Well, I got my first real six string. Bought it at the five-and-dime.
OK, that wasn’t me. That was some Canadian dude.
My summer of ’69 was more about a dim awareness. Of moon landings and Mad magazine. Of hippies and Nixon and ‘Nam. Oh my…
And the Mets. I had a dim awareness of the Mets that began to sharpen that summer.
This is the final form it took: “It will always be this way.”
So the seeds of my romantically fatal baseball tendencies were planted at the very moment of my conception as a fan.
However, I didn't have even a dim awareness of baseball cards at this point. My brother was four years older, but he was not really into sports, so cards hadn’t made their way into my house.
And all apologies, but I don’t feel like I missed too much. The ‘69 card fronts are kind of a lazy amalgamation of the ’67 and ’68 sets, and expansion appears to have given the airbrushers a fit.
Further evidence of the essential torpor surrounding the set can be found there on Al Jackson's left sleeve. If you squint a bit, you'll see a World's Fair commemorative patch. Which the Mets wore in 1964 and 1965...
The reverses are actually kind of cool, with a bubblegum pink background and a comic, as space allows. Plus, I love the way the loop of the “t” in the Topps logo cradles the card number.
One of the joys of Topps high-number series up through 1973 is that they often reveal long-forgotten footnotes to baseball history.
They trace within their lines the trajectory of once-great figures playing out the strings of their careers, in far-flung outposts that defy our natural associations.
Take Leo the Lip here. You might think of Leo the player as a Cardinal and a Dodger. I know I think of Leo the manager as a Dodger and a Giant and a Cub. But seeing him with the Astros, even in this airbrushed form, just doesn’t seem right.
I imagine him getting dressed in the Astrodome locker room with his back turned to the mirror.
And around about the 6th inning, I see him gazing out through the plastic Houston night in search of just a little patch of ivy…
No Ahab am I, but I do have some proverbial white whales that I chase with no real hope of ever landing:
1967 Topps Stand Up Ron Swoboda 1967 Topps Discs Cleon Jones 1968 Topps 3D Ron Swoboda 1970 Topps Cloth Gary Gentry 1970 Topps Candy Lid Tom Seaver
I don’t think this 1972 Cloth Frisella qualifies as a white whale, because it’s not really that hard to find.
Somewhere I have a photo of my dog standing in front of my bedroom door, and the door is covered with crusty Wacky Packages and misshapen 1972 Cloth stickers. And if I had access to these Cloths back in the day, they could not have been too scarce.
However, I did spend a fair amount of time looking for a graded version of this Frisella with the backing intact, and it felt like a steal for the $15 or so I paid.
I suppose I’d sharpen my harpoon again for a Jim Fregosi BP…
In my small corner of the world, we went to Ha-Cha Stationery for the Sunday Times. On the off chance that they were out of papers, we’d head over to Park Island.
Park Island was a little more than a mile away from Ha-Cha, which in little-kid geography felt like light years. And it was exotic. Dark aisles of toys and greeting cards and colorful things to which I had not yet ascribed a practical use.
The counter at the front of the store was packed full of candy and rolls of red caps, and in the summer, space was cleared for Mexican jumping beans and baseball cards.
And not just any baseball cards. While Ha-Cha trafficked in the standard Topps sets, Park Island carried the 1970 and 1971 Topps Supers, Chemtoy superballs, Milk Duds player boxes, and Fleer World Series cards.
I made enough trips to Park Island in those years to put together a decent collection of these esoteric issues, but in time they fell prey to storage difficulties (Supers), the allure of splitting brittle rubber with a fingernail (superballs), inexact scissoring (Milk Duds), and general disinterest (the Fleers).
So when I saw this 1971 Super Clendenon on eBay, I jumped at it.
Now, I realize it’s just a gray, blighted garden to some. But hear me out.
First of all, let’s start with the gray itself. This is the first Topps baseball set with a gray border. They’d done wood-grain and burlap sack and white, sure. But never gray.
And gray was a perfect fit. It is both lunar and anti-psychedelic—the ideal 1970 color.
Next, we have the script player names on the card fronts, another first for a Topps baseball set.
