What, you thought this feature was lost like that shoebox of vintage cards in your mom’s attic? Nope, just temporarily out of sight and considerably less valuable. So let’s dust it off with a rainy Friday edition featuring, for no reason other than that they looked cool on cardboard, five players who once starred for the Cincinnati Reds …
1961 Frank Robinson
Is he the most underrated all-time great of the modern era? I tend to think so, though maybe that’s partly clouded by my own perception. This much I do know for sure. He’s the greatest player ever to be traded for Milt Pappas.
I’ve never thought of him as quite the equal of legendary peers Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, but he’d be a worthy third man in their outfield of icons. He’s ninth all-time in home runs (586), which is more than Mickey Mantle (536), Ted Williams (521, though he lost five prime years due to his World War II and Korean War service), and Stan Musial (475) hit, among others. His similar players list is dotted with legends — Aaron, Mel Ott, Ken Griffey Jr., and there’s also a dose of melancholy: His top comp at age 20 and 22 is Tony Conigliaro.
Robinson remains the only player to win the Most Valuable Player award in both leagues, having done it for the Reds the year this card was issued, as well as in 1966 for Orioles, when he produced one of the all-time “Am I ever going to make you regret this trade” performances after the Reds swapped him for the righthander Pappas, Jack Baldschun, and Dick Simpson in December 1965. Robinson posted a .316-49-122 line to win the Triple Crown while also leading the league in runs, slugging, on-base percentage, and OPS. Oh, and he was the World Series MVP as the Orioles swept the Koufax/Drysdale Dodgers.
As exceptional as he was as a player, he is also remembered for being baseball’s first black manager when he took over the 1975 Cleveland Indians, a book-worthy collection of originals that included Oscar Gamble, Gaylord Perry, Fritz Peterson, Boog Powell, and a rookie righthander named Dennis Eckersley. Careers don’t get much more impressive.
1973 Johnny Bench
Like the Vida Blue card I wrote about during the third episode of this eternal project, this Bench card is another groovy action shot from a ’73 set stocked with them. Not sure why Topps got away from this as the decade went on — the posed spring-training shot or the airbrush job seemingly done by an artistically-challenged fourth grader became later staples — but it’s photos like this that make this a truly distinctive set.
And of course, it’s of a truly distinctive player. Bench is arguably the greatest catcher of all-time — in his original Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James ranked him second in career value behind Yogi Berra, and third in peak value behind Roy Campanella and Mickey Cochrane. The numbers and accolades from Bench’s peak season are mesmerizing when you turn to his baseball-reference page. In 1970, at age 22, he hit 45 homers, drove in 148 runs, hit .293 with a .587 slugging percentage, played 158 games, threw out 46 percent of would-be base-stealers, was tops in rWAR among position players (7.4, trailing starting pitchers Bob Gibson and Gaylord Perry), won the Gold Glove and received 22 of 24 first-place votes in winning the NL MVP award. Imagine what a season like that would be worth in salary today. He made about $90,000 then.
Bench’s peak arrived a few years before I fell for the game, so my recollections of him are a bit abstract: The role as the straight-man to Bob Uecker in the Krylon paint “no runs, no drips, no errors” commercials; hosting the The Baseball Bunch in the early ’80s, a show I loved; and my mom telling me time and again that Bench wasn’t as good as Carlton Fisk. It was only later that she confessed that by “good” she meant “handsome.”
Bench might be the catcher of my All-Times Ted Williams Team — players, like Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Jackie Robinson, and Roberto Clemente, that I wish I could have seen in their heyday. But that’s a thought for another day.
1987 Barry Larkin
I probably mentioned this previously when I started doing these “packs” back in 1997 or whenever it was, but the ’87 Topps cards with the fake wood paneling straight out of your childhood TV room are among my favorite of all-time, right there with the ’62 and ’78 Topps sets. And this is the second-best card in the set, right after the Tim Pyznarski Future Star. I suppose that could have gone without saying.
