Keith Hernandez (L) and Frank Thomas (R) – 2022 Mets Old Timers Day
“I’m so thankful that my dad was able to go to Old Timers’ Day. “It meant the world to him to see his old teammates. I was thrilled with how the fans greeted him. I was so happy to see him in uniform again. We will treasure those memories forever.”
Maryanne Pacconi (Frank Thomas’s daughter)
Frank Thomas, who passed away at 93 on Monday, January 16th, was a bright spot on the 1962 Mets team that won only 40 games. Frank had one of his best seasons in 1962 smashing 34 home runs and driving in 94 runs.
Road Trip to Citi Field
In early July my daughter and I had a wonderful time visiting Frank at his home in Pittsburgh. We talked about his playing days and our families. During the visit several Casey Stengel stories came up during our conversation. One of them was about the time he hit two home runs in three consecutive games during the ’62 season. “When I hit my first home run to start the streak, I was wearing glasses with yellow lenses. It was a twilight game, and the yellow lenses made it look like it was daylight. I circled the bases and then sat back down in the dugout. Casey looked over at me and asked – Where did you get the glasses? I said the trainer gave them to me. Casey said – Tell him to order a gross of ‘em for the other players.”
Towards the end of our visit, Frank mentioned that he was going to be at the Mets Old Timers on August 27th. “It’s probably my last one,” he said. And then a big smile came across his face, and he added – “The Mets called me up and wanted my measurements. They are going to make me a uniform!”
I told Frank that I would be there, and after returning home from Pittsburgh, I bought two tickets for the game. This was going to be the first Mets Old Timers Day since 1994. The game was heavily promoted by the Mets organization and was a sellout.
I went to the Old Timers game with a high school buddy of mine – another baseball fanatic – who also lives near Boston.
We left early in the morning and got to the park in plenty of time to see Frank make his red-carpet entrance into the stadium along with the other former players. He was using his walker but moving at a brisk pace. I am certain that getting to the Old Timers game was a major effort for Frank since he had a bad fall prior to the event.
Howie Rose, longtime radio broadcaster for the Mets, was the master of ceremonies and introduced each player before the game. The pre-game festivities also included retiring Willie Mays’ number 24.
It was obvious that the former players who had come back for the event had a great time. On the field I saw lots of laughing, high fives, hugs, and pictures being taken. The program stated that each Old Timer received a ring with their name on one side and the number 60, representing the team’s 60th anniversary on the other side. That was a nice touch.
Mets Cards of Frank Thomas Issued by Topps
Topps issued cards of Frank for each year he played for the Mets.
The Mets being an expansion team in 1962 created a problem for Topps. They could not get pictures of players in their proper uniforms and meet production schedules. As a result, Topps used a picture of Frank without a cap and wearing a Cubs uniform for his 1962 card – #7. Topps used a similar solution for just about all of the other Mets players with cards in the 1962 set. The exception being the Al Jackson card – #464 – which was a late production run 6th Series card.
1962 Topps Card #7
The 1963 card of Frank – #495 – is my personal favorite. I have always liked the design of these cards and the photographer took a nice color head and shoulders shot of Frank for the main image on the card.
1963 Topps Card #495
The batting stance picture used on his 1964 card – #345 – is similar to the batting stance pictures on his 1957 Topps card – #140 and his 1960 Topps card – #95.
If there was a Hall of Fame for major league ball players that signed Through The Mail (TTM), Frank would be in it.
In his autobiography Frank recalled his youth and stated: “I’d wait outside of the clubhouse after games and try to meet the players and get their autographs. Many guys would walk right by us kids with no acknowledgement whatsoever. It was very disappointing to see. That’s one of the reasons that I made a point to ALWAYS sign autographs as I left the clubhouse. I didn’t want some young fan’s recollection of me to be that I walked right past home as he held out his autograph book for me to sign.”
Since 2019 Frank and I had been communicating on regular basis, primarily by mail. Frank was old school. He did not text and he did not have a computer. I would bang out a letter on my computer, and Frank would respond back with a handwritten letter. He would answer my baseball questions in his letters and give me updates on his health and his children. The nominal fee that he asked for signing baseball cards went to two charities: – Camp Happy Days-Kids Kicking Cancer and Courageous Kidz. I gladly contributed to his charities and sent him cards that spanned his career to sign. I always received the cards back promptly – beautifully signed – along with a thank you note.
Letters from Frank were signed…
The Original One
I always got a kick out of that.
Apparently, anyone that contributed to his charities made the Christmas card mailing list. To my amazement, I received my first custom Christmas card from Frank in 2019.
2022 Christmas Card from Frank Thomas
Through baseball card collecting, I had the opportunity and privilege to become friends with Frank Thomas. I will miss him.
Planning a Return Trip to Citi Field
My two teams have always been the Red Sox and the Pirates; however the whole experience on August 27th really left quite an impression on me and has turned me into a Mets fan too.
This article was written by Bruce Markusen. You can find Bruce on Twitter at @markusen_s.
There’s little doubt that Nate Colbert enjoyed his 76 years on this earth. Colbert, who died earlier this month, always seemed happy. And he loved to smile. Evidence of that can be found on his 1969 Topps card, where he flashes a full and uncontrolled smile for the cameraman. Although Colbert was still an unproven player at the time the photograph was taken, his card seems to reflect his sheer happiness over simply being in the major leagues.
Aside from his extreme and ever-present smile, something else stands out about Colbert’s 1969 Topps card. He is not wearing a cap, not for the team that first signed him (the St. Louis Cardinals), not for his previous team (the Houston Astros), or his new team (the San Diego Padres). The decision to have players pose capless was a common technique used by Topps at the time. In the event that a player changed teams over the course of the winter or during spring training, the capless photographs maintained a more generic appearance. With the capless pose, Topps could easily crop the photo so as to eliminate the name or logo of the old team on the jersey.
In the case of Colbert, other factors were at play. As an expansion team, the Padres had yet to play a game, which would have theoretically limited Topps’ opportunities for an updated photograph showing Colbert wearing his new team’s colors. More pertinently, in a development involving all major league players in 1969, a lingering dispute between Topps and the MLB Players Association caused havoc with the production of baseball cards. Unhappy with the paltry compensation given to players for the rights to use their images on cards, Marvin Miller had instructed players to refuse posing for photographs in 1968, both during spring training and the regular season. That explains why so many of the cards in the 1969 Topps set feature photographs that are two or three years old (or even older). Those photos often depict traded or otherwise relocated players without caps, or sometimes show them from angles that obscure the logos of their old teams.
In contrast, Colbert would appear on Topps cards in his full Padres regalia from 1970 to 1974. By 1970, the union had negotiated a new and far more favorable deal with Topps, allowing the card company to resume its business of taking updated photographs. Of that series of Colbert cards, the most memorable is the 1973 version, which once again gives us a smiling Colbert. Even more noticeable is Colbert’s uniform, the Padres’ all-yellow uniforms that they first introduced in 1972.
Those duds, arguably the gaudiest uniforms of an outlandish era, may have been ugly, but as Colbert pointed out during a 2008 visit to the Hall of Fame, he looked at that uniform with a philosophical approach. “The yellow ones, which were called ‘Mission Gold’—I don’t know where they got that name from—when I first put them on, I felt really embarrassed. But I looked at it like, this is the major leagues; this is the uniform I was required to wear,” said Colbert. “I took a lot of ribbing, especially from the Reds and Pirates players. Even my mother used to tease me. She said I looked like a caution light that was stuck.”
While Colbert would become most associated with the Padres’ yellow-and-brown look, his career path could have gone far differently; he might very well have worn the more conservative cap and uniform of the New York Yankees. As an amateur free agent in 1964, the year before the major league draft came into being, Colbert was pursued aggressively by the Yankees. They had promised to exceed any offers given to him by any other team, but ultimately Colbert chose to go elsewhere.
If the Yankees had signed Colbert, they presumably would have brought him to the majors by the late 1960s. That would have been good timing for a struggling franchise filled with aging players and prospects who were not up the standards of the organization during its glory years. In particular, the Yankees had an unstable situation at first base. The retirement of Mickey Mantle at the start of spring training in 1969 forced the Yankees to switch Joe Pepitone from the outfield to first base. But Pepitone himself would depart after the 1969 season, via a trade with Colbert’s old team, the Astros.
From 1970 to 1973, the Yankees struggled to find anyone capable of giving them the ideal power expected from a first baseman. Role players like Danny Cater, Johnny Ellis, and Mike Hegan, the oft-injured Ron Blomberg, and an aging Felipe Alou took turns playing the position. Blomberg was the best hitter of the group, but injuries curtailed his production, while his poor defensive play made him a better fit at DH starting in 1973. Even if healthy, it’s doubtful that Blomberg would have matched the production of Colbert. A young Colbert would have supplied some much-needed right-handed power to a Yankees lineup that leaned heavily to the left.
But Colbert-to-the-Yankees never happened. He briefly considered the Yankees’ offer before choosing to sign with his hometown team, the St. Louis Cardinals. That was Colbert’s dream; he had always wanted to play for the same team as one of his boyhood heroes, Stan Musial. Unfortunately, the Cardinals did not think Colbert was ready to succeed Bill White at first base and had no room for him in left field (where Lou Brock resided). After the 1965 season, the Cardinals left Colbert unprotected in the Rule Five draft.
The Astros jumped in and picked up Colbert, who by the requirements of Rule Five had to stay on the major league roster the entire season or be offered back to the Cardinals. In the spring of ’66, Colbert made his major league debut. According to Colbert, he became the second member of his family to play in the major leagues, after his father, Nate, Sr. The younger Colbert claimed that his father was a catcher who was a onetime batterymate of the great Satchel Paige, but there is no official record of Nate Colbert, Sr. having appeared in an official Negro Leagues game.
As for the junior Colbert, he played in only 19 games for the Astros, accumulating a mere seven at-bats without a hit. For some reason, Astros manager Grady Hatton refused to use Colbert in the field, instead giving him only the handful of bats and a few pinch-running appearances. It turned out to be a wasted summer for the 20-year-old Colbert.
By 1967, the Astros were free to send Colbert back to the minor leagues, where he could accrue both actual playing time and badly needed experience. They assigned him to the Amarillo Sonics, their Double-A affiliate in the Texas League. He then returned to the Astros midway through 1968 and was later given a September looksee at first base, but he did not hit well and showed a propensity for striking out. He also clashed with Astros manager Harry Walker, who tried to force Colbert into becoming a contact hitter who hit to all fields. Colbert wanted to pull the ball—and hit with power.
Still, Colbert found his fair share of fun away from the field. Some of that came through sharing a clubhouse with the most colorful teammate of his career. During his visit to Cooperstown in 2008, where he regaled visitors with stories from his major league days, Colbert recalled playing with Doug Rader, the quirky and unpredictable third baseman who was forever playing pranks and testing the limits of sanity. “When we were with the Astros,” Colbert said, “[Rader] and one of the guys, another player on the team, went down to the pet store. That’s when it was legal to own alligators. And they bought three alligators, baby alligators. They waited until we were all in the shower, and they let them loose in the shower, down in Cocoa, Florida. We were trying to climb the walls, these little baby alligators all around us.”
Rader made life in Houston memorable for Colbert, but he longed for an opportunity to do more on the field. A much-needed break would soon come his way. After the 1968 season, the National League added the Padres and the Montreal Expos as expansion franchises. The Astros left Colbert unprotected in the expansion draft, giving the Padres the chance to select his contract. With the 18th pick of the draft, after such obscure selections as infielder Jose Arcia and pitcher Al Santorini, the Padres took Colbert. He would soon become their best player.
After starting the season in a platoon role at first base, Colbert caught the attention of his new manager, Preston Gomez. At first, the Padres planned to platoon Colbert with the lefty-hitting Bill Davis, who was six-feet, seven-inches tall and was known as “The Jolly Green Giant.” Colbert went on a short hot streak, impressing Gomez. The Padres soon traded Davis, clearing the way for Colbert to play every day.
From 1969 to 1972, Colbert put up huge power numbers, twice hitting 38 home runs in a season and twice posting slugging percentages of better than .500. Those numbers become even more impressive given his home ballpark, San Diego Stadium, which featured a distance of 420 feet to center field and outfield walls that stood 17 feet high. In 1972, Colbert’s best year, he collected 111 RBIs, accounting for nearly 23 per cent of the Padres’ run total for the season. That remarkable 23 percent figure remains a major league record.
Colbert was never better than he was on August 1 that season, when the Padres played a doubleheader against the Braves at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium. Colbert hit two home runs in the first game, one against Ron Schueler and one against Mike McQueen, and then smacked three more in the nightcap, victimizing Pat Jarvis, Jim Hardin, and Cecil Upshaw.
The fifth home run matched the doubleheader record set by his boyhood hero, Musial. (To make the story even better, Colbert claimed that he was one of the fans in attendance at Sportsman’s Park the day that Musial hit his five home runs.) Rather dramatically, Colbert hit the record-tying home run in the ninth inning against Upshaw, a tough right-handed reliever who threw with a submarine delivery. That home run gave Colbert 13 RBIs for the doubleheader, establishing a record for a single day.
Colbert’s years with the Padres provided other memorable moments, including the infamous night in April of 1974 when new team owner Ray Kroc took over the public address system on Opening Night at San Diego Stadium. “Well, we had just gotten thumped in LA,” said Colbert, setting the scene. “And we came home… and were getting thumped again [by the Astros]. So I was the hitter, and somebody comes on the mike and says, ‘People of San Diego…’ It scared me, I thought it was God. You know, I thought, oh gosh, the rapture was coming, and I’m not ready. And he said, ‘I want to apologize for such stupid baseball playing.’ So in protest, I said to myself, I’m not swinging.’ I just stood there and I walked… We eventually got a rally going. We scored five runs [actually three runs]. He [Kroc] apologized to us later. And I told him, ‘You own us. You can say what you want!’ ”
That same season, Colbert struggled in making the transition to the outfield. The Padres moved him there to make up for wintertime acquisition Willie McCovey, who took over first base. That was also the summer that Colbert’s chronic and longstanding back problems worsened. Diagnosed with a congenital condition caused by degermation of his vertebrae, Colbert’s hitting mechanics were severely affected by 1974, leaving him with a batting average of .207 and a paltry 14 home runs. That winter, the Padres traded Colbert, sending him to the Detroit Tigers for a package of shortstop Eddie Brinkman, outfielder Dick Sharon, and a minor league pitcher named Bob Strampe.
Colbert would spend an unproductive tenure of two and a half months in Detroit before being sold to the Montreal Expos at the June 15th trading deadline. (That explains why Colbert appeared on only one Topps card as a member of the Tigers. Appropriately, the 1975 card shows him with an upturned cap and another large smile.) He would fare little better with the Expos before being released in June of 1976.
Later that summer, Colbert signed with the Oakland A’s. Although he appeared in only two games and went hitless in five at-bats for the A’s, he enjoyed his time playing for another controversial owner, one who surpassed Ray Kroc for unpredictable behavior. “As far as Charlie Finley, I loved Charlie Finley,” Colbert said. “I thought he was awesome. When he traded for me, he told me that he always wanted me to play for him. He told me couldn’t afford me the next year , but he wanted me to have a good time that year . He told me if I needed anything, just call him. He treated my wife and I very well.”
Becoming a free agent after the 1976 season, Colbert drew little interest from teams. One team, the expansion Toronto Blue Jays, offered him an invite to spring training as a non-roster player. Colbert took the offer, but his back problems persisted, resulting in his release early in spring camp. The release officially ended his major league career.
It was during his brief tenure in Oakland that Colbert met his wife, Kasey, to whom he remained married for the rest of his life. The couple would have nine children and 22 grandchildren. They both became ministers and co-owners of an organization that provided advice and counseling to amateur athletes considering careers at the professional level.
While Colbert did a lot of good work with kids, his post-baseball life also involved controversy. In 1990, Colbert was indicted on 12 felony counts of fraudulent loan applications. He listed real estate assets that he did not actually own on several loan applications to banks. Under the maximum penalty, he could have faced 40 years in prison, but Colbert eventually pled guilty to only one charge and served six months in a medium-security facility.
After his release from prison, Colbert returned to his ministry and opened up several baseball schools. He also served briefly as a minor league manager in two independent leagues before again returning fulltime to his ministry work.
In more recent years, Colbert hosted a weekly radio show on KBAD Radio, an affiliate of NBC. He also hoped to write a book about his experiences, including his work as a minister, though he never did embark on such a project. But for Colbert, his ministry was clearly his obsession. “I love to pray,” Colbert said during his visit to the Hall of Fame. “And I love to teach. I love the involvement with other people.”
Given the broad smile on his 1969, 1973, and 1975 Topps cards, Nate Colbert’s affinity for people should have come as no surprise. He made life fun for many of his teammates and helped a lot of youngsters along the way. And there’s little doubt that he enjoyed just about every day that he spent playing our game.
Just a very quick article to provide definitive resolution to some Hobby lore regarding 1975 Topps card 466. Though the card’s headline, “A’s Do It Again,” is reminiscent of a Britney Spears hit, the card is better known to collectors for its connection to another pop icon.
Next to Reggie Jackson is a young lad collectors have long presumed to be former Oakland bat boy Stanley Kirk Burrell, more commonly known to the world as MC Hammer or simply Hammer.
The supposition wasn’t a bad one at all seeing as the hip hop legend was a fixture in the Athletics clubhouse from 1973-80, fulfilling a range of duties from bat boy to vice president!
Even the rapper’s nickname draws from his time with the A’s, where Reggie Jackson and other players called him “Hammer” or “Little Hammer” based on the young man’s uncanny resemblance to Henry Aaron.
Returning to the Topps card, then, an MC Hammer cameo makes a lot of sense.
Of course, there are others who know far more about these things than I do.
So there you have it. The MC Hammer cameo is actually big brother Chris! Perhaps we should have known all along since Hammer himself would have been 12 at the time of the championship, which is younger than the bat boy on the card appears.
Fortunately, there is still work to do for the cameo sleuths out there. Any chance one of our cardboard detectives can spot a glimpse of Oakland ball girl Debbi Sivyer, better known today as cookie maven Mrs. Fields, on some random A’s card?
Get out those magnifying glasses and check the left field foul line! She’s gotta be there somewhere!
When William Klein died I tweeted out a quick RIP from the official account where I stated that he was one of the blog’s favorite photographers. If you were browsing Twitter on your phone it would’ve been easy to miss the details in the photo and realize why I tweeted it. For me as both an art museum goer and a card collector though, Klein represents one of the few genuine overlaps in my interests. Yes it’s great to be able to visit the Burdick Collection at The Met but it’s even more fun to see cards pop up in other parts of the museum.
I’ll start with Klein both because he’s what prompted this post and because this is the oldest piece. And yes, the title of this photo is indeed “Baseball Cards.” I’m not going to write a ton about him as a photographer on here but his book of street photos in New York is justly famous in part because of how it taps in to imagery that where you not only feel like part of the scene but suggests that the scene may be familiar to you.
Sometimes, like with “Gun 1,” the familiarity is disturbing. Other times, such as with “Baseball Cards” the scene is one that should resonate in a pleasant way with every reader of this blog. Kids showing off their stacks of cards. Kids showing off a favorite player. It’s why we started collecting and in many ways the feeling we’re trying to hold on to while we keep collecting.
If you only saw the tweet on your phone you might not have noticed that the kids were holding stacks of 1955 Bowman. Blowing up the image you can see that the central card is one of the few light wood borders and is pretty obviously Gil McDougald. I had to comb through the set to identify the other card. I’m pretty sure it’s Randy Jackson—the dark background plus the long sleeves plus the placement of name box is pretty distinct—but there are a decent number of righthanded batters which I had to choose from.
I’ve written about these before on here so there’s no need for me to write much more. That said, at the time of first writing I hadn’t identified everyone in the cards and it took a committee effort in the comments of that post (as well as on Twitter) to both identify the actual 1979 Topps cards that were the basis for these.
I don’t think anyone’s identified the Rookies card but the other five are Steve Henderson (JOE), Bob Randall (JERK), Steve Kemp (HOT DOG), Ed Glynn (BUS PASS), and John Matlack (WALLY). The Mets Team Card meanwhile shows up on what we’re using as the checklist for these.
Most of us here probably recognized immediately that Warhol used a new photo and didn’t just copy either of Rose’s 1985 Topps cards. But the cards are clearly part of the piece. One of the things I like about Warhol’s Rose prints is how they combine the Campbell’s Soup elevation of industrial design into Art™ with his larger-than-life pop culture celebrity portraits and it says a lot about baseball cards and Topps that they were worthy of this treatment.
And yeah. A small short checklist so far which I hope to be able to add to in the future. But also a very fun one that speaks to baseball cards’ larger importance as part of our culture.
As if I didn’t already have enough different things to collect, the recent progress my SABR Chicago bud John has made on his Cubs team sets, 1956-present, got me thinking…what about me?
For the last several years I’d been working on roughly one Dodger team set per year. For example, last year’s project was 1951 Bowman.
This year’s project has been T206, which I’m now only two cards from completing. (Remember we’re talking team set here, not the entire Monster!)
Like so many other collectors, I frequently found myself wondering what was next. As much as I’d love to go “Full Hoyle” and chase every card ever of my favorite team, a focus on the 1970s or perhaps the “Garvey Era” (1971-83) was what felt most tenable.
Sometimes all you need is just the right nudge, and it came when another SABR bud, Dave, emailed me to let me know he was putting much of his collection for sale. As it turned out, he had plenty of 1970s Dodgers and even a decent stack from the 1960s. Dave’s collection was a fantastic start to my new binder and even got me thinking if I might extend my ambitions to include the 1960s as well, if not the entire Los Angeles era.
In the time since, I’ve made some deals on Twitter, grabbed plenty of cards off eBay, and whittled my 1970s want list down to less than two dozen. Though I’m less committed (for good reasons you’ll soon see) to the 1960s, I’ve also added some very cool cards from that decade that look great in the binder, even by themselves. My favorite so far is this 1960 Leaf Duke Snider.
As I’ve worked on this new collecting project here are some of the “rookie mistakes” I’ve made along the way, on purpose of course to make the adventure that much more challenging, right?
When collectors think Dodgers, 1958-1980, they rightfully imagine having to spend real money on the likes of Sandy Koufax, Duke Snider, and Don Drysdale, but they might need a minute to remember Ken McMullen. Despite the absence of Hall of Famers, this is NOT a cheap card!
