Super Topps, My Super Fave

I’m not a huge fan of Topps Heritage. For me, it doesn’t quite make the emotional connection I need. Like most of you, seeing the old designs is nice, but the repetitive nature of the pics (this year’s Red Sox cards are BORING! and it look like they’re repeating the background for next year) and the weird modernity of the photos is off-putting.

I am intrigued about the 2019 set. I saw that there will be Topps Supers as box loaders; after all these years I still don’t know what that means. For me it means nothing. The originals are irreplaceable.

The 1970 Topps Super set, sold separately, three cards for a dime, were a thrill to find at my local Canarsie candy store (Paulino’s, I think it was called, on Glenwood Ave.).  Paulino’s was on the walk to school and a frequent, if not daily, stop on the way home.

12_247_1970-Topps-Super-Baseball-Complete-Set-2_lg

As beautiful as the 1964 Topps Giants are, I like the Supers more. An obvious reason is that I was a sentient baseball fan by 1970. I wasn’t yet two years old when the ‘64’s came out. The 1970 Supers represent a coming of age year for me. Plus, there’s the heft of these cards.

The 1970 Supers are thick, so thick, certainly the thickest cards I’ve ever encountered. They’re thicker than even Post Cereal boxes, and that cardboard is protecting food! The weight, the rounded corners, make for idiot-proof great condition. It would take a lot of force and evil intent to crease these placards or bend their corners.

The photos are marvelous, with colors that pop, and are different from the base cards. At a time when there wasn’t much choice in the card world, this was very welcome. Backs are the same (though I haven’t read them closely. There may be differences in the text to denote trades, I don’t know.)

(Topps also made Football Supers that year).

Though the 1970 Supers proved to be less than popular, Topps returned with a baseball only version in 1971. Take this as my small sample size, but the 1971s seem to have many more miscuts, with hints of adjacent cards on the sheet visible. Who cares? They’re awesome.

They’re also not too expensive. Complete sets of all three (for you football fans) seem attainable in the $200-300 range. The checklists are crammed with Hall of Famers and, if you get some of these, you don’t have to be so dainty handling them. They’re tough, super tough.

Lusting in My Heart for Tommy Smith

The Summer of 1976 saw Mark Fidrych seemingly come out of nowhere to be a rookie sensation.  His surprising success was mirrored in politics when an obscure, peanut farming governor ascended to the highest office in the land.  President Jimmy Carter will occupy the Oval Office for approximately two months before the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays take the field for the first time in April of ‘77.

Starting in ’74, Topps began distributing all the cards in their base set at once (they did this in select markets in 1973), meaning there was no longer an opportunity to take photos in spring training and include them in later series.  Therefore, all the Blue Jays and Mariners cards feature poorly rendered, airbrushed cap insignia.

77 Smith

As a kid growing up in Washington State, it would be an understatement to say I was “stoked” at the prospect of Major League Baseball returning to Seattle.  I certainly “lusted in my heart” at the prospect of collecting Mariners cards.  I began purchasing-by mail-complete sets in ’74.  Once my ’77 set arrived, I discovered that the first ever Mariner card was that of Tommy Smith.  Who!?

Tommy was a little used outfielder made available by the Indians in the expansion draft.  The Mariners waited until the 58th pick to add him to the roster. Smith didn’t make the squad out of spring training but found his way to Seattle later in the season.  After 21 games with the M’s, Tommy’s career in organized baseball ended.

The first Blue Jay on a card was veteran Steve Hargan.  Before an elbow injury in ’68, Steve appeared to be destined for greatness with Cleveland.  An All-Star year in ’67 led to his inclusion in the ’68 Topps game insert subset.  He’s easily the most obscure player in the set and was selected by Topps over teammates Sam McDowell and Luis Tiant.   Picked in the 39th round of the expansion draft from Texas, Steve was the oldest pitcher on the Blue Jays roster.  He was a Jay for only a short time before being dealt back to the Rangers on 5/9/77.

Whether coincidence or not, Topps featured the two winningest pitchers for the Blue Jays and Mariners during the ’77 season as the first to debut their teams uniforms in the next year’s set.  The “Tall Arkansan,” Glenn Abbott, won 13 games in the inaugural season for Seattle.  He went on to be the M’s best starter in the early years.  His fellow 13 game winner, Dave Lemanczyk, is the Blue Jays first card.  Like Abbott, he will be a mainstay in Blue Jay rotation during the lean, expansion years.

By the way, the ’77 set contains an error card for Mariner Dave Collins.  He was first batter in Mariners history, leading off as the DH against Frank Tanana and the Angels.  Of course, Dave struck out–thus launching me on a 40-year (ED: so far) “trail of tears” as a long-suffering Mariners fan.  The photo on Dave’s card is that of his ’76 Angels teammate, Bob Jones.  The O-Pee-Chee set has a correct photo (right, above) of Collins.

 

Bill Beer

Although you may need a six-pack of “Billy Beer” to wash away the memory of this post, I shall forge ahead with a look at the ’93 and ’97 expansion teams in a future post.  Neither “killer” rabbits, vengeful Ayatollahs or a “malaise” can stop my quest.

 

 

 

Back Story: 1960 Topps Baseball

Part II of my series about a neglected feature of baseball cards—the material on the back of the cards—continues with the 1960 Topps set. (For Part I, read here.) To my knowledge, this was the third and final “regular” Topps set where the front of the card was in landscape (horizontal) mode, rather than portrait (vertical) mode; the others were 1955 and 1956. So right away, it’s an unusual set. The card fronts feature a large head shot of the player along with a smaller “action” shot, something that Topps did a few times over the years (also 1954-55-56-63; in 1983-84, the head shot was the smaller one). Here’s the front of card No. 1 in the set, 1959 Cy Young Award winner Early Wynn of the White Sox.

Wynn front

As for the backs of the cards, the 1960 set marked one of the last times that Topps opted to present stats only for the player’s previous year and career, rather than a year-by-year rundown. What makes the set unique was how Topps used the extra space made available by skipping the rundown. Along with a cartoon highlighting something about the player, the 1960 set featured bullet points with highlights from the player’s 1959 season. Here is Wynn’s card back.

 

Wynn

Here’s the card back for another of the big stars featured in the set, 1959 National League MVP Ernie Banks.

Banks

The bullet point idea worked very nicely for players like Wynn and Banks who had a lot of 1959 highlights. Topps was more challenged finding positive bullet points for players with lesser performances. Sy Berger and company did their best. Leon Wagner, a year or two away from becoming “Daddy Wags,” batted only 129 times in 1959, with 29 hits, but the bullet points on his 1960 Topps card made him look like the star he would eventually become.

Wagner

Sometimes Topps opted for brevity. In 1959, Carl Furillo of the Dodgers was a little-used sub and pinch-hitter nearing the end of his career. But he had two huge hits that contributed to the Dodgers’ World Series championship, one in the playoff series against the Braves and the other in Game Three of the Series. Those became the only bullet points on his 1960 Topps card—an excellent decision, I think.

Furillo

But there were cases in the 1960 set where Topps seemed to be a little clueless when it came to digging up highlights from the previous season. Relief pitchers seemed to be a particular challenge. Roy Face of the Pirates had a legendary 1959 season, winning his first 17 decisions on his way to posting an 18-1 record. While Face’s season was an early cautionary note against the value of pitcher wins—several of his 1959 victories came after blowing a save—his season included a number of outstanding performances, such as seven games in which he worked three-plus relief innings without allowing a run. Yet Topps could come up with only three highlights for Face’s ‘59 season, and one of them involved a game in which he came back “after being sidelined 10 days with a cut hand.”

Face

In the case of Jerry Staley (the player’s preferred spelling of his first name, rather than “Gerry”), one of Topps’ highlights was a World Series game in which Staley worked the final two innings to “save” an 11-0 victory. Topps completely missed the performance that every veteran White Sox fan would regard as the highlight of Staley’s White Sox career: his one-pitch outing against the Indians on September 22 that induced a double-play grounder to clinch the team’s first American League pennant in 40 years.

Staley

And Topps completely went off the rails with relievers Don Elston and Stu Miller, opting to go with a prose summary instead of bullet points. That seemed particularly short-sighted in the case of Miller, who started nine times, worked over 100 innings in relief, and ranked second in the National League in ERA. Surely there were a few notable highlights in there.

Miller

On the other hand, I have to say that the phrase “his ‘junk ball’ slithered enough to keep the senior circuit hitter confused” might top anything Topps could come up with in terms of Stu Miller bullet points.

But sometimes Topps could be forgiven for failing to come up with either good bullet points, or good prose. Consider the player who, in 1959, played in 152 games and had 527 plate appearances, while amassing a total of 12 (!) extra-base hits and 42 runs scored and posting an OPS+ of 43. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the man described by Topps as “a swifty on the bases” (1959 totals: 6 SB, 9 CS) and “a good clutch hitter” (.584 OPS with runners in scoring position): George Anderson, better known as “Sparky.”

