Sweet Lou’s cardboard

Some of the best and brightest blog contributors have recently commemorated the unfortunate passing of Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson and Joe Morgan with card retrospectives. Befitting my status, I decided to memorialize the death of a beloved but less famous player.  Here is a look at the limited and rather mundane cards of “Sweet” Lou Johnson.

My first card encounter with Lou came in 1968.  I must have pulled his card in one the first packs I opened.  The odd “whistling” photo intrigued me as an eight-year old.  Even at that age, I wondered what was the backstory? We may never know the answer, but Topps gave us another year to contemplate the artistic and existential meaning of Lou’s pursed lips.

The players’ boycott of Topps resulted in the use of the same photo in 1969.  Lou was now on the Indians but continued to “whistle while he worked.” This repeat photo card would be last of his career.

Nine years before, “Sweet” Lou received his first Topps card.  Though originally signed by the Yankees, he made his major league debut with the Cubs.  The 1960 card highlights the fact that Lou had one oddly shaped ear.  This fact will forever be remembered by those who are Ball Four “freaks.” The author, Jim Bouton, recalls an interaction between Seattle Pilots manager Joe Schultz and Lou.  Upon seeing Lou Joe says: “Hey, what’s new, Half-Ear?”

Lou spent most of the early 1960s in the minors, bouncing between organization.  He does not turn up again in a Topps set until 1963.  By now Lou is part of the Braves organization, but the photo shows him in a Cubs uniform.  The bare head shot appears to be from the same photo session as the 1960 card.  This time his “good” ear side is used.

Despite filling in ably for the injured Tommy Davis in 1965 and hitting two home runs in the World Series, Lou did not receive a card in the 1965 set but did in 1966.  However, his World Series exploits are not detailed on the back of his card nor did he receive a World Series highlight card.  Unfortunately, Topps did not issue cards commemorating the 1965 World Series.

1967 marks the final Dodger card for Lou.  Topps is back with another head pose, but at least they finally recognized his 1965 World Series heroics.  Also, in 1967, Lou received a nice Dexter Press postcard.  This is the best photo of all.

Lou is featured in another “odd ball” set besides Dexter Press.  In 1969, he shows up in the “Jack-in-the-Box” California Angels set.

Most of you know that Mr. Johnson’s life spiraled out of control due to substance abuse.  He received treatment and went on to a long and fruitful career with the Dodgers community relations department.  Additionally, he appeared at card shows and MLB sponsored events, such as the 2001 All-Star game Fanfest in Seattle.

At this Fanfest, my wife obtained two autographs on the same ball. One was from “Sweet” Lou and the other from Lou Brock.  Ironically, they died 21 days apart.

RIP, “Sweet” Lou.

Joe Morgan, 1943-2020

(Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

One of my favorite Joe Morgan stories is one I first came upon in Joe Posnanski’s book on the Reds (The Machine, 2009). In a 1975 game against the Giants, Morgan doubled off of Charlie Williams. When the pitcher threw the next pitch in the dirt and Morgan saw the ball roll away from catcher Marc Hill, he sprinted towards third only to stop suddenly 20 feet from the bag. Hill, sensing an opportunity, gunned his throw to third but wild, and Morgan scampered home.

In the clubhouse after the game, Morgan explained that he had deliberately stopped running to draw a throw which he thought might go wild. The Giants players were livid, calling Morgan an arrogant son-of-a-bitch for disparaging their catcher. Morgan, believing arrogance to be a necessary quality in a star, was thrilled. He had gotten in their heads, which was his plan.

“If Joe keeps up his current pace,” said his manager, Sparky Anderson, “he’ll be dead in another month.”

——-

Many complimentary words have been written about Joe Morgan, the player, since his death last week, and there is no need to gild the lily here. Suffice it to say that I believe Morgan to have been one of the two greatest players of the 1970s (along with his teammate, Johnny Bench), and the greatest second baseman to ever play the game.

Today, I am here to praise his baseball cards.

A couple of things are very striking about Morgan’s cards. First, so many of them are spectacular–he was a good looking man his entire life, but never more so than on a baseball field. And second, his cards are remarkably affordable compared with contemporaries of comparable or lesser accomplishment. You could buy 10 of his rookie cards (1965) for the price of a single rookie card for Pete Rose, Tom Seaver, Johnny Bench, or Nolan Ryan. And none of his later cards have price tags that reflect his stature in the game’s history.

You can actually tell the story of Topps baseball cards using Morgan as a central figure. His 1966 and 1967 cards are fine specimens of those classic Topps sets–posed photos of a player doing baseball things, with easily recognizable faces. Beautiful.