Ditto the rookie card of Tom Paciorek!
Though the Penguin is a true Dodger legend, his second year card also ups the tab much more than one would hope.
The list goes on and on, with high priced rookie card cameos and high numbers (pre-1974) selling on par with Hall of Famers. My solution at the moment is to proceed full speed ahead on the 1970s but hold off on any earnest attempts from 1958-1969 even as I’ll happily scoop up the occasional dollar common from those early years.
1975, PART ONE: BEWARE OF MINIS
Beware?? I know many of you love the mini set, and hey, I’m not saying I don’t. I’m just not there yet. Still, in the process of building my standard 1975 Dodgers team set, I’ve opened two different eBay envelopes only to find mini versions inside. One goof was on me for not fully reading the description; the other was a goof of the seller, who forgot to include “mini” in the listing. Either way, the lesson learned is you can’t tell a mini from the picture alone…unless that picture is of your binder!
1975, PART TWO: DARN THOSE WORLD SERIES CARDS!
When I was seeding my 1975 Dodgers set at Dave’s place, I went off the team checklist at Trading Card Database. Not wanting to take up too much of his time, I barely looked at each card as I pulled it from the box. It was not till I got home that I realized the five season cards I grabbed all had a common theme: DODGERS LOSE!
If I had it to do all over again, I might have passed on every single one of these cards. Of course the thinking changes once cards are already in hand, at which point you almost have no choice but to add them to the binder. Soon enough I was able to soften the blow by adding the NLCS and WS Game 2 cards, both reflecting Dodger victories.
1975, PART THREE: THEY PLAYED WHERE?!
As mentioned, the Trading Card Database team checklist was my source for which cards to buy from Dave or subsequently seek out elsewhere. The problem is I only looked at the Los Angeles Dodgers, meaning none of these four cards made the cut.
Naturally, it won’t be a big deal to chase these cards down. I just feel stilly that I whiffed on the chance to do so when they were right in front of me.
HOW MANY GARVEY ROOKIES DO I NEED?
When I was at Dave’s I was pleasantly surprised to find a Garvey rookie in with his 1971 Topps partial set. Knowing this would be one of the most expensive cards I’d be buying that day, I had to think for a minute whether I really needed the card. After all, I already had two of them.
One was at my office as part of my framed Steve Garvey display. The other was hanging on my wall at home as part of my “Top 100” display.
In case you haven’t already guessed, my conclusion was YES, I definitely would need a third Garv for my burgeoning 1970s Topps Dodgers binder. What exactly would an acceptable alternative even be?!
Fortunately, I was able to side-step a similar quandary with what is actually the NL Iron Man’s most expensive card, his 1972 high number. Until fairly recently I only had one of these, and it resided in my office display. Fortunately, my wife gave me a second one for Fathers Day, signed no less, and I was able to add it to my 1970s Dodgers binder where it looks fantastic.
A LITTLE TIMES A LOT IS…A LOT!
The final lesson learned was one of basic mathematics. Even with most cards averaging a dollar or so, a decade of Dodgers is still a good 300 cards. The result is that all these little bargains quickly add up to much more than it would take to add a banger like this one to my collection.
Despite the minor pitfalls along the way, I am really enjoying this new project. For one thing, I feel like these are sets I should have. (How could I take myself seriously as a Dodger collector if I didn’t even have a 1976 Manny Mota card?) For another thing, it is a treat to flip through the binder and see a team of “oldtimers” like Willie Davis and Maury Wills evolve into the squad of Garvey, Cey, Lopes, and Russell that I worshipped as a kid.
Finally, and this is no small thing, it’s hard to take on a project like this and not end up with some doubles. If you’re lucky, they’ll be as beat up as mine!
Freshly back from SABR50 in Baltimore a number of questions from attendees are fresh in my mind. Perhaps the question most frequently asked pertained to assessing the value of a collection. Sometimes I’d ask for a description of the collection in question, and a typical reply might be “several boxes of cards from the 50s and 60s including Mickey Mantle.”
I’ll use this article to acquaint readers, particularly those who aren’t active buyers and sellers, with the main variables at play in putting a price tag on, say, a 1950s Mickey Mantle.
Without a doubt, not all Mantles were created equal. Head and shoulders above all others, at least as far as his standard Topps and Bowman issues are concerned, is the 1952 Topps card.
Mantle’s 1951 Bowman card, which doubles as the Mick’s rookie card, also carries a substantial premium, though perhaps counterintuitively a much smaller one than the aforementioned Topps card.
In general, not as a hard and fast rule but as a trend, older cards are worth more, and rookie cards in particular are worth the most. Though we have already seen an exception, it’s true much more often than it’s not. The graph below illustrates this for a hypothetical star player whose first card was in 1960. Note the significant drop-off from 1960 to 1961 and the overall decreasing trend across the decade. You might also recognize a significant drop-off between 1961 and 1962. This too is a thing as second year cards tend to carry a premium, though not nearly as much as first year (or “rookie”) cards.
Now, here is an actual graph for Mickey Mantle’s 1950s baseball cards. As we will soon see, the condition of the card plays an outsized role in valuation, so at the moment we will pretend all cards in the graph are of equal condition. (For those keeping score at home I’ll assume PSA 5, but don’t worry if you don’t know what that is.)
One thing you’ll note right away are the two sets of bars used, one blue and one orange. These correspond to the two major producers of baseball cards in the 1950s, Bowman and Topps. Bowman produced cards of Mickey Mantle annually from his first card in 1951 through the company’s demise following the 1955 season. Topps, meanwhile, issued Mantle cards in 1952 and 1953 but was forced into a two-year hiatus by rival Bowman who had Mick locked into an exclusive deal for the 1954 and 1955 seasons.
If you glance at the graph, one color at a time, you see that each color follows the general trend of the hypothetical graph presented earlier. Whether blue or orange, a downward pattern is unmistakable, and significant premiums are attached to the first of the bars.
So what was the purpose of all this? Mainly, I wanted to reinforce the idea that the value of a Mantle depends a lot on which Mantle. This weekend a 1952 Topps Mantle may make headlines by selling in the neighborhood of $10 million. This will no doubt cause some to wonder if the box of cards in their attic might produce its own seven-digit payday. Of course, as the graph shows, most Mantle cards (all but one, really!) are worth nowhere near that.
Before heading into our promised discussion of condition, I’ll share three more bits of information on the which Mantle front.
Particularly for cards produced before 1974, you will sometimes see exceptions to the monotonicity of the Value vs Year graph due to a “high numbers” effect. In many older sets, the cards at the end of the set were sold in smaller quantities, hence have greater scarcity. A famous example is the 1967 Topps Brooks Robinson, which is worth far more than any of his other 1960s Topps standard issues. (And yes, in case you’re wondering, Mickey Mantle had a “high number” card in the 1952 Topps set.)
Some players, especially stars, can have more than one card in a set. For example, Mickey Mantle has all three of these cards in the 1958 Topps set (and some might add the Yankees team card as well). Nearly always, the base (regular) card is worth more than the extras, in this case a World Series card with Hank Aaron and an All-Star card.
I’ve limited discussion thus far to cards from the major producers. However, the baseball card ecosystem is typically far larger than that. In 1954 alone, Mickey Mantle also had a dog food card, a potato chips card, a wiener card, as well as a couple others. It’s difficult to attach a general rule to the pricing on such cards. On one hand, they are generally less sought after by most collectors. On the other hand, some can be quite scarce. Thus there is some tug on their value in both directions, reduced demand pulling prices downward and reduced supply pulling prices upward.
In What Condition?
Even when I was a young collector in the late 1970s I knew cards with sharp corners and no creases were more valuable than ones you could practically roll along a table. This didn’t stop me from keeping my favorite cards in my pants pockets, but then again was I ever planning to sell them?
At any rate, the same is true today, but the premium on “high grade” vintage cardboard has only increased, in my eyes past the point of absurdity. Nowadays, much of the dealings in the Hobby’s upper stratosphere transpires with cards that have been commercially (the implication being professionally and objectively) graded by companies like PSA, SGC, and Beckett. While these companies certainly have their share of misses, the logic is that a well trained third party grader is more trustworthy than the card’s owner, who naturally stands to profit (at least in the short term) by over-stating a card’s condition.
Most grading is done on a numerical scale from 1-10, but the scale is decidedly non-linear. For example, here is a graph showing the value of the 1959 Topps Mickey Mantle card across its range of conditions. (Source: PSA, August 24, 2022.)
There have been no recent sales of the card with a grade of 10 and in fact only one such card has ever been graded by PSA. As such, there is no bar on the graph at 10, but you might have some fun guessing what such a card might go for based on the graph as shown. Half a million?!
Before proceeding I’ll show the same graph for grades 1-8 only, since the current graph’s very tall bar at 9 tends to dwarf all else.
The reason I’ve shared these graphs is to show just how much grade impacts value. For this particular card, a card graded 9 is worth more than 500 times as much as a card graded 1. Let’s unpack this a bit more.
Perhaps a friend lets you know that he just sold one of his 1950s Mickey Mantles for $1000, and—lo and behold—you have that very same card. Your copy might be worth $100 or it might be worth $10,000, maybe even a lot more than that! The point is, condition doesn’t just attach a premium; right or wrong, it creates a 500x (or more) differential in value, even when we’re talking about the exact same card!
I just illustrated the non-linearity of condition with respect to value. Separate from any discussion of market value, I’ll add my opinion that condition is also non-linear with respect to appearance. This may sound contradictory at first since you may view condition and appearance as synonyms, i.e., how the card presents. Either way, let’s take a look.
Here is the 1959 Topps Mickey Mantle card in grades 9, 8, and 7 respectively. At first glance, you would not be wrong to imagine the three cards identical. If anything, you might even dock the “9” for what looks like a very small stain below the O in OUTFIELD as well as some faint discoloration above the mickey mantle name.
At any rate, if we presume no error or subjectivity in the grading, we can only assume that there are important distinctions not necessarily evident to the naked eye (or, in fairness, on the backs of the cards). Perhaps the “8” has some microscopic corner ding, for example. Still, the larger point is that a 7, 8, and 9 all look almost exactly the same. (Notably, the card on the left sold for more than 30 times the card on the right!)
While I’ve illustrated my point using three cards, to my own eye the top six slots on the grading scale, i.e., grades of 5-10, all look about the same. Don’t get me wrong. If you look hard enough, I bet you can figure out which of these Mantle cards is a “10” and which is a “5” but I’ll still paraphrase Maya Angelou and say they “are more alike, my friends, than they are unalike.”
Back to value for a second, one of the two cards pictured sold recently for $1600. The other, were it to hit the market today, would likely fetch upwards of $500,000. 🤷🏻♂️
Sometimes someone sends me a picture of a card they took with their phone and asks what I think it’s worth. I hope the two Mantle cards illustrate the difficulty of providing such an assessment, particularly when cards are in really nice shape, hence differences in grades reflect only tiny distinctions but gigantic pricing differences.
For completeness, I’ll illustrate the lower end of the scale, where distinctions are much more notable, though still not always evident.
Though I’ve used graded cards to illustrate the hypersensitivity of price to condition, there are again some notes to offer.
Some cards receive half-grades (e.g., 3.5). Pricing for half grades is about what you’d expect.
Many sellers, even when a third-party grade has been assigned, will hope to realize a nicer sale by claiming their card is “under-graded” or “the nicest 3 you’ll ever see.” I can definitely say that grades being equal, some cards look better than others. Ultimately though, the buyer should be the judge of this rather than simply take the seller’s claim at face value.
Some cards receive non-numerical grades, the most common being “Authentic,” which usually is not as good as it sounds, and the most dreaded being “Counterfeit!”
Last but not least, most cards bought and sold are not graded. (Sometimes the term “raw” is used.) Here there is a greater risk associated with fakes, but the good news is that most of the folks out there buying vintage collections are able to tell real from bogus. As such, if you’re thinking about selling your childhood collection of 1950s cardboard, you need not panic that the only way to get anything for it is to spend tens of thousands of dollars having it graded first.
That said, if you are selling online to someone who can’t handle the cards directly, you may well experience a lower sales price based on buyer uncertainty over authenticity. A return policy and clear images mitigate this, but many online buyers will still attach risk to your cards and lower their offers accordingly.
Though it seems ridiculous, the value of a 1950s Mickey Mantle can be anywhere from about $10 to $10 million. Two factors that make a very, very big difference are which card you have an what condition it’s in. These certainly aren’t the only factors, but they more than suffice to make the point, which is that it is exceedingly difficult to assess the value of a vintage card or collection without spending some real time with it.
So what’s the value of that box of 1950s and 60s baseball cards from your childhood, the one you’re positive has a Mantle or two? There’s only one real answer, and it’s an incredibly unsatisfying one: it depends…and almost comically so!
When we moved from Brooklyn to the middle of Long Island in December 1971, it was like landing on the moon. I was nine years old, with long curly hair and a David Crosbyesque fringe jacket. The kids in my school were more Leave It to Beaver than Mod Squad.
The stores were different too. There was a drive through place to get your milk and groceries (Dairy Barn). In Canarsie, we had Bill’s Superette, a truck that would drive down East 82nd Street with similar goods. Instead of the local candy store, there were 7-Eleven Stores. And Slurpees. Many many Slurpees, the official drink of the Gods.
There are few things on Earth as delicious as a Coca Cola Slurpee, but, starting in 1972, the icy drink game was dramatically upped. Slurpee cups had baseball players!
I was going to be drinking a lot of Slurpees anyway, but now there was something new to collect. The players were beautifully, and colorfully, drawn. Well worth keeping after the last straw full. I was so hooked on Slurpee cups that my Grandfather would buy me empty ones. Thanks to the benevolent staff at the Lake Grove store, I was allowed to go behind the counter and go through the sleeve of cups, picking out the ones I needed. I don’t know if they charged less, or the same, for empties, but it worked for my Grandfather, and for me. At a quarter either way, it was manageable.
I’ve transported stacks of Slurpee cups to every place I’ve lived in the last 50 years, but only recently did I come across these lovely photo checklists. Now I can work on these 60 cup sets.
The 1972 cups have back bios set to the left in one solid paragraph. The 1973s have a more centered look. This is important to know since the checklists have a lot of overlap. There are some great distinctions – Willie Mays has Giants (1972) and Mets (1973) versions. Others can only be distinguished by the backs.
The 20 Hall of Famer cups are not as nice. Weird, really. Like the 1963 Bazooka All Time Greats, they portray HOFers when they were old. Nothing more appealing to the kids than a desiccated Lefty Grove. 7-Eleven liked them enough to put out a radio ad.
I’ve learned a few things as I start investing the cups I need. Thankfully, sold listings on eBay indicate that the common guys are pretty cheap, two for a dollar at times. Even big names don’t go for very much.
What I don’t know is whether there’s a lurking short print out there. I tend to think not, but I’d hate to get stuck paying a ton for a 1973 Ellie Rodriguez cup.
This feels like a good project. I never dreamed I’d have complete runs of Slurpee cups, but it seems attainable. Not as much fun as drinking a Slurpee, but close, very close.