Up until 1970 there had been nothing but a succession of blocky, mostly sans serif fonts used for player names. This script font makes it feel like baseball cards are growing up, which is both momentous and tremendously sad.
(A small quirk that I love about the 1970 set is that sometimes players from New York’s American League team are referred to on the fronts as Yankees and sometimes as Yanks. Because I appreciate a healthy disrespect for authority…)
The card backs are among the most readable that Topps ever produced, with blocks of blue and gold ink subdividing a creamy white field.
Oh, and finally there's this: Card #1. World Champions. New York Mets.
I’ll always remember when Jon Matlack was deckled by a Marty Perez line drive in 1973.
The ball caromed off his head, and he dropped as if he'd been shot. I felt it out in Plainview.
After all, Matlack was one of my main driveway pitchers.
This was the short roster of guys I would pretend to be as I toed the “rubber” on my driveway and hurled tennis balls at the garage door. If I could hit the same rectangle three straight times, Reggie Jackson could only grumble and head back to the bench. Sorry Reggie—this game 7 belongs to us.
Matlack was a lefty like me, and like most good lefties, he wore number 32. Plus his middle name was “Trumpbour,” which has to count for something.
These Deckle Edge cards were part of the last gasp of limited-run test issues to come out of Topps. And deep in the heart of the Technicolor 70s, I’d say it took some gumption for them to release a black and white set.
I have an ungraded Felix Millan in a box somewhere. The Seaver has eluded me.
But as much as I love Tom Terrific, every once in a while still I rock into that Matlack motion, raise the glove in front of my eyes, uncoil, deliver, and duck…
Back in the '70s and '80s, these Topps Giants cards were little regarded and even less loved.
They were too big for the bicycle spokes, but ideal for cutting into strips to fashion makeshift Hot Wheels track connectors. (Oh yes I did, and I’m proud of it.)
Dealers would leave these on their counters for the taking, or drop some in your brown paper bag when you spent a few dollars on a couple of packs of old ’72 wax.
However, it does seem that the short prints in this set are genuinely elusive. I don’t think I had ever laid eyes on this Cisco card until the advent of eBay. I’d defaced many a Hunt and McMillan, but never a Cisco...
Once upon a time there was a boy named Charlie. He loved his mom, his dad, his little sister Becky, and his turtle Shelly. But most of all, Charlie loved baseball.
He’d spend countless hours in his backyard, throwing pop flies up into the air, making ice-cream cone catches to save imaginary games.
But as fate would have it, Charlie was just not very good at baseball. He had been hit in the face by many of those fantasy flies, enduring multiple bumps and bruises. A ball once caught him flush in the mouth and chipped his front tooth—it looked like a little peninsula. “I lost it in the sun!” he told his mom between tears.
Charlie’s dad was named Salvatore Etrada, and he dreamed that one day Charlie would join the family brokerage firm. He talked constantly to his wife about the future joy of having another Etrada working at Etrada.
Well, the years passed, as years will. Charlie grew older. Charlie grew into Charles. He went to work at the brokerage firm and was quite successful. But the dream of one day being a big-league ballplayer never quite died.
For Charles’ 25th birthday, Salvatore arranged the best surprise. He bought Charles a full New York Mets uniform, and arranged with the team’s manager Wes Westrum to allow Charles to spend the day on the practice field with the team.
Charles was overjoyed. He stretched and ran and threw with all the big leaguers. He felt like Charlie again.
Then, the strangest thing happened. Charlie was posing for a picture, pretending to pitch a baseball, when suddenly four bubblegum-pink letters floated into his view, just out of reach. He blinked twice, but the letters did not disappear: METS.
Charlie stretched to reach one of the letters, and he was finally able to grab the S.
There was a big whooshing sound, and the S snapped hard against his chest. Then he felt a tingling on his shoulders.
He didn’t think too much more about it until a few minutes later, when he was having a catch with one of the players. “Let it rip!” the player yelled to Charlie. So Charlie did. There was a loud pop of leather against leather, and the other player dropped his mitt and flexed his hand vigorously. “Ow! Here.” He tossed the ball back to Charlie. “Do that again.”
So Charlie did it again, with the same result. The coaches took notice of the sound, and began to form a half circle around Charlie. “Some arm you got there kid,” one said, spitting a big gob of brown goo at his feet. “Yeah, where you been hiding, Estrada?” said Westrum the manager.