I bought my first cards in 1967 but I do not believe I saw this Morgan card until a few years later. Which means that my first Morgan cards were these two.

These Morgan card were, as you all likely know, the victim of two unrelated problems: the MLBPA boycott, and Topps’ dispute with the Astros over the use of their name and logo. The latter led to the hatless, uniform-less image, and the former to Topps using this uninspiring image a second time.

It got better the next year.

The card above left, from 1970, is one of my all-time favorites. The ending of the disputes referenced above allowed many kids across America to see these glorious uniforms for the first time. In addition, what we later learned about Joe’s dissatisfaction with his years playing for Harry Walker (being asked to bunt, chop the ball on the ground, etc.) is well captured here, as is Joe’s sour expression. (Good times were coming, Joe.)

In 1971 Topps (above right) first dabbled in action shots, and Morgan was one of their test subjects. Presumably, he is roping a base hit in this gorgeous image.

In 1972 Topps introduced “Traded” cards for the first time, limiting the feature to just seven players who received a second card showing them on their new team. Both of the Morgan cards are excellent, highlighted by Morgan’s well-lit face and his new sideburns.

By the mid-1970s, Topps’ card sets were a mix of action and posed shots, and they would remain so for 20 years. Kids who got Joe Morgan cards in their pack were getting a superstar, one of the game’s best players, a two-time MVP. Whether he was posing, or vaulting out of the batter’s box, Joe Morgan was a card you wanted in your stack.

Joe Morgan’s career had three acts. At the start were 6 full seasons with the Astros as an under-appreciated player, occasionally a star. He finished in the top five in walks every year, an accomplishment no one noticed, stole a lot of bases, made a couple of All-Star teams. His second act was his first 5 years with the Reds (1972-76), when he was as valuable as Willie Mays or Mike Trout, and played for one of history’s greatest and most glamorous teams (The Big Red Machine). Finally, he finished up with 8 years as a very good player, making a positive contribution all the way to the end. The Silver Slugger award was introduced in 1980, and Morgan won it in 1982 at age 38. Had the award come long earlier, of course, he could have won a dozen.

The Topps monopoly ended in 1981, and it is fun to look at some of Morgan’s cards from this era, at a time when he was changing teams almost every year.

A sampling of his Donruss cards:

Morgan returned to the Astros for one season (1980), and helped them to their first division title. The next year we got this gorgeous shot of Joe at Wrigley Field, and one is struck that Joe looked very much like this for 20 years. He moved to the Giants in 1981, and almost led them to a pennant the next year, then was back in the World Series with the 1983 Phillies. None of this was surprising, nor was Joe vaulting out of the box on his 1984 Donruss card.

Now for some Fleer cardboard:

Not surprisingly, 1981 Joe looked great in Houston’s “Tequila Sunrise” togs, just as he had in their glorious late 1960s uniform. The 1983 Joe looks a little more serious, and his 1985 Fleer (he retired at the end of the 1984 season), he looks like peak Joe Morgan about to lace a double to left-center.

Morgan was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1990 with 81.8% of the vote. I understand none of this matters–he’s an all-time great, beloved by historians and fans and statheads. Still: what exactly were the 18.2% thinking? Joe Morgan doesn’t get your vote?

Joe went on to great success as a sportscaster, was a respected executive with the Hall of Fame, and was admired by all of his former teammates and opponents and apparently everyone else. Sparky Anderson said he was the smartest player he ever saw. Johnny Bench said he was the best player he ever saw. That’s not nothing.

I rooted against Joe Morgan in the All-Star game every year, though I knew that the National League was better and that Morgan played a brand of baseball of which my team was unfamiliar. (Morgan was on 10 All-Star teams, and his side won all 10 games). I also rooted against Morgan in the 1975 World Series, and his game winning single into centerfield in the top of the 9th inning of Game 7 broke my heart.

But none of that matters now, as we mourn yet another hero in this Godforsaken year. I just remember the greatness.

RIP Joe. Thank you for elevating this game.

Player Collection Spotlight – Keith Hernandez

The year was 1986. The Mets were on top of the baseball world and, perhaps more importantly, moving their spring training site to Port St. Lucie in short order. WWOR-TV out of Secaucus, NJ would broadcast what seemed like a zillion games over the next few years in that part of Florida. And baseball cards were collected by every kid in the neighborhood. Topps, Donruss, Fleer, packs, boxed sets, oversize cards, mini cards, stickers – someone had them.

