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.

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.

At home with John Orton

John Orton popped up again the other day.

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

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

# # # # #

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

# # # # #

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

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

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

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

All Action All the Time

My time as a rabid collector lasted for approximately three years, 1986 through ’88. During those years, I blew nearly all my disposable income — mind you, I was a college student without a real job — on packs of baseball cards. Topps, Donruss, Score, Fleer, Sportflics… didn’t really matter. I was addicted, and spent an inordinate amount of time sorting my way to complete (or nearly complete) sets. I also had binders full of players like Cory Snyder and Tony Fernández. But that hoary old story is for another day!

This story’s about what I missed, by not starting earlier. No, not the outstanding 1984 Fleer set, which I’ve just recently come to love. That same year, Donruss produced their second Action All Stars set: 60 player cards + 1 checklist card; five cards per cello pack, plus a card consisting of three Ted Williams puzzle pieces.

Of course all the players were depicted in “action” photos, but what really distinguished these cards was their size. I like big cards. I mean, why would anyone not like big cards? The only downsides are a) you can’t stuff ’em in your pockets, and b) good luck finding the correct binder pages! But if the point of a baseball card is the image of the player, bigger is nearly always better (he said, overconfidently).

And these cards are 3.5 inches by 5 inches — essentially notecard size, or exactly the size of two lesser baseball cards.

I discovered the existence of this set just a few weeks ago, when searching eBay for “Topps big” or something (did I mention that I like big cards? I think I mentioned that). I really just wanted to hold one Action All Star, just to get a sense of the thing. But there was a good deal and … well, I wound up with eight five-card cello packs.

Look, I’m not stupid. I know I could have learned most of what I wanted to know by looking at images and reading stuff on the web. But not all.

All means holding a card in your hand, feeling its thickness and texture and turning it over and seeing what’s on the back. All means up close and personal.

Anyway, I opened all the packs. In retrospect, this was … okay, I am sorta stupid. For the money I spent on the packs, I could have picked up the complete set. With money left over. So buying the packs would have made sense only if I’d then sent some packs as gifts, or rationed the opening thrills for myself. But instead I did the other, stupider thing!

Oh well. Hardly the first time.

Anyway, the “action” images are really nice: well composed and framed, with a clean accompanying design (unlike too many cards in those pre-Stadium Club days). My research reveals that in both 1983 and ’85 (see below), Donruss went with two images on the front of their Action All Stars: action, and portrait … which only serves to detract from both.

Your mileage might well vary, but for my (not much) money the 1984 set is the only one of the three sets with real curb appeal.

Not that they’re perfect. In way too many of the images, the background is just sorta dark, or murky. Or murkily dark. Often the player is backlit. The overall effect is just … darkness. Which could be easily corrected today. On your cell phone.

Back then, though, they just went with the images they had, and we liked it. But among the 25 players I got, only a few — most notably, Dale Murphy — really pop the way you want them to. Just too many guys doing their actions in the shadows.

The backs of the cards could have been great, but are just passable. Using the top half for a head shot was a good idea, albeit still with too many shadows. The bottom half includes full name, biographical data, and a complete MLB statistical record. So far, so good. But then there are career highlights, with the combination of tiny black letters and dark red background almost impossible to read without a magnifying glass…

…which you could almost understand for the veterans with huge stat sections like Steve Carlton and Reggie Jackson. But Tony Peña’s got five stat lines, five lines of highlights … and a bunch of empty red space. Instead of using a bigger, actually readable font for the highlights, they just used the same teeny letters for everybody. Which I can barely read. Oh and by the way get off my damn lawn you meddling kids.

Overall, this is a good set that could have been great, with better lighting and some measure of design flexibility on the back. Well worth whatever they’re asking on eBay.

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. 

 

A Little Treasure Chest

Brace, Conlon, McWilliams, McCarthy. McCarthy? Most card collectors and hardcore baseball fans have heard of, or encountered, the photography of George Brace, Charles Conlon and Doug McWilliams. For some reason, J.D. McCarthy has slipped through the cracks.

