who Tom Seaver was.

Bill Denehy, since you are wondering, finished the year 1-7, giving this baseball card a rookie pitching record of 17-20. Denehy would leave a second mark on baseball history in November when he was traded to the Senators for manager Gil Hodges.

In March 1968, I likely ran into Topps card #45. And it was a beauty.

1968 Topps

Collectors who got to the hobby 10 years, or 40 years, after I did grew up wanting “action” on their baseball cards. I did not–I fell in love with card sets filled with players whose faces I knew better than my own relatives. I did not think of this card as boring, I thought it was magnificent.

Because of the ongoing dispute between Topps and the player’s union, most of the photos Topps used in the 1968 set were taken no later than April or May of 1967, and many of them dated from years before. The photo on Seaver’s 1968 card was taken the previous spring, before Seaver had thrown his first big league pitch. At that same photo shoot, Topps took a beautiful photo of Seaver in his follow through.

1968 Topps that could have been

Unfortunately, some smarty-pants proof-reader noticed that Tom was throwing left-handed (a rookie trying to fool the photographer?) and we were robbed of this masterpiece. 

The next year, with the boycott still in full swing, Topps used the identical Seaver photo for card #480, a fifth series card that would have hit my store around July. By the time it did, Tom Seaver was one of the best and most famous athletes in the country.

1969 Topps

For a baseball-obsessed and baseball card-obsessed kid, there was no 1969 card more precious than this one. Mays and Aaron and Clemente were superstars, and Yaz was my personal hero, but Seaver was like the Beatles. He was whip smart, a beautiful and mechanically-flawless pitcher, handsome as all get out, and younger  (24) than most of my team’s “prospects”.  He and Nancy, smart, beautiful, and glamorous in her own right, were the John and Jackie Kennedy of baseball.

Seaver finished the 1969 season with 25 wins, a truckload of awards, and a World Series trophy. The 1969 Mets are one of the more famous teams ever, but if anything the story of their Miracle seems almost …undersold?  The Mets had been awful for their 7 year existence, and there was no free agency to afford them a quick fix. It was all, dare I say it, Amazin’.

But let’s get real: they were basically a team of (a) role players, (b) guys having their best year of their life, and (c) Tom Seaver. (Maybe Jerry Koosman gets special mention.) Seaver is the biggest hero in the history of his franchise–there is no close second–and one of the most respected and admired athletes in the history of New York.

If you fell in love with baseball when I did, there were two superstars that you grew up with: Seaver and Johnny Bench. I saw Aaron and Mays and Clemente on TV, but most of their careers predated me. I felt ownership of Seaver and Bench, as I did Rod Carew and Reggie Jackson. These four players, who would be named to 58 All-Star teams, all made their big league debuts in my formative year of 1967.  How about that?

A remarkable thing about Seaver, and this is equally true of Bench, is that his public persona never really changed. He was a mature team leader as a rookie. Despite playing the heart of his career in a period of rapidly changing hairstyles and flamboyant personalities, Seaver remained the confident, fascinating, brilliant superstar that hipsters and squares could all admire. My friends and I had opinions about Reggie Jackson or Pete Rose or Steve Carlton. No one had opinions about Seaver. What was there to say, honestly?

I am not going to run through all his cards, as much as I’d like to. I have been known to criticize Topps’ early attempts at action photos, but it came as no surprise that when Topps used game footage of Seaver they turned out these pieces of magic.

1974 Topps
1977 Topps
1981 Topps
1983 Topps

My favorite Tom Seaver card, if forced to choose, is from 1975. The best part of 1970s and 1980s sets is that Topps used a nice mix of posed, action, and (my personal favorite, as here) candid photos. The 1975 Topps card shows Seaver at rest, almost (but not quite) looking at the camera. What might he have been thinking?

He was 30 when this card came out, the best pitcher in baseball (he would win his 3rd Cy Young Award that year, and could have won others), one of the most famous, most admired athletes in America, a clothes model, a sportscaster. He was Terrific, and you get the feeling he knew it. How could he not?

Rest in peace, Tom Seaver. 