Anderson

Sparky’s managerial career would include plenty of material for bullet points, at least.

 

The Cards That Made Milwaukee Famous

On January 20, 1953, General Dwight D. Eisenhower became President of the United States. “Ike” and the First Lady, Mamie, scarcely had time to settle into the White House before the Milwaukee Braves debuted on April 13.

The “Brew City” offered a new, publicly funded stadium (County) located out of the downtown area with acres of parking. Since the Braves would always play “second fiddle” in popularity to the Red Sox in Boston and with financial losses mounting, owner Lou Perini pulled up stakes and headed for the upper Midwest.

However, the final approval to shift the franchise wasn’t given until March 18, 1953. Topps and Bowman had already produced Boston Braves cards. The two companies will have to add Milwaukee cards, but they take different tacks.

53 Topps Crowe

The first eight Braves in the Topps set are painted (like all 1953 Topps) Boston cards and are from “series” 1 and 2. The ’53 set was released in “waves” but not formal series with checklists. George Crowe is the initial Braves card numerically. Interestingly, he is shown with the Yankee Stadium “frieze” in the background, despite never having played in the American League. Spahn, Matthews and Sisti are amongst the others wearing the Boston “B” on their caps.

53 Topps Crandall

Del Crandall is the first Brave to represent Milwaukee — on card #179 in “series” 3. A plain block “M” has been painted on his cap to signify the new city. The six other Milwaukee cards also have the fake “M” insignias. As best as I can determine, there are no cards showing Braves wearing an authentic Milwaukee cap in ‘53.

53 Bowman Grimm Front53 Bowman Grimm Back

Topps’ rival, Bowman, produced a groundbreaking set utilizing color photography for the first time by a major company in ‘53. All the Braves in the set have Boston caps or with the insignia not visible. Perhaps Bowman didn’t want to mare this beautiful set with excessive airbrushing. There are three Braves depicted as being on Boston, with Sam Jethroe being the first coming in at card # 3. Manager “Jolly Cholly” Grimm is the first Milwaukee card at #69. Since this set has no lettering on the front, the back has the only indication of the franchise shift.

53 BW Bowman Cooper

A set of cards with black and white photos was produced by Bowman as well. Bowman may have intended this set as a third series of color cards but decided to save money by not printing it in color. But, the cards are not a direct continuation of the color set, since they are numbered 1-64. All the Braves cards have Milwaukee on the backs, which lends additional credence to the idea that this set was printed last, with the intent to use it as a final series. As with the color cards, the Braves either have a Boston “B” on the caps or the insignia isn’t visible.

54 Topps Crandall   53 Crandall Spick and Span

Since Topps still used colorized photos in ’54, it is difficult to know definitively if the first Milwaukee Brave in the set, Del Crandall, is wearing a real Milwaukee “M.” I speculate that it is authentic, since the “M” font is correct and there were many photos taken of Del in ’53. (The accompanying photo used for the “Spic and Span” set is an example.) The next six Braves cards could possibly be airbrushed, but the speculation stops with card #128: Hank Aaron.

54 Topps Aaron   MJ Aaron Photo

As many of you know, one of the leading authorities on sports images is one of our most well-known committee members: Keith Olbermann. In an exchange of emails, he sent images of Aaron from a March 18, 1953 photo session for the Milwaukee Journal newspaper. The position of the cap and exposed forehead clearly indicates that the Topps card image is from this photo session. Furthermore, I found another image on the Wisconsin Historical Society website that was taken seconds before or after the card picture.

I learned from Olbermann that — to the best of his knowledge — Topps didn’t take their own photos until at least ’56. Instead, they relied on team or press produced shots. This explains how the Milwaukee Journal photo ended up on their 1954 card.

54 Topps Jay

Additionally, Olbermann pointed out that Joey Jay and Mel Roach signed with the Braves in ’53. Their card photos are undoubtedly from ’53 as well.

Logan Bowman 54   54 Wilson Bowman

Bowman doesn’t use the same vivid, color printing process in ’54 as ‘53, resulting in washed-out images. Thus, the “M” on the caps is not crystal clear. However, I believe that card #16, Jim Wilson, was taken during the ’53 season — since several of the Braves cards use photos taken at the Polo Grounds with similar poses and lighting. Johnny “Yatcha” Logan (#80) is definitely from ’53, due to the photo being taken at County Stadium in Milwaukee.

The Eisenhower era of the ‘50s was a “brave” new world in many respects, including the shifting of long established franchises to new cities. The Browns, Athletics, Dodgers and Giants all followed the Braves gambit. The nation liked “Ike” (not Delock), and I would like you to prepare for the next installment in my quest to pin down the first card for each transplanted team.

Please let me know if you have evidence that disproves any of my speculations. The cards that made Milwaukee famous may have made a fool out of me.

 

 

 

 

The Say Hey Kid: There Isn’t A Thing That Willie Mays Can’t Do

In my last post, I went through Willie Mays’s Topps and Bowman baseball cards from the 1950s, to determine what a young kid of the time would have learned about Mays from the cards. I suggest you go read that piece now before we continue into the 1960s.

1960 Topps

Mays60Front     Mays60Back

Although I did not mention this last time, in 1959 Mays’ reported height and weight both increased, putting him at a solid 5’11” and 180 pounds. His season statistics had become more of the same by this point, but in 1960 Topps simplified things (for all players) by simply highlighting some of his better games. In a game that did not make the cut: on September 17, with the first place Giants just a single game ahead of the Braves, Mays was 4-for-4 with a walk against Milwaukee including a three-run home run. Fun fact: Warren Spahn, going for his 20th win, failed to retire the first four Giants and was removed from the game.

Topps returned with a cartoon in 1960, and it is a classic. This is what kids lived for back then — a sliding Mays joking/trashtalking the poor baseman. Honestly, I sort of assumed that this actually happened.

Mays1960MasterMentorFront     Mays1960MasterMentorBack

As you can see, Bill Rigney gets the starring role on the back of this card, with his big star rating only a handful of words at the end. True, its not like Mays did not get enough ink at Topps.

Mays60AllStarFront     Mays60AllStarBack

Pretty standard fare at this point. If anything the prose (“Possibly”) pulls its punches a bit from previous seasons. I will say that he looks more menacing than usual in the cartoon.

1961 Topps

Mays61Front     Mays61Back

As you all know, Topps often took photographs of players without their hat on, and later used these photos if the player got traded and they didn’t want to show the old hat. I prefer this to the airbrushed hats, which were often comically rendered. Here the hatless photo is not necessary, but is nonetheless welcome. Mays is about to enter a period where he always smiled in his photos, a look he pulled off with aplomb. This card might be the most fearsome pose of all his cards. By all accounts a gentle man, he looks like he could pick me up and throw me over the moon. Which he probably could have.

Mays61BattingLeadersFront     Mays61BattingLeadersBack

This is the year Topps introduced “Leaders” cards, first for HR and batting average and later adding RBI. Mays was a regular on these cards of course, and you will be seeing all of them. I hope the Norm Larker family hoarded this one.

Although Mays is having one great season after another, it is worth pointing out that his “baseball card numbers” (that many of us grew up with and therefore revere) underrated him considerably. Over the first 10 years of his career he won a single batting title and a single home run title, both of which Topps mentions regularly over the years. But because he did everything on a baseball field so well, he is better served by a stat like WAR, which tries to measure all of his contributions. Mays led the NL — which during his career boasted one of the greatest collections of superstar talent ever assembled — a ridiculous 10 times in baseball-reference.com’s version of WAR. Six times he put up 10.0 WAR, a feat managed not a single time by Henry Aaron, Frank Robinson, or Roberto Clemente, his justifiably revered peer group. In fact, during Mays’s entire career, only one other National League player ever managed the feat — Ernie Banks in 1959.

Never forget: Mays was the King of Kings.

Mays61MVPFront     Mays61MVPBack

A rather dull subset I think, never repeated, showing a handful of players who had won MVP awards in previous years. The hat is blackened presumably because he had won the MVP in New York and he was now in San Francisco?

 

Mays61AllStarFront     Mays61AllStarBack

This subset, on the other hand, was glorious. I preferred the 1960 All-Star backs, with the big cartoon, though a kid of 1961 would have had all this text to chew on. The last sentence, suggesting that Mays made multiple spectacular catches in the 1954 World Series might be an oversell. I think it was just one, though it was quite a thing.

Apropos of nothing, twenty-three years and change ago I got married here. My vows consisted of explaining the significance of Willie Mays’s 1954 World Series catch in Jane and my subsequent childhoods (neither of us were born at the time of the catch). Truth. The closer was my claim that on this day I was “making the greatest catch of all time.” Corny perhaps, but it fit the informal mood of the festivities, which also featured Bob Dylan, Laura Esquivel, Roger Angell and James Brown.