He shouldn’t have. McCarthy, from near Detroit, was a top level photographer, clicking away product that players used as postcards to answer fan mail or promote their bowling alleys and pizza parlors (McCarthy entries are scattered throughout the Standard Catalog), and that Topps used on a freelance basis. McCarthy archives had made it through various hands, and the bottom of the collection ended up with Bob Lemke, formerly of Krause Publications and one-time editor of the Standard Catalog. He wrote about it here.

Bob makes the point that the collection went through multiple owners, and, by the time it got to him, had been picked over, the Hall of Famers and big stars had disappeared. Which leads me to this post.

Back in 1986, I was visiting Cooperstown and, of course, Baseball Nostalgia. The shop, co-owned by inaugural Burdick Award Winner Mike Aronstein, was in its old location, at what is now the batting range. I picked up my usual odds and ends, like the current San Francisco Giants yearbook, and this little gem. (I’d always been under the impression that Sports Design Products was an Aronstein company, but Andrew Aronstein assured me it was not.)

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I had never heard of McCarthy, and had no idea of what would be contained within this plastic box, but, man, what’s inside was a marvel then, and still is now. It’s a 24-card set, matte-finish (if not matte, non-glossy), with brilliant photos and a simple, 1969 Topps design. SDP clearly had some big plans for the superstar portraits of McCarthy, hoping to get on board the card boom. Seemingly those dreams were never realized.

Here’s the entirety of the set:

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An up close look at these two beauts:

(The backs have little to offer, but I know you “card back” guys care.)

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While still cheap in price, the McCarthy set is high in aesthetic value. Track one down.

Little Boxes

One of the underappreciated, yet voluminous, touchstones of the 1980’s – early 1990’s card boom (I try to resist “Junk Wax Era,” because there are a ton of wonderful cards that, though small in value, are high in aesthetics, i.e., not junk) was the mini-boxed set. If you had a chain store, you likely had a self-branded set, 33, maybe 44, cards in size. Ames had 20 Home Runs/20 Stolen Bases, Revco had Hottest Stars, KMart had AL and NL MVPs and many other titles. If I were so inclined to research how many of these sets there were, I’d be wading my way through stacks and stacks of them. I am not so inclined.

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I can say, with some assurance, that Woolworth put out sets from 1985 – 1991, all made by Topps, all called Baseball Highlights (except the first two years, All-Time Record Holders and Super Stars, respectively), all 33 cards (except ATRH, which has 44).

I picked up the 1990 set (sans gum) for a buck at Yastrzemski Sports in Cooperstown, and it’s a glossy beaut.

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The checklist is made up of players you’d expect to find circa 1990 – MVPs, Cy Young winners, ROYs and post-season heroes, but also MLBers who hit some milestones. It’s always swell to see a new Dewey Evans card.

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As you’d expect, the set is overloaded with A’s and Giants, and that’s fine, but the highlights, for me, are in the Fisk, Murray, and Ryan cards. Especially that Murray card!

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The tail end of the set is a run of World Series cards. Not a lot in the way of highlights, unless you’re an A’s fan, but excellent cards. Check out that Kevin Mitchell one. (I still believe that if there hadn’t been an earthquake, the Giants would have put up a better fight. That the A’s could go Stewart and Moore, then Stewart and Moore again after a long layoff, helped Oakland. The Giants may have had a hard time with Bob Welch, but I liked their chances against Storm Davis.)

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The backs are simple, clear and uncluttered.

Granted, these boxes tend to blend into each other in checklist and shine. They’re not made of ticky tacky, but they do kinda all look the same. Still, I’m up to find more, but only at a dollar a piece. I do have my limits.

My Favorite Common

It’s early August, 1988. Steve Winwood’s “Roll With It” is holding down the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts, thanks to regular airplay on New York’s Z100 and countless other radio stations across America. Tom Cruise maintains the right mix atop the box office rankings in “Cocktail.” A gallon of gas costs about 90 cents, but that doesn’t matter to me – seventh graders can’t drive. Milk costs $2.19 a gallon, but again, I’m a month away from turning 12; I don’t control the family purse strings.

What I do control is my pursuit of the 1988 Topps set, and as I’m sorting my collection one more time before my family heads off for our annual vacation in Maine, I find there’s only one more card I need: No. 39, Gerald Perry, Atlanta Braves.