 

The Greatest Topps Card of the 1960’s

Spoiler Alert: It is not a card of a Hall of Famer.

Back in April I wrote a blog post about the Ugliest Topps Set Ever. I thought I would double down on crazy and write a post about the single Greatest Topps card of the 1960’s.

I actively started collecting and trading cards as a kid in 1961 and stopped after the 1969 baseball season. My cards from the 1960’s are long gone, so for this post I reacquainted myself with the cards from this era by thumbing through the book titled – Baseball Cards of the Sixties – The Complete Topps Cards, which contains pictures of all of the individual cards that were issued from 1960 to 1969.

Front Cover – Baseball Cards of the Sixties – The Complete Topps Cards

My criteria for choosing the greatest card of the 1960’s was not only the image of the player on the front of the card, but also the card design and all aspects of the back of the card – number, layout of statistics, cartoon, and the player write up. For each of the areas I gave a weighting and a grade so I could come up with an overall grade for the card.

With so many great cards of the hall of famers from that era is was difficult not to choose a card of Clemente, Mays, Aaron, Mantle, Koufax, substitute your own Hall of Famer who played during the 60’s.

Considering all the factors that I listed above my pick for the greatest Topps card of the 1960’s is the 1962 Roger Maris card.

1962 Topps Roger Maris Card – Front

In 1961 Maris smashed 61 home runs, eclipsing the record that Ruth set in 1927. For most of the season Maris and Mantle were neck and neck in the race to set a new high for most home runs in a single season. Maris was under tremendous pressure throughout the season. The press generated fake news stories about him. The fans booed him and cheered for Mantle to break the record. Rogers Hornsby said – “It would be a shame if Ruth’s record got broken by a .270 hitter.” The pressure took a toll on him. Clumps of his hair fell out. But he persevered and broke the record with a home run off of Tracy Stallard on October 1, 1961.

I was 8 years in 1961 and closely followed the M&M boys run at Ruth’s record. Every morning I turned to the sports section of the daily paper and scanned the write ups and box scores to see if Maris or Mantle hit a home run the previous day. Even my father, who only had a slight interest in baseball (he was into Y.A. Tittle and the New York Giants), got caught up in the chase. He took me to Fenway Park for my first major league game on September 24, 1961. Maris had 59 home runs at the time, and all of 30,802 fans in attendance were on the edge of their seats every time he came to bat hoping he would wrap one around the Pesky pole in right field, but it did not happen.

Setting the new home record in 1961 stands as the greatest baseball achievement of the 1960’s and Topps came out with an outstanding card of Roger Maris in 1962 to honor the accomplishment.

1962 Topps Roger Maris Card – Back

Player Image

In the photo Roger has a wad of chewing tobacco in his cheek and is finishing a swing that shows off his muscular arms.  The image conjures up cards of two other All Stars who played in the 1960’s – Ted Kluszewski and Nellie Fox.

This is the perfect photo to illustrate the term “baseball slugger”.

Grade A                       Weighting 35%

1957 Topps Card of Ted Kluszewski

1962 Topps Nellie Fox Card

Card Design

Many collectors hate the wood grain border design that Topps used for these cards. I am neutral on the design. I don’t think it is the worst design used during the 60’s and I don’t consider it the best either.

Grade C                       Weighting 15%

Card Number

Topps recognized Roger’s stellar 1961 season by designating it as the number 1 card in the 1962 set. It’s worth noting that the Maris card was the number 2 card in the 1961 set, as Topps gave the number 1 and number 2 cards to the MVPs in each league.

You can’t do better then being number 1.

Grade A                       Weighting 10%

1961 Topps cards of Dick Groat and Roger Maris

Layout of Statistics

Usually my preference is to see the complete minor and major league stats for a player on the back of a card, but in this case displaying only the 1961 season and lifetime stats works well since you can’t miss the 61 homers and 142 RBIs.

Grade A                       Weighting 10%

Cartoon

When I ripped open packs back in 1962 it was clear to me that the cartoons on the backs of the cards were done by one of artists that worked for that high-brow publication – Mad Magazine.