I’ve also probably mentioned this before, but I wonder how the perception of Derek Jeter and Larkin would be different had Jeter played his entire career in Cincinnati and Larkin in New York. I’m a little surprised they don’t show up atop each others’ similarities lists (Larkin’s top comp is Alan Trammell, while Jeter’s is either Alvaro Espinoza or Roberto Alomar, I forget which.) Jeter is 81st all-time in rWAR among batters (70.4), while Larkin is 90th (68.9).
Jeter’s legacy is built in the postseason, but Larkin has a .338 career average in 17 playoff games, including a .353 mark in the Reds’ sweep of the A’s in ’90 World Series. Jeter has more Gold Gloves, 4-3, but Larkin could actually go to his left and played in a league with Ozzie Smith. Jeter has the edge in adjusted OPS, 118-116, and, somewhat surprisingly, home runs (244-198). Larkin played at Michigan, and Jeter was committed to playing there before signing with the Yankees out of I.M. Intangibles Prep in ’92. Both are charismatic, and both never did anything to tarnish their image. One will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame this summer, and Jeter is obviously a lock if he ever retires. But only one was/is underrated.
1964 Pete Rose
Is it possible to mention Rose without offering an opinion on whether he belongs in the Hall of Fame? If it is, I’m not one of those strong enough to resist the temptation, so, briefly, here goes:
I think he should be in. I haven’t always felt that way, but I do now.
It’s not a conclusion that’s easy to come to — Rose is so unlikable that you wonder from afar whether he’s a sociopath. He’s certainly a Hall of Fame narcissist.. He’s also, among other things, a huckster, a liar, a serial womanizer, a terrible father, a hustler on the field and off. He had the worst haircut in baseball history, though Bryce Harper seems intent on challenging him. He probably plucks the wings off butterflies, then autographs them and tries to sell ’em online for $9.95 a pair, not including shipping.
Rose shamed the game by betting on baseball, and worse, by betting on his own team, at least on the nights Bill Gullickson wasn’t pitching. (Talk about a vote of no-confidence.)
He lied about it for years, then profited from his eventual confession. Hell, if you want to ban him until he’s gone to the great casino in the sky (or another somewhere south), I’m not going to argue with you. I get it.
And I respectfully disagree. It’s the Baseball Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Fame of Rule Followers and Swell Guys, and Rose is the all-time hit leader. The vacancy just can’t be ignored, just as it can’t be for Joe Jackson, or Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds when their day of ‘roid reckoning comes with the voters. I guess I’m a completionist when it comes to the Hall. Put an asterisk on the cheaters’ plaques. Acknowledge their transgressions in the first line of bronze text. Don’t let them within the city limits of Cooperstown in the summer. But put them in the Hall. Even pathetic old Pete Rose and his gambin’, lyin’, cheatin’ heart.
1968 Tom Seaver
When I was maybe 7 or 8 years old, I remember flopping on my bed and reading one of those geared-toward-kids, hyperbolic sports biographies about Seaver. It was right around the time he was traded from the Mets to the Reds in the stunning swap remembered as the “Midnight Massacre.” (Thus, his Reds connection to this post even though he’s shown as a Met.) I remember the book seemed to have a lot of exclamation points, and that Seaver would never pick up anything with his right arm out of fear of injuring it, and that he got a lot of money when the Mets won the rights to sign him.
But most vividly, I remember that it said he convinced his future wife Nancy to begin dating him in high school when he saw her walking down the street, pulled up alongside in his convertible, picked her up, and plunked her down in the passenger seat.
Now, when I was 7 or 8, that didn’t seem to me like the kind of thing that would work unless you were the kind of the school, the coolest guy around. About a decade later, that was confirmed for me multiple times beyond a reasonable doubt.
It was confirmed for Seaver too, as the confident, almost smug look on his face on this card suggests. It’s the face of someone whose grip on the world is as secure as his grip on his fastball, someone who just won 16 games as a 22-year-old rookie and who, should you have told him then that he was two seasons away from winning his first of three Cy Young Awards and a World Series, would probably reply, “Two years? What took so long.” Then he’d throw his lovely wife in his convertible and be on his way.
Previously in this series: