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Five For The Record: 1973 Topps.

A recurring feature in which I take something I enjoy but have not thought deeply about, and force myself to state five reasons why I like it.

(FWIW: The only card from the set that I personally own is the one pictured. To avoid infringing on someone else’s rights, I have not posted images here, but each link will open up the relevant image in a new tab. Thanks to The Trading Card Database for doing the Lord’s work.)

Topps’ annual set of baseball cards from my birth year is frequently dissed as one of the company’s worst — as if baseball cards had been bitten by the samIMG_8661e bug that made America’s clothing, cars and interior design ugly and/or flawed around the same time.

The base design, shown at right, was pleasant and uncluttered by Seventies standards, and some people find the little silhouette icons of ballplayers quite charming. (I’m neutral, myself.)

But the ’73 set is notorious for lots and lots of examples of poorly chosen art. They fall into different categories:

  • Unattractive close-ups. Reggie Jackson, caught in mid-throw, looks like Fred Sanford.
  • Jumbled shots from too far away. ’73 Topps is notorious for featuring multi-player shots, taken from a distance, that aren’t tightly focused on the featured player. Examples include Tito Fuentes, Dave Nelson, Boots Day, Tommie Agee, the famous Luis Alvarado used-car-lot card, and the “Joe Rudi” card that features three players who aren’t Joe Rudi.
  • Airbrushing stupidity. Topps’ laughably bad ’70s airbrush work could fill a book, and maybe even has. It is by no means limited to the ’73 set, but its presence doesn’t do ’73 any favors. A few of many examples include John Ellis and Rich McKinney. (There’s also the George Scott card, which appears on close examination to be cut and pasted onto a different background. Why?)
  • Poor attention to detail. Topps’ airbrush crew gave Bill North an appropriate Oakland A’s cap, but didn’t bother cleaning up his Chicago Cubs jersey. Same deal with Gary Gentry, who seems peeved about having to wear an Atlanta Braves cap with his pinstriped Mets jersey, and Don Money, who is much more cheerful about wearing a Brewers cap and a striped Phillies jersey in a ballpark that is visibly Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia.
  • Curious cropping. Wouldn’t this shot of Gene Michael have looked better as a vertical? And couldn’t the photo of Willie Montanez have been better presented? And Glenn Beckert … wouldn’t this Glenn Beckert shot have been wonderful if it were just a little more centered? And … and … Frank Duffy? (moans)
  • Miscellaneous badness. Fred Norman’s card is like a black hole of failure. It captures one of the consistently worst teams of the decade, wearing the worst uniform of the decade, playing in an empty stadium. Plus it doesn’t give you any great idea of what Fred Norman looks like.

But enough grousing. This is Five For The Record, where I present five things I like about something.

And so, here we have five cards where the much-maligned 1973 Topps set got it right:

1. Paul Casanova. The ’73 set is light on action shots, and lighter still on decent action shots. This one isn’t amazing but it’s at least a real live game-action photo, well-framed. And that deep blue-and-white Atlanta Braves uniform looks particularly sweet against the kelly-green background of a ballpark.

Flip over to the back, and Casanova’s biographical note offers a curious tidbit: “Paul once played for the Indianapolis Clowns.”

I’d like to think at least a couple curious kids in 1973 thought, “That’s a weird name. The Indianapolis Clowns? What’s the story there?” … and then they did a little research and got schooled about the existence of the Negro Leagues.

(My secondhand understanding is that Topps has never been tremendous about mentioning or acknowledging the Negro Leagues. This seven-word biographical nugget isn’t any great shakes, but at least it’s a start; they could easily have opted for crap like “Hit 19 HRs at Geneva in 1964.”)

2. Young Catfish Hunter. One of Topps’ better ideas in 1973 (I don’t know if they ever did it again) was to pry loose childhood photos from six or eight star players and do a run of “Boyhood Photos of the Stars” cards. They’re all charming — gaptoothed Bobby Murcer, young Jim Palmer in an inner tube — but I’ll pick North Carolina farmboy Jim Hunter above the rest. I wonder how many main-set Topps cards have ever featured dogs?

3. Jim Wynn. The Toy Cannon had a dog of a year in ’71 — he got stabbed in an offseason domestic dispute and hit just .204 – but he bounced back to .273 with 24 homers in ’72. This pic captures Wynn relaxed and once again ready to make pitchers cry. He looks like he’s warming up, swinging around a bat with a donut on it, wondering aloud if he’s going to hit three homers today, or go easy and just hit two homers and a double.

Extra points for the biographical nugget: “Jim likes jazz music!” That’s a pretty broad category. Wonder if he dug Sidney Bechet, Bitches Brew, or something in between?

4. Jack McKeon and staffManager cards are another departure from the norm that I always enjoy, even if the pics can get a little boring (since there’s not much “action” you can show a manager doing, after all).

What makes this card work for me is the expression on McKeon’s face. It’s hard to describe … but McKeon has the smart-but-worried expression you’d see on one of those definitively ’70s movie actors playing a wiseguy in a position of limited authority. He looks like somebody a director would call if he couldn’t get Elliott Gould or Walter Matthau. He looks like the trash is piled up, the cab drivers are on strike, somebody just hijacked a subway train, and he’s not getting paid enough.

Cards that show people who never played in the big leagues are also a minor fascination of mine, and you get one here courtesy of Royals third-base coach Harry Dunlop, who coached 21 years in The Show but never made it there as a player. (Edit: McKeon didn’t play in the big leagues either, so I guess this card has two guys who never made it. I bet these manager-and-coach cards are the only places you ever see that happen.)

5. Tom Matchick. By the time kids picked this card out of their packs in the spring of 1973, utility infielder Matchick’s big-league career was already over. He’d scraped into three games with Earl Weaver’s Orioles in September and October of ’72; he continued to play AAA ball through 1976 but never got another callup.

The glory of this card is cumulative.

Start by looking at the back, at the long list of places Matchick has played: Brunswick, Lakeland, Winnipeg, Knoxville, Elmira, and so forth.

Notice, also, the biographical nugget that tells you that Matchick used to be a clothing salesman. Imagine him in the off-season, home from Elmira or Winnipeg, standing in the sort of downtown storefront downtowns don’t have nowadays, guiding somebody toward a rack of garish, overbroad ties.

Then flip the card over and look at Matchick’s posture and facial expression. He looks more than what youth coaches call “baseball-ready.” He looks ready as hell — a study in hawklike determination. Hit him anything, from as close range as you want to get, and he will field it.

This is the poise and determination of a utility player, a man who knows he has to shine any time he plays if he wants to stay in The Show. And, over and above that, this is the poise and determination of a man for whom every ground ball could mean a ticket back to selling shirts in Hazleton, Pennsylvania.

4 responses »

  1. This is my favorite FFTR ever. Great stuff about a legendary card set. The Pat Corrales card from ’73 Topps is justly revered as well.

    Reply
  2. Regarding your Indy Clowns comment, I did a piece for the SABR blog on how Topps covered the Negro Leagues on their card backs. https://sabrbaseballcards.blog/2019/03/16/dont-think-trice-its-alright/

    Reply
    • This is an excellent piece. I had read it before, and I think it was a substantial contributor to my comment that Topps had never been very good at acknowledging the Negro Leagues.

      Reply
  3. Great post! I will read more! I’ve always been kind of drawn to the 1973 cards for their strangeness. Like if someone who wasn’t really into baseball–or photography–were given the assignment of throwing together half of the 1973 set by the end of the week. Steve Garvey had always been my favorite bad 1973 card. But… Frank Duffy made me laugh out loud. I was not aware of that card, and now I wish I could forget it.

    Reply

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