The cartoons for the 1962 set were done by Jack Davis, who I believe is the best cartoonist and illustrator of the 1960’s.  His work went far beyond Topps cards, Mad Magazine, and comic books. His illustrations can be found on album covers, movie posters, and magazine covers.

As you would expect, the card features an illustration of Roger smacking a home run.

Grade A                       Weighting 15%

Player Write Up

There have been some excellent blog posts about baseball card prose recently that have been written by Kenneth Nichols. I am sure he will do a deep dive on prose of the 1962 set soon, so my analysis of Roger’s write up will be brief.

Since the 1962 cards only have two stat lines, there is ample room for information about the player.

Topps leads off by referring to Roger as – “The most talked about player of the decade,” – and it is only 1962! You have to love that intro.

Grade A                       Weighting 15%

Overall Grade for the 1962 Topps Roger Maris Card

Card ElementsGradeWeightingWeighted Score
Player ImageA (5)35%1.75
Card DesignC (3)15%.45
Card NumberA (5)10%.50
Layout of StatsA (5)10%.50
CartoonA (5)15%.75
Player Write UpA (5)15%.75
TotalA-/B+100%4.70

Do you agree or disagree with me on the 1962 Roger Maris card being the greatest Topps card of the 1960’s? Let me know by way of a comment. 

Everything must be considered

Likewise, there is a vocal group of collectors who seek, nay DEMAND, perfection from Topps when it comes to retro sets such as Heritage and Archives. Any deviation from these unwritten rules results in an outcry in the blogosphere, Twitter and the various forums.

Cardboard Jones

I planned to respond to this as a comment but in hashing things out on Twitter realized that it deserved to be a blogpost. First off. I’m not feeling attacked by the statement nor do I even disagree with it. Expecting things like Archives and Heritage to match the originals is the most boring of positions to have. But as someone who frequently comments and calls out where Topps deviates in the retro set typsetting and designs I feel like I need to clarify when and why I do so.

When I approach a retro set it’s impossible for me not to notice changes. My mindset though isn’t “these changes are crap.” Instead I’m asking myself why Topps made them.

One of the chief mantras from my design classes was that “everything should be considered.” In other words, every part of the design should be a conscious choice with a reason behind it. This isn’t to say that you couldn’t leave things to chance, just that you needed to be as aware, if not moreso, of what you weren’t designing.

When it comes to the retro sets, too many of the choices feel like Topps has decided to copy the old design but couldn’t be bothered to do it right. When I cringe at a font choice or shake my head at a color selection it doesn’t reflect that I want the design to be perfect, it reflects that on that card, Topps feels like it’s trying to recreate the card and is doing it badly.

Let’s take a look at the 2020 Archives Luis Robert. In this case, the font used for Robert’s name is super small. 1974 used condensed fonts for long names* but for most names the font matches the font used to the city and position. As a result the font looks off compared to the other fonts on the card** and the space for his name looks super empty because these cards weren’t designed to have a big white space on the bottom.

* If this were a Vladimir Guerrero Jr. card then the font would be fine.

**Lucky for Topps the condensed font is also in use for “White Sox” else this would look even weirder.

There’s a reason I often refer to the uncanny valley when I critique retro designs. Changes like Robert’s font feel unconsidered and suggest a lack of awareness about how the original design works. The result is something that’s just close enough to the originals to feel incredibly wrong.

I don’t expect Topps to match the originals. I want them to make considered choices about how to honor the philosophy behind the original designs while updating them to the modern game and modern printing.

For example, sticking with the Robert card, 1974 is noteworthy as the first set where Topps tried to use team colors in the design. In 1974 the White Sox’s dominant color was red and as a result, the 1974 design used red.* In 2020, the Sox are a grey and black team and for me, updating the 1974 design to use those colors is the kind of change that I would treat as a considered choice.**

*That Topps stuck with red is yet another push toward reading these cards as remakes instead of updates and justifies critiquing the font choices along those lines. At the same time, that Topps apparently changed the colors on a lot of the cards in this set—e.g Giants in green, Pirates in red, Orioles in white—suggests that my initial reaction to the Robert was maybe giving Topps too much credit for trying to reproduce the original design. No I still have no idea what possessed them to make the Willie McCovey Giants card green and yellow and the overall reaction is still that Topps didn’t think about what they were doing.

