Dwight Gooden then and now

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PART ONE – WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN

No matter what team you followed in 1985, there was no greater pull from a pack of cards than young Dwight Gooden, who was at that time working on the greatest first two years of any pitcher in baseball memory. It would be hard to forget just how dominant Dr. K really was, but here are some numbers from the back of his 1986 Topps card in case a reminder is helpful.

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I was lucky enough to catch Dr. K live at Dodger Stadium in a late season matchup against Fernando Valenzuela, himself once the young phenom with unlimited potential. Going into the contest, Gooden’s record was 20-4 with a 1.81 ERA while Fernando sat at 16-9 with a 2.37 ERA. While each pitcher had lost their prior start, they had preceded the losses with 11 and 9 game winning streaks respectively. The contest had all the makings of a pitcher’s duel going in, and it absolutely lived up to the hype. At the end of nine innings, the teams were knotted at 0-0, a score that prevailed until the 12th when Darryl Strawberry launched a two-run double off Tom Niedenfuer (of course!). Doc’s final line that night was not much different from his line on most nights: 9 innings, no runs, 5 hits, no walks, and 10 Ks–all of them awesome. Best game I ever saw live.

Doc followed up his stellar 1985 season with a solid but very mortal effort in 1986. As a kid, I didn’t know what personal challenges Gooden was dealing with, but it was clear he wasn’t the same pitcher, even as he went 17-9. Though the Mets would go on to be world champs, Gooden was winless in the postseason, and there was a real sense that the magic was gone.

In truth, Gooden remained a very good pitcher for many more years (74-34 over the next five years with an ERA in the low threes), but even “very good” was nowhere near what once felt like his destiny–to be the greatest ever. Add in ten more years of largely journeyman-level pitching, punctuated by a full-year suspension, and the career of Dwight Gooden, despite the 45th highest winning percentage in Major League history and a career ERA bested by only 12 active pitchers–all aces–today, reads much more like a tale of what might have been than what actually was.

PART 2 – WHAT ACTUALLY WAS

From a news perspective (and even a privacy perspective), the 1980s and 1990s might have well been ancient history. There was no internet (apart from military, university, or uber-nerd populations), no social media, nothing viral apart from actual diseases, and little you might learn about your sports heroes beyond the stories told in numbers on the backs of their baseball cards. The high-profile coverage of cocaine use on Gooden’s Mets teams was at that time the exception rather than the rule for hearing just about anything our favorite players did off the playing field.

For me, it took watching the ESPN documentary “Doc and Darryl” to fully understand the arc of Dwight Gooden’s baseball career and to even begin to learn about Dwight Gooden the man. I won’t offer any spoilers here but will simply encourage all baseball fans to see the film, which is well worth the $3 or so on YouTube. What I will say is that Gooden was and remains a man whose larger challenges were never on the ballfield. His life was incredibly difficult, and I gather it sometimes still is.

PART THREE – HEROES THEN AND NOW

As a kid in 1980s, I had the same dream as so many other boys. When we threw tennis balls against the garage door, it was always alongside the same play-by-play: two outs, bottom of the ninth, World Series, game 7. When we tossed acorns or buttons or pairs of socks in the air to hit over the fence, the bases were always loaded and our team was down by three. No matter how unspectacular our Little League “careers” or even if we were still on a team, our dream was to be the hero, to get the last out, to knock in the winning run. We wanted to be Darryl. We wanted to be Doc. We would have traded away everything we had for even one moment on the baseball diamond with such infinite possibilities. Such was what it meant to be young and in love with the game.

Nowadays, I still marvel at the sight of Clayton Kershaw or Jake deGrom on the mound, but I’ve never once dreamed of being either. Maybe I’m too old, too busy, or just too boring these days. All I know is I’ve moved on. On the rare day I grab a bat or put on a glove, the narration is no longer some dramatic baseball scenario but simply a “Please, God. Don’t let me rupture my achilles.” But even today, there is no pitcher I root for harder and no card I’d rather find in my old stacks than Dr. K.