Charlie was confused by all the attention. And did that guy just call him “Estrada”?
He corrected the manager. “It’s Etrada, sir. Charles Etrada.”
“Well, that ain’t what it says on the back of your jersey.”
Charlie strained to look over his right shoulder, and then his left. He saw that the name on the back of the jersey now read Estrada.
“You ever think about being a big league pitcher, Chuck?” asked Westrum.
Now of course we all know what Chuck’s answer was. Before he knew it, he was an official part of the team. He even had his own Topps trading card, which captured the moment right before he grabbed that magical S. The S that gave him a big league fastball. The S that changed Charles Etrada to Chuck Estrada.
His dad was sad at first, but the family brokerage continued to thrive. Eventually, all the people in the world got home computers, and Salvatore changed the name of the company just a bit, from Etrada to E-Trade.
Ah, the multiplayer rookie card (MRC). When it works, it’s a thing of beauty. When it doesn’t, you curse the fibrous pulp on which it’s printed.
Topps introduced the concept of the MRC in 1962. Expansion was making it impractical to represent all the new players, and here was an ingenious way to fit some of the greener guys into the set.
The initial design followed the floating-head motif that debuted on the 1960 coaches cards. It was crowded, crazy, and kind of cryogenic. And it was gone by 1964.
From 1964 onward, Topps bounced around between headshots in portrait and landscape layouts, often employing both in the same year. The 1973 MRCs are exclusively landscape, and (as in 1962) native to the high-number series.
OK, the elephant in the room with this particular card is that it’s actually an O-Pee-Chee— hence the “Troisiemes-buts debutants en 1973” fol de rol.
I find these OPC cards endearing in part because of their bilingual joie de vivre, and in part because the ragged edges make it look like they were cut from a sheet with a rusty butter knife.
It’s hard to think of a rookie card with a better pairing than the Schmidt and Cey on this one, but here are some competitors that spring to mind:
I carry this with me in my wallet, sandwiched between my driver's license and my Social Security card: a 1970 Topps Pilots rookie card. It's been with me for decades now, as the creases and tears will attest.
1970 was the first year in which I bought baseball cards. I was a couple of steps out of toddlerhood in 1969, and found myself swept up in the amazing saga of the soon-to-be-champion Mets. This was not an uncommon affliction in my Long Island neighborhood, but I caught a particularly persistent strain.
So every summer Sunday after church in 1970 we went to the local stationery store to pick up a copy of the New York Times, and I was allowed to buy two packs of cards. Wax, usually, but I could sometimes barter a bit of good behavior into a cello here and a rack pack there.
Of course, pulling a Mets card was a visceral thrill, be it Al Weis, Tom Seaver, or Bobby Pfeil. But I began to take particular note of the Pilots cards. It seemed odd that cards were being produced for a team that no longer existed.
These Pilots cards soon developed a secondary, but still special, place in my heart. I was far too young at the time to know what it meant to be ephemeral, and yet I think in a way I did.
As I grew older, the Pilots rookie card became increasingly totemic to me. I learned that one of the featured players, Miguel Fuentes, had died at the age of 23 in early 1970. The eight September games he pitched for the 1969 Pilots were the sum total of a career cut short by tragedy. An ephemeral career. An ephemeral life.
So now I carry with me the cards of my identity. My driver's license will tell you my height, weight, eye color, and date of birth; my Social Security card holds the map of my history as a son and a husband and a father.
But I suspect that the 1970 Pilots rookie card says more about me than both of those documents combined...
As a kid, I loved to be able to read a list of all the cards in each new series, and damn right I’d fill in the little boxes with pencil marks when I got my “got its.”
In addition, if you had sussed out Topps’ mathematical shorthand, checklists gave you a quick way to view which stars were in a given series. Cards ending in 0 or 5 were generally established/upcoming stars, and the century cards were superstars. Here's a sampling from series 5:
530 Don Sutton 550 Brooks Robinson 555 Ron Santo 560 Pete Rose 595 Nolan Ryan 600 Al Kaline 620 Phil Niekro
Checklist cards are ridiculous.