But enough about me.

1962 Topps

Mays62Front     Mays62Back

The front of this card is simply spectacular, one of the most attractive photographs of his career. On the back, its is telling again how Topps relies on his batting title and home crown from years earlier as his most impressive accomplishments. In point of fact, Mays could have won the previous eight MVP awards.

Mays1962ManagersDreamFront     Mays1962ManagersDreamBack

The first time the game’s two most popular and famous players ever shared a card (they would do so one other time), and it is a spectacular shot taken at the 1961 All Star game at Boston’s Fenway Park. As a bonus, Henry Aaron shows up to the far right. (Elston Howard and John Roseboro are also pictured.) Topps makes it seem on the back that these two stars get together regularly to discuss baseball philosophies, though this might have been limited to their many All-Star game appearances.

Mays62HRLeadersFront     Mays62HRLeadersBack

A pretty solid group, though I was never a fan of the floating head look Topps used for many subsets this season. For several years in the 1960s Topps used the back of their leaders cards to list the top 30 or 40 players in the specific category. I can’t express how cool it was in the late 1960s to see a guy with a .211 batting average make the leaders card.

Mays62AllStarFront     Mays62AllStarBack

Topps had All-Star cards (a full lineup for each league) every year from 1958 through 1962, and of course Mays made it all five years. Also going 5-for-5 were Henry Aaron, Mickey Mantle, and Luis Aparicio.

Although his 1962 text continues to emphasize his 1954 and 1955 seasons, it does highlight the four-homer day he had the previous April.

 

1963 Fleer

Mays63FleerFront     Mays63FleerBack

In 1963 Fleer tried to enter the baseball market with its own set of current players, but after a single series they were stopped in court by Topps. Fleer’s 66 cards included Mays as card #5. No earth-shattering new information on the back, though their mild apology for Mays’s .304 batting average (despite 49 home runs) is rather amusing.

1963 Topps

Mays63Front     Mays63Back

Here is Willie in the middle of a typical Candlestick Park fog.

On several of his cards, Topps touts Mays’s play in the All-Star game. Records are made to be broken and all that, but its hard to imagine Mays’s resume in the mid-summer classic ever being assailed. He played in 24 games, possible because there were two games per year from 1959 to 1962. He started 18 and played 11 complete games. Although he finished 2-for-21 over his last eight games, he still ended up over .300 (23-75) thanks to so many big games in mid-career.

Mays63PrideofNLFront     Mays63PrideofNLBack

For Musial’s final season, Topps got him together with Mays for this great card. Stan seems to be passing the torch to the younger star, who is now 32 years old but still the best in baseball.

Mays63HRLeadersFront     Mays63HRLeadersBack

Five Hall of Famers on the front of the league leaders card ain’t bad. Anyone doubting the tremendous disparity of the two leagues at this time should just take a look at the AL version of this card, which features Leon Wagner, Norm Cash, Jim Gentile, Rocky Colavito, Roger Maris and Harmon Killebrew. Who chose these sides?

But if you are Ramon Mejias, you might consider framing the back of the NL card.

1964 Topps

Mays64Front     Mays64Back

A fantastic card because Mays looks relaxed and unaware of the camera. The back of his cards have subtly shifted to placing him among the best to ever play the game, rather than just a star of the moment.

Mays64GiantGunnersFront     Mays64GiantGunnersBack

This photograph was undoubtedly taken within seconds of the one above (ED: this is false, and obviously so), showing the Giants’ other great hitter. Although Willie McCovey would eventually surpass Cepeda as a star, Orlando was the better player until he hurt his knee in 1965 and Willie took a huge step forward. Of note: Cepeda did NOT win the 1961 NL MVP award, despite Topps’ claim. Frank Robinson did.

Mays64TopsInNLFront     Mays64TopsInNLBack

Certainly one of the greatest cards of All-Time. Of note is the fact that Aaron, who would become the All-Time home run leader, is praised for his batting averages and base stealing ability while Mays is the great slugger. If Aaron was underrated as a player it is because he shared a generation and a league with Willie Mays.

Mays64HRLeadersFront     Mays64HRLeadersBack

Another ridiculous card (AL version: Killebrew, Dick Stuart and Bob Allison. LOL). Gene Oliver has bragging rights on the back, but the most surprising name is probably Carl Willey, a Mets pitcher immortalized for his July 15, 1963 grand slam off Houston’s Ken Johnson at the Polo Grounds.