Part of it is the memories–how much of a thrill Dwight Gooden made the 1985 baseball season. However, the larger part is story of Dwight Gooden the man. Even with his 194 victories on the baseball diamond, his biggest victory is simply that he’s still here. I imagine every day as a battle for him and not every day a success. Some days he throws strikes, and other days he gets shelled. But there he is, still on the mound, still competing, trying to go nine. So maybe I’m just a sucker for a happy ending, but I’ll still say that this is what it means to be an inspiration: to “fall down seven times, stand up eight,” as they say. To keep battling. To help others battle. To not always win. To be like us. And most of all, just to be yourself. The hardest part of being a real hero isn’t the hero but the real. 

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The author in his “Cincy” colored GoodenBrand tee

With that, I offer this short to-do list–

  1. Watch “Doc and Darryl” if you haven’t already.
  2. Support Doc and his family (while looking badass) by buying GoodenBrand apparel.
  3. Dig through your old shoeboxes and relive the thrill of pulling a Dr. K rookie.
  4. Keep on battling.

All the best,
Jason

If Bob Gibson had Dennis Eckersley…

Bob Gibson’s astounding 1968 season

Gibson_1969Two things jump out from Bob Gibson’s 1968 season besides his unbelievable 1.12 ERA.

  1. He still managed to lose 9 games.
  2. He averaged 8.96 innings per game.

Knowing that modern pitchers wouldn’t go nearly that number of innings before bringing in the closer, it’s fair to wonder what Gibson’s 22-9 W-L record might have been had he been paired with one of history’s greatest closers.

While there is always a more complicated and (probably) more correct way to approach the problem, I will err on the side of simplicity and follow this approach–

  • Award a win for any game that Gibson actually won in 1968.
  • Award a win for any loss or no decision in which Gibson surrendered his lead in the 8th or 9th innings.
  • Award a no decision for any loss or no decision in which Gibson did not lead but was tied after 7 or more innings.

Review of Gibson’s Losses

  • April 20 – Gibson trailed 4-1 after 7 innings and ultimately lost 5-1. Even with a great reliever like the Eck, this would still have been a loss.
  • May 12 – Gibson gave up two runs in the seventh to fall behind 3-2. Still a loss.
  • May 17 – Gibson lost 1-0 in the bottom of the tenth. Had there been a closer, this would have been a no-decision.
  • May 22 – Gibson gave up an early run in what was ultimately a 2-0 loss. Even with a closer, this would have remained a loss.
  • May 28 – Gibson gave up the go-ahead runs in the 7th. Still a loss. (And by the way, this loss took Gibson to 3-5 on the year. Fortunately, he would go on to win his next 12 starts, 8 of them shutouts.)
  • August 24 – Gibson held a 4-3 lead after 7, so we’ll call it a win.
  • September 6 – Gibson surrendered the game-winning run in the 6th. Still a loss.
  • September 17 – Gibson gave up a first-inning run and lost 1-0. Still a loss.
  • September 22 – Gibson gave up the winning run in the bottom of the 8th, having entered the inning with a 2-2 tie. With a closer, this would have been a no-decision.

Review of Gibson’s No-Decisions

  • April 10 – Gibson left the game after 7 innings, trailing 1-0. The Cards came back to tie the game in the 8th and win in the 9th. This one remains a no-decision.
  • April 15 – Gibson left the game after 7 innings, trailing 3-1. The Cards came back to tie the game in the 8th and win in the 10th. Remains a no-decision.
  • August 4 – In this game that was decided in the bottom of the 13th, the score was tied 3-3 after seven. With Gibson still in the game, the Cards led 4-3 after 8 and were tied 4-4 after 9. Optimistically, this would convert to a win.

Gibson’s Revised Record

Tallying up these results, Gibson’s record changes from 22-9 with 3 no-decisions to 24-6 with 4 no-decisions. While that’s an improvement, it’s perhaps much less than the impact we’d see in today’s aces were they to attempt to go all 9 innings vs exit early. This is partly because runs were so scarce in 1968 that Gibson didn’t have to give up many to earn a loss. However, it’s also because Gibson was effective enough in the late innings that a great reliever wouldn’t have been much better.

Gibson by the Inning

The graph below shows the number of runs, including unearned runs, that Bob Gibson gave up by inning in 1968. While the seventh inning was by far his roughest, the eighth was one of his best, and the ninth was at worst about average. From the graph, the conclusion seems to be that Gibson would have been helped less by Dennis Eckersley and more by a terrific middle reliever who would have taken over in the 7th. And so the question left for us to ponder isn’t what if Gibson had Eck; it’s what if Gibson had Mark Eichorn. But let’s call that the subject of another article.

