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.
Today’s subject: Set of 660 Major League Baseball cards, issued in 1982, recognizable for its lozenge-shaped front identifier box. Fleer and Donruss broke Topps’ 25-year monopoly on MLB card sets in 1981; this was Fleer’s second year of competition.
A couple of weeks ago (not gonna go look it up), I mentioned I’d gone on a binge on a website that sells common baseball cards for a dime apiece. This is almost certainly more than what they’re worth, or will ever be worth. But no matter — it is at once a tycoon’s pleasure and a spendthrift’s joy to go buy a pile of 100 cards and be out $10 (plus modest shipping).
A couple packs of 1982 Fleer made their way into my hands when they were fresh on the shelf, back in the day. And when I saw a pile of cards from that set listed on the site, I had to add a bunch of them to my cart.
I’ve always liked the lozenge design, and I’m charmed by the low-rent nature of the set. A lot of the pictures are just on the wrong side of fuzzy, or oddly cropped, or only passably well-lit, or capture the subject in an unappealing pose. But I’ve warmed to that.
It’s more approachable than big professional Topps — it looks at some points almost like a minor-league set, with the attendant warmth.
Or, to put it another way, it looks like a moderately gifted amateur snuck onto the field during batting practice and got their shots with a Kodak Instamatic before the security guys noticed. (Some of the players look as if they’re bemused and humoring the guy with the Instamatic. Some of them look like they have questions about the whole setup. And some of them are gently pointing out, “Hey, buddy, looks like you ran out of flash cubes.”)
Anyway, here are five of my favorites from the 1982 Fleer set. There may be others that are better-quality, or worth more, or depicting more famous players, but other people can write about those. (If you’ve been here for more than five days, you know I reserve the right to be illogical.)
1. Larry Bradford. I bought some of the cards in my latest haul because, even though I was a baseball-mad kid when these came out, I had absolutely no memory of a couple of these players.
Larry Bradford was one of the mystery brigade. He pitched in 104 games with lousy Atlanta teams in four seasons between 1977 and 1981, with more than half of his appearances coming in a single year, 1980. By the time this card was issued, he was out of the major leagues — missing Atlanta’s first postseason appearance since 1969 by a single year.
No matter. Larry is just about the most jovial dude imaginable in his 1982 Fleer card photo. He is in full support of Fleer’s underdog attempt to topple the big guys. Or he’s just finished eating a really great chicken parm sub. Or maybe he has an Instamatic of his own on the shelf at home, and he’s plain thrilled to see somebody else using one to take professional photographs.
Anyway, this is a good photo of a genuinely warm facial expression, well-cropped. It’s the kind of common card that little kids sometimes favor over the superstars.
2. Jackson Todd. Not to be confused with Jackson Browne, or with Todd Jackson who had the locker four down from yours in high school. Like Larry Bradford, Jackson Todd also pitched parts of four seasons in the major leagues on mediocre teams to no great avail (lifetime record 10-16, with an ERA of 4.40).
In another parallel to Larry Bradford, Todd’s career was also over by the time this card fell out of packs. The 1981 season with Toronto was his last — even though it was the only one of his four seasons in which his ERA nudged below 4.
None of that matters. Somebody posted a picture of his card on Twitter a month or two back and I fell in love with it. In between the classic Blue Jays uni, the border, and the sky, this is a symphony in blue. So fresh, so clean.
(On some 1982 Fleer cards, the border doesn’t match the team colors. The Kansas City Royals have garish yellow lozenges, for instance, despite their white-and-blue uniforms. But the Blue Jays have aqua and it works so well.)
A number of other Jays cards also consist of portraits against the sky, but none of them work quite so wonderfully, as the sky is lighter. Hard to explain but you’d know it if you saw them.
3. Glenn Hoffman. The young man on this card has played two seasons with the Boston Red Sox, and while his batting average cratered in the second season, the bulk of his career is still ahead of him.