Mays64GiantFront     Mays64GiantBack

I wrote about the Topps Super set a couple of years ago. Every card is beautiful, and Mays might be the most beautiful. I haven’t dealt with oddball cards in these articles because they usually don’t have learning material on the back. This time Topps went all out with the text, most of which we have read before.

Until next time, when I push onwards to 1965.

 

 

 

 

The Say Hey Kid: Willie is the Greatest

I have often said that I learned baseball from baseball cards. I learned the teams, and everything important about the players. I learned what they looked like, their statistical record, how tall they were, where they were born, and — if Topps was feeling whimsical — whether they liked rock ‘n roll records or bowling.

Its different today, of course. Kids today don’t need baseball cards to learn about the players — its all on-line, and if they want to dig deeper they can reach out to the players on Instagram.

In this post (and hopefully a few others) I am going to go through Willie Mays’s baseball cards and imagine what a child of the 1950s (or later) would have learned with these as his or her primary source. I will only consider the major flagship sets, at least for now, although I reserve the right to cheat if the mood strikes.

Most of Mays career was before my card collecting days, but there might be people out there for whom this exercise is more than hypothetical. Let’s give it a try.

1951 Bowman

Mays51BowmanFront    Mays51BowmanBack

Mays looks like a big strong guy, though he is actually not particularly big. (This is the same height and weight on baseball-reference.com today. Ordinarily I would scoff, but Mays honestly looked the same size for 23 years.)

Mays did not get called up until late May 1951, but Bowman had his accurate minor league details (.477!) and got this card onto store shelves later in the summer. His stint in the Negro Leagues in 1948 is not mentioned, but his brief pedigree was still quite impressive.

1952 Bowman

Mays52BowmanFront    Mays52BowmanBack

Once again Bowman put out this card late enough that they could mention his late May army induction. We now learn his birthdate for the first time, and that he has shrunk 1/2 inch. Most importantly, the card implies a bit of his major league ability, with his “sensational fielding plays” and that he would be missed “throughout the league.” Both very true.

1952 Topps

Mays52Front    Mays52Back

Topps reported Mays had won the 1951 Rookie of the Year award, a fact Bowman had not mentioned. Like Bowman, Topps’ 1952 Mays card came out late enough so that his army induction shows up. Topps had both his major league (1951 only) and minor league (parts of 1950 and 1951) records — including defense, which Topps eventually shunned. Also, we learned that Mays had brown hair and brown eyes, which you might think kids would not care about. You would be wrong.

1953 Topps

Mays53Front     Mays53Back

This was our first look at Mays’ entire body, and he looks as if he is fielding a base hit and is about to unleash a throw to third base to knock out the foolish base runner. We also get a look at his autograph — Mays has signed thousands of times in the years since, and this actually does look quite a bit like his later autograph.

Other than recording Mays’ brief 5-week stint with the 1952 Giants (before he went in the Army) there was not much for Topps to report. Their claim that Mays’ induction was a big reason why they failed to win the pennant holds up — they finished just 4 1/2 game behind the Dodgers, a gap one can imagine Mays making up.

Also, how do kids of today learn that Lou Gehrig was “The Iron Horse”? This seems a crucial part of a child’s education, but I can see this factoid falling through the cracks.

1954 Bowman

Mays54BowmanFront     Mays54BowmanBack

It has always been remarkable to me how much of an impression Mays made on baseball at a young age, before his statistical record made his greatness obvious. He was already “the greatest young fielder there is” after just 155 major league games, and his return for 1954 (he had missed the entire 1953 season) was considered by some enough to catch a Dodger team that had finished 35 games ahead of them. That is respect.

The quiz answer (George Sisler) held up for another 50 years, until Ichiro Suzuki’s 261 hits in 2004.

1954 Topps

Mays54Front     Mays54Back

In my view this is the first great Mays card. For the first time this handsome man was smiling, and the card back is spectacular. The cartoon panels refer to a 1951 catch he made off of Carl Furillo and the subsequent throw to cut down Billy Cox at home. This is the same catch Bowman mentions on their card, though Topps’ version is much more dramatic. Also of note, Mays has gained five pounds, probably all muscle.

One thing I could have mentioned earlier. All of his early baseball cards claim that he was born in Fairfield, Alabama. Actually Mays was born in nearby Westfield but was raised in Fairfield. This was likely an unimportant distinction to most people, even Mays, but there you have it.