Gibson by Inning

Cardboard Play Ball – Part 1

Mize_1953Something I used to do all the time as a kid and occasionally still do today is take a stack of 50 or so baseball cards and make two teams from it–mine and that of some imaginary opponent. To go from stack to season, there are essentially three things you need to figure out–

  1. A fair and fun draft order
  2. An understanding of player value
  3. How to play a game

In this post, I’ll share some ideas for each of these, along with some preliminaries.

Preliminaries

Here are the main types of rosters you might consider for each team. This in combination with the number of teams in the league will inform how many cards you need. Of course, sometimes it works the other way around.

  • Basic – One player per position, including starting pitcher (and DH if you must!)
  • Basic Plus – Same as above, but with a 4-man (or 5-man) pitching rotation, plus optional relievers
  • Full Roster – Full team of 24 or 25 players just like a real MLB ballclub
  • Full Roster Plus – Same as above, but with “minor leaguers”

Draft Order

Here are several approaches, along with some pros and cons. Will assume four teams (A, B, C, D) here, but you can generalize to any other number. Will also assume that the first round draft order is A, then B, then C, then D unless otherwise stated.

  • Basic Order (ABCD ABCD ABCD) – This is the simplest. The four owners simply take turns, always following the same order. The disadvantage of this scheme, naturally, is that the owner who goes first has a decided advantage.
  • Jesus Order (ABCD DCBA ABCD) – This minor variation is sometimes called a “snake draft” in that it sort of zig zags back and forth. Were Jesus a fantasy baseball owner, I suspect this would be his favorite as it fulfills the prophecy that “the first shall be last.”
  • Circular Order (ABCD, BCDA, CDAB, DABC, ABCD) – An improvement upon the Jesus Order in that each owner picks first in some round(s). However, owner D can certainly complain that all the best players are gone by the time he picks first.
  • Random Circular Order – Same as above but each of the four sequences are determined randomly. For example, Round 1 may be CDAB and Round 2 may be ABCD.
  • Random Order – Draft order in each round is determined on the fly by randomly generating a permutation of ABCD. While Random Circular leads to only four possible draft orders, Random now allows for 24. For instance, the sequence DCBA is now possible.

In the most typical approach to drafting, the assumption is that the owner is either selecting from all available players or at least all available players subject to roster limits (e.g., no team can have more than two catchers).

Variations that are much more fun, though they can lead to unfair teams by increasing the role of chance, is to do one of the following–

  1. Position Restriction – Restrict selections to a position selected at random. For instance, owners are forced to draft shortstops in Round 1.
  2. Random Restriction – Restrict selections to a subset of four players, randomly selected from among all players.

Player Value

My goal here isn’t to open the door to any SABR-rattling. It’s simply to acknowledge the big questions that arise when, for example, it’s your turn to draft and you’re choosing between a 1975 Hank Aaron and a 1978 George Foster. Here are several approaches, with the last one being the most complex but still my favorite.

  • Year on Back – Assuming the back has stats, go with the last year shown (e.g., 1974 for Aaron and 1977 for Foster). And if there aren’t stats, look ’em up somewhere.
  • Year of Card – As a minor variation, go with the card’s year of issue. If you are using cards from multi-year issues (e.g., 1934-1936 Diamond Stars), I’ll leave it to you to come up with a scheme.
  • Best Season – Tailor made for Hack Wilson fans! Choose from among “qualifying seasons” only–i.e., avoid 1952 Ted Williams and his 10 at bats, .400 average, and .900 slugging percentage.
  • Career Average – Something like the 162-game average at baseball-reference.com works here. Or just divide the career stats by the number of seasons.
  • Random Season – Chance reigns supreme here, particularly for players with a single “career season” amid general mediocrity. Again, only include “qualifying” seasons.
  • Random Top Ten – One season is selected randomly from among the top ten qualifying seasons identified by the owner. (Where a player has fewer than 10 qualifying seasons, repeat the player’s worst season some number of times until ten seasons are reached.)

Playing the Games

In all honesty, playing the games will be the least fun aspect of all of this, but I’ll offer some ideas in a future post. In the meantime, you already have everything you need to play owner and draft a terrific team–everything except the cards, that is!

My Final Baseball Card Project…probably!