He will go on to play nine seasons in The Show, after which he will become the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers for half a season, and a coach with the Dodgers and Padres for 22 more. (Indeed, as per Retrosheet, he was the Padres’ third-base coach as recently as this past mini-season, and maybe he will be again next year.)
Like Larry Bradford, he will also narrowly miss a postseason appearance: In 1986, when the Red Sox make the World Series, he will play in only 12 games and be left off the playoff roster.
Here, though, he is alert and hopping. He’s not just baseball-ready, in the way they teach Little Leaguers to be, leaning forward and down as the pitch is fired. He appears to be literally hovering, two inches or so off the dirt, so focused on the action as to be raised to a monklike state of levitation, pure ballplayer.
In the real world it probably takes him a couple minutes to get out of bed in the morning. But in the Grand Continuum of Baseball Time, the Eternal Spring, he is still there, young, athletic and in the moment, slipping the surly bonds.
4. Mike Torrez. Mike Torrez, in the past, was a name without honor around these parts. He’s the guy who surrendered the famous home run to slap-hitting Bucky Dent that sent the Red Sox down to defeat in the one-game playoff to decide the American League East in 1978.
(Now that the Red Sox have won four World Series titles since 2004, my sense is all those old 20th-century grudges have kinda been thrown out on the scrap pile. Which is where they belong, really. You’d kinda have to be a complete killjoy to still be grumbling about Mike Torrez.)
Unlike everyone else in this blog post, Mike Torrez was actually pretty good. He pitched parts of 18 seasons in the major leagues, winning 20 games in his only year with Baltimore (1975) and winning a World Series ring with the Yankees two years later. He won 175 more games in the bigs than Jackson Todd, and 179 more than Larry Bradford.
And just as he was a better player than the others, he has a conventionally better card than the others. This pic doesn’t do it justice, but the photo on my Torrez card is very sharp, crisper than it shows up here. The action photo is well-taken, at a good point in the windup, and the kelly-green backdrop could be nowhere else but Fenway Park. (The yellow line in the background is an in-play ground rule at the edge of the triangle in deep center field. If memory serves, balls hitting the wall to the left of the line are in play, while balls hitting to the right are home runs.)
While I celebrate the amateurishness of Fleer ’82, this card in its physical, hold-in-the-hand form is a card that any manufacturer anytime would be proud to claim. In photography and design, it owes no apologies to anybody. It’s kinda nice to see the guys with the Instamatics pull that off every once in a while just to show that they can. (Even the losers, etc.)
5. John Harris. Another member of the zero-memories brigade. I had no recollection at all that this guy existed, and based on that, I bought his card without even seeing it. Aren’t blind dates wonderful?
Like Messrs. Bradford and Todd above, John Harris’s big-league career was already over when this ink met this cardboard. He played parts of three seasons with California between 1979 and 1981, hitting .258 in 56 games. (Retrosheet says he was a 29th-round draft pick, which means he must have either been pretty good or worked awfully hard to get as far as he did.)
Also like Larry Bradford and Glenn Hoffman, Harris missed a playoff team by a year — in his case, the 1982 Angels who won the AL West but fell to the Milwaukee Brewers in the playoffs.
There’s really nothing that special about the card. The lozenge isn’t color-coded to the Angels’ team colors, and a batting-practice shot is only half a step above a stare-blankly-at-the-camera posed photo. The only noteworthy aspect of the photo is the odd collision of lines at Harris’s waistband, for which I do not have a ready explanation.
No, John Harris slips into this Five For The Record for fully subliminal reasons. See, I got two of him in my shipment. When I was eagerly flinging ’82 Fleer into my cyber-cart, I must have clicked on him twice, because I now own two John Harrises. He has gone from a stranger to my new best friend, overnight.
I have long been charmed by Brian Eno’s maxim, “Honor thy error as a hidden intention.” So, based on that, I conclude that I must really, really love this John Harris card. Somewhere deep inside, I apparently wanted two of them.
Perhaps someday I will understand.