1988 Topps Gerald Perry

I’d been collecting cards casually since 1985, the year I went to my first two Mets games, and increased how much of my allowance went toward 40-cent wax packs in ’86 as the Mets bludgeoned the National League. In 1987, I really ramped up my trips downtown to the Family Pharmacy (still there! Despite a CVS and Walgreens also within a ballpark’s footprint of one another) to buy packs of Topps’ wood-grained design, though I fell short of the complete 792 before the boxes faded from shelves.

So in ’88, I was determined collect the whole set. I’d save up my allowance and money from sweeping a neighbor’s patio and wrap-around porch and purchase a box at a time: 36 packs at 40 cents each, plus tax, came out to $15.26.

It’s a bit unfortunate that the ’88 set is the first one I set out to complete, because I find it the least visually appealing of the late-’80s Topps sets. Though I hadn’t really gotten into the hobby in ’84, I possessed a few of those cards with team names in colorful block letters down the left side, a main action photo of the player and the inset headshot. The ’85 issue featured those bold colors on the lower fifth of the card: the team name in a diagonal box above the player’s name, mostly in team hues. The 1986 set wasn’t that much more appealing, but it did feature the team name in a Napoli Serial Heavy font at the top (and was the set available for purchase throughout that championship season for the Mets). The greatness of the ’87 set and its suburban-basement paneling has been discussed on this blog before.

Mid-80s Topps

But the ’88 design is … OK? There are elements of some of those previous sets in it. The team name across the top is a cousin of the ’84 block font presented horizontally instead of vertically. The player name in a diagonal banner harkens back to the placement of the team ID in ’85, which was also the last year before ’88 with an all-white border. The most notable thing about the design may be Topps’ decision to go back to spelling out “Athletics,” after three years of using “A’s.” This prompted my friend Joe to ask one day, “Hey, did you see there’s a new baseball team? The Athletics?” He was always more of a football guy.

So as I’m packing for our vacation, the Mets are a few games up on the Pirates in the NL East and clear of the Dodgers overall in the NL, thanks to a 5-1 head-to-head record thus far. If things hold and the Mets maintain their success against the Dodgers when they meet in the NLCS, a second World Series berth in three seasons is looking promising!

But one of the toughest parts about the trips to Maine – a place I always loved to visit, and still do – was losing such easy access to baseball. My relatives in Vacationland didn’t have cable, and it’s not like we would’ve spent our evenings watching Red Sox games or stayed inside on Saturday for the national game of the week. There were woods to explore, rivers to plunge into, lighthouses to visit. L.L. Bean is open 24 hours! Only at night could I get my fix, delighted to find that the radio could pick up the Mets on WFAN all the way from New York, and I’d fall asleep to Bob Murphy’s play-by-play or Howie Rose taking calls on the postgame show.

Before this trip, I gave my friend Will the status of my pursuit. He had already completed his ’88 set, so I asked him to keep an eye out for that Gerald Perry card so we could trade and I’d be able to fill in that last box on the duplicate checklist card. Our outings in Maine didn’t usually give me an opportunity to look for cards – souvenir shops aren’t inclined to stock wax packs – so my search was on hold. (One exception came the following summer, when I saw a newspaper ad for a baseball card show in Augusta and got my dad to drop me off for an hour. I came away with a 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. card.)

A week later, after the long drive home down I-95, I was the first one to step inside our back door. And there, on the beige-blocked linoleum floor of the kitchen, lay this 3 ½ by 2 ½ piece of cardboard depicting Gerald Perry manning first base for the Atlanta Braves.

In hindsight, it’s appropriate that Perry was the final piece to my ’88 Topps puzzle. He had the best full season of his career in 1988, posting a 109 OPS+ and making his only All-Star team (0-for-1, F7). But nothing he did on the field stayed with me – to this day, whenever I flip past any Gerald Perry card, I think back to this 1988 Topps, No. 39, the last one I needed to complete the set. Until looking up his career just now, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you which of his 13 seasons was his best or that he played until 1995 or that he spent one season in Kansas City and five in St. Louis.

He’ll always be the first baseman in that grey Atlanta road uniform, manning his position on a sun-splashed afternoon, waiting for me to open the door at the end of our annual summer vacation.

1988 Topps Gerald Perry 39