Over the last two years, I was able to check off three collecting goals, two of which I’d started more than 20 years ago–

  1. 1956 Topps Brooklyn Dodgers team set
  2. 1957 Topps Brooklyn Dodgers team set – needed only a $2 Don Elston!
  3. Hank Aaron mini-master set (all Topps regular issue cards + notable magazine covers + bobbleheads + a few random things)

However, I still stood two cards away from my biggest collecting challenge: a framed display of the 50 best baseball players from 1933-1969. As the two said players were Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, I figured it could be a while.

Complex Psychological Transformations

It turns out there are three things that happen (in this order) when you find yourself “only” a Gehrig and a Ruth away from a goal of more than two decades.

  1. You stop making progress.
  2. You miss the thrill of checking players off your want list.
  3. You convince yourself there really are other players you need.

And with that, the project has now been reinvented as a Top 100. The bad news is I now need even more players than two. But the good news is…wait, that was the good news!

Who the Experts Put in Their Top 100

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1939 Play Ball Bill Dickey

First on the agenda was trying to figure out which players to include. For help, I looked over Top 100 player lists from SABR, the Sporting News, and ESPN, paying special attention to the players making all three lists. (I later bumped my selections against the MLB All-Century Team nominees and found all were represented for except Goose Goslin.)

While my budget would dictate that there was no point adding deadball era greats like Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson, the review did convince me to go beyond 1969 so I could add a great number of the great players I grew up watching as a kid in the late 70s and early 80s. As a result, my new cutoff was 1980, just before card collecting got totally ridiculous.

Round 1: The Immortals

Reflecting both the variability in such Top 100 lists as well as the significant number of great players whose last card was pre-1933 or post-1980, there were only 51 eligible players who made all three Top 100 lists. Here are the 23 who made the top half of all three lists, along with two honorable mentions I added myself. Rankings on each list are indicated as well:

  1. Babe Ruth – 1/1/1

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    1964 Genko card of the Japanese HR King
  2. Hank Aaron – 4/5/5
  3. Willie Mays – 8/2/2
  4. Ted Williams – 3/8/4
  5. Stan Musial – 5/10/8
  6. Lou Gehrig – 2/6/11
  7. Rogers Hornsby – 9/9/15
  8. Mickey Mantle – 12/17/9
  9. Joe DiMaggio – 6/11/19
  10. Frank Robinson – 24/22/20
  11. Johnny Bench – 19/16/26
  12. Jimmie Foxx – 14/15/27
  13. Mike Schmidt – 16/28/16
  14. Steve Carlton – 30/30/25
  15. Tom Seaver – 28/32/22
  16. Bob Gibson – 17/31/33
  17. Roberto Clemente – 20/20/34
  18. Mel Ott – 42/42/37
  19. Sandy Koufax – 21/26/44
  20. Nolan Ryan – 44/41/36
  21. Warren Spahn – 15/21/45
  22. Lefty Grove – 33/23/48
  23. Pete Rose – 48/25/38
  24. Satchell Paige – NA/19/NA
  25. Sadaharu Oh – NA/NA/NA

Round 2: Triple Mentions

And here are the 28 other players who made all three Top 100 lists but fell outside the top 50 on at least one. Definitely some immortals on this list also.

  1. Ernie Banks – 27/38/53

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    These DeLong cards are tough finds
  2. Jackie Robinson – 36/44/54
  3. George Brett – 29/55/30
  4. Yogi Berra – 26/40/58
  5. Joe Morgan – 37/60/18
  6. Rickey Henderson – 60/51/14
  7. Bob Feller – 22/36/61
  8. Rod Carew – 51/61/55
  9. Willie McCovey – 62/56/59
  10. Eddie Mathews – 31/63/39
  11. Hank Greenberg – 35/37/65
  12. Reggie Jackson – 67/48/57
  13. Harmon Killebrew – 69/69/66
  14. Juan Marichal – 58/71/71
  15. Carl Yastrzemski – 45/72/40
  16. Al Kaline – 59/76/46
  17. Brooks Robinson – 32/80/43
  18. Charlie Gehringer – 46/46/81
  19. Eddie Murray – 82/77/67
  20. Duke Snider – 68/83/82
  21. Robin Roberts – 83/74/80
  22. Ozzie Smith – 56/87/62
  23. Frank Frisch – 72/88/88
  24. Jim Palmer – 57/64/90
  25. Paul Waner – 71/62/92
  26. Willie Stargell – 93/81/85
  27. Al Simmons – 66/43/99
  28. Paul Molitor – 81/99/78

Round 3: Double Mentions

In this next round are the 17 players who made two of the three Top 100 lists. Two standouts here are Roy Campanella and Carl Hubbell, who made the top 50 with SABR and the Sporting News but failed to crack the ESPN list at all–not even among their 101-125 Honorable Mentions.