How and why Keith Hernandez rather than Gooden or Strawberry or Carter or anyone else? Two reasons: Gooden and Strawberry were too expensive for a 10-year-old, and I kept pulling this Hernandez guy’s cards out of packs. I have a Gooden and a Strawberry player collection, but they are nowhere near as complete as the Hernandez collection. I have plenty of Carter, Orosco, Dykstra, Teufel, Mookie, Darling, Fernandez, McDowell, and everyone else from that Mets team as well as other Mets teams.

Unlike DJ, I lack … discipline, restraint, or whatever you want to call it (perhaps sanity) that allows him to limit himself to Topps cards of his players and team. I want to go on eBay, buy a lot of Jim Gantner cards, and send them to him (DJ, not Gantner) because I can’t imagine not having as many different Hernandez cards as possible. But then I also don’t want to upset his balance and turn him into … me. As a kid I would always try to swap for Hernandez cards with my friends. The first Hernandez rookie I ever owned came via a trade for a handful of football cards. Supposedly there was a Steve Largent rookie in there, but as I didn’t know who he was at the time it didn’t matter to me – I had the 1975 Topps Hernandez and three other guys. Also as a kid, I created my own alphabetical checklist of his cards, flipping through pages of a late 1980s Beckett Almanac scanning sets for his cards. At some point I tossed that out because I had created an electronic list, though I kind of wish I had kept the hand created list to see how close I had gotten to a complete checklist. I never got his autograph during spring training, though a friend of mine did give me an autographed 8×10.

If you want the stats, I have over 1,000 different listed items in Beckett’s database and many more that aren’t listed. The exact number could change by the time this post is public. For his pre-2004 cards I am only missing a handful that are listed in Beckett, some of which I don’t think actually exist. His number of cards exploded in 2004-2005 (he has over 600 cards from those two years alone due to parallels). Staying at home allowed me to scan the items I have, and the Beckett listed items all have front and back pictures (unless it’s a blank back team issue) if you scroll a little down this page to the links at the bottom. I have over 10,000 total Hernandez cards. How do I know? I always thought it would look cool to have the fronts of a single card displayed in all 18-pockets of two pages (back-to-front) in a binder. I have 689 of those pages, including 57 pages of his 1988 Topps card. You can get a sense of what that looks like below. Plus those thousand or so different cards. Plus about two binders of standard sized cards that don’t have 18 copies of a card yet. Plus oversized and mini cards. And extra game-used and autographed cards.

I didn’t do graded cards – until I got a really good deal on a lot. As one might imagine given my lack of restraint, I’ve pretty much climbed that mountain. I’ve grown less interested in the “master set” as listed by PSA because it now includes team picture cards from the 1970s. As someone once wrote here, you need to define a master set for yourself, even if it differs from the definition someone else uses.

While I don’t get too much into custom cards (unless it’s a Heavy J Studios rainbow dazzle purple refractor 1/1), I’m always looking for oddball items that I don’t have. Sometimes it’s an ad or a magazine with Hernandez on the cover or if he’s featured in an interview. Bobbleheads and figurines are also in there, as are drinking cups, posters, cello/rack packs with his cards on top – pretty much anything. I have about 100 ticket stubs from his MLB games, back when ticket stubs were actual stubs. Here’s a display with a variety of items:

Keith Hernandez shelf

With the increasing number of 1/1s and other low-numbered cards I’ve mellowed over the years and don’t worry too much about not getting every card. I’m usually a player in the market, though sometimes I marvel at how much they sell for. I admit that I get slightly annoyed when I make an offer on a card, have it turned down, and then a few days later see it sold for less than I offered. The economist in me doesn’t understand leaving $20 bills lying on the ground.

I don’t dabble much in game-used jerseys or other equipment because I’m not educated enough on those items to have confidence in my purchases. However, I have purchased a number of Topps Vault items. I think the most interesting piece I have is his original Topps contract, with his signature, his dad’s signature (the younger Hernandez was a minor at the time), and Sy Berger’s signature. And the Hernandez authored pop-up book First-Base Hero:

Keith Hernandez contract

It has been a fun endeavor for over 30+ years and somehow I’m always finding something I haven’t seen before (like a 3×5 miniature version of a poster that I just got in a lot last week). I have other player collections, and more different cards of other players (Ripken, Gwynn, and Piazza) but they all have vastly more cards than Hernandez. I have a higher percentage of cards for other players (like Jose Lind – a story for a different day), but Hernandez tends to be a balance of popular enough to be included in some new issues (I’m guessing that appearing on Seinfeld didn’t hurt his popularity – and yes, there is at least one bobblehead commemorating his Seinfeld appearance), but not so popular that he appears in a lot of new issues.

