Before we tear open the wax wrapper here and reveal five more cards in our recurring series, two quick notes:
1. Remember, we’re counting down just Topps cards here, as part-homage, part-counterpoint to Topps’s unveiling of its top 60 cards in celebration of its 60th anniversary. In other words, revered and iconic cards by other companies, such as the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. rookie or the infamous 1989 Fleer Billy Ripken “[bad word]face” card won’t be included here. If you’ve got a problem with that, take it up with Billy Martin and his blurry hand here.
2. While these are cards Nos. 6-10 in this project, we haven’t been ranking them in any particular order. I’m thinking when we’re done, maybe we will do that in a gallery of some sort, counting down the top 50, or top 25 or something, and maybe add a poll for you guys to vote. If you’ve got a brighter idea than that, please share it in the comments.
OK, let’s get to the cardboard . . .
1960 Carl Yastrzemski
In our leadoff episode we featured Teddy Ballgame. So it seems only appropriate to follow up with Yaz, who followed him in Fenway Park’s left field and never wilted in the shadow of Williams or the Monster — and never you mind that his position here is listed as second base. Perhaps we’ll feature a Jim Rice down the road as well, but the Red Sox’ amazing left field legacy for our purposes probably ends well before Mike Greenwell. (And as much as we admired him, Troy O’Leary won’t make it unless we extend this thing to a Top 6,000 or so.) Actually, had a debate with a friend who said Yaz doesn’t even belong in the Top 60 and that including him over someone such as Al Kaline would be biased. To that, our response is two-fold:
1. Of course this is biased! I grew up a Red Sox fan! Who did you expect, Roy White?
2. Don’t include Yaz? Heck, it was hard to choose just one. Because he played so long and during the golden years of collecting, there were many more cards of him that would have been worthy selections; ’66, because it’s a rare, candid action shot of him . . . smiling; ’67 because of the dream that proved possible; ’76, for the classic follow-through; ‘and finally, this retro gem from ’77, because if there’s anything that captures the essence of this project (and this blog itself on many days), it’s the enjoyment we get from turning back the clock.
1952 Gus Zernial
Our list wouldn’t be complete without perhaps the most inexplicably goofy baseball card of all-time, save for perhaps this high-fructose corn syrupy one that found its way into packs 24 years later. Looking at grinning Mr. Zernial here, I wouldn’t know where to begin . . . which is why, once again, we are thankful for the wit of Fred C. Harris and Brendan C. Boyd in their seminal, timeless “Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book,” which captured the essence of Cardboard Gus with nary a wasted word back in 1973:
How do you suppose they got those baseballs to stay up there anyway? Nails? Scotch tape? Postage stamp hinges? And why do you think Gus is giving us the high sign? Is he trying to assure us that everything is ok? Is he trying to indicate to us that he thinks the Athletics are a big zero? Does he want a cinnamon doughnut to go? And why is he wearing a pink undershirt?
What more is there to say? I mean, besides that yes, I would like a cinnamon doughnut to go. And if you don’t own this book, your sports library is incomplete, son.
1956 Willie Mays
The ’56 set is so classic that pretty much every card is gorgeous — well, not so fast there, Don Mossi — but there’s something extra cool about the Mays card. It could be the jagged-legged slide in the background, perhaps the second-most ideal image of him, with only a back-to-the-infield basket catch being more appropriate. Or I suppose it could just be that it is Willie Mays, and cool is forever associated with the name and the ballplayer. One tidbit I stumbled upon while checking out his eye-popping stats: His most similar player each year from ages 23-28 is Vladimir Guerrero. Didn’t see that coming, but maybe I should have given Vladi’s awesome and sometimes overlooked peak. I’d say the Mays comp reflects well on his Hall of Fame chances, no?
1987 Barry Bonds
And now the godson . . . or allegedly the godson, we should say. Oh, we’re not doubting that Bonds, whose famous father played to Mays’s left in the San Francisco outfield for five seasons while making a name of his own, has a genuine relationship with Mays that extends even beyond the ceremonial, the religious, and their respective homes atop or near the top of the all-time home run list. What we’re doubting is that this is Bonds. Just look at him. He’s . . . skinny. Scrawny, even. Like a leadoff hitter. Like Kenny Lofton’s long-lost brother, or R.J. Reynolds, or Omar Moreno, or a less-pale Joe Orsulak. This cannot be the Barry Bonds. This isn’t the swollen masher who shredded the record books, who hit 73 home runs one season, walked 232 times another, and batted .370 in yet another. It can’t be. Because if it is, if he managed to essentially double in size from his rookie season to his the seasons when he put up “RBI Baseball” numbers, well, me and my pal Bud Selig might just have to start wondering if his methods were — gasp! — dubious.
(As for this set, it stands as a referendum on how a collector honestly feels about baseball cards. If you like it, it’s for the colorful photos, the somehow appealing wood paneling straight out of your parents’ 1977 den, and a terrific group of rookies and young players including Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, Will Clark, Bo Jackson, Jose Canseco, Barry Larkin, and of course, Pat Dodson. In other words, for all the right reasons. If you don’t like it, it’s because you invested in these cards, only to have them became virtually worthless due to mass production. I’m pretty sure you can still get packs of ’87 Topps at your neighborhood Puffin Stop. You know, if you don’t have enough Ruben Sierra rookies.)
1978 Reggie Jackson
First Bonds, now Reggie. Might as well call this our Jerk Store edition. I’ve never met an athlete who is so attuned to the stature of the person he is talking to; if he’s seen you on “SportsCenter,” he turns on the charm and breaks out the anecdotes. If you’re unfamilar, he’s more interested in what he just scraped off his shoe, and takes delight in telling you so. I may have mentioned a time or 100 on this little blog that my first year as a Sox fan was 1978, so it probably should come as no surprise that my loathing of Reggie developed that summer. So much so, in fact, that my friend Duane (there are a lot of Duanes in Maine) and I ripped up all of our Reggie Jackson cards out of . . . I guess obligation, a show of Red Sox solidarity, a lack of foresight that they’d someday be worth twos and twos of dollars, whatever. I like to think of it as an indication that our shrewd judgment of character was already developed. But this Reggie card here? Mr. October stirring the drink with his swing-for-the-fences-and-the-glory approach that brought him 563 homers . . . and a record 2,597 strikeouts? This card captures Reggie the slugger perfectly. It’s art. At least until its ripped to tiny cardboard bits, anyway. Then it’s abstract art.
Previously in this series
Pack 1: 1952 Mickey Mantle, 1969 Nolan Ryan, 1978 Dave Winfield, 1956 Ted Williams, 1975 Oscar Gamble.