If you are not familiar with former major leaguer Elio Chacón welcome to the club. I was not aware that Elio played a total of 228 games in the majors from 1960 to 1962 with the Reds and Mets until very recently.
Topps only issued two mainstream cards of Elio. Card number #543 in 1960 when he was a rookie with the Reds and card number #256 in 1962 when he was with the Mets. The 1962 card is an airbrushed, no cap, Reds photo that features Hall of Famer Frank Robinson in the background. If you do a search on eBay you will also find a 1967 “Venezuelan Topps” card, a Venezuela Sport Gráfico Ovenca card produced in 1970, and a Venezuelan Show card with the same photo Topps used in 1962.
Born in Caracas, Venezuela, Elio is remembered in Cincinnati for hitting a single off Ralph Terry in Game 2 of the 1961 World Series and then scoring the winning run in the Reds only victory in the Series. In New York, fans remember Elio for getting into a base-brawl with Willie Mays and the “Yo la tengo” incident.
Here is recap of the “Yo la tengo” incident from Elio’s Wikipedia bio. You will also find similar descriptions of the incident in these two books – Richie Ashburn Remembered by Fran Zimniuch – and Richie Ashburn…Why the Hall Not? by Bruce E. Mowday and Jim Donahue.
During the 1962 season, New York Mets center fielder Richie Ashburn and Chacón frequently found themselves colliding in the outfield. When Ashburn went for a catch, he would scream, “I got it! I got it!” only to run into the 160-pound Chacón, who spoke only Spanish. Ashburn learned to yell, “¡La tengo! ¡La tengo!” which is “I’ve got it” in Spanish. In a later game, Ashburn happily saw Chacón backing off. He relaxed, positioned himself to catch the ball, and was instead run over by 200-pound left fielder Frank Thomas, who understood no Spanish and had missed a team meeting that proposed using the words “¡La tengo!” as a way to avoid outfield collisions. After getting up, Thomas asked Ashburn, “What the hell is a Yellow Tango?”. The band, Yo La Tengo, gets its name from this baseball anecdote.
Topps 1963 Richie Ashburn #135 and Topps 1964 Frank Thomas #345
The above story fits in seamlessly with the other hilarious stories from the first year Mets who were managed by Casey Stengel and finished the 1962 season with only 40 wins – but did it actually happen?
Pittsburgh Road Trip
In early July, I went on a road trip from my home near Boston to Pittsburgh. I had planned out a baseball heavy vacation with my two travelling partners – my daughter and her boyfriend. We toured the Clemente Museum, took in a game at PNC Park, snapped pictures in front of the remaining sections of the Forbes Field wall, and pretended we were Smokey Burgess at the site that marks where home plate was at Forbes Field.
Meeting with Frank Thomas
The highlight of my baseball vacation was an in-person meeting with Frank Thomas “The Original One” at his home in Pittsburgh on July 4th. Frank and I have been trading letters back and forth since 2019. We also have had a couple of phone conversations. I told Frank shortly after his 93rd birthday that I was coming to Pittsburgh and would like to see him. He was fine with an in-person meeting. I was expecting the visit to be no more than 20 minutes. My daughter and I had a wonderful time speaking with Frank about his playing days and our families for 90 minutes. He let me record the conversation so I could some of the baseball stories.
My first question was – “Tell me about the Yo la tengo story?”
Frank’s answer – “It never happened. Richie made it up. I couldn’t catch them. Richie played centerfield. I played left field. Chacon played shortstop. I never even came close to them. When he was an announcer in Philadelphia, he made up stories that’s all. Like all great announcers do. All fictitious.”
During our visit Frank mentioned that the Mets called him up and wanted his measurements for a uniform for the Old Timers game on August 27th. “The Original One” is going to be at Citi Field on the 60th anniversary of the 1962 original Mets. I told him I would be there. I already have my tickets.
In my last blog post about the 1973 set I stated that I was 50 cards shy of a complete set. Over the past two years I have picked up all but one of the cards needed to complete my set.
With the recent release of the 2022 Topps Heritage cards that are patterned after the 1973 set, I felt it would be a good time to share some additional thoughts about the set.
With the election of Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat earlier this year the total number of Hall of Famers pictured on base cards and manger cards is an impressive 40. Hall of Fame coaches with chopped off ears are not included in my total.
The Terry Crowley card was one of the missing 50 that I purchased. I feel that the photo would have been a much better choice than the one Topps used on the 1973 card of Thurman Munson.
One of the major problems that I have with this set – the lack brightness and pop with regards to the photos of the players – is actually a benefit for Through The Mail (TTM) autograph collectors like myself – since just about every card is a good one to send to players to sign if you are a fan of nice, visible signatures.
In this section I am going to just focus on some of the 50 cards that I acquired to complete my set.
For the Jim Fregosi card we have another photo of a player popping up. It is a bad photo – but not as bad as the memories it brings back of how bad the Nolan Ryan for Jim Fregosi trade really was.
Picked up a few more “could be anyone” cards due to the afternoon action shots created by high contrast situations that shaded the faces of the player or action shots with too little player information (no uniform numbers, no names on jerseys).
The Checklists are terrible. These ugly cards looked like they were designed in under 5 minutes. For comparison purposes I have included below what I feel is one of best checklist cards produced by Topps.
Two Great Cards
There are two great cards in this set. The Roberto Clemente card (which I mentioned in my first blog post about this set) and the Pat Corrales Card.
The current Topps management team thought so highly of the Clemente card that they included a reprint of the 1973 card in the base 2022 Heritage set.
There have been numerous blog posts and twitter mentions about the Pat Corrales card since the action shot features Hall of Fame pitcher – Ferguson Jenkins – sliding into home and upending Corrales. Jenkins was called out on the play, but if you watch the replay it looks like Corrales missed the tag.
1973 was not the last time that Corrales and Jenkins were on a Topps card together. Pat Corrales was the manager of the Texas Rangers from 1978 to 1980. Corrales and Jenkins appeared together again on the 1979 and 1980 Texas Rangers Team cards.
A Nice 1973 Tribute Card
One of the nicest cards from the Project 70 set was the Roberto Clemente card by Mimsbandz. The card utilizes the 1973 design and features four embroidered scenes from Roberto’s September 30, 1972, game where he collected hit number 3,000.
The Last Card
So, what is the last card I need to finish the set? It is not the Mike Schmidt rookie card. It is the 5th Series Checklist card – number 588. If you include shipping charges unmarked examples of this card are going for over $50 on eBay currently. Slabbed examples range in price from $90 to $339. I refuse to spend over $50 for a checklist – especially an ugly one.
While we are talking checklists, does anyone else think it is crazy that people are sending in checklists to get slabbed?
Editor’s note: SABR Baseball Cards welcomes new member F. Scott Wilkinson with the final installment of his 10 articles on the 1972 Topps set, now celebrating its 50th anniversary.Click here to start the series from the beginning.
I have explained many times that I am, by Profession, a Gambler—not some jock-sniffing nerd or a hired human squawk-box with the brain of a one-cell animal. No. That would be your average career sportswriter—and, more specifically, a full-time Baseball writer.