  1. Carl Hubbell

    Terry_1935_DS_no case
    One of my very favorite cards!
  2. Roy Campanella
  3. Mickey Cochrane
  4. Whitey Ford
  5. Bill Dickey
  6. Dennis Eckersley
  7. Pie Traynor
  8. Lou Brock
  9. Dizzy Dean
  10. Rollie Fingers
  11. Bill Terry
  12. Robin Yount
  13. Joe Cronin
  14. Ralph Kiner
  15. Carlton Fisk
  16. Fergie Jenkins
  17. Gaylord Perry

Round 4: Single Mentions

There were 14 players who made only one Top 100 list. As this was a somewhat weak criterion for inclusion, I chose to include only 11 of them. Omitted were Lefty Gomez, Early Wynn, and Goose Goslin.

  1. Bert Blyleven

    Niekro_1969
    Who knew this guy used to be young?
  2. Luke Appling
  3. Johnny Mize
  4. Gary Carter
  5. Dave Winfield
  6. Joe Medwick
  7. Ron Santo
  8. Hoyt Wilhelm
  9. Luis Aparicio
  10. Chuck Klein
  11. Phil Niekro

Round 5: The Final 19

From my perspective, I had already ensured inclusion of all of the must haves. From here, while I was definitely interested in considering the best remaining players, I wanted to ensure I kept spots open for some sentimental favorites, record holders, and pioneers of the game. I also received some terrific input from the baseball experts at net54baseball.

  1. Don Sutton

    Garvey_1971_RC
    The T206 Wagner of late 1970s Brentwood Science Magnet
  2. Lou Boudreau
  3. Billy Williams
  4. Don Drysdale
  5. Hack Wilson
  6. Lefty O’Doul
  7. Gabby Hartnett
  8. Arky Vaughan
  9. Monte Irvin
  10. Richie Ashburn
  11. Minnie Minoso
  12. Larry Doby
  13. Roger Maris
  14. Steve Garvey
  15. Thurman Munson
  16. Rich Gossage
  17. J.R. Richard
  18. Andre Dawson
  19. Jim Rice

Honorable Mentions

In addition to Gomez, Wynn, and Goslin, I left off the two great shortstops of the 1950s (Rizzuto, Reese), a couple top stars from the late 60s/early 70s (Allen, Tiant), and several perennial all-stars from my youth: Dave Parker, George Foster, Fred Lynn, Dale Murphy, and Bruce Sutter.

Then What?

Once I finally get the three cards I still need for my framed display, I really do think I’m done. Building a collection like this was my biggest and maybe only dream as a kid. And for all the times I had my cards thrown away or stolen, I don’t think I ever really got over any of them. Yes, I know there are other ways to gain closure on past traumas, but this is the route I’ve chosen. Good chance it proves no more expensive than real therapy would have…plus I end up with something really awesome for my wall. Long live cardboard therapy!

The Ten Best Topps Baseball Cards of the 1970s

Drumroll please…here are my top ten baseball cards of the 1970s. Each card is rating from 1-5 according to my “3P” criteria, and the ratings are summed to create a total score —

  • Player – Think of a 5 as a no-doubt-about-it Hall of Famer, a 3 as a guy who maybe made the All-Star team a couple times, and a 1 as a guy who mostly rode the bench.
  • Picture – Totally subjective but a 5+ would be the 1953 Bowman Pee Wee Reese, and a 1 would be 1970 Hoyt Wilhelm. Score points for a great action shot, a nice card design, or just a picture that seems to capture the essence of the player.
  • Pinnacle – Score points here for capturing a player in his prime, during a World Championship year, or at some notable career milestone.

I’ll be honest and acknowledge that there are several cards not listed below that even by my own scoring system would outscore some of the ones I have below. That said, I feel pretty solid about my top two. Any biggies you think I missed?

10. 1977 Mark FidrychBird

  • Player – 3
  • Picture – 3
  • Pinnacle – 5 (depicts the Bird’s historic 1976 season)
  • Total – 11
  • Notes: The Bird took the baseball world by storm with his rapid rise to the top, including an all-star appearance, a Rookie of the Year award, an E.R.A. title, and a runner-up finish in the Cy Young voting. Beyond the numbers, Fidrych was also one of baseball’s most colorful personalities and a player that perhaps epitomized 1970s America more than any other.

9. 1971136778 Thurman Munson

  • Player – 4
  • Picture – 5
  • Pinnacle – 2
  • Total – 11
  • Notes: This All-Star Rookie card of Munson has to be one of Topps’ all-time best action poses. In the picture, Munson awaits the throw as…any guesses?…Chuck Dobson of the Oakland A’s slides into home plate headfirst. While Munson had a rookie card in the 1970 set, this All-Star Rookie card is THE must-have card of the future Yankee captain who died tragically at the age of 32.

8. 1961H1stLh4eL._SX342_75 Cleveland Indians team card

  • Player – 5 (focusing on Frank Robinson)
  • Picture – 2
  • Pinnacle – 5 (major historical achievement)
  • Total – 12
  • Notes: As it the case most years, Cleveland wasn’t a particularly great team around this time. However, the team card is notable in its portrayal of Frank Robinson in the lower left corner. Robinson, like his namesake in 1947, had just made history, having become baseball’s first African American manager. Note that Robinson also has a standard player card in this same set, but its front simply identifies his position as DH rather than DH-Mgr.

7. 1976 Fred Lynn515J8JXIFpL._SY355_

  • Player – 4
  • Picture – 4
  • Pinnacle – 5 (depicts Lynn’s historic 1975 season)
  • Total – 13
  • Notes: Baseball’s MVP and Rookie of the Year, Fred Lynn, led Boston to the 1975 World Series and would go on to become one of the best all around players of the next decade. It’s a nice action shot of a hitter who might have compelled Boston fans to ask themselves, “Could this be the next Carl Yastrzemski? Or even the next Ted Williams?”

6. 1974 Nolan Ryan144510

  • Player – 5
  • Picture – 4
  • Pinnacle – 4 (depicts Ryan’s historic 1973 season)
  • Total – 13
  • Notes: One of my favorite cards as a kid. I loved the batter’s eye view of Ryan about to throw his 100 mph fastball en route to a record 383 strikeouts and the first two of his record seven no-hitters.

5. 1972 150425Roberto Clemente

  • Player – 5
  • Picture – 4
  • Pinnacle – 4 (depicts 1971 World Championship season)
  • Total – 13
  • Notes: Easy to miss at first glance, just above the “R” in Pirates, there is a baseball suspended precariously in midair as Roberto Clemente, plays a game of catch with himself. I’m no poet but there seems to be a metaphor here. What goes up must come down. Ashes to ashes. RIP Roberto Clemente.

4. 1974 Reggie JacksonReggieJackson_1974_130_Black

  • Player – 5
  • Picture – 4
  • Pinnacle – 5 (during the 1972-1974 Three-peat and depicts Reggie’s 1973 MVP season)
  • Total – 14
  • Notes: The 1974 card design was one of my least favorites of the decade. Perhaps this alone prevents this card from earning a perfect score.

1508593. 1974 Hank Aaron

  • Player – 5
  • Picture – 4
  • Pinnacle – 5 (no explanation needed for this one!)
  • Total – 14
  • Notes: When Topps released this card, Hank Aaron was not yet the Home Run King; his 713 lifetime homers put him one behind Babe Ruth. Still, Topps took a small gamble here and decided they just had to get out in front of one of the most important moments in baseball history. Probably one of the five most iconic Topps cards ever.

1405762. 1976 Johnny Bench

  • Player – 5
  • Picture – 5
  • Pinnacle – 5 (the apex of the Big Red Machine, 1975-76)
  • Total – 15
  • Notes: There may not be anyone else on the planet that loves this Bench card as much as I do. The cloud of dust at Bench’s feet and the stare-down seem to capture the essence of Johnny Bench as THE guy you didn’t want on the other team.

