Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com on May 26, 2016 and is reprinted here by permission.
Topps began naming an All-Star rookie team in 1959 and has been doing so ever since. For many of these years, they designated these honorees the following year by putting a trophy on their card. I always thought this was a great feature of the card set, partly because the trophies were always a bit of a surprise—in the days before ESPN and the Internet, we had no knowledge who Topps had named. I wasn’t surprised by Carlton Fisk’s 1973 trophy—he had won the Rookie of the Year Award, but it was a bit more fun to see the trophy on Bobby Cox’s 1969 card. He had hit .229 the year before, and by the time this card came out he had already lost, permanently, his starting position. In fact, this would be his one and only card as a player, years before he began his Hall of Fame managerial career.
Many star players had a trophy on their first solo card, including Tom Seaver (1968), Johnny Bench (1969), and Gary Carter (1976). Often (as for each of these three) this is the player’s second card—the previous year Topps might have included him on a Rookie Stars card with a couple of other players, which really only served notice that “this guy might be good.” As a Red Sox fan I recall the excitement of Mike Nagy’s trophy on his 1970 card, even though I kind of knew that he was not going to be Tom Seaver. I was not fooled by Doug Griffin’s hardware on his 1972 card either.
For many years Topps also named All-Star teams, players of the month, and players of the year for each minor league. This extensive yearlong effort surely helped when it came time to get players to renew their agreements for future baseball cards.
1972 (787 cards)
Once again Topps made a dramatic design change, moving from a bold solid black border to a psychedelic card obviously inspired by the rock concert posters of the era. Even today, one can imagine giant-sized versions hanging in some retro-hippie portrait gallery, incense burning around you. More to the point, the border acted to detract from the image, both by taking up a lot of space and by drawing your eye away from the fine Topps photography.
The full statistical record returned to the back of the card, but the dark card stock unfortunately remained, accompanied by the decision to display most of the material as black ink on burnt orange. For the first time since 1952 Topps did not display the player’s position on the front of the card—I knew most of the players, but there were certainly times when this posed a brief inconvenience.
This is the year I stopped collecting cards for the first time. I was 11 years old, finishing sixth grade, and all of my peers had moved on to buying records, talking to girls, and more or less acting their age. I bought the first series or two and then decided it was time to grow up. Though this decision did not stick, I am sure the card design played a role in my sabbatical.
Throughout this series I have referred to a “base” card as a card that shows a player photo on the front and his statistical record on the back, and a “special” or “non-base” card as everything else—All-Star cards, team cards, managers, league leaders. In 1972 Topps went crazy with non-base cards, giving us a record 206 of them, a full 26 percent of the set. For the first time, Topps put out 16 “Boyhood Photo” cards (ugh), six “Award” cards (ugh) that showed a trophy on the front and a list of annual award recipients on the back, and seven late series “Traded” cards (very nice) showing a few recently traded stars in their new uniforms.
The largest subset by far, spread throughout the seven series, were 72 “In Action” cards, showing game-action photographs of players. Topps had used action photos on a few of their 1971 base cards, but this time they mercifully left the base cards alone and put all the action in this subset. Many of the photos were again poorly cropped, so that the depicted player is barely discernible, and there isn’t really much “action” (the players are often just standing around), but many of the photos are really quite beautiful even today. I particularly like this Rose photo, showcasing one of the game’s biggest stars and his obvious enjoyment of the task at hand.
1973 (660 cards)
By 1973 Topps was enjoying the 18th year of its baseball card monopoly, but it continued to dramatically change its card set every year. After the craziness (in design and content) of 1972, Topps went the other way the next year, reducing its set by 16 percent mostly by lessening its non-base cards from 206 to 102. Gone were the separate In Action cards, but returning were the action base cards, a total of 94 photos taken during games.
Personally, I appreciated the return to a simpler card front, and, after a year with no position shown, Topps provided a position-specific silhouette. Another change, which I regretted, was the de-emphasis of the team name after several years of its dominance on the card front. The backs reverted to the 1967–68 vertical orientation, allowing for more text and a cartoon. Nothing would ever compare to the white stock era, but these card backs were among the best of the 1970s.
The 1973 cards are most famous today for some of their horrific airbrushing, moving past merely modifying the logo on the hat into head-to-toe uniform transformations. None of it fooled this 12-year-old, and much of it is mainly joked about today. Most web articles on this set take on an understandably humorous tone, and there is no sense in my reviewing all the wrong turns here. This series, after all, is intended as a spirited celebration of a golden age.
1974 (704 cards)
In 1974 Topps made the revolutionary decision to put all of its cards out in a single series for the first time, which it would do for the remainder of the era and beyond. This meant that an enterprising youngster could take a few trips to the store in March, buy 100 packs at 10 cents each (netting 800 cards), and try to put together most of the set before the season even started. The reality, some of us discovered, is somewhat less rosy. I had a paper route in these days and tried in both 1974 and 1975 to collect the entire set. I recall opening pack after pack filled with eight cards I already had. I wrote earlier of the thrill of seeing the new series of cards six or seven times a year. Those days were now over.
In the 1972 set Topps had seven Traded cards in the final series showing several star players in their new uniform. In 1974 Topps had an entire 44-card subset (including a checklist) of Traded cards that showed up in packs in late summer (since they no longer had “series”). Unlike the 1972 version, Topps did not wait for the new uniforms—every card in the subset was hatless or airbrushed, resulting in an unattractive and unpopular subset. Since Topps did not put these out until later in the summer, they might have had time to photograph Juan Marichal in a Red Sox uniform. An airbrush artist has to eat too, I suppose.
Topps set aside the first six cards in the 1974 set for Henry Aaron, in anticipation of his breaking Babe Ruth’s home record (which he did early in the season). Card No. 1 was Aaron’s base card, and the next five cards showed images of Aaron’s previous 20 cards backed by a timeline of his entire career. It was quite a tribute, and for many of us this was the first time we had ever seen these cards, or any of the cards from early in Aaron’s career. Topps used a similar tribute for Pete Rose in 1986.
1975 (660 cards)
In an era of fairly simple card designs, the 1975 issue is the most colorful that Topps ever issued and trails only 1972 for the most outlandish. The border uses two bright colors, and the team name uses a third. Unlike Topps’ meticulously color-coded team names from the past, the 1975 colors are distributed (I presume) randomly, making sorting a potentially headache-inducing exercise. That said, the cards were popular then and now, probably because of the universally white borders of the surrounding seasons.
There were many great photos, including this one of George Brett, that you might not notice as easily, as your eyes are pulled away from the center of the card to the bright colors. Topps substantially cut back on their in-game cards, but the ones they used were well cropped and more attractive than in prior years.
This was a big year for baseball in New England, which kept me interested in baseball and cards the entire summer and fall. I did have a continual problem making the Red Sox lineup with my cards because two of their best players—Fred Lynn and Jim Rice—were rookies whose only cards were on four-person Rookie cards. This kind of thing happened every year with teams not having proper cards for their rookies, but there were rarely multiple players on a pennant-contending team. A generation later card companies were putting hot prospects on cards when they were still in the low minors, but I had to make do with what I had. Lynn would go on to win the league MVP as a rookie, despite this uninspiring beginning to his baseball card life.
Thank you to The Topps Company for granting me permission to use images of their cards in this series.
Next week: Topps faced another legal challenge in the late 1970s, and this time its monopoly did not survive. In its final five years of controlling the market Topps put out group sets that lacked the design variety and subset innovation that they had been known for.