—Hunter S. Thompson
On the way to accumulating all 787 cards of the ’72 series I dove in and soaked up as much hobby knowledge as possible. As much as I’d been into collecting as a boy before long it became obvious that I knew nothing about any of the finer points. Good grief, is there ever a lot to learn…
Traditionally, cards with numbers ending in “00” or “50” are reserved for the most iconic players, though naturally not all selections have aged well. For 1972 there’s an interesting time capsule of 15 such cards, including: Willie Mays In Action (#50), Frank Robinson (#100), Norm Cash (#150), Lou Brock (#200), Boog Powell (#250), Hank Aaron In Action (#300), Frank Howard (#350), Tony Oliva (#400), Mickey Lolich (#450), Joe Torre (#500), Brooks Robinson (#550), Al Kaline (#600), Sal Bando (#650), Bobby Murcer In Action (#700), and Willie Horton (#750). Considering the year, it looks like Orioles are appropriately represented, Tigers are overrepresented, and pitchers and Pirates are underrepresented. Roberto Clemente (#309) for Sal Bando or Willie Horton, anyone?
Lower-numbered cards are more common while higher cards tend to be more rare and valuable/expensive, though I did happily find many decent high numbered cards in my spotty boyhood collection. Reportedly many regions of the country just never received higher series cards.
As with numismatics, the grade of “good” is a misnomer – about the worst grade there is – though “fair” and “poor” are valid too. Venders will note that those lesser grades are “just so you can say you have a card” – they’re placeholders, and barely worth the paper they’re printed on. Early on, Willie Stargell (#447) got tossed into the recycling bin – regrettable and maybe foolish, but the card was so warped and bloated from water damage I had to say goodbye. Tough to know where to draw the line though. Sorry, Willie.
An incorrigible collector/space filler from way back, I got lost in searching for the best deals…trying to be disciplined and unemotional, patient and thorough…which isn’t easy when all you want is to instantly have these things in your hands so you can turn them over and over and stare at them. At first it was fun to buy random large lots of cards to get the ‘best’ value (at that point I was thinking “Okay, about a dollar a card—not too bad…”), but the shine wore off soon as it sank in that many cards vendors sent were (perhaps) thin fakes or otherwise comically off-center, with rounded, fuzzy corners, frayed edges, and faded print on the back due to aging/oxidation or “paper loss”. The broad appeal of sports cards almost invites all kinds of creative ways to damage them.
They can have gum, wax, water, oil or tape stains, pencil/ink writing, staple holes, divots or indentations, blisters, rubber band constriction marks, and innumerable other blemishes caused by careless handling. Bernie Carbo (#463) arrived wearing one of those ’70’s style punch labels on his back and there it remains after inducing a tear. Don’t think I revisited that vendor. Maybe worst of all is a crease (or “wrinkle”), both soft (showing on one side or the other) and hard (showing on both sides). Then you read about card trimming, presumably to enhance centering and pricing. Really? Isn’t that a petty, chintzy scam! One could just measure the dimensions of the card in question…though by then the seller may be long gone.
Here are just a few of the bad things that can happen with your cards…
Sticker added (Bernie Carbo, #463), paper loss and bent corners (Hal McRae, #291), offset printing (Ross Grimsley, #99).
Hard crease (1st Series Checklist, #4), blister/mystery blemish (John Odom, #557), rubber band constriction marks (Steve Huntz, #73).
For me eventually very good, fine, and even “Excellent” cards weren’t satisfying enough…usually due to creases, stains, dog-ear corners and/or off centering…so then you go for “Near Mint” or “Mint.” Who would guess that over the course of a lifetime one could go from putting “In-Action” cards into bike spokes to obsessing about centering and perfect corners? Not me, until now.
After buying loads of cards I started to receive free ones tacked onto orders from familiar online vendors, a nice show of goodwill for being a reliable customer. Most of them were cheesy, value-less, but hey – they’re free, so no complaints. But speaking of “cheesy” – how about two Topps “Chrome” cards from 2001 —Roberto Alomar (#365) and Omar Vizquel (#452), featuring outdated cartoon caricature Indians logo and unavoidable reflection of phone and fingers.
Then along came a 1991 Fleer Dwight Evans (#93) and a 1996 Upper Deck Jim Abbott (#292) – pretty sweet.
One time it was a 1983 Donruss card featuring the “The (San Diego) Chicken”(#645)—okay. Another was a 1985 Fleer card of Al Oliver (#U-84) wearing number “0” and looking serious in a Dodgers uniform— very cool.
There was even a 1990 Upper Deck card of a thin, mustachioed Edgar Martinez (#532) when he still played third base for the Mariners—nice! The most generous gift was 15 Fleer cards from the charmed 1986 Mets team that won the World Series from the Red Sox, including Series MVP Ray Knight (#86). Much appreciated.
One of the latest freebees was a 4955 MFWD John Deere Tractor card (#D26) from 1994—oh boy. But still, I’ll keep it. I have to thank these kind vendors – it was eye-opening to be exposed to such a variety of brands and realize that Topps is just one facet of the sports card landscape.
All in all good luck has been had with online purchases, aside from a few mistakes like not reading the fine print (“Photo is a stock image”) and getting stuck with a crappy card I didn’t get to evaluate. They might send reprints rather than originals—not easily proven but hopefully not too commonplace either, at least with the hobby faithful. Eventually a black light will need to be had to help see if we’ve ever been swindled.
The only gripe I have is minor, but consistent: damn, do most vendors use way too much tape when packing the things up! That would be fine if it was some gentle non-stick tape, but it always seems to bleed tree sap onto a pristine sleeve to keep a card from teleporting out during its travels…or they create a packing tape fortress, covering the entire outside of the package with the infernal stuff. Some seem booby-trapped to keep you from the precious cargo…it’s just beyond the next plastic sleeve, rubber band, or cardboard sheath. But hey – the packages never show up bent so if that’s the worst thing about the process, so be it. Overall I’ve been treated like family, especially by my more reliable eBay sources like The Baseball Card Exchange, The Battersbox, Dean’s Cards, 4SharpCorners, and Sirius Sports Cards) as well as most all of the smaller operations out there, run by studious folks who just seem to love the hobby.
It’s worth mentioning that sometimes the process of finding well-centered cards can be maddening, if you care about that sort of thing. Evaluating the yin and yang of horizontal versus vertical centering is almost a science unto itself. After scouring enough versions of the same card it became evident that certain cards of the highest grade are either temporarily unavailable, exceedingly rare and unrealistically expensive, or simply do not exist and maybe never did. Cards like Dave Campbell (#384), Gil Hodges (#465), Bobby Murcer (#699), Jim Kaat (#709), Ken Aspromonte (#784), and the In Action series in general (e.g., Reggie Jackson (#436)), among many others (e.g., Bert Campaneris (#75), Rennie Stennett (#219), Ken Singleton (#425), Steve Kline (#467) – argh!). Well, the better players and higher numbered cards are pricey, but you can get a light-hitting lower-numbered Campbell in near mint for a few bucks (Sorry, “Soup”!). Here are a few unfortunate duds:
It’s always a trade-off – do you want perfect centering, or crisp corners? What about the print quality and clarity and brightness of the colors? Ultimately it’s almost impossible to find the best of everything in the same card unless you’re willing to pay top dollar, so eventually you settle on something available that passes the eye test and move on.
Speaking of “top dollar”, it’s flummoxing how these things can have any real worth. Unlike gold or other precious metals, they can’t be intrinsically valuable in any way—they’re only paper and ink. I remember hearing about how the bottom fell out of the sports card market in the early 1990’s and thinking, “who cares?”…but values are cresting again these days and even relatively common cards like these are being sold at amazingly high prices. I care now! They’re worth something to someone, the sole requirement for anything to have value.
Example: Probably the most prized 1972 Topps card is an airbrushed Angels/Mets pinstripes Nolan Ryan (#595), and in PSA 9 (mint) condition I’ve seen it listed for as much as $5,999.00, though the vendor may settle for the “best offer.” And you have to think that at some point someone may have paid more than that for a particularly nice one.