80-200Fr1. 1978 Reggie Jackson

  • Player – 5
  • Picture – 5
  • Pinnacle – 5 (depicts 1977 World Championship; also year of 1978 World Championship)
  • Total – 15
  • Notes: To me, this card just screams Reggie! It’s a terrific action shot that even Upper Deck would have been proud of, featuring Reggie in full follow-through, back knee practically on the ground. The colors are rich, augmented by the Topps all-star logo. And here is Mr. October in his prime, fresh off his record five home runs in the 1977 World Series and about to go win another–his fifth overall.

Remembering 1978 Topps

PRE-RAMBLE

My baseball card collecting began at a bake sale for Brentwood’s Bonner School back in the Fall of 1977. I paid 50 cents, which was a lot back then, for a stack of 43 cards from the 1974 Topps set. Every card was a common, other than the New York Mets manager card featuring Yogi Berra, but this small stack of cards propelled me from having no baseball cards at all to suddenly having a collection. Before the season came to an end, I managed to add a couple packs of 1977 Topps to my collection, including Rod Carew, and then began the first long wait of my then young life–the six months or so it would take for 1978 Topps to hit the shelves.

OPENING DAY

shoppingStarting around March 1–maybe even earlier–I would ride my bike each day–sometimes more than once–to the 7/11 on Venice and Sepulveda, only to find that cards had not yet hit the shelves. Then one day, I think it was in April, there were boxes on the shelves. By that time I’d saved up enough to buy 4-5 packs, which I had to open right on the spot rather than wait the five minutes it would take to bike home.

These days you might imagine a kid quickly thumbing through to see if he drew a “rare” insert or his favorite player. Back then, I am guessing I spent about a half hour outside the 7/11. I did look for my favorite players, though I somehow got none of them! However, I also spent a good deal of time looking at every single card–front and back–reading the stats, looking for good hits on the “Play Ball – Played by Two” game, and setting aside all Dodgers, all-stars, record breakers, team cards, and otherwise notable cards.

I wish I had set aside this first buy or could even remember the details of who was in it. On the whole, I vaguely remember a Sparky Lyle record breaker, a Doug Rau (my first Dodger!), and a Tony Armas–most notable for his Play Ball outcome of “STRIKE UT.” Over the course of the season–and it really did take that long with my limited budget–I worked my way toward a complete set, minus perhaps only a dozen or so cards.

WHAT WAS FUN

80-298BkOne thing my collection did for me was get me “in” with a new bunch of friends at school, the baseball card collectors. There was nothing more fun than spending part of lunch or recess (or sometimes during class) trading with each other. Back then, the Holy Grail was a Steve Garvey card. One albeit very large notch down were Reggie Jackson, Pete Rose, George Foster, Jim Rice, and Johnny Bench. And just below those elementary school immortals were Seaver, Morgan, Yaz, Carew, Brett, Luzinski, Kingman, and others.

We typically cared very little about the condition of the cards, and it was often the case that the most precious cards were the ones we took the worst care of, keeping them in pockets or under pillows as opposed to shoe boxes or binders. I made a lot of new friends in 1978, and trading baseball cards was just about the only thing we ever did together. Still, it filled the days and months quite nicely.

Still, Cards with Friends was only half the story. For every hour I spent trading with friends, I spent two by myself in my room. There, favorite activities included sorting my growing set by number, then by team, then by number, then by team, and so on. Or holding a draft where I pretended to be four different owners. Or playing “Play Ball” against myself. Or replaying the 1977 Dodgers vs Yankees World Series. Or–not so much as its own activity but as a by-product of these others–memorizing player stats. Or making a card tower. Or learning handwriting from the cursive team names. Or practicing long division with the at-bats and hits. And those are just the things I remember almost 40 years later.

TRAGEDY

One thing I NEVER did was clean up after any of this. My carpet was so covered in cards that there was barely even a path from the door to my bed, particularly as my collection grew. It was as if I were some alien creature whose habitat was to dwell among card piles. And truly, this was how I was happiest, surrounded by my cardboard idols. My mom, on the other hand, was not thrilled with how I decorated and for the first of many times chose to solve the problem by picking everything up and throwing it away. To her, these were just disposable pieces of cardboard, and I doubt there was much feeling involved. For me, these were the faces of my heroes, real and living. It was as if my mom had just committed genocide across the baseball world. Save the occasional Dick Ruthven I might find sandwiched between my bed and the wall, I was back to having nothing.