1955 Topps

Mays55BowmanFront     Mays55BowmanBack

Many of the 1955 Bowman photographs were taken too far away for my taste, but the Mays photo is spectacular. For the first time, the effusive text on the back can not be brushed off as hyperbole — Mays had his first superstar season at age 23, and Bowman could therefore pick and choose which amazing statistics to highlight. The first four words — “Willie is the greatest” — could have suffice, but they had space to fill.

1955 Topps

Mays55Front     Mays55Back

Topps was also up to the task of praising Mays, and used some of their real estate to mention the catch he had made in Game 1 of the recent World Series. Notice that Topps did a much better job of using the space on the back, as they had all the text and numbers that Bowman had and still had room to tell us that Sam Crawford had the all-time triples record. (He still does.)

1956 Topps

Mays56Front  Mays56Back

Topps used the same primary photo for three years running. After a few seasons at 175 pounds, a healthy post-Army diet has helped Willie return to his rookie weight. In addition, for the first time we learn that Willie lives in New York, this information replacing his birthplace on the back of his baseball cards. By this time, Mays has so many things one could brag about that Topps’ challenge was to pick amongst them. He *loves* to make impossible catches, and he apparently did so nonchalantly. Likely true.

1957 Topps

Mays57Front     Mays57Back

For the first time, Topps used beautiful color photography for its card set, and the Mays card could hang in the Louvre. Also for the first time, kids got a statistical line for everyone’s entire professional career. Consider for a moment the work it must have taken for the staff at Topps to produce a baseball card like this for 400 (and later more) players. The elimination of defensive statistics (at least for now) is no big loss, honestly.

You will notice that Mays’ birthplace is now Westfield, correcting a mistake made on his 1951-55 cards. Topps seems a little sheepish about Mays’s reduced 1956 batting output, but highlights the 40 steals as a way to soften the blow. Still, what’s not to love?

1958 Topps

Mays58FrontMays58Back

The Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958 and Mays — despite this card being part of the first series — had already moved his home? Topps had to employ a bit of trickery to draw the “SF” on Mays’s cap, made a bit easier with the upturned bill.

After one year of an expanded statistical record, Topps returned to their 1956 format of one year plus career, and re-added fielding stats. The left cartoon seems to imply that Mays was the *first* player ever to hit 20 doubles, triples and home runs. In fact he was the fourth such player (Frank Schulte, Jim Bottomley, Jeff Heath), and it has happened thrice since (George Brett, Jimmy Rollins, Curtis Granderson). Still impressive.

Mays58FenceBustersFront     Mays58FenceBustersBack

For the first time Mays was featured on a non-base card, and yes I am going to show these cards too. Although Mays seems to be checking out Snider’s muscles, Topps spends more ink on Mays’ accomplishments. I especially like the part about “practically” making a great catch every day.

Mays58AllStarFront     Mays58AllStarBack

In Topps’ 1958 All-Star subset, they showed Mays’ performance against each of his seven opponents. The Pirates gave him the most trouble, a rare bright spot for an otherwise poor team. The text was apparently written by SPORT magazine rather than Topps, giving us a fresh set of superlatives. “Most electrifying.” It is telling that Mays’ extraordinary offense is often an afterthought in the praise.

1959 Topps

Mays59Front    Mays59Back

Honestly, what could be better than a cartoon of a thieving Mays being chased by a policeman with a nightstick? You might have noticed that on his 1954 card Topps tried (I think) to make Mays a black man, whereas they did not here. I am likely making way too much of this, but is it possible that Topps did not want to show a white cop chasing a black man with a club in 1959? My recollection from later years is that players were all white (or colorless).

Mays59HittingStarsFront     Mays59HittingStarsBack

Topps does a pretty good job making Mays and Ashburn into comparable stars. I am not complaining, this is appropriate on a card like this.

Mays59BaseballThrillsFront     Mays59BaseballThrillsBack

In 1959 Topps created a Baseball Thrills subset, and Mays’ catch got its own card. The Catch had been mentioned on his 1955 Topps card, but these three spectacular photos do a better job of showing kids what all the fuss was about.

Mays59AllStarFront     Mays59AllStarBack

Mays’ fourth card of the 1959 set is the first time his enduring nickname shows up. It was nice to see Topps focus on Mays offense for a change, if only for his .318 career batting average. The only active player with a higher average? Stan Musial at .340.

OK, this gets us through the 1950s, when both Topps and Mays took over the game. Until next time.

 

 

 

Alou’s the One!

“Nixon’s the One!”

This campaign slogan became reality on election night in 1968. Richard Nixon was a genuine baseball fan, but the new President may have found reading the standings a little “tricky,” since Major League Baseball launched the second wave of expansion and divisional play in ‘69. The American League replaced the recently-departed Athletics with the Royals in Kansas City and ventured into uncharted territory with the Seattle Pilots. The National League followed suit by planting the Expos north of boarder in Montreal and the Padres just over the border from Mexico in San Diego.

In part to accommodate the four new teams, Topps produced its largest set to date: 664 cards. Also, (after a lengthy battle,) they reached an agreement with the Major League Baseball Players’ Association, thus allowing photographers to capture the infant clubs in their new uniforms and caps. However, these photos didn’t appear until the fifth series, so it’s bare headshots and airbrushed insignia in the first four series.

Alou

Ironically, the first Expos card (#22) features a player who never played for Montreal: Jesus Alou. Many of you remember that the youngest Alou brother was sent to Houston as part of the deal that salvaged the Rusty Staub trade, after Donn Clendenon refused to report to the Astros.

Cline

The first card depicting an Expo in the “tri-color beanie” is Ty Cline at #442. The journeyman Cline will end up with the Reds in ’70 and play a key role in defeating Pittsburgh in that season’s NLCS. Other Expos shown in the new uniforms in the 1969 set are: #466 Boccabella, #496 Jaster, #524 Rookie Stars: Laboy/Wicker, #549 Brand, #578 Bosch, #625 Mack Jones and #646 Rookie Stars: McGinn/Morton.

McBean

Drafted by the Padres from Pittsburgh, pitcher Al McBean has the honor of being Topps’ initial “Friar” with card #14.   The Virgin Island native was only a Padre briefly. After appearing in one game, he was dealt to Dodgers in April of ’69.

Ferrara  

Veteran Dodger outfielder Al Ferrara is the first player to don the Padres distinctive brown and gold on card #452. Al was a starter during the first two seasons, proving to be one of the Padres most consistent hitters. Of course, Ferrara’s biggest claim to fame is appearing on TV in episodes of “Batman” and “Gilligan’s Island.” Other players in authentic Padres uniforms that year are: #506 Rookie Stars: Breeden/Roberts, #637 Rookie Stars: Davanon/Reberger/Kirby and #659 Johnny Podres. Yes, Podres of the Padres.

Morehead

Former Red Sox phenom Dave Morehead holds the distinction of being the inaugural Royals card at #29. Morehead tossed a no-hitter against Cleveland in ’65 but a shoulder injury derailed a promising career. Dave lasted two seasons with Kansas City before his release in ’71.

Ribant

Card # 463 shows pitcher Dennis Ribant in a Royals uniform from spring training ’69. But, Dennis never wore the royal blue during the championship season, since he was traded to the Cardinals before the late in spring training. Other “real” Royals: #508 Drabowsky, #529 Kirkpatrick, #558 Burgmeier, #569 Billy Harris, #591 Hedlund, #619 Rookie Stars: Pat Kelly, #632 Warden, #647 Wickersham and #662 Rookie Stars: Drago/Spriggs/Oliver.

Marshall

It goes without saying that I could prattle on about the Seattle Pilots incessantly. So, I will self-edit and limit my commentary about the first Pilots player on a card: Mike Marshall (#17). The eccentric Marshall was in the Pilots original starting rotation but struggled, resulting in a demotion to the minors. Marshall eventually becomes a multi-inning relief pitcher, winning the Cy Young for the Dodgers in ’74, appearing in a record 106 games.

Gosger

By the time I “ripped wax” on the pack containing card #482, Jim Gosger was probably already traded to the Mets-having been sent as the “player to be name later” for Greg Goosen. Jim is pictured wearing the basic Pilots spring training uniform. The undeniably unique uniforms, complete with captains’ stripes and “scrambled eggs” on the cap bills, would not debut until opening day. There are five other “immortals” who are photographed as Pilots: #534 McNertney, #563 Pattin, #612 Aker, #631 Kennedy and #651 Gil.

Although a “silent majority” of blog readers wishes they could “kick me around some more” for continuing this series, I will not allow my topic judgement to be “impeached.” Thus, “resign” yourselves to the coming third installment and “pardon” my obsession.

In closing, if you decide to purchase some of these cards, make sure to buy only from trusted sellers. After all, you want a dealer who can proclaim: “I am not a crook.”