Topps in 1972, Part 4

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

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

—Hunter S. Thompson

And now for a swan dive into the spirit of the ’72 cards, with a look at some of the fun poses players struck for these things…and a quick peek at the backs…

All of the individual player cards are artificially staged shots of one sort or another. The sole exception  (aside from the “In Action” series) appears to be Norm Cash (#150), looking feisty during/after an actual at-bat (maybe a strikeout?), sporting his trademark no-batting-helmet and pine tar so far up the barrel of the bat that George Brett might be the only one to not take issue with it. Apparently, Norm skated.

One of the more popular player poses is the hokey, staged ‘action’ shot, most with a batter about to swing, or swinging, or swung and tending to look like he’s either, a) overacting, or b) barely even trying. How about the close-up stances of Johnny Bench (#433), Lee May (#480), Dave Cash (#125), and Cleo James (#117)? Despite campy nonchalance, these are glorious scenes with bright blue skies, framing players who almost have their game face on.

Check out Mr. Bob Oliver (#57) doing the splits in front of palm trees, looking skyward with hope, as if he’s expecting a baseball to drop miraculously into his outstretched mitt. I think there’s only one like this.

Many of the pitchers’ shots are even sillier and less convincing – get a load of Cecil Upshaw (#74) Jim Roland (#464), Lowell Palmer (#746), and a feeble-looking Jerry Reuss (#775) and…they all look like small town softball players posing at the team picnic.

Meanwhile, some pitchers already look old and worn enough to be managers (Ron Taylor (#234), Ron Perranoski (#367) and Steve Hamilton (#766)).

Come to think of it, most of the cards show spring training lollygaggers – lots of sluggers in easy poses with bats perched on their shoulders like props (Bill Freehan (#120), Ed Kranepool (#181), Johnny Briggs (#197), Boog Powell (#250) and Willie Stargell (#447)).

Most of the catchers look like they’re out playing catch with their kids (Ken Rudolph, (#271), Buck Martinez (#332), Jeff Torborg (#404)), though Ellie Hendricks (#508) is donning gear and appears to be tracking a phantom popup.

Pitchers are often captured at the top of a lazy delivery (Bobby Bolin (#266), Jose Pena (#322), and Don McMahon (#509)) or in a faux-stretch position, with their glove held at belly level (Sonny Siebert (#290), Ron Reed (#787)).

Worth mentioning of Ron Reed—he is the answer to at least three trivia questions besides “Who is featured on the last (highest-numbered) card of the 1972 Topps baseball series?”:

  • Who was the winning pitcher of the game in which when Henry Aaron hit his record-breaking 715th home run?
  • Name one of five pitchers in MLB history who compiled at least 100 wins, 100 saves, and 50 complete games (the other four are Ellis Kinder, Firpo Marberry, Dennis Eckersley and John Smoltz).
  • Name one of the two players from the 1972 Topps baseball series who played in the NBA. (Reed played for the Detroit Pistons, 1965–67. The other player is Steve Hamilton (#766), who played for the Minneapolis Lakers from 1958–60).

With the help of that special ’72 artwork each card stands up on its own merit, whether it’s relative unknown Ron Klimkowski (#363, smiling deliriously, like he’s just happy to be having his picture taken) or Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda (#195, warily eyeing the camera, like he’s seen it all before).

I have to sheepishly admit that I’d never even heard of most of the players in the series…and it gets me every time when slowly cycling through the binders, happening upon players and swearing it’s the first time I’ve ever seen them. Sorry guys! Last time it was an early stretch of the sixth series: Luis Melendez (#606), Frank Duffy (#607), Joe Decker (#612) and Ted Uhlaender (#614). Who the hell are these scrubs? Well, they’re four of only 22,564-and-counting men who’ve ever made it to the Major Leagues. They’re better than all the guys who never made it. There’s something enchanting about having every player’s card close at hand so we can take measure of what the league looked like at the time. There they all were in 1972, each of them poised to take their best shot at greatness.

On the backs of each player’s card are factoid cartoons with spare, silly drawings of a prototype ballplayer, dropping esoteric bits of trivia via a quiz format, like, “Q: How much must a baseball weigh? A: Between 5 and 5.25 oz.”, “Q: What was Connie Mack’s real name? A: Cornelius McGillicuddy”, and “What was the original name of the spitball? A: The “cuspidor curve””. That, along with the player’s height, weight, birthdate, batting/fielding handedness (L/R), and hometown, all sit atop a detailed list of career statistics, including the minor leagues, no matter how long they spent there.

Somehow even those dry data are interesting and personal. You find that Ollie Brown (#551), Tito Fuentes (#427) and many others played “Midwest” minor league ball in Decatur, Illinois where both of my parents were born and grew up. Many Pacific Coast League and Northwest League players did time in towns I now find familiar, like Portland Oregon; Aberdeen, Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma, Wenatchee, and Yakima, Washington; and Vancouver, British Columbia.

One card (Walt Alston, #749) even has my little boyhood hometown (Oxford, Ohio) printed on it, though Walt actually lived next door to my friend, Sam Stewart, over in Darrtown, a tiny “census designated place” of about 500 people, five miles east of Oxford (population about 15,000 back then). Sam was one of the better ball players I knew growing up and he always liked to tease/torture us with his funny made-up lyrics to the 1981 Terry Cashman song – “Talkin’ baseball…Stew and Campanella…”…


Part of an ode to baseball and the early 1970s in general, and to the Topps Company and the special 1972 set specifically. Thanks for the memories, Topps—both the old ones and the new ones! Apologies for the pronounced wordiness, but the 50th anniversary of the set warrants 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, Hal Breeden, Lou Brock, Oscar Brown, Horace Clark, Billy Conigliaro, Chuck Dobson, Paul Doyle, Ed Farmer, Ray Fosse, Bill Freehan, Bob Gibson, Jim Grant, Grant Jackson, Bart Johnson, Jerry Johnson, Jay Johnstone, Al Kaline, Lew Krausse, Angel Mangual, Mike Marshall, Denis Menke, Lindy McDaniel, Roger Moret, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, Bob Oliver, Don Pavletich, Ron Perranoski, Juan Pizzaro, J. R. Richard, Mike Ryan, Tom Seaver, Richie Scheinblum, Rennie Stennett, Bill Sudakis, Don Sutton, Tony Taylor, Dick Tidrow, Bill Virdon, Bob Watson, Stan Williams, and Jim Wynn.

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

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

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

Topps in 1972, Part 3

Editor’s note: SABR Baseball Cards welcomes new member F. Scott Wilkinson with the third of his 10 articles on the 1972 Topps set, now approaching its 50th anniversary. Click here to start the series from the beginning. This post takes a detailed look at the design of the 1972 cards, with a brief comparison to other Topps schemes of the era (1970-75).

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

If memory serves, it seemed like with a little help from the “Dick, Jane, and Spot” books I learned to read by studying Baltimore Orioles box scores at my grandparents’ house, and in those days they got both morning and evening editions of the Decatur Herald & Review – woohoo! Right away I was finding baseball books for kids and taking in old numbers like candy. Ruth’s 714 home runs, Cy Young’s 511 wins, Walter Johnson’s 3508 (now 3509) strikeouts, Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak, Ty Cobb’s career batting average of .367 (now .366), etc…all of those and many more are iconic, seared in there early. Who knows why they were appealing – they just were.

Then you start looking into things like Tris Speaker being the all-time leader in doubles (with 792) and Ted Williams being the last person to hit over .400; turns out he could have sat down for the final two games of the 1941 season (a double-header) to protect the number, but he played both games, went 6-for-8 and ended up hitting .406. Important stuff, right? Yep – because then it’s interesting when players like George Brett, Tony Gwynn, and John Olerud make a run at that .400 barrier.