**Along these lines, if Topps had had the lead time and creativity to do “Buffalo, Amer’n Lea” cards for the Blue Jays I would’ve been out stalking blasters of Archives at my local Target.

Topps has made considered changes like these before. Going back to my post about 2019 Heritage provides a great example. Where 1970 Topps (on the left) use a 50% black screen for the grey border, 2019 Heritage (on the right) uses a custom grey ink printed at 100%.

I don’t remember anyone complaining about this. I wouldn’t expect anyone to complain about this. Why? Because the change is the kind of thing that involves looking at the old design and consciously improving upon it. It’s not trying to recreate something, rather it’s showing the strength of the original design and how it would be produced today.

If Topps changed the retro set fonts to give the design a little more character* I wouldn’t complain. Same if they took the random colors of the 1960s and made them more team-specific.**

*A reliance on fonts such as Helvetica and Univers throughout most of the Topps’s history means changes like using Gotham in the 1981 design in 2018 Archives is something I was cool with.

**Something they did with some teams like the Astros in 2018 Heritage.

What I want to see is that the changes have a clear and obvious point. Changes that look intentional rather than accidental. Changes that indicate that Topps has truly considered the design and thought about what it’s doing with it.

On Becoming Complete: A Spiritual Journey

What is complete? Who decides that? How do we know when we get there?

Recently, Mark Armour (co-founder of this blog and current SABR President), Tweeted the good news that he snagged a 1956 Yankees Team Card and his 1956 Topps set was finished. But was it?

56

One Tweeter threw out a picture of the unnumbered checklists

Checks

and Jason (our current blog co-chair) said, “yeah, you need those to be complete.” This lead to a series of comments on what makes a whole set whole. Do you need the 24 blue team checklists inserted in 1973 packs, but not numbered, to have a complete set of that year? How about 1974, where you’d need the red team checklists, the Traded set and all Washington variations to be done.

I do think about this a lot. I’m now 3 away from a complete 1961 Post set, having bought a nice Clemente. There are 200 numbered cards in that set and having one of each number is what I’m shooting for. BUT, with all variations (company issue vs. box issue, Minneapolis vs. Minnesota Twins, players with more than one team, transaction notations, and so on), the set runs to 357! That’s almost 180% of the base numbering. Will I be complete at 200? I’m saying yes.

If you need unnumbered inserts to be complete. Do you need all unnumbered inserts? That would be absurd.

Jose-Canseco-(Mini

If you narrow that down to checklist inserts, my thoughts turn to the 2004 Cracker Jack set, which had two separately numbered checklists, which were not made of the same card stock.

Cracker Jack

And, while I don’t know how the 1963 Fleer checklists were distributed, that card is unnumbered.

s-l1600

Furthermore, does being an insert in and of itself make it part of the whole set? Can’t be, right? These were inserted in 1971 packs, but nobody (at least nobody I know) considers a 1971 Topps set incomplete if you don’t also have a complete set of these.

1971 Topps Coins 5

There has to be a right answer, and this is it:

A set is complete when you have all the numbered cards. Master sets are complete when you have all variations, non-numbered cards, etc.

Getting back to 1956 Topps, if you’re not complete without the checklists, then you’re also not complete unless you have all white and gray back variations and the different team card versions. In fact, they’re called variations for a reason; those cards are “a different or distinct form or version of something.” I would argue, in fact I am arguing, that the checklists are also variations – they are different from all the other 1956 because THEY HAVE NO NUMBER and, without a number, they are outside the set as presented.

Obviously, to each his own on this, but there must be a clear standard. Perhaps we all know what it is, and that’s why complete sets tend to be sold by the definition above, and, when variations, unnumbered checklists, etc. are part of the listing, they are given a separate shoutout.

I’m sure there are many thoughts on this, and maybe I want to hear them. I’m not sure. I imagine I will anyway.