Even if you acknowledged the beauty and utility of checklists, chances are that you were less than thrilled when you pulled your second, third, fourth iteration of the same card.
They had no trade value, and didn’t fit the template for most flipping games.
To be determined: whether it is sublime or ridiculous to actually own a PSA 9 checklist...
1971 TOPPS GREATEST MOMENTS JERRY GROTE #54 GAI 6, PSA 6
Meet the twins: 1971 Topps Greatest Moments Jerry Grote GAI 6 and PSA 6.
Greatest Moments was a Topps test set, which means it saw limited distribution back in the day, probably only in some Brooklyn candy stores. The cards are larger than the standard 1971 issue, but wear the same basic black as the main set.
Some of the “greatest moments” essayed on these cards are a bit questionable.
The Grote, for example, celebrates his 20 putouts in a game on April 22, 1970. He got 19 of those by catching Tom Seaver's strikeouts, but Topps did not see fit to recognize Seaver's accomplishment as a great moment.
Which is kind of like celebrating Shakespeare's pen for having written Hamlet...
I inherited a large box of cards from my neighbor Steve when he moved away.
He was several years older than me, but cool enough to let me play stickball in the street with the bigger kids.
The majority of these cards were from 1965 to 1967, with some stray 1964s speaking to his first dalliances with collecting, and a small stack of 1968s signaling the end of the affair.
The cards were well kept—neatly stacked and lightly rubberbanded, with sharp corners and edges.
I can remember running through the piles: Koufax, Koufax, Mantle, Mantle, common, common, Rose, Rose, Rose. I added his box to my own burgeoning pile.
Then sometime in late 1976 or early 1977, a baseball card shop opened in our town. One day, I went in with this box of thousands of 1965-1967 cards. The owner offered me $100. Christ, I had never held a $100 bill in my life. So of course I took it.
I don’t regret this all as much as you might expect. I don’t spend a lot of time wishing I had the cards back, doing imaginary calculations. I mean, there’s no way the cards would have made it through my teenage years without being sold and/or swapped for a handful of magic beans, anyway.
Sometimes, though, I would like to have a couple of hours alone with that box. Just to sit on the floor and go through the stacks one more time: Koufax, Koufax, Mantle, Mantle, common, common, Rose, Rose, Rose…
1971 is the Velvet Underground of Topps baseball sets.
It was reviled in its day for being too dark, too moody, too European.
The accepted logic throughout the 70s held that it was a nihilistic set. A set for the smack addicts to flip down on Houston.
But then, slowly, the set began to grow in esteem. People started to embrace it for its very darkness. The weird, experimental edges (game-action photos, player portraits on the reverse) were no longer considered outré, but were instead being absorbed into the mainstream.
Time finally caught up to the guiding aesthetic of the 1971 set.
Accepting this premise, the 1971 Topps Bud Harrelson is a White Light/White Heat card...
I can spot a 1972 Topps high number from a mile away.
The photos are sharper in series 6, the resolution cleaner.
It looks like many of the shots were taken in the light of Florida spring, rather than in the summer murk of New York and Detroit and Philadelphia. This helps give the pictures a clarity and dimension that are absent from most of the cards in series 1 through 5.
1972 high numbers are radiant.
And if you listen closely, you can hear them speak.
Dave Marshall wants to tell you that he set a Mets record for pinch hits in 1971. He wants you to know that no frame can contain his lumber, and that, hell yes, he makes blue satin look good.
Dave Marshall wants you to know that he is not afraid of the long shadows looming behind him.
You couldn't be worth more than a couple of bucks in your NM 7 state, yet here you are, sealed in a thick slab of Beckett plastic.
Jose Cardenal, I'm pretty sure you're bulletproof now.
I really like the 1967 Topps set. Clean design, sharp pictures, and God's own typography on the card fronts. Eminently readable black text on a spearmint-green field on the backs. Groovy high numbers like Brooks Robinson, Rod Carew, and Tom Seaver.
Plus, posed photos like this one. Jose demonstrated respectable power in 1966 (16 HRs), but the man is not afraid to show you some bunt.
This card came to me as a ride along in an auction for another card of interest, but dammit Jose, you're wearing me down. My love for you is growing stronger every day...