As fascinating as the facts and figures are, they’re just numbers – entry-level and rudimentary. But baseball is famous for being a true statistician’s game, which ultimately led to Sabermetrics and a deeper analysis of the game by comprehensively crunching and evaluating the numbers ad nauseam, looking for a winning formula. And that’s all fine, but it gets us too far away from the feeling of the game…and the feelings those cards stir up…they’re not easy to describe…but let’s try…so, back to those cards…

There’s so much color and data to take in from the ’72 set – it’s any lifelong baseball fan, art aficionado and/or number-addled stat geek’s happy daydream fully realized. The palette of the series is otherworldly compared to every other Topps year and the design almost reminds of classic Art Deco, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters or pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein or Andy Warhol. If there was a singular influence, likely it was not as antiquated or highfalutin as these, but closer temporally and geographically to the Brooklyn-based Topps Company (like Lichtenstein and Warhol). Namely, this David Edward Byrd poster from the musical “Follies”, which debuted on Broadway, April 4, 1971. The font is a match and the stars on either end are uncanny too.

Whatever the inspiration, the series is defined by the look of the individual player cards which feature their team name bursting off the heading in black 3-D block lettering. The bold team name is highlighted with two colors that complement the main color of the card and is bookended with two small stars that share those complementary colors. Fancy fancy.

Here’s a prime example – the card of Dick Williams (#137), who managed his Oakland Athletics to a World Series win in 1972.

Oddly, the main color of a card often has nothing to do with the team’s actual uniform colors. Example: The Dodger cards are orange, with yellow and white highlights—no trademark Dodger blue anywhere. The Reds are green; the Cardinals and Orioles are blue, the Cubs and Indians are purple, and the Mets and A’s are both red. Still, it all works somehow.

There are 12 distinct color schemes, all bright primary and secondary colors (hues of yellow, blue, red, green, purple, and orange), and well-conceived for the most part. With 24 teams in 1972, Topps assigned each design to both a National League team and an American League team.

Each scheme has three colors, with a principal color for the body of the card, a second color (generally) making up most of the accent coloring of the team’s name in the 3D font, and a tertiary color for the remainder of the 3D accent coloring and the piping that frames the picture and text. All of that within an outermost border of white, with player names at the bottom, in capitalized black font on a small white placard. A simple, elegant design.

Collectors have called the 1972 cards “tombstones” for their unique border and it’s true—the colored portion is shaped like an old-time tombstone. They definitely have a groovy, psychedelic feel, even though the Summer of Love was five years past. Somehow they always made me think of paper trophies. They differ from other years in that the position of the player is not indicated on the front, removing some clutter and borders, and there are no sprawling player signatures either.

The result is so clean and perfect that some of them almost transcend baseball to look more like iconic artistic works than mere sports cards. Think of Andy Warhol’s silkscreened visions of athletes like Pele, Muhammad Ali and Tom Seaver. That’s an overstatement, but some of these look as fresh as any pop art there ever was.

Here are some nice examples including my personal favorite, Horatio Pina (#654), with blue sky and cotton ball clouds in his background. I swear all these look like artful, timeless portraits worthy of a silkscreen or framed oil painting. Really.

For fun here are all 12 color schemes, ranked from my most to least favorite, listing in order the NL team, AL team, first color (most prevalent), second color (majority of team name), and third color (piping). [Note: team allegiances may have influenced rankings somewhat!]

  • San Francisco Giants/New York Yankees – yellow, orange, red
  • St. Louis Cardinals/Baltimore Orioles – dark blue, yellow, light blue
  • Cincinnati Reds/Chicago White Sox – light green, blue, yellow
  • Los Angeles Dodgers/Detroit Tigers – orange, white, yellow
  • Montreal Expos/Boston Red Sox – green, orange, yellow
  • Chicago Cubs/Cleveland Indians – purple, green, yellow
  • Houston Astros/Texas Rangers – yellow, orange, blue
  • Pittsburgh Pirates/Minnesota Twins – light blue, dark blue, orange
  • New York Mets/Oakland A’s – red, yellow, orange
  • Atlanta Braves/Kansas City Royals – red, green, yellow
  • Philadelphia Phillies/California Angels – orange, green, blue
  • San Diego Padres/Milwaukee Brewers – dark blue, orange, light green

The ’72 set is defined by organization, with every player on a team sharing the exact same color scheme while the aforementioned 1975 cards have schemes assigned randomly, so that most players on the same team have a different look. This seems a little chaotic and purposeless, but maybe that was 1975 in a nutshell?

Before we get to those unruly ’75 cards, let’s rewind to 1970 to remind ourselves why the 1972 lot stood out so much from all the other Topps cards that came out between 1970-75 (let alone all the cards that came before 1970 and after 1975).

1970: Those gloomy gray borders and cards almost devoid of color. Earl Weaver, who managed the O’s to a World Series win in 1970, would probably be the first to say that he was no Flower Child, and here is proof. Earl looks more like 1960 than 1970.

1971: Similar to 1970, but much better – the black is bolder than the gray, there are showy signatures, and more color in the larger font. For me, Dock Ellis epitomizes the early 1970’s – the bold fashion statements, politics, fearlessness, and renegade demeanor. Plus, for a while he was a hell of a pitcher. If you don’t know why I picked his card to represent this pseudo-psychedelic year (and even if you do) please watch this

Again, 1972: Bill “Spaceman”Lee. Perfectly normal, right? Actually they are, for the most part – the (red-brown) backs saw a return to listing career stats and the pictures are mostly standard (more on that later) – it’s just the team name that’s gone crazy compared to other years.

1973: After the anomaly of 1972 there was a return to drab normalcy, but at least Topps didn’t exactly go backwards. Here’s a good one – one of my favorite pitchers ever (see the silhouette in the bottom right corner? that’s how we know he’s a pitcher!), with one of the most entertaining wind-ups of all time – borderline Hall of Fame prospect Luis Tiant, mugging like a Vaudevillian:

1974: There was some improvement with those banners at the top and bottom and the colored border piping. The cards are still mostly black and white and a little tame, but they almost have a classy look. Here’s another favorite – another borderline Hall of Fame candidate – Dave Parker in his rookie year, with sideburn.

Then came the 1975 set…which more or less amounts to a flaccid reprise of psychedelia. Though I’ve grown to appreciate the ’75 cards for the players they represent and the funky mid-decade style that’s on full display (Oscar Gamble, anyone?), the design feels lazy and simplistic, with one solid color on the top half border of the card, a second solid color on the bottom half, and a third color for the team’s blocky faux-3D name at the top. Overall they lack detail but at least got back to player signatures…and the little baseball with the player’s position is a nice try too.

The worst thing about them has to be the choice of color schemes, with some just damn ghastly compared to the 1972 lot: purple paired with pink and yellow lettering, salmon and teal with red letters, and poop brown with burnt orange and red font—ick. They look cartoonish and haphazard, with off-cuts aplenty. Mid-70s apathy.

And even with all that said…they do have a nice high gloss…and they’re more fun than what came out in 1973 and 1974…some pizazz after two years of relative stodginess.

Check out these gems found happily in my recovered collection—rookie cards of Hall of Famers Gary Carter, Robin Yount, and George Brett.

 Maybe they aren’t so bad after all? The jury’s still out!


