Baseball Cards in Art

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

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

Baseball Cards, William Klein, 1955

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Rose, Andy Warhol, 1985

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

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

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

Team collecting foibles and follies

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

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

1951 Bowman Dodgers

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

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

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

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

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

BAD ≠ CHEAP

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

Ditto the rookie card of Tom Paciorek!

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

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

1975, PART ONE: BEWARE OF MINIS

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

1975, PART TWO: DARN THOSE WORLD SERIES CARDS!

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

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

1975, PART THREE: THEY PLAYED WHERE?!

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

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

HOW MANY GARVEY ROOKIES DO I NEED?

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

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

Cards 51-100 of my “Top 100” display

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

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

A LITTLE TIMES A LOT IS…A LOT!

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

NO REGRETS

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

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

What’s my Mickey Mantle worth?

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.

Which 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.

Conclusion

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!

Cups No Longer Runnething Over, or How I Finally Got a Grip My Slurpee Cup Collection

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.

1972 Checklist
1973 Checklist

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.

Decrepit Lefty Grove

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.

“¡Yo la tengo!” – Fact Check

Topps 1960 Card #543

Elio Chacón

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

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

Topps 1962 Card #256

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

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

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

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

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

Pittsburgh Road Trip

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

Meeting with Frank Thomas

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

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

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

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

Revisiting the 1973 Set – The Ugliest Topps Baseball Set Ever

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

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

The Good

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

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

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

The Bad

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

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

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

The Ugly

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

Two Great Cards

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

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

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

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

A Nice 1973 Tribute Card

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

The Last Card

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

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

Topps in 1972, Part 10

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

 

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

—Hunter S. Thompson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Designated” as Designated Hitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Topps in 1972, Part 9

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

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

—Hunter S. Thompson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Topps in 1972, Part 8

Editor’s note: SABR Baseball Cards welcomes new member F. Scott Wilkinson with the eighth of his ten articles on the 1972 Topps set, now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Click here to start the series from the beginning. The current post shares some of the stories and numbers behind the players on the cards.

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

While curating the 1972 set to completion I was led through a wonderful treasure trail of baseball lore as familiar, long-forgotten, esoteric, and heretofore unknown and infinitely interesting historical tidbits and statistics bubbled up via innumerable online rabbit hole searches…

“Stormin’ Norman” Cash (#150) never wore a batting helmet during his career and admitted years later to using a corked bat when he won the American League batting title in 1961 with an average of .361 (1961 was also the year when Roger Maris hit his 61 home runs. Hmm.). In 1960 he became the first American League player to not hit into a double play all season. In 1961 he became the first Detroit Tiger to hit a home run out of Tiger Stadium. In 1973 he took a table leg to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning of Nolan Ryan’s second no-hitter, but was not permitted to use it. He popped out using a bat instead.

Ron Fairly “Obvious” (as he was known to some Seattle Mariners fans when he provided color commentary for them from 1993-2006), (#405), holds the record for most career home runs (215) of any major league player who never reached 20 home runs in a season. (He hit 19 once—at 38 years old—and 17 twice.) I loved listening to Ron – he really knew the game because he’d seen so much during his 48 years in baseball (including 21 years as a player and three World Series titles with the Dodgers in 1959, 1963, and 1965) but was still prone to saying things like “You’ve gotta score runs if you wanna win ball games”.

Similarly, Milt “Gimpy” Pappas (#208) was the first pitcher to reach 200 wins (209 total) without ever winning 20 games in a season (later joined by Jerry Reuss (#775), Frank Tanana, Charlie Hough (#198), Dennis Martinez, Chuck Finley, Kenny Rogers and Tim Wakefield). On September 2, 1972, Pappas famously lost his bid for a perfect game when he walked pinch-hitter and 27th batter Larry Stahl (#782) on a full count. Legend has it that the pitch Milt threw on the 1-2 count should have been called strike three. Then he threw two sliders just off the plate and didn’t get a break from umpire Bruce Froemming, even with Stahl’s iffy check swing on ball four. Pappas was happy to have the no-hitter but never forgave Froemming for the call(s).

Dock “Peanut” Ellis (#179), ever the free spirit, did Pappas one better by allegedly tossing a no-hitter on June 12, 1970 while under the influence of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and Benzedrine. Another time (May 1, 1974), Ellis became so frustrated with static and intimidation from the Big Red Machine that he set out to bean every Cincinnati batter he faced. He hit Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Dan Driessen in succession then (unintentionally) walked a ball-dodging Tony Perez to force in a run. After throwing two pitches at Johnny Bench’s head he was pulled by manager Danny Murtaugh with a line of 0 IP, 0 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 0 K. On the plus side, Dock got the start on September 1, 1971 when the Pirates fielded MLB’s first ever all-Black and Latino starting lineup and beat the Phillies 10-7. The Pittsburgh batting order for that long overdue contest: Rennie Stennett (2B), Gene Clines (CF), Roberto Clemente (RF), Willie Stargell (LF), Manny Sanguillen (C), Dave Cash (3B), Al Oliver (1B), Jackie Hernandez (SS), Dock Ellis (P). 