Giving a Hoot about Gibby

Editor’s note: A huge SABR Baseball Cards thank you to guest writer Bijan C. Bayne for contributing this Bob Gibson memorial retrospective to our blog. For more from Bijan, see his blog at or follow him on Twitter at @bijancbayne.

Bob Gibson died on October 2, 2020, a couple weeks after his fellow Omaha bred sports hero Gale Sayers. Gibson would have been 85 on November 9, and his storied athletic career is an intriguing as anyone’s. “Athletic,” because for a pitcher, Gibson embodies “athlete” like few others, and is one of a handful of top level hurlers capable of defeating you with his glove, arm, legs, or bat.

Gibson was raised in the aforementioned Omaha, tutored in youth sports by a much older brother who happened to be named “Josh” (who was a role model for a lot of boys in their close knit community), and excelled in basketball and baseball. In that order. The hoops proficiency earned the 6’1” Gibson a basketball scholarship to local university Creighton, where the All-American prospered. He actually had dreams of playing for Indiana University, but Gibson got the impression their head coach Branch McCracken had a small finite tolerance concerning roster spots for Black guys.

Gibson’s collegiate success was such that he toured on a College All-Star squad which toured nationally against the Harlem Globetrotters, who in those days boasted NBA level talent. The leaping, undersized Creighton Blue Jay forward torched the Trotters nightly during the tour, leading Globies owner Abe Saperstein to sign Hoot to his ballclub. Ever the fiery competitor, Gibson tired of clowning with the exhibition outfit, and shifted his focus to the diamond.

In the Cardinals’ system Gibson faced early frustration because manager Solly Hemus didn’t deem him worthy of the starting rotation, and would excuse him from pitchers’ meetings on the grounds Gibson wasn’t cerebrally able to understand mound nuance. For his part, Gibson characterized Hemus to be similarly bigoted as McCracken. Gibson was primarily deployed in relief. His first four big league seasons he was a combined 34-36, but he recorded strikeouts in roughly two-thirds of the innings he pitched.

New Cardinals skipper Johnny Keane exhibited more confidence in Gibson, who went 18-9 with more than 200 K’s in 1963. Some have even compared Gibson’s early career mediocrity to Sandy Koufax- who also attended college on a basketball scholarship at a Missouri Valley Conference school (Cincinnati). Of course by 1964, Gibson was a World Series hero who helped defeat the Yankees. Gibson could hit and hit for power, and he occasionally pinch ran (on a club that had speedsters Lou Brock and Curt Flood). Despite his signature follow through, whose momentum carried him off the mound to his left, Gibson was awarded nine Gold Gloves.

The World Series catapulted Gibson into cultural prominence. He epitomized postseason perfection, he was a product spokesperson for both asthma medication, and (demonstrating his fastball in the ad), shatter-proof plexiglass. He guested on an episode of “The Big Valley.” His drop dead gorgeous wife Charline appeared on the 1970’s incarnation of “What’s My Line.”

I followed his career closely, even moreso after a school carpool mate rode home with Gibson’s autobiography “From Ghetto To Glory,” and I flipped through the photo midsection in my father’s backseat. In my backyard, where I had chalked a strike zone on our back wall next to the basement door, I’d fall off the mound sideways in my pitching follow through. Like Willie Mays and Dick Allen (the latter a brief Gibson teammate), Gibson was always depicted in long sleeves under his uniform jersey, or even his warmup jacket underneath it on some trading cards.

I owned his ‘71 Topps—one of the few years he’s shown in an action shot, and also rarely, in profile (a less confrontational Gibby).

The ‘67 Gibby Topps is intriguing in that it captures him at the cusp of superstardom, still boyish in countenance and pose (he was 31). Contrast that with his ‘72 Topps, where he bears the elder statesman status of a Mudcat Grant.

You didn’t think I was done discussing Gibson’s prowess at the plate did you? He hit 24 career homers- five of them in 1965. He drove in 20 runs in 1963, and 19 each in ‘65 and ‘70 (the latter campaign he was 34 years old). He stole 13 bases, five of them in 1969. He recorded six doubles in both 1969 and 1972. The man who hated batters, loved to bat. Dick Allen once asked Gibson at the All-Star Game, “Why do you throw at us colored guys?”

Gibson: “Because you guys are the ones killing me!” When Tim McCarver would come out to conference at the mound, Gibson would bark “Get back behind the plate—the only thing you know about pitching is you can’t hit it.” When Michael Jordan returned from a foray into baseball, as a uniform number 45 in basketball, it reminded me the last person that competitive, to sport that numeral was Bob Gibson.