This is 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, Hal Breeden, Lou Brock, Oscar Brown, Horace Clark, Billy Conigliaro, Chuck Dobson, Paul Doyle, Ed Farmer, Ray Fosse, Bill Freehan, Bob Gibson, Jim Grant, Grant Jackson, Bart Johnson, Jerry Johnson, Jay Johnstone, Al Kaline, Lew Krausse, Angel Mangual, Mike Marshall, Denis Menke, Lindy McDaniel, Roger Moret, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, Bob Oliver, Don Pavletich, Ron Perranoski, Juan Pizzaro, J. R. Richard, Mike Ryan, Tom Seaver, Richie Scheinblum, Rennie Stennett, Bill Sudakis, Don Sutton, Tony Taylor, Dick Tidrow, Bill Virdon, Bob Watson, Stan Williams, and Jim Wynn.

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

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

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

The card that still haunts me

Stay in this Hobby long enough and you’ll have your share of heartbreak. Carry your favorite cards to school in your pants pockets, and you’re bound to put some through the wash. Sell a prized card when you need the money, and of course the value triples before you can buy it back. Stock up on your favorite phenom only to have his numbers plummet right in sync with your retirement plans. These tragedies happen. The only question is whether we have the resilience and perspective to weather them. I know I didn’t.

It was 1983 and I was thirteen. Cards were my whole world. I’m not saying that to brag. To put things another way, except for cards, I had no life, which is why this book had so much power over me. (In truth, mine was the second edition, but I couldn’t find a picture.)

It was this book that could turn an ordinary (and below average in most ways if we’re being honest) kid into a first-rate autograph collector. Sure I had some autographs in my collection already: Mickey Klutts, who signed at a show, and Nolan Ryan who I wrote to through the Astros, but Hall of Famers?! I wouldn’t have believed it except for the fact that it happened.

I don’t know how it’s done today but back then it was important to me to write each player a personal letter, praising their career and letting them know why their autograph would mean so much to me. I wish I could say my motivation was mere kindness. Sadly, I believe the only reason I did it was to up my chance of a return. “Flattery will get you everywhere,” as they say. Either way, I spent the weekend writing about 20 letters by hand, which I sent off (with SASE and accompanying baseball cards of course) all at once.

Any question about whether anyone would write back was answered quickly. I believe the exact time elapsed was four days, and the return address has remained in my head all these decades later.

Hank Greenberg
1129 Miradero Road
Beverly Hills, CA 90210

I don’t recall any note inside. Instead there was only a blank slip of paper folded to protect what was now the most amazing card in my collection.

Right in front of me was a 1983 Donruss Hall of Fame Heroes card of Hank Greenberg, signed in blue Sharpie, with an absolutely Hall of Fame quality autograph across the beautiful Dick Perez artwork. I stared at it for hours the day it came and then did the same just about every day after.

My second Hall of Fame autograph arrived a couple weeks later—I believe it was from Al Kaline—and from there it seemed every week another envelope would arrive: Stan Musial, Duke Snider, Charlie Gehringer, and so on. Even as the collection grew, the Greenberg still stood alone: first, best, and perfect.

Of course what happened next was unthinkable yet entirely predictable.

For the third time in as many years, I came home to find my mom had thrown out my entire collection, Greenberg and all. To be clear, this wasn’t one of those “mom threw them out” stories about a kid off to college or interested in cars and girls. No, baseball cards were my whole life. That’s exactly what it felt like too, like my whole life had been thrown out.

Over the next couple weeks, almost cruelly, signed cards continued to arrive. I should have been thrilled to land autographs from Ted Williams, Yogi Berra, and Eddie Mathews, but instead I just dwelled on what I didn’t have. It would be too mild to say I experienced anger or sadness. Rather, it was the feeling of hating my life. I know that sounds extreme, but how would you feel if baseball cards were the only thing you cared about?

The Survivors

I did resume my card collecting almost immediately. What else was I going to do with my time? However, even as autographs kept trickling in, I just couldn’t get myself to care. Despite having barely even started, I was done as an autograph collector. This I knew.

Haunted day and night for months by my lost Greenberg, I now hated autographs. And then one day the obvious occurred to me. Why not write to him again?

Sure enough, there was an envelope from Miradero Road waiting for me no more than a week later. There was only one problem. My card was returned unsigned. Along with it was a typewritten note letting me know Mr. Greenberg required that a $5 check payable to the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (or maybe it was the Humane Society) now accompany all autograph requests. Like I even had a checkbook!

A couple years later, I saw the news that Hank Greenberg had passed away. I wish I could say my first reaction was sympathy for his loved ones or the legions of baseball fans who had lost a true giant of a man. Instead I was consumed by the thought that I’d blown my chance at an autograph. And yes, feel free to judge. Baseball cards were still my whole world.

About five years into my return to the Hobby, around 2019, I set up a saved search on eBay for a single autographed card: the 1983 Donruss Hall of Fame Heroes Hank Greenberg card. It had been 30+ years, for God’s sake! I thought I might be ready.

Only rarely did anything ever come up and most of the time when something did it proved to be an unsigned copy, misclassified by the seller or considered close enough by the eBay search engine. As it turns out, the bad results were a blessing. In contrast, it’s the truly autographed search results that strike me like daggers to the heart. Nonetheless, some self-destructive impulse, some bad mutation upon my collector DNA, compels me to retain this search, to keep looking.

Thankfully, the signatures on these cards are always black, not blue, ensuring at least some distance between the cards on the screen and the card I once had. Blue, that would probably kill me.

And then it happened.

A card came up last week that looked exactly like the one I had, the one I stared at for hours on end. Its blue Sharpie signature so uncannily matched the image burned in my head all these years that I now wonder if my mom really did throw away my cards or simply sold them to someone who sold them to someone who is now selling at least the best of them on eBay.

You might think I’d have already jumped at the chance to buy the card like some modern Ahab having at last cornered his White Whale. In truth, that would be confusing the hunter with the hunted. My journey back into the Hobby has been less about nostalgia than redemption, about rebuilding my collection without reliving its memories. Until now I have looked to the cards I buy to right, not revisit, my past. What happens then when one has the power to bring it all back?

Topps in 1972, Part 2

Editor’s note: SABR Baseball Cards welcomes new member F. Scott Wilkinson with the second of his 10 articles on the 1972 Topps set, now approaching its 50th anniversary. Click here to start the series from the beginning. This post describes a serendipitous reunion with card-collecting, the 1972 set in particular.

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

I was seven years old when the Topps Company issued their baseball cards for the 1972 season, pushed on us eager kids in their trademark wax packs, each with a chalky pink stick of gum sharp enough to cut the roof of your mouth. That was the year I began collecting cards and somehow they drew me in right from the first pack. My friends Billy, Ricky, and I would buy them uptown at Corso’s, a dusty little old family-run store with worn wooden floors where they sold all kinds of penny candy, soft drinks, and other sundries we didn’t care much about. I’d root those cards out when visiting my grandparents too and remember being darn disappointed after buying a couple laggard packs of ’71’s there when all I wanted were the ’72’s. It was love at first sight, instant infatuation.

A year or two later we were calling those 1972 cards “the colorful year” because they stood out so much compared to the stone-gray lot of 1970, the black beauties of 1971, and all the other staid black and white cards I collected through 1977. Sure, there were the ’75’s (one-off, incongruously colored, tacky-looking things…more on them later), but these babies were strikingly original and visually magical. To me, they still are.

Looking back they clearly smack of the early 1970s, a time that felt like an epilogue to the previous decade…the hangover from a years-long bender of excess, experimentation, social upheaval, violence, and weirdness. I only caught five full years of the 1960s and always felt like I’d missed out on something important. Maybe all kids feel like that? A feeling fed by always hanging around older people—my sisters, their friends and other neighborhood kids who were years older. Our neighbor Big Jim Miller was a good ten years older than me and when he played those new Three Dog Night records in 1969 he seemed to really be on to something. Our world was expanding and anything seemed possible so in retrospect these cards came along at the perfect time.