Editor’s Note: All nine players can be found on the Pirates in the 1972 Topps set.

“Beltin’ Bill” Melton (#183) was the first White Sox player to ever lead the American League in home runs (with 33 in 1971) but he missed most of the 1972 season after herniating two discs in his back while trying to break his son’s fall from their garage roof. Familial love triumphed, but Melton’s power was permanently sapped and he never again hit more than 21 homers in a season. Always a liability at third base his play there declined even further and before long he was Harry Caray’s whipping boy. Poor Bill retired at 32 after his 1977 season playing for Cleveland when he had 154 plate appearances and 0 home runs.

Relief pitcher Joe Hoerner (#482) sported a 2.99 ERA over 14 years and held all-stars Bobby Bonds (#711), Johnny Callison (#364), Tommy Harper (#455), Ed Kranepool (#181), Joe Pepitone (#303) and Bill White to a collective batting average of .070 (5 for 71). Even better, he held Hall of Famers Hank Aaron (#299), Ernie Banks (#192), Reggie Jackson (#435), Willie Mays (#49), Bill Mazeroski (#760), Tony Perez (#80), Willie Stargell (#447) and Carl Yastrzemski (#37) to a collective batting average of .101 (9-89).

Jim Grant (#111) was dubbed “Mudcat” by a coach in the minor leagues and never really liked the nickname, but he eventually came to embrace it. He then went on to become the first Black pitcher in the American League to win 20 games in a season (going 21–7 for the Twins in 1965) and later in life wrote a book, “The Black Aces: Baseball’s Only African-American Twenty-Game Winners”, about all 12 (now 15) of the Black 20-game winners in the MLB history. Mr. Grant won the 1972 Mutton Chop Award too.

Jim “Cakes” Palmer (#270) won 20 or more games eight times, never gave up a grand slam or back-to-back home runs, is the only pitcher in major league history to win a World Series game in three decades (1960s, 1970s, and 1980s), was the winningest pitcher of the 1970s (186), is the only man to have played in all six of the Baltimore Orioles’ World Series appearances (1966, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1979, 1983), and has the fourth lowest ERA (2.856) of all starting pitchers who began their career after the advent of the live ball era in 1920 (I’m counting on Clayton Kershaw continuing to stay near his current career ERA of 2.49, otherwise Palmer would be third). Not too shabby!

Bob “Gibby” Gibson (#130) had ring fingers longer than middle fingers, which must have given his grip and pitches something extra. He was so dominant in 1968, with an unheard-of-for-the-live ball-era ERA of 1.12 that MLB lowered the pitching mound five inches (from 15” to 10”) after the “Season of the Pitcher” was over. “Hoot” was so respected (feared?) that Hank Aaron (#299) had this classic bit of advice for Dusty Baker (#764) when Baker was a rookie in ’68:

Don’t dig in against Bob Gibson, he’ll knock you down. He’d knock down his own grandmother if she dared to challenge him. Don’t stare at him, don’t smile at him, don’t talk to him. He doesn’t like it. If you happen to hit a home run, don’t run too slow, don’t run too fast. If you happen to want to celebrate, get in the tunnel first. And if he hits you, don’t charge the mound, because he’s a Gold Glove boxer. I’m like, “Damn, what about my 17-game hitting streak?” That was the night it ended.

If you look deeply enough into every one of these historical snapshots you come to appreciate the oddball one-off players with fleeting one or two year big league careers – guys like Al Severinsen (#274), Stan Swanson (#331), and Ron Cook (#339). They even look like they were in over their heads.

You begin to realize how many players had short, undistinguished pro careers or spent most of their time in the minor leagues, even though they had to have been damn good baseball players. Here are some other examples:

  • Screwball pitcher Aurelio Monteagudo (#458) began his career in 1961 and by 1972 had pitched 101 innings in MLB, with a record of 1-5 and ERA of 5.35. He actually never played for the Brewers or anywhere in MLB after the Angels in 1973, but soldiered on in AAA (Mexico and Edmonton (PCL) until 1983.

  • Billy Wilson (#587) began his career in the minors in 1962 at age 19 and spent seven years there before breaking in with the Phillies in 1969. By 1972 he had pitched 179 innings in the big leagues and had a 7-11 record.

  • Mike Ferraro (#613) began his minor league career in 1962 at age 17 and by 1972 had a MLB resume of 119 at bats, a .160 batting average and 0 homers. He was done at age 28 after spending 1973 season in Syracuse (IL) and Tacoma (PCL).

  • Paul Doyle (#629) debuted for the Braves as a 29-year-old rookie in 1969 after beginning his career in the Detroit Tigers’ farm system in 1959. It took him ten years and five different organizations to realize his big-league dreams, but 1972 was his last year in the league. This card has Paul looking like he knows he’s going to get the hook.

  • Eventual Hall-of Fame manager Tony LaRussa (#451) began playing minor league ball in 1962 and by the start of the 1972 season had accumulated 176 major league at bats, a .199 average and 0 home runs. After one pinch-running appearance in 1973  (where he scored on a bases loaded walk-off walk!), his career as a major league player was over.

There were also scads of players who had longer and more productive careers…somewhat pedestrian, but all with enough of a skillset to give them lasting value – guys like Vic Davalillo (#785), Ted Kubiak (#23), Darrel Chaney (#136), Merv Rettenmund (#235), Manny Mota (#596) and Rudy May (#656).

Some of these guys were darn good players. Davalillo made an all-star team (1965), earned two World Series rings (’71 Pirates and ’74 Athletics) and won a gold glove (1964). Manny Mota, an all-star in 1973, was a pinch-hitting legend, with a career batting average of .304, though he ‘only’ managed 1149 hits over a 20-year career. Rudy May earned an ERA title in 1980 (2.46) and won 152 games during his 16-year career…while also losing 156. Rettenmund batted .318 in 1971—third highest in the AL that year. Kubiak spun his Mendoza Line utility infielder role into three World Series titles with the Oakland A’s (1972-74). Chaney only had a .217 career average over 2113 at bats, but hung in there for 11 years and got his World Series ring with the Reds in 1975.

These guys played full time for only for a few years, if that—otherwise they stuck around, riding the pine, waiting for another chance as the years trickled by. And there were so many other players in the same position, hanging in there for their next at-bat, start, relief call, mop-up job, pinch-running shot – anything – for a chance to make an impression.

Other players like George Culver (#732), Moe Drabowsky (#627), and Jay Johnstone (#233) were there almost more for their humor and hijinks than their baseball ability. Apparently there’s always been a place for funny in the big leagues.

To wit, Culver had a a mediocre nine year career (48-49 and a 3.62 ERA) and Drabowsky wasn’t much better over 17 years, finishing with a record of 88–105, 54 saves, and a 3.71 ERA. Johnstone stuck around the majors for a full 20 years, platooning in the outfield and pinch-hitting, managing 1254 hits and a .267 career average. Though known more for their antics than their play, Johnstone did have some shining postseason moments with the Dodgers, as did Drabowsky with the Orioles, and they each earned two World Series rings.

So what did these jokers actually do for kicks? Well…apparently Drabowsky had a penchant for making prank calls from bullpen phones and pulling startling stunts with props like snakes and fireworks – you can imagine. Maybe his finest achievement was a “hot foot” he gave Commissioner Bowie Kuhn during the Orioles’ 1970 World Series celebration. Now that takes chutzpah. Tellingly, in his legendary book “Ball Four,” Jim Bouton wrote “There is no bigger flake in organized baseball than Drabowsky”.

Johnstone was a fellow hot foot enthusiast who pulled gags like placing a soggy brownie in Steve Garvey’s first base mitt, cutting the crotch out of Rick Sutcliffe’s underwear, locking manager Tommy Lasorda in his office during spring training, and nailing teammates’ spikes to the floor. Sounds like fun!

Meanwhile, Tommy John (#264) had this to say about Culver: “George didn’t get into a lot of games, but he held a vital role as team comic. His antics kept guys loose and kept us in a good frame of mind. When they [the 1973 Dodgers] released him…it upset the chemistry of the team. We couldn’t believe it. It was like cutting out our heart”.

Behold Johnstone and Culver doing their best to seem serious…but doesn’t it look like Moe D. is just itching to give someone a hot foot?

As interesting as the also-rans are, we mostly end up studying and thinking about the heroics of players who made the biggest impressions during their careers—the all-time greats. One, Gaylord Perry (#285) was ‘only’ 134–109 when he entered the 1972 season at 33 years of age. How did he win another 180 games and make the MLB Hall of Fame? Well, he started by posting his career high wins total in 1972, going 24–16 and winning the first of two Cy Young awards, then he kept on tossing Vaseline balls until he was 44 years old.

Another was Willie “Stretch” McCovey (#280), who in his prime was called “the scariest hitter in baseball” by none other than Bob Gibson. McCovey retired as the second most prolific left-handed home run hitter of all time (tied with Ted Williams with 521, second to Babe Ruth) and held the record for intentional walks in a season (45) for 33 years after breaking the record by a full 12 walks. “Willie Mac” is one of 31 major leaguers who played in four decades (1959–80), but he never quite got over the fact that second baseman Bobby Richardson snared his frozen rope line drive to end the 1962 World Series. On the occasion of his being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988, when asked how he would like to be remembered, McCovey replied: “As the guy who hit the ball over Bobby Richardson’s head in the seventh game.”

The very best players just never stop burning to win, eh?


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 indulgence.

Dedicated to my sports-loving mom, Caroline B. Wilkinson, who never threw my cards away, and to all the players from the 1972 Topps Series, especially those who passed during the writing of this article: Henry Aaron, Dick Allen, Ed Armbrister, Glenn Beckert, Larry Biittner, Hal Breeden, Lou Brock, Oscar Brown, Horace Clark, Gene Clines, Billy Conigliaro, 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 prince of a man Mr. Larry Pauley, who gave this project direction when there was none.