Gibson’s ‘67 World Series dominance is all the more remarkable because on June 15 of the regular season, Roberto Clemente had shattered the ace’s leg with a line drive. The clutch performer returned in time to lift his team in seven games over the Boston Red Sox, including a home run as a batter. Invariably when a 2000’s slugger crowded the plate, or sported body armor on his elbows and shins, tv commentators or former ballplayers remarked as if on cue, “He wouldn’t stand in that close if Bob Gibson were still pitching—Gibby would show him who owns the plate.”

Thus Gibson symbolized an era- one during which he and Don Drysdale, ummm, discouraged opponents’ digging in too close to the dish. Gibson’s trademark tenacity extended to exhibition games—he didn’t socialize with N.L. teammates at All-Star Games because he didn’t want to become friendly with batters. Ask Dick Allen. Off the field, while Gibson wasn’t mild mannered, he did wear glasses, which appeared incongruous. But so did Clark Kent and Ray Nitschke. One wonders what extra fear the specs stoked in opposing batters.

Because of cultural changes and contemporary baseball rules protecting batters, we will never see another Bob Gibson. Because of Gibson, we will never again see pitchers’ mounds 15 inches high—in 1968’s Year Of The Pitcher, he posted a 1.12 ERA and 13 shutouts.

Bullet Bob Gibson. Hoot. Gibby. The man so fiercely combative he quit a touring basketball team that generally went several consecutive seasons without a loss. The last of a breed. Nine World Series starts. Eight complete games, seven victories. Twice named Series MVP. Overcame ethnic bias, asthma, and a broken leg.

I cannot be the only person who imagined The Grim Reaper approached Gibson this week and asked for the ball. Gibson fixed the scythe bearing scepter with his laser beam stare, and said with that clipped Midwestern accent “If you don’t go sit your behind down somewhere I’m gonna plunk you.” Though the tactic may not have proved successful, it was certainly on brand.

Player Collection Spotlight – Ozzie Smith

I remember watching Ozzie Smith on Johnny Bench’s show The Baseball Bunch back in 1983. This was the year after Smith’s Cardinals broke my heart by beating the Brewers in the World Series. Still, Smith was an incredible fielder, and he had some great tips. I became a fan of the Wizard of Oz and have been ever since.

Smith made his debut with the Padres in 1978. He spent four years there before he was traded to the Cardinals. He won the first two of his record 13 Gold Gloves as a shortstop.

Smith continued his Gold Glove streak in St. Louis, winning it in his first 11 seasons as a Cardinal. He led the Cardinals to the World Series and scored in the sixth inning of Game 7, the inning that the Cardinals took the lead that they would not give up. I’m not bitter.

Smith was a fifteen-time All-Star, including eleven as starting shortstop, a National League record for the position.

Smith was a fixture in St. Louis through the 1996 season. He hit .303 in four NL Championship Series and played in three World Series.

I find it odd that of his 27 Topps flagship and traded cards, only three of them have him wearing his glove. He was the best fielding shortstop in the game, yet there were six times as many cards showing him with a bat or running the bases.

I have three favorite Ozzie Smith cards. The first is 1980. I love the whole body swing and the contrast between his jersey and pants.

His 1981 Record Breaker card shows him doing what he does best as he’s moving toward the ball in the field.

The 1993 card shows him signing autographs for kids.

My Ozzie Smith collection consists of 27 Topps flagship and traded sets. I stuck with Topps, and more specifically these sets, to keep my collection more manageable.

Back Story: 1971 Topps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lou Brock (1939–2020)

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

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

Lou Brock’s Statue Outside Busch Stadium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Albert Pujols

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

—Adam Wainwright

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

—Andy Benes

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

—KMOX Radio’s Tom Ackerman

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

—St. Louis sportswriter Bernie Miklasz

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

—Cardinals fan John Rabe

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

—Cardinals fan RMcardsfan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Player Collections – Jim Gantner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Seaver (1944-2020)

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

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

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

1967 Topps

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

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

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

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

1968 Topps

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

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

1968 Topps that could have been

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

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

1969 Topps

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

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

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

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

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

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

1974 Topps
1977 Topps
1981 Topps
1983 Topps

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

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

Rest in peace, Tom Seaver. 

 

On Becoming Complete: A Spiritual Journey

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

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

56

One Tweeter threw out a picture of the unnumbered checklists

Checks

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

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

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

Jose-Canseco-(Mini

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

Cracker Jack

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

s-l1600

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

1971 Topps Coins 5

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

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

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

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

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