So, one must wonder: how can this be? Works of art may sell for millions of dollars – they’re mere canvas and paint, but created by a renowned artist. The most valuable numismatic coins are thin chunks of metal amalgams, but they have specific (low) mintages, making them desirable. Bullion is only metal too, but has intrinsic value – some elements are uncommon and precious. Diamonds are miraculously rare. With this pursuit though…how can there be any real value in cardboard? How can so much money be exchanged for pressed paper slabs when at one time they sold for pennies alongside a stick of bubblegum? These things have no serial numbers…how easy would it be to make a forgery? And if you didn’t know one was a fake, how and why would that matter?
Tough questions, but let’s at least take a shot at distilling down that elusive concept of “value”. Turns out these cardboard gems are much more than just valuable – they’re priceless.
As I’ve tried to explain to a fellow baseball aficionado (a diehard Red Sox fan, who watched miserably when he was 13 years old as Bob Gibson dominated his team in the 1967 World Series), sports cards may be more valuable than gold or diamonds or any other worldly thing because unlike those objects these fleshy old cards are personal. They hold and stir memories, and memories don’t equate with money. Each snapshot is stamped with a certain time and then endures through time, or at least for as long as one can remember. In turn, those memories jog feelings… and aside from knowledge gained feelings may be the most profound, real, persistent, and valuable things that we ever experience and have to hold on to. They live in our blood as much as our minds.
Plus, these days these cards are antique keepsakes – cool niche relics from half a century ago, finite in number. That must count.
Maybe that’s all there is to it, and maybe not. All I know is that these days I feel more like an energized, optimistic little kid again, one who couldn’t care less about Little Ricky and his pilfering of my cardboard friends so many years ago.
Valuable or not, the truth is I love everything about these cards. The way they feel in my hands. The way they look. The obscure statistics, geographical info, and nostalgic trivia on the backs. The fantastic fashion and trademark styles of 1972. All the heroes of my youth. They were there at that impressionable age when the boy fell in love with baseball and started buying his first packs of cards, so they’ll always be the sentimental favorite. More than anything it’s about all those warm, eye-candy colors and that funky, festive vibe they shout out all 787 times. Unless you feel similarly it’s not easy to explain how these things are tethered to the soul.
It took about five months to acquire the whole set, then about five months later I took them off the shelf and began to pore through the albums, unexpectedly finding exactly 50 that were horribly centered. After replacing those, I started over at card #1 and found many more that were troubling, with fuzzy gray corners, creases, stains, and iffy centering. How did I miss them the time before? After that time through I started at the beginning again and found that standards had risen even higher so that about every other one looked replaceable. Sheesh. So here we go again…
But why? Is the goal to have the world’s ‘best’ collection of 1972 Topps baseball cards? Maybe. Let’s just call it the Collector’s Conundrum. We all have different standards and reasons for loving the hobby and ultimately we curate, caretake, and enjoy them our way before leaving the hoard behind as treasure for someone else to discover.
As of this writing at least two-thirds of the worst looking cards have been swapped out and as the eyes adjust it seems like there’ll always be one or two more that aren’t quite up to snuff. In fact, the other day (over two years after beginning the 1972 Topps Project) I went through everything yet again to make sure all the cards had individual plastic sleeves and found over 100 more that are off-center, have bad edges, divots, little creases, nicked corners, or small stains. Astounding. The process has been a little like upgrading from stereo to a googlephonic system with a moon rock needle and realizing it still “sounds like shit“.
When will it ever be finished? When is enough, enough? A fuzzy–edged card is fine, right? Doesn’t that get the point across? Well of course…especially if it’s a T206 Honus Wagner, but boy, there’s nothing like a clean, well-centered card with four sharp corners. Remember, many of them are works of art and deserve perfect framing. And let’s face it, collectors never finish – this and everything else are just fun works in progress until time’s up.
Sometimes I think that none of them really matter and yet all of them matter—the “Good” all the way up to the “Mint.” Every one is a treasure and for now I’m at peace with being stuck in or around 1972, probably the only series I’ll bother to fully assemble…though those colorful 1975s are starting to look better and better. Everything from neighboring, earlier, and even later years is more interesting too.
Somehow I’ve managed to get ahold of all 51 Hall-of-Famers from the 1972 series (plus Pete Rose), encapsulated in plastic PSA cases, most graded ‘8 – NM-Mint”, with some 7’s and a few 9’s. Then the thing was acquiring full teams of my favorites as winners – the 1966 and 1970 Orioles and the 1975, 1976, and 1990 Reds. After that came PSA 8’s of the entire 1972 Reds squad. Next may be collecting cards from every year of a player’s career. Guys like Joe Morgan, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Dock Ellis, Nolan Ryan, Luis Tiant, Bob Gibson and/or Henry Aaron. Oy vey. Better not give up the day job.
Serendipitously, I’ve been reacquainted with a rich, fascinating hobby that will entertain, energize, and educate this boy until the end of days. As a reasonably present husband, father, brother and son, cards can hold only one bit of attention…but what a great library to have when there’s time to go peruse ’em for fun. And joining SABR has been a joyful discovery of long lost brothers and sisters I never knew I had – people who are just as fascinated by this stuff…and know infinitely more. Perfect!
From here we’ll just keep working on what the unexpected detour has taught us up to now: Default to a smile whenever possible. Grudges aren’t worth holding, no matter how many cards of any kind are involved. Be ready for joy to find you when you least expect it. Keep on learning and having fun. Look back in time occasionally, but not too often and not for long. Focus forward and cultivate a kind, curious, and open mind. Pay attention. Try to do better all the time. Always be on the lookout for new friends.
Why focus on pain and losses when there’s so much to be done and gained? As poet Oscar Wilde said, “Life is much too important to be taken seriously.” Sure, “Ricky’ll be Ricky,” and there’ll always be more thieving Ricks out there lying in wait—that’s their problem. Life goes on and on every day of every season. Best to get on with it.
That’s it – the final portion of an ode to baseball and the early 1970s in general, and to the Topps Company and the special 1972 set specifically. Thanks for the memories, Topps—both the old ones and the new ones!
This was written for everyone out there who loves the 1972 Topps baseball card set as much as I do (if that’s possible).
Dedicated to my sports-loving mom, Caroline B. Wilkinson, who never threw my cards away.
Also dedicated to all the players and managers from the 1972 Topps Series, especially those who passed during the writing of this article: Henry Aaron, Dick Allen, Ed Armbrister, Glenn Beckert, Larry Biittner, Hal Breeden, Lou Brock, Oscar Brown, Horace Clark, Gene Clines, Billy Conigliaro, Tommy Davis, Chuck Dobson, Paul Doyle, John Ellis, Ed Farmer, Ray Fosse, Bill Freehan, Bob Gibson, Jim Grant, Joe Horlen, Grant Jackson, Bart Johnson, Jerry Johnson, Jay Johnstone, Al Kaline, Lew Krausse, Angel Mangual, Mike Marshall, Denis Menke, Lindy McDaniel, Roger Moret, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, Bob Oliver, Don Pavletich, Ron Perranoski, Juan Pizzaro, J. R. Richard, Mike Ryan, Tom Seaver, Richie Scheinblum, Rennie Stennett, Bill Sudakis, Don Sutton, Tony Taylor, Dick Tidrow, Bill Virdon, Bob Watson, Stan Williams, and Jim Wynn.
Special thanks to Baseball-Almanac.com, Baseballhall.org, Baseball-Reference.com, the Trading Card Database, and Wikipedia for all that data.
Extra special thanks to Larry Pauley, Jason Schwartz, and Nick Vossbrink for their kind help, patience, and encouragement.