Well, how about this, Mel Allen. It comes courtesy of the Topps baseball card website, as passed along via Twitter by my pal Eric Wilbur:
To celebrate our upcoming 60th Anniversary we would like Topps collectors to vote on our top 60 cards of all time! We have pre-selected the 100 best cards we’ve ever produced. Scroll through the cards, select your top ten, and vote! On Dec. 18 we’ll begin to announce winning cards daily starting at No. 60. We will countdown to No. 1 on February 15 culminating with the launch of 2011 Topps baseball.
Say no more, Topps cardboard mavens. You had me at “To celebrate.” In all seriousness, this is a great idea — such a great idea, in fact, that we’re going to co-opt it here at TATB with our own spin. If Topps is going to count down its 60 favorite cards, well, who in the name of Bump Wills is going to stop us from doing it?
After all, as you may have noticed in this site’s six years of existence (has it really been that long?), we pay baseball cards their proper respect around here. We first started using them in our old neighborhood ostensibly to have some appealing art on the blog that wouldn’t cause rights issues. But that’s not the whole story. As someone who collected hardcore from 1978 — thus the ’78 Sox team card above — through the mid-’80s, I knew they were perfect fit for the tone we strove for the blog, visually simpatico with our written love of baseball. Because they always had been.
We’ll keep the ground rules at this ballpark simple:
A player will appear no more than once. On Topps’s list of 100 nominees they have both 1955 and ’56 Roberto Clemente cards, which feature the exact same head shot. We’re redundant and repetitive around here, but not that redundant and repetitive. We’ll have 60 different players in this countdown, mostly legends, but some obscurities too, the cards that deserve admiration for something other than the gaudy statistics on the back.
We’ll post five cards per post. The aim is to get this written on Fridays, when it’s a little easier to be whimsical, but you know probably means it will go up Monday at 6 p.m. given my track record. There will be at least one Red Sox player in each post, and my other biases will be evident. My two favorite sets ever are 1956 (stacked with legends and a timeless design) and 1978 (my first year as a fan, a gorgeous set in its own right, and I imagine no other explanation beyond the former is required). The cards are not listed in any particular order, though maybe we will rank them after our 12 posts are complete.
Nostalgia will be a significant factor in our choices. Because what’s the point if it isn’t? Baseball and baseball cards are supposed to be fun above all else. Each post will feature at least one card from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, and we won’t disregard the ’80s. But anything beyond that came from the era when collecting was no longer a hobby, but another way for shady speculators to make a buck. I still can’t believe they cut up vintage uniforms and equipment and stick a couple of threads or a bat splinter on a card and tout it as game-used. It’s not “scarce.” It’s unfathomable.
There will be none of that stuff here. We’re going to tear open those 25-cent wax packs already, chew that sweet cementy gum until our dentist owns a yacht, and get this game underway with our first five.
Play ball . . .
It doesn’t get much more iconic than this, the definitive card from Topps’s debut set. (Personally, always preferred Willie Mays more — card and ballplayer.) We’d bet enough cash to — well, buy this card — that it will end up No. 1 on Topps’s list. My dad, born in 1940, always insisted, with varying degrees of what-if agitation, that he had boxes upon boxes of early ’50s Topps cards growing up but that my grandmother had thrown them out during a particularly costly spring cleaning or something one year. Just to be sure and sure again, me and my cousins ransacked her attic per every childhood visit, but never found traces of the bounty. We all have a story like that, don’t we?
1956 Ted Williams
Because it just wouldn’t be right to debut this feature with a legendary Yankee but not a legendary Red Sock/Sox, that’s why. And it just wouldn’t be right to lead with any other Red Sox but Teddy Ballgame. My fondness for the 1956 set is at play here; Williams’s 1954 Topps rookie card is on the company’s ballot, and he didn’t have a ’52 card because of an exclusive contract with Bowman. (Though eTopps made a sweet what-if? version a couple of years ago.) It actually wasn’t a great year for Williams — he batted .345 with 24 homers, a league-leading .479 OBP, and 1.084 OPS. His OPS+ of 171 was his second-lowest since 1940. For perspective, Manny Ramirez exceeded 171 twice in his 17 seasons. Actually, the following provides the best perspective of all that we can come withon Ted Williams. He led the major leagues in Offensive WAR every single year from 1941-49 . . . except for 1942-45, that is, when he was actually at war.
1978 Dave Winfield
Proof that Dave Winfield’s could overcome just about anything with his effortless cool : He doesn’t look all that ridiculous in the Padres’ late ’70s you-want-fries-with-that? uniforms. Ozzie Smith, on this card on Topps’s list of nominees, also escapes the tackiest decade with his dignity intact. Randy Jones? Not so fortunate. One other tangential thing: The late ’70s Padres actually had some real talent on their roster; you forget that they were one of the original big spenders in free agency. Look at the 84-win ’78 squad: Four future Hall of Famers (Winfield, Ozzie, Gaylord Perry, Rollie Fingers), a former Cy Young winner (Jones), a former World Series MVP (Gene Tenace), and then countless eclectic characters and obscurities such as Joggin’ George Hendrick, Mickey Lolich, Bob Owchinko, Don Reynolds (Harold’s older brother), Juan Tyrone Eichelberger, Broderick Perkins, and — segue alert — this guy . . .
1975 Oscar Gamble
Yep, he was a Padre, too. Not to mention an obvious selection for this list. Gamble, mostly because of his championship-caliber Afro, has lasted as a symbol of the super-fly ’70s. His 1976 Topps Traded rookie card has long been a cult favorite, but my totally subjective preference is his card from the previous year. I think it’s the retro (well, now-retro) Indians uniform that puts it over the top. While Gamble — who, in a bit of humorous irony, is now bald — has a merry attitude about his place in baseball lore, it’s always worth a reminder that the man was a heck of a hitter and a habitual mauler of righthanded pitching. His uppercut lefty swing was particularly suited for Yankee Stadium, and in ’79, splitting the season between Texas and New York, he batted .358 with 19 homers and a 1.065 OPS in 274 plate appearances. He finished his career with 200 homers, an .811 OPS, and his own distinctive place in baseball’s history; the man’s pick belongs in Cooperstown.
1969 Nolan Ryan
Look closely, and there’s no other conclusion you can come to: Twenty-one year old Nolan Ryan threw so hard even with this casual motion that the ball was back in his glove before he even finished his follow through! OK, either that, or the photographer kind of hated his job. “Yeah, kid, one take is fine. Move along. Let’s see, who’s next . . . OK, Swoboda, take a half-hearted swing here, good, good, got it . . . all right, who’s next . . . say ‘cheese,’ Kranepool . . . ” I like this better than the famous ’68 Ryan/Koosman rookie on Topps’s short list for a couple of reasons. 1) It’s a reminder that Ryan, who was still trying to harness his control then, was a member of the legendary ’69 Mets. Imagine, him and Tom Seaver on the same staff. 2) The maniacal look in his eye suggests he’s daydreaming of someday laying a whupping on any foolish batter who dares to charge the mound. Meanwhile, somewhere in Santa Maria, Calif., 2-year-old Robin Ventura has no idea what awaits. 3) After a Sox game in the early ’80s, I picked one up for a couple of bucks of my paper route loot at that old card shop on Comm Ave, the one that had Ted Williams’s locker on display. Now that’s nostalgia. Wonder whatever happened to that place.