Today they look like the entire team of Topps designers and photographers (and a few of the players) stayed high on blotter acid and pure cocaine for weeks, jangling along feverishly until the whole 787 card series was finished. They were, and are, that vividly rendered. Of course, Billy and I didn’t think of any of that back then—we just thought they were cool looking and liked the way they made a neat, motor-like sound when we clothes-pinned them onto our bike frame and they hit the wheel spokes just right. Especially all the ones we had of Claude Osteen, “In-Action.” Apparently we didn’t have much respect for Luis Aparicio either.

Like many boys my age I collected cards and played baseball as much as possible, every day, and began playing organized ball around 1971 or 1972, first Tee-ball, and then Little League. Back when baseball was still America’s Pastime. Sports-wise baseball was the first love and some of my fondest boyhood memories are of Dad hitting fungoes to Billy and me in our back yard. I still want to play catch and work on my curve and knuckle balls. Like most ball-playing boys of that age and era I liked to get together to trade cards with my friends Billy, Jeff, Jimmy, and Ricky. We didn’t know much about what we were doing, but it was fun to try to get cards we hadn’t seen by offloading ones we were sick of or had way too many of—players like Horace Clark, Johnny Jeter, Ron Klimkowski, Joe Gibbon, Ike Brown, and Don Hahn. For some reason those guys seemed to be in every other pack.

That went well until one day when Little Ricky came over to my house and somehow made off with three of my most prized 1972 cards—a Frank Robinson, a Hank Aaron, and a Willie Mays. The 1973 Roberto Clemente card disappeared too…all of them apparently lifted while Little Ricky was left to his own devices down in our family room for a few minutes while I went upstairs to use the bathroom.

I still remember the panicky feeling after finding them missing once Ricky left. That sickly tingling nervous feeling in the belly. Even worse, what else could be missing? These were just the obvious ones…they weren’t kept straight with a list, I just categorized them and pored over them…and went with what my young head could remember. There were well over 1000 cards in my collection by the mid-1970s and I always wondered how many others he’d taken. Willie Stargell? Catfish Hunter? Tom Seaver? I did go over to his house one last time and got a peek at the ’73 Clemente to absolutely convince myself he’d done it—it had a telltale look—little ‘bubbles’—a uniquely poor print. Sure enough. Worst of all was seeing an erstwhile friend just sitting there, smiling like a toad. But at age nine or so I apparently didn’t have the emotional tools to confront Little Ricky, so I just cried a bunch and wrote him off passively rather than going deeper and challenging all four feet of him on the thievery.

That event left me so sour that I don’t think I ever traded cards again. It was devastating to my naive sense of permanence, and dope-slap shocking because the practice of stealing just wasn’t relatable. From then on Ricky couldn’t be trusted—he wasn’t allowed in our house, and we drifted apart. The episode chafed at me so much that eventually I didn’t even look at my cards anymore, not as an older boy or as a young man because it was sickening—all I could think of was that Little Bastard Ricky and those long-lost cards. Pathetic, but that awful feeling wouldn’t leave my gut so I put the little drama aside, went off to live a life, and didn’t think about the cards that remained there in my boyhood closet. Sure, I knew they were there the whole time; I just didn’t miss, want, or need them.

But on February 7th, 2019, all of those rotten memories permanently faded into the ether. What’s so special about that date? Well, ironically, that’s the day that Frank Robinson died. When the news came in I sat there shocked and saddened for a minute, then eagerly read his obituary and other articles, trying to hold on to the man and immortal player I’d admired for so long. I hadn’t considered him in years but it was still oddly devastating that he was gone so soon…so abruptly. It wasn’t right. But somehow as I sat there feeling old and lost, a thought slowly began to take hold… the realization that I had to have and hold his 1972 card…and there on eBay were hundreds of them, all bright blue and yellow, showing that smiling swing I hadn’t seen in decades. Then I realized how easy it would be to get the 1972 Aaron and Mays cards too, so those were found and bought. Phew. Next up? The ’73 Clemente card, of course.

Here it should be mentioned that aside from being way too materialistic, the reason I was so depressed when the cards first went missing was because they were just gone, with no way to reasonably replace them. Sure—I should have gone over to Rick’s, slugged him, and demanded them back, but at the time a bold potentially ugly confrontation wasn’t in my wheelhouse. Buying a slew of new packs might have worked too, but they weren’t affordable…so instead I opted for self-pity and distractions. Fast forward and nowadays we can find just about anything with a few keystrokes, for better or worse. Probably for worse – no personal interaction – but in this case eBay was my best new friend. Just knowing those cards were on the way to my house somehow left me feeling refreshed.

Not that I had dwelled on it in years but somehow my psyche felt lighter, healthier. After decades, The Ricky Caper suddenly didn’t matter…I’d finally gotten past it and was looking forward rather than backward—at least regarding that old kid card chase. But cards are colored paper…ornaments on a shelf…while Life is flesh and bones, work, friends and kinship…risk-taking and globetrotting. Big Ideas. It had to be worth trying this mindset with everything; be in the moment, don’t dwell on the past, least of all the episodes that dredge up those paralyzing, negative memories. That outlook was worth embracing.

After a while I almost wanted to go find Rick so we could talk about the old days, though we hadn’t seen each other since high school. It just didn’t matter anymore. Sounds silly as hell now that it ever did matter. It’s hard to believe that a few baseball cards could make such a difference, but for some reason an obscure yet critical internal valve had opened up and started functioning again. And after all those years, Mr. Robinson had been the catalyst.

Frank was special for so many reasons, they’re tough to track and list completely, but here are a few:

  • Still the only player ever to win the MVP in both leagues.
  • Triple Crown winner in 1966 (albeit with the lowest Triple Crown batting average (.316) in MLB history).
  • Two-time World Series Champion (1966 and 1970) and MVP of the 1966 Series.
  • Retired fourth on the list of all-time home run hitters with 586.
  • First Black manager in the majors when hired as player-manager for the Cleveland Indians in 1975.

He was meaningful to me personally because he had led the Baltimore Orioles dynasty teams of the mid-1960s to early ’70s. My sisters were born in Baltimore (1960) so my parents got to see and tell me about some of those early greats like third baseman Brooks Robinson, whom my mom said caught “everything.” So, they were my team from the beginning, even though I was born in Ohio four years after my sisters. And they continued to be my team even after we moved to the Cincinnati area in 1969, when I began to watch and learn about those fledgling years of the Big Red Machine.

Later in 2019 I went home to visit my mom (still a die-hard, long-suffering Reds fan after over 50 years) and was finally ready to get those cards and take them back to the West Coast with me. They were taking up space in that closet and my mom and sisters wanted them out of there. There they were in the same large, lidded metal box they had been in since the 1970s, organized alphabetically by team, with each team’s name printed out neatly in my mom’s trademark perfect cursive writing. I don’t remember why, but apparently I’d asked Mom for help, maybe to give the collection a classier look. Ha-ha. Early telltale signs of a budding curator and amateur sports historian.

Funny aside about my sports-loving mom: to this day she will poke fun at me for the time I came to her when I was eight years old, talking excitedly about “the Clemente Brothers.” “Clemente Brothers? What are you talking about?” she said. “You know, Bob, Robert, and Roberto!” I said eagerly. She just laughed. To my credit, I do have a 1969 “Bob” Clemente card and had probably heard him called “Robert” at some point, but even an eight-year-old should have been able to figure out they were all the same person. So it goes…

The first thing I went through at Mom’s house were the football cards that were collected/inherited contemporaneously—“they’re not all that interesting” I thought, but they were a jumbled mess in their brown “pleather” sticker-covered box, so needed to be organized; leave the baseball cards for dessert. Unexpectedly, it was a wonderful warm-up to go through those old NFL cards—I had completely forgotten what was even in there, so it was like a treasure hunt. They’re all from the 1960s and 1970s, a mishmash of well-known and obscure players, time capsules from an era when players looked entirely different than they do today, mainly because of the outstanding hairdos of the time—long stringy hippy hair, greasy handlebar moustaches, mutton-chop sideburns, Afros, comb-overs, etc. Different also because the typical constitution of any player looks stronger, with features bolder and broader, even though they were considerably smaller than the behemoths of today. All those looks reflect that sentimental favorite decade right there in my formative youth, the 1970s.

Coincidentally or not, 1972 happened to be a watershed year for change in MLB. For one it was the last season of the full-time hitting pitcher; the designated, or as we called it in the backyard, the “all-time” hitter rule was instituted the following year and after that baseball, at least in the American League, was never the same again. It was the year of the first-ever player strike, resulting in the first 10 days of the season being missed and varying numbers of games missed by each team. It was also the year when the old-fashioned wool flannel uniforms began to be phased out, replaced by new lighter synthetic materials like nylon and rayon. And it was the first year of the Texas Rangers franchise, when the expansion Washington Senators moved to Arlington (the original Washington Senators had moved to Minneapolis in 1961 to become the Twins), removing baseball from Washington D.C. until the Expos, based in Montreal since 1969, moved to D.C. in 2005 to become the Washington Nationals.

Yet even while change was afoot the divisions were arranged archaically, with Cincinnati and Atlanta in the NL West (along with Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego), though both of those cities lie well east of Chicago (Cubs) and St. Louis, both in the NL East. Similarly, at the time the Brewers were still in the AL East and the White Sox in the AL West, though Milwaukee is slightly west of Chicago.

After getting back home, I slowly, reverently, started plowing through all the precious baseball cards I hadn’t seen in decades. Part of me didn’t even want to…what if I just keep putting it off so I’ll always have that thing to look forward to? Take a page out of Uncle Larry’s Theory of Delayed Gratification. Right. Of course, once I did dive in – what a treat! So many warm memories came flooding back.

The bulk of the collection covers 1970-1977, with the 1975 cards most plentiful, probably because I had more paper route money by then; after that, the numbers piddle out. And yet…almost immediately I was struck by the recognition that all I cared about were the ones from 1972. Even finding a 1966 Whitey Ford, a 1968 Hank Aaron, and Colt 45’s cards of Joe Morgan (1967) and Jim “The Toy Cannon” Wynn (1966), all of which I’d completely forgotten about, didn’t excite me the way the 1972’s did. And it was oddly disappointing to see so fewer of the ‘72’s than I remembered. So…even before making my way a third of the way through all that original collection, I put it on hold and went back to eBay… knowing that I had to have all 787 cards from the 1972 series. Out of nowhere my inner 8-year-old was back, elbowing the boring late middle-aged self aside, hungry for those colorful cards like they’d nourish me somehow. No joke.

And so began the fantastic journey of not only finding and acquiring all those cards, but studying them, poring over them, and researching all the players and their careers. I hadn’t planned on taking all of that on—it just happened. I was energized beyond recognition and dove in like it would make me rich. Ridiculous? Kind of. Weird? Probably. Obsessive? No question. Unexpected? Surely. Materialistic? Uh huh. But in the end, was the process entrancing, fulfilling, cathartic and just plain fun? Well, hell yes! Stoked by those happy feelings I gave away loads of the best doubles to friends who might appreciate them, with pithy quotes cartooning out of the players’ mouths. Trying my best to spread that cool kind 1972 vibe, it was invigorating and incredibly fun. Who would have ever thought this could happen after tamping down all that bad card juju forever? Whatever the reason, I was just looking forward to getting at more of the long-lost hobby…


This is the most personal 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 here, 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, Hal Breeden, Lou Brock, Oscar Brown, Horace Clark, Billy Conigliaro, Chuck Dobson, Paul Doyle, Ed Farmer, Ray Fosse, Bill Freehan, Bob Gibson, Jim Grant, Grant Jackson, Bart Johnson, Jerry Johnson, Jay Johnstone, Al Kaline, Lew Krausse, Angel Mangual, Mike Marshall, Denis Menke, Lindy McDaniel, Roger Moret, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, Bob Oliver, Don Pavletich, Ron Perranoski, Juan Pizzaro, J. R. Richard, Mike Ryan, Tom Seaver, Richie Scheinblum, Rennie Stennett, Bill Sudakis, Don Sutton, Tony Taylor, Dick Tidrow, Bill Virdon, Bob Watson, Stan Williams, and Jim Wynn.

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

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

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

I’m sorry, Roger

My most prized complete set is the 1963 Topps. Even with the ugly Pete Rose rookie and the equally unattractive 1962 American League E.R.A. Leaders with the brim of Whitey Ford’s card missing, I still love it.

Yet my set is a constant reminder of how stupid a 14-year-old can be.

I collected the ’63s from wax packs bought back then mostly at the local Peoples Drug Store in suburban Washington, D.C. That explains why I had the misfortune to be a fan of the Washington Senators. It’s where I grew up. Given how bad the expansion team was (those Nats lost 106 games that season, for instance) and how heart-broken I had been when the original Senators moved to Minnesota, it’s a wonder I remained a fan.

To make matters worse, my best friend John was a Yankees fan, or more precisely a rabid fan of a guy named Mantle. Of course, like just about every serious fan outside metropolitan NYC, I hated the Yankees, or more precisely, since 1961, a guy named Maris. How sad to follow the crowd and not even know it.

My hatred of Roger Maris was because – no surprise – he had broken Babe Ruth’s home run record. I knew enough about baseball to know that Maris wasn’t anywhere near the Babe as a player, nor was he even the equal of Mantle.  

Members of this SABR committee who have seen Billy Crystal’s film 61* (I loved Barry Pepper’s portrayal of Maris) surely are aware of the venom directed at poor Roger, how his hair fell out and the pressure he was under. Heck, it wasn’t his fault Yankee Stadium had a short right-field porch or that Mickey got hurt. Or that Ford Frick wanted that darn asterisk on the home run record. Maris was just doing his job.

Still, one day during the season, when I got the #120 Topps card of Maris, I took a needle and punched a bunch of holes in it. For some reason, however, I kept the card. Perhaps in my subconscious, a voice was telling me what a mistake I was making, surely not because the card might someday become valuable – it has, but not ridiculously so – but because  I was being really stupid, disliking someone I didn’t even know so much as to treat his card as if it were a voodoo doll.

A couple of years later, John and I got Mantle’s autograph as he got off the Yankees’ team bus outside of D.C. Stadium. We got Ford, Jim Bouton and Elston Howard, too. Maris walked by us unimpeded.

Fast forward to the early 1990s, when my wife and I were cleaning out the attic, I came across a bunch of 1963 Topps that I had forgotten I had saved. The discovery, which got me back into card collecting, include the defaced Maris card, reminding me what I fool I had been.

I knew I deserved it.

‘McCovey is off the table!’

I grew up in the ’80s, and yet my favorite TV show – and certainly the one I related most to – was one set in the late ’60s and early ’70s: The Wonder Years. The primary reason was that the protagonist, Kevin Arnold, and the actor who played him, Fred Savage, were both my age when the show premiered after Super Bowl XXII in 1988. In many ways, what I watched on ABC each week was a mirror of my own experiences in suburban New Jersey.

