Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com on April 28, 2016 and is reprinted here by permission.
In December 1965 the Cincinnati Reds traded Frank Robinson to the Baltimore Orioles, a deal that had a large impact on the baseball scene over the next few years. The good people at Topps, who were putting together the photos for their 1966 baseball card set at the time, had a problem on their hands. One of Topps’ primary goals every year was to show each of their 400 to 600 subjects fully decked out in the uniform of his current team. Topps likely had a few dozen photos of Robinson in their files but obviously none of them wearing an Orioles uniform. What to do?
For most of these years the bulk of the Topps photo archive was taken in Arizona and Florida during spring training. To hedge their bets, Topps took a few photos of each player without a hat. This would allow them to deal with team changes, and this is how they handled the Robinson trade. Robinson is very obviously wearing a Reds uniform, but without the hat Topps felt they could better pass him off as an Oriole to the nation’s youth. Topps could have chosen to leave Robinson a Red, or to delay his card until a later series and try to get a new photo in spring training—they couldn’t do this for every player, but Robinson seems more important than most.
The very next year Topps handled Maury Wills this way—he was traded to the Pirates in December, but Topps put him out in the seventh series the next summer in his brand new Pirates togs. (Coincidentally, this was Wills’s first Topps card—they had never been able to sign him, and when they finally did they might have wanted to do it right.)
The 1960s were a particularly difficult time for Topps in this regard because, in addition to the usual trading, there were eight expansion teams and five franchise shifts between 1961 and 1972, and Topps always tried to keep us from seeing out-of-date uniforms. In most years, Topps managed to get the correct hats on 85 to 90 percent of the players, but in expansion years it was closer to 75 percent. Topps was very strict with this: In 1966, all of the California Angels were shown hatless because they had just moved from Los Angeles to Anaheim and Topps did not want to show the old “LA” hats. The 1968 Oakland A’s (resettled from Kansas City) were handled the same way—all were either hatless or had a hat that had been painted over.
Six years after being traded to the Orioles, Frank Robinson was traded to the Dodgers. This time Topps, given the same amount of time to prepare, instead just left him on the Orioles. I must confess that this seems a far more pleasing solution. In a later series that summer Topps put out a second Robinson card showing that he had been traded, but the beautiful Orioles card was obviously his real card that year, the only one with his statistics on the back.
Throughout the 1960s Topps photographs showed two principal varieties. The first is what I call a “baseball card pose,” in which a player is holding a bat or glove, perhaps pretending to bat (as Robinson above), pitch, or field his position, and wearing his full uniform. The second is a standard headshot, perhaps showing the upper torso. The photos were almost always taken during the day, generally under a very blue sky. As a kid you got to know what the background of the team’s spring training facilities looked like and could see that several of the cards from a particular team look like they were snapped from the exact same spot.
I recently spoke with Doug McWilliams, a photographer who worked for Topps for 34 years in the Arizona camps in March and then in the Bay Area during the season. He told me that he showed up at a camp with a list provided by Topps. After a few years all the teams knew him, and the more organized managers would set time aside in the morning and send him one player at a time until the job was done. McWilliams would move from camp to camp, take hundreds of photos, and then send the undeveloped rolls of film to Topps. He played no role in selecting the photos—he provided the material and had no idea which photos might be used.
Beginning in 1971, Topps began experimenting with action photography. The results were mixed for the first few years. While a few of the photos are terrific—like CookieRojas turning a double play in Yankee Stadium—some of them were much less so.
In this card of Bud Harrelson, Bud is the guy over to the far left trying to put a tag on Jimmy Wynn. When I told McWilliams that I thought the early Topps action shots were not ready for prime time, he was quick to point out that it was not the photos, it was the way Topps cropped them. I can see that now. Had Topps chosen to put second base in the center of the photo (as they did with Rojas) and have Harrelson dominate the shot, this might have been a nice card. Several other examples that year had similar problems. The next year Topps had a 72-card subset of action photos and left the base cards alone, essentially allowing Topps to experiment without affecting (read: ruining) the important player cards.
In 1973 Topps went a little crazy—choosing to combine their often-substandard action shots with aggressive airbrushing. With Dave Johnson having been traded from Baltimore to Atlanta, Topps could have found a photo of Johnson without a hat or at least a headshot that they could airbrush. Instead, the Topps artist painted an entire uniform so that we could pretend that Johnson was playing as a Brave in, oddly enough, Yankee Stadium.
For the Tommie Agee card, Topps again chose a wide-angle action shot (Agee is on the far left) and then cropped it so that they had to airbrush three different Astros uniforms onto innocent Mets players.
Returning to Frank Robinson, he once again found himself on a new team for 1973. To deal with this, Topps chose a poorly cropped photo of Robinson after a swing, with his home Dodgers uniform altered to remove the team’s name, allowing Topps to (not really) pass him off as an Angel. There are a dozen other examples I could have chosen.
Mercifully, whoever convinced Topps this was a good idea was not able to do so again. Topps instead spent a few years convinced it could draw new logos onto hats, which was similarly misguided. The 1975 Topps card was Frank Robinson’s final as a player, and Topps sent him off with a badly airbrushed cap. Because this wonderful and elegant player deserves a better sendoff, I will instead leave you with his gorgeous 1967 card.
1962 Topps (598 cards)
Back to where we left off last week, Topps’ next entry showed a vibrant full-color photo that looks as if it is being peeled back from a wood frame, revealing the player’s name, team, and position. Topps once again had to deal with two new teams, this time the Mets and Astros. Due to the extended baseball card season, kids could see players in these new uniforms by the sixth series.
The 1962 Topps cards include a nine-card action subset, showing multiple panels that depict a star player swinging, pitching, or throwing. The cards featuring Mantle’s swing and Warren Spahn’s pitch are great, but the highlight is likely one showing Roger Maris connect on his 61st home run from the previous October. As usual, Topps showed many of the game’s most popular players. Topps would not repeat the special action subset until 1972.
Coming off Maris’s big season, Topps also had a 10-card subset devoted to the career of Babe Ruth, showing him from a young boy to an old man. A collector could therefore find a card honoring Ruth’s 60th home run in Series 2, and one honoring Maris’s 61st in Series 4.
1963 (576 cards)
In 1963 Topps switched their cardboard stock from a dark greyish-brown to white and thereby launched an era of very readable card backs. Speaking as a middle-aged man this is very helpful, but I am thankful I first encountered cards when I did. I started wearing glasses in third grade, so my first two card seasons (1967 and 1968) came when I had very poor eyesight. Had I grown up a few years earlier or later, this hobby might never have caught on for me and I might have become a productive member of society or something. Dodged that bullet.
Topps also brought back a second photo to the front of the card, last seen in 1960. Once again, the added photo is black and white on a brightly colored background, this time inside a circle. And once again it does not seem to add much—there is already a bigger, clearer, colorful photo on the card, so what was the point? Although this was before my time, Topps might have agreed—they did not go with a second photo again until 1983, but never again in out-of-focus black and white.
Thank you to The Topps Company for granting me permission to use images of their cards in this series.
Next week: Today, many of the most expensive vintage cards are “rookie cards”—the first card of young players who later turned into stars. Back in the day, many of these cards were unattractive annoyances and were generally judged by their designs and usefulness.