One of the parallels – along with puberty, crushes and teenage politics – was baseball. Though Kevin may not have been as obsessed as I was, he was definitely a fan. The first image we see in the opening credits shows Kevin in the street, bat in hand, waving to the camera before calling his shot. He may have been known more for wearing his green New York Jets jacket, but baseball is not forgotten in the series.

In one Season 3 episode, “The Unnatural,” Kevin tries out for his junior high baseball team. The final scene shows him hitting a game-winning home run (despite missing third base; look for it), with Russ Hodges’ call of Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World” playing in the background.

But the most notable baseball scene involves a different Giant, and a way of engaging with the game we’re all familiar with here: The Hobby. In an earlier Season 3 episode, “Odd Man Out,” Kevin and Paul discuss a baseball card trade centered around Willie McCovey. The episode aired in November 1989, meaning it was set in 1969 (events depicted in the show were meant to be 20 years earlier than when they aired).

It’s not clear which McCovey card they’re talking about. Kevin and Paul are 13 in 1969, and Kevin’s voiceover saying that they’d “been through this a hundred times before” indicates that it’s an on-going discourse, so it’s probably a mid-to-late ’60s McCovey card. Paul’s stern response – “McCovey is off the table” – carried enough weight to be included as a magnet in the deluxe edition of the complete series DVD released in 2014 and inspired an indie rock song.

The McCovey Negotiations magnet in the deluxe DVD release.

The Wonder Years returned to TV this fall in a reboot set around the same time – beginning in 1968 – but with a Black family and a 12-year-old protagonist, Dean, at the center of it. Baseball has an even bigger presence in the first few episodes of this series, starting in the pilot when the climactic scene occurs during Dean’s Little League game. Subsequent episodes show pennants on the wall of the room he shares with his older brother (who’s fighting in Vietnam); the Cardinals, Phillies, Yankees, and Dodgers are all represented.

And, in a nod to the “McCovey is off the table” scene, a trading session among Dean and his friends outside of school pops up in Episode 3.

Dean reads the (fake) stats on a (presumably fake) 1968 Bert Campaneris card.

This time the names offered, in a much more elaborate negotiation involving at least four boys, are Jim Fregosi, Bill Freehan (mispronounced as “Freeman”), Hank Aaron, Bert Campaneris, Carl Yastrzemski, and Willie Mays.


DEAN: OK, Cory, if you trade Brad your Jim Fregosi, Brad can trade Sam his Bill Freeman [sic], and I’ll just take this Hank Aaron, I guess. I think we have a deal here, fellas.

BRAD: Wait, who are you giving up?

DEAN: Well, I really don’t want to do this, but I guess I could get rid of my Bert Campaneris.

BRAD: Who’s Bert Campaneris?

DEAN (chuckling in disbelief): Who’s Bert Campaneris? Only the utility infielder for the Oakland A’s that hit .232 with four doubles and six hit-by-pitches last season.

CORY: I don’t know, man. My mom told me not to trade with you anymore after you took that Willie Mays card off my hands because he “ruined it” by signing it.

DEAN: I’m sorry – am I trading with Cory, or Cory’s mom? Do you ask your mom to cut your steak, too?

CORY: Well, yeah, actually – she does it the best.

BRETT: I’ll take the Bert Campaneris!

DEAN: Finally! Someone who’s his own man. Now, let’s see who do I want in return. [Picks up a card, reading.] “Carl Yas-term-ski?” That’s a weird name. Guess I could take this one off your hands.


Back in 1989, before “high definition” was a thing, Fred Savage – who directed that 2021 episode with the trading session – was given 1989 Topps cards when talking about Juan Marichal, Luis Tiant, and Willie McCovey. In 2021, the props master (they really should rethink that title) at least managed to get reprints of 1968 (and earlier) cards, though the script writer made up a Bert Campaneris season that never happened. In ’68, Campaneris was an All-Star shortstop who finished 11th in AL MVP voting after hitting .276/.330/.361 in 159 games, leading the league in plate appearances and at-bats.

At least they aren’t in bicycle spokes? (Click to enlarge.)

A 1965 Topps Bill Freehan is on top of the cards being held on the left; those shown in the grass include three from 1963: Earl Averill (near center), Jimmie Schaffer (far right), and Casey Stengel and Gene Woodling of the Mets on a card titled “Veteran Masters” (top right of the pile). The bulk of the rest are from ’68, among them (roughly from left to right): Hank Aaron, Dick Kelley, Ken Suarez, Dave Morehead, Adolfo Phillips, Gary Peters, Cal Ermer, Bill Monbouquette, Tom Phoebus, Dan Schneider, Bubba Morton, and – yep, alone at the top – Carl Yastrzemski.

I wonder how things would have gone if Kevin had offered a Yastrzemski for the McCovey. Seems pretty fair to me.

How baseball cards got us through a year and a half of remote learning

So school finally started a couple months ago. In person. We’re lucky to live in a district which is taking things seriously so everyone’s masked, anyone who can be vaccinated has gotten vaccinated, HVAC has been upgraded districtwide, and our class sizes are even reasonable. Is kind of a weird feeling since it’s been a year and a half since I last had this much time to myself.

I haven’t written too much about what we’ve been doing day-to-day. Exciting stuff like bats and fires? Yes. But the everyday grind of trying to keep things interesting and moving? Not so much. It’s been tough. School is hard and while I appreciate being able to know what they’re learning, it was a lot to stay on top of all their work.* Plus the daily grind of lessons and homework is not the most compelling stuff to write about.

*Though it has paid off as real-world events have required us to better explain things.

I can however comment on how baseball and baseball cards have given the boys somewhat of a rock to hold on to amidst all the uncertainty over the last year and a half. Not collecting—lord knows that that’s been basically inaccessible to them as Target was always sold out for months before they stopped carrying cards at all—but the hobby itself has given them something reliable to turn to for multiple school assignments.

My youngest started off remote learning with a “passion project” where he would have to research something he was interested in and then report about it to his class.* He picked baseball but sort of panicked about his presentation because he hates being on camera. After talking things over we figured out that if he made oversized baseball cards he could draw something on the front and have his notes on the back.

*Not the best assignment but his teacher used the time to put together an excellent remote-schooling curriculum so it worked out great.

So that turned out to be a fun thing to work on. We’ve got plenty of books and could also watch the Ken Burns documentary. He ended up doing a mix of small stories about early rules*, early games, and some stories about how teams got their nicknames.

*Something we all learned about at a vintage baseball game a couple years ago.

My two favorite cards that he drew feature the first game in Hoboken—very appropriate given that we live in New Jersey—and a picture of a trolley mowing down inhabitants of Brooklyn. We may be a Giants household but the Dodgers nickname story is vastly superior. Oh, and these are intentionally uncolored because they’re supposed to be old and old photos are black and white.

My eldest meanwhile did a similar project and ended up making a presentation about the Giants where he picked the “best” lineup from their time in San Francisco. So he did some research into stats and had to make an argument about why he chose who he chose.

It wasn’t specifically a Baseball Card project but he ended up using baseball cards as his illustrations. Part of his choice to use cards was because it made for the easiest way of finding photos online and having them labelled clearly on his Power Point. But it also worked as a way of situating those players in time and showing when they played.

He’s made some noises of using this to make a small sent of custom cards but aside from a few design experiments nothing’s really come to fruition. As much as he likes the idea of making custom cards like I do, he hasn’t quite figured out that having a set theme is a good idea.

The following school year, my youngest decided to research baseball cards for one of his writing projects (specifically a research paper). This one felt a little weird to me since he had to list his sources and, while I didn’t spoonfeed him things, he definitely consulted with me.

At the same time, he has been to museums and seen old cards* and has a decent understanding of both card history as well as the nature of the hobby today. He definitely knows more about cards than I did when I was his age since I never got to see any of them.

*Also the Burdick cards at the Met.

He also was writing his report right when coverage of the hobby started to hit national media again. Between the number of high-profile sales—in particular the Mike Trout Superfractor which was briefly the most-expensive card out there—and the amount of other market craziness we all experienced last year, his report had a lot of almost current events to cover as well. I got a chance to see a lot of surprised comments from his teacher and he got to learn how nice it is to turn in a research project that teaches the teacher.

I don’t have screenshots of either of their reports (sharing writing seems a lot more personal than sharing drawings) but I was very happy to be able to read both of them and recognize how with everything else in upheaval, they were still able to draw on some hobbies as a source of inspiration and comfort in their schoolwork.

All “sorts” of fun in ’61

Committee note: This piece was submitted by SABR member Jamie Selko.

Back when I first started collecting, I kept my collection rubberbanded in the proverbial shoebox. I even, oh wretched child that I was, fastened some few of them to my bike frame with clothespins so that when the spokes would hit ‘em the bike would “sound” like I was riding a motorcycle. Alas, now that I am an aged and wretched recluse, I realize that even eight flapping baseball cards, while indeed somewhat louder than a non-carded bike (though not anywhere near as loud as a bike armed with fresh playing cards, which kept were much stiffer and kept their integrity much longer) is far (to the eighth order of magnitude) from the real thing (and , if you are riding a Harley, at least two orders of magnitude farther).

    Anyways, like many readers, I was not content to let my cards linger in dark boxy solitude, oh no. I felt a strange compulsion to arrange them into more orderly sets than the seemingly haphazard way they appeared when I opened a nickel pack of these rectangular beauties, and arrange them I did. Or, rather, rearrange them. I mean, sure, you could be content with the staunchly traditional and conservative yet quotidian “numerical order”. Or, you could put them in a much more reasonable, cosmically systematic order based not on a mere, random number, but rather on more rational and compelling qualities, qualities with a more real-world justification.

Cards the author seemingly received in every other pack of the 1961 Topps third series

    So, back when my entire collection amounted to a little more than two hundred cards, I set out to make sense of my new microverse. First, of course, I stacked the cards in teams, the most natural of all rearrangements. Next, also of course, I reorganized them by position, the second most natural of assignments. Then, if I remember correctly, I arranged them by age, then by height, position by height, position by weight, then circled back to position by age.  And I would do this each time I got a new pack of cards. (Of course, the constant reshuffling of my cards meant that they drifted farther and farther away from the now Holy Grail-like “mint”, but I didn’t (and wouldn’t have, even if I knew what was coming) give two hoots about that. Rearranging the cards (and the very cards themselves) filled me with a strange sense of joy and wonder. The joy remained until cards stopped being issued in series (although by then I was a certified baseball nut) but I kept on collecting them, basically because I thought it was somewhat more than a wonder that a 2.5 x 3.5 rectangle could not only tell us a person’s life story in a nutshell, but it also had a photo of the person in question and cartoons to boot.  How cool was that?

Two cards the author NEVER saw in packs and one he landed at least six of. Worked out okay.

    My own life might have been becoming more and more filled with errata, miscues, faux pas, disappointments, false starts, dead ends, passionate but unrequited crushes, insults, injuries and worse, but the cards never let me down. The first crinkle when I opened a fresh pack, the quick punch of the somewhat vaguely sarcophagal yet redolent bouquet of that pink bubble- gumly slab, the piquant, almost stinging taste of the way-too-sweet yet pleasantly biting first  explosive release of the compound sugars on my tongue (unsullied as they were by the later evils of high fructose corn syrup and aspartame) followed by the almost as rapid disappearance of any flavor at all and then the minutes spent working a quickly congealing gob with a consistency somewhere between Silly Putty® and sinusitic mucilage until your jaws got tired . . .  Man, kids of today just don’t know what they’re missin’.

Player Collection Spotlight: Representing the 772 (or 561 or 407 or 305)

Our collecting habits are almost certainly influenced by time and place, and my own certainly are. The players I collect were primarily active in the 1980s and 1990s, the team I collect was on top of the baseball world in 1986 with their spring training site moving about two miles away from my house, and, with my formative collecting years being the late 1980s and early 1990s, I find having a single card producing company with a full MLB license maddening.

At some point, probably in the early 2000s, I began collecting “cards” of players from the area in which I grew up. “Cards” is in parentheses because I have other items of the non-card variety, including Starting Lineup figures for the few who had them as well as other assorted card-like items. While the definition of a card varies by individual, my own definition of a “card” is broad.

Port St. Lucie was small when I lived there – the title of the post shows how much the area codes changed due to population growth over the span of about 15 years. There was not actually a high school in the city of Port St. Lucie until 1989 (I was in the second class that could possibly have attended the school all four years) – so I branched out a little into the rest of St. Lucie County as well as neighboring Martin and Indian River counties. But despite its size there were a few players who made it to the show.

The most famous player from the area is almost certainly Rick Ankiel. A highly touted pitching prospect who likely would have gone higher in the draft if he didn’t have Scott Boras as his agent, he finished second in Rookie of the Year voting to Rafael Furcal then proceeded to struggle with control against the Braves and Mets in the playoffs. He of course made it back to the majors as an outfielder, which, according to his book, may not have happened had he not had Boras as his agent. It’s that story which likely elevates him to the most famous player from the area.

Charles Johnson went to Fort Pierce Westwood and was drafted in the first round twice – once out of high school and once out of the University of Miami. I believe his dad was the baseball coach at Westwood for many years. He is probably the best player (at least according to WAR) to come out of the area, or at least he was until Michael Brantley came along. Again, there are dividing lines for a collection – I don’t collect Brantley because I had left the area before he became a local player. He was in the right place just at the wrong time. Brantley’s time in that area did overlap perhaps an even more famous individual from the area – you may have seen Megan Fox in a movie or two.

There are other players from the area, more minor players in the history of the game. Ed Hearn, who was born in Stuart and went to Fort Pierce Central, was a favorite of my best friend’s mom. He also happened to play for the 1986 Mets, which is good enough for me. Like Charles Johnson, Terry McGriff is a catcher out of Westwood and is actually Charles Johnson’s uncle. He’s also a cousin to Fred McGriff (who I also collect in a limited fashion though that has nothing to do with location – it has everything to do with time). A friend of mine in elementary school got Terry McGriff’s autograph when Terry visited my friend’s elementary school. Eventually that card ended up in my collection through a trade of some sort.

Danny Klassen, who went to John Carroll High School, is the closest in age to me, and while I didn’t play baseball with him (I was on the north side of Port St. Lucie and played at Sportsman’s Park; he was playing on the south side at Lyngate Park) I know many people who played on teams with him in Little League and Legion Ball. I believe he has a World Series ring with his time on the Diamondbacks. Wonderful Terrific Monds was a player I didn’t know much about, but (1) a good friend of mine’s parents couldn’t stop talking about how good he was and (2) his name is awesome. He never made it to the majors, but he has minor league cards and a handful of cards from mainstream sets due to being in the minors at the right time (a prospect in the early 1990s).

I should probably have a Jon Coutlangus collection, but alas, I think he was a year too late. At one point I identified Joe Randa as the best MLB player to attend Indian River Community College (which is now Indian River State College), so I started a Randa collection, though I don’t remember much about his IRCC career.

The more prominent players (Ankiel, Johnson, and Randa) have some game-used and autographed cards; most have parallel cards in one product or another. Okay, Ankiel has over 100 different autographed cards and over 50 memorabilia cards according to Beckett; he was a hot prospect at a time when there were multiple fully-licensed producers. He’s also popular enough that he has autographed cards in recent Topps issues, well after his retirement from baseball. Hearn, McGriff, Monds, and Klassen only have a handful (or what I would call a handful – less than 75) of cards. It’s usually easier to find the rarer cards of the bigger names because sellers will list them, with the cards of the less popular players coming up occasionally.

While the cards of these players aren’t going to set records at an auction or allow me to buy an island, the collection provides a tie to my formative baseball playing and baseball card collecting years. For me, those types of connections are why I collect.

Hollywood Stars Were in the Cards: Part 4

One of baseball’s enduring little mysteries arose the day I opened a pack of Topps in 1979 and pulled out a Rick Honeycutt: “Is Rick Honeycutt the son of Korean War veteran, Capt. B.J. Hunnicutt, U.S. Army Reserve?” I mused. It was, after all, just the sort of question an 11-year-old experiencing a sugar high from an alarmingly excessive amount of Topps bubble gum would ask himself on a warm spring day. The immediate and obvious answer, thanks to the spelling of the surname, is no. However, such variation in relations is not unheard of, nor are baseball cards free from error, so I decided to delve deeper once I got some free time—which I’d hoped would arrive before the summer of ’79’s conclusion but, unfortunately, didn’t present itself until last Tuesday.

As is well known—or should be, considering the Korean War is little taught in schools, sadly contributing to its lamentable sobriquet, “the Forgotten War”—the armistice declaring a permanent ceasefire (officially known as the Korean Armistice Agreement) was signed 27 July 1953. Although many American troops remained in South Korea until 1954 due to this fragile peace, Capt. Hunnicutt, a surgeon stationed at the 4077th MASH at the time of the ceasefire, was, like many officers, rapidly returned to the United States. (Being an officer, he almost certainly traveled by aircraft. Remember: in the waning days of the conflict, Capt. Hunnicutt got as far as Guam before his erroneous orders to rotate home were rescinded and he was sent back to the 4077th—all in a time frame possible only by air travel.) This means that Hunnicutt would have arrived home in Mill Valley, California, within the first days of August—to the great delight of his wife, Peg, and his young daughter, Erin. (Even had he been shipped home by sea, Hunnicutt still would have walked in his front door before the end of August.)

Rick Honeycutt was born 29 June 1954, in Chattanooga, Tennessee—which means that he was conceived in late September 1953. Baby booms are commonplace in the first weeks and months after wartime, as overjoyed and undersexed servicemen return to their wives or sweethearts. So, Rick Honeycutt’s conception falls right when we’d expect it to occur.

But why would Rick Honeycutt be born in Chattanooga if B.J. and Peg were living just north of San Francisco? One possible reason could be that, sometime in 1954, B.J. decided to honor his parting promise to Swamp-mate, Capt. B.F. Pierce, that they’d see each other back in the States, so he and Peg set out for the East Coast—surely with a stopover in Quapaw, Oklahoma, through which the major highway of the day, Route 66, conveniently passes, to visit Peg’s parents. Yet because this predated construction of the Interstate Highway System, travel by car was significantly slower than by standards of the late 1950s, causing the pregnant Peg Hunnicutt to unanticipatedly give birth to Rick in Chattanooga, either on the way to, or returning from, their easterly destination.

But that is a scenario fraught with geographic variables, and I believe the case to be much more along the lines of B.J. Hunnicutt attending a medical convention at Chattanooga State Community College—possibly traveling there on the yellow 1932 NSU 501 TS motorcycle on which he departed the 4077th (B.J. easily could have bribed an airman to stow it on the cargo plane taking him home). While at the convention, he had a fling with a local woman—a precedent had been set between the supposedly true-blue Hunnicutt and an on-the-rebound 4077th nurse, 1LT Carrie Donovan—and this latter affair produced a son, whose mother, either out of shame or ignorance of spelling, named the boy Rick Honeycutt. If this is the case, then it’s entirely possible that B.J. never knew of the existence of Rick.

As if additional evidence were needed, the 6’1” Rick Honeycutt apparently inherited the 6’3” B.J. Hunnicutt’s height and lean frame. (His 1979 Topps card also displays an extremely high crown to his cap, indicating that Rick likewise inherited his father’s abnormally spacious forehead.)

Honeycutt attended high school in nearby Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, so, at some point, his mother up and left Rick’s birthplace, taking her son from the disapproving eyes of Chattanoogans and across the state line, where her sordid past might not be the talk of the town.

After returning to Tennessee for his collegiate years, where Rick developed into a crackerjack first baseman and pitcher, Honeycutt was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Pitching well in AA ball, he became the “player to be named later” in an earlier trade with the expansion Mariners, making his major league debut for Seattle in August 1977. This must have pleased Capt. Hunnicutt, a keen baseball fan who, during his time in Korea, had predicted big things from a little-known rookie named Mays, helped fabricate a radio broadcast of a Yankees-Indians game, and whooped it up to Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.”

Rick’s years in Seattle, however, proved no better than the stalemate in Korea, as poor teams kept him on the losing end despite an ERA near league average. His frustration piqued during a start in Kansas City on September 30, 1980, as Honeycutt resorted to taping a thumbtack to the middle finger of his glove hand in an effort to covertly cut the baseball. But his ploy was spotted in the bottom of the third inning—as was the gash on his forehead after absent-mindedly wiping his face with his glove hand—resulting in immediate ejection from the game. Honeycutt quickly incurred a ten-game suspension and a $250 fine for his transgression.

Such unscrupulousness lends support to the theory that Rick was a product of an extramarital affair, because Dr. Hunnicutt would not have been around to imbue Rick with the strong moral foundation that would keep him from, ironically enough, doctoring a baseball.  

Whether the thumbtack incident hastened Honeycutt’s end in Seattle is debatable, but an 11-player swap just 10½ weeks later deputized him as a Texas Ranger, where, except for a disastrous 1982, his fortune improved.

Soon after the 30th anniversary of the armistice that brought Capt. Hunnicutt back to the United States, Texas packed off Rick to the Los Angeles Dodgers, despite Honeycutt owning the lowest ERA in the league (which would hold up after the trade, giving Rick the American League crown at season’s end despite now wearing a National League uniform).

The 1980s also, presumably, meant that B.J. now could follow Rick’s sojourn through the majors thanks to the newfangled gizmo known as cable television—a predilection that might have intrigued Peg and Rick’s half-sister, Erin, to see B.J. watching, or eagerly waiting for scores about, Rangers and Dodgers games rather than the hometown Giants.

Honeycutt experienced a homecoming of sorts when Los Angeles dealt him to the Oakland A’s in August 1987. Now just across San Francisco Bay from Mill Valley, Rick could reside close to his parents, or, if the scenario involving an illicit affair were, indeed, the cause of his birth, B.J. could clandestinely attend Athletics games and spend time with his son afterward—either of which made all the sweeter by Rick’s impending appearance in three consecutive World Series (including a championship against the Giants, though I have yet to discover a press photo of a champagne-soaked Rick celebrating with B.J.—perhaps Capt. Hunnicutt found San Francisco’s loss too dispiriting to celebrate and could not bring himself to join Rick in the clubhouse).

Some of this evidence might seem inconclusive, even far-fetched. However, what, for me, cements Rick Honeycutt’s lineage to Capt. Hunnicutt is the message he left the world after his final game, when Rick pitched an inning of mop-up for St. Louis at Shea Stadium in May 1997—a message in rosin bags that conclusively demonstrated Rick to be his father’s son…