REBIRTH

With little time left in the baseball season, there was no way I would be able to build the 726-card set fair and square. Fortunately, I knew where my mom hid her money, and just like that a good kid turned bad. It took maybe three weeks to rebuild what had taken me 4-5 months the first time, at least in terms of my 1978 set, though I suppose it took years if not decades to rebuild a strong relationship with my mom. At the time, of course, my 1978 Topps cards were much more the priority for me, not that I’d have them for long. Somewhere around Christmas, they were back in the trash, and I was back to playing cardboard pauper and counting down the days till April when the 1979 series would hit the shelves.

FAVORITES

As I look back now on what was the very first set to take over my life, nearly every card still looks familiar and brings me back so many years. It’s tough to choose my very favorites, but here is a shot at my top fifteen. The Reggie All-Star even makes my list of Ten Best Topps Cards of the 1970s, but that’s a subject for another post. Enjoy the memories!

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The Sir Isaac Newton Fan’s Guide to Vintage Trading Cards

 

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While there has long been an active market and community for trading cards of popular sports heroes, past and present, the collecting of non-sports trading cards holds a much lower profile. On the bright side, this keeps prices low; of course, it also makes it harder to know what’s out there and perhaps harder to know where to find it.

This page will focus on vintage trading cards of the Babe Ruth of Physics, Sir Isaac Newton. For current purposes, I will define vintage as older than me (1969). The organization of this page will be chronological in two sections: cards my son and I have, and cards we don’t have.

PART ONE – CARDS WE HAVE

The slideshow below highlights the vintage Newton cards in our collection so far. An inventory follows the slideshow.

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  1. 1886 Royal Farm Mower
  2. 1888 Chocolat Poulain 
  3. 1890s Romanet & Cie. 
  4. 1890s Chocolat Guerin-Boutron “Benefactors of Humanity”
  5. 1897 Suchard “Inventors”
  6. c1900 Sodex “The Astronomers (Series B) Newton with Hammerfest Column and Pulkovo Observatory
  7. c1900 Bensdorp Cacao #101 of 104 NEW
  8. 1900 Player’s Cigarettes “Famous Authors and Poets”
  9. 1900 Liepig “Inventors II”
  10. 1901 Ogden’s Guinea Gold #119
  11. c1901 Aecht Franck “Famous Scholars”
  12. 1903 Liepig “Monuments to Famous Scientists”
  13. 1906 Liebig “Astronomers I”
  14. 1908 Stollwerck Helden (Germany)
  15. 1912 Chairman Cigarettes #46
  16. 1923 Nicolas Sarony “Celebrities and Their Autographs” #29 (wide)
  17. 1923 Nicolas Sarony “Celebrities and Their Autographs” #29 (narrow) NEW
  18. 1924 Ogden’s Cigarettes “Leaders of Men” #35 of 50
  19. 1926 Carreras “Old Staffordshire Figures” #5 of 24
  20. 1933 Figures of World History #89
  21. c1930 Yramos Dresden #91
  22. 1932 Chocolat Pupier “L’Angleterre” (with William Shakespeare)
  23. 1933 Haus Bergmann
  24. 1934 Typhoo Tea “Homes of Famous Men”
  25. 1935 Carreras “Celebrities of British History” #17 of 50
  26. 1936 Godfrey Phillips “Famous Minors” #50 of 50
  27. 1937 Churchman’s Cigarettes “Howlers” (Gravity) #21
  28. 1946-1966 Stamina Trousers
  29. 1950 Carreras “Celebrities of British History” #8
  30. c1950 Editions Arnaud 
  31. 1952 Topps “Look ‘n See” #68 of 135
  32. 1960 Honigs Macaroni 
  33. 1965 Jacques Superchocolat
  34. 1965 Fine Fare Specialty Tea #4 of 25 (Series One) NEW

PART TWO – WISH LIST

This is only a partial list of other Newton cards. Please let me know if you have any additions or corrections, and especially if you are willing to sell/trade any of these cards.

PART THREE – BUYING ISAAC NEWTON CARDS

Nearly every card in our collection cost between $1-$8 via eBay. That said, I have seen some Newton cards priced in the $100 range. Because the market is largely inactive, I don’t have a good sense of whether these more expensive cards are significantly more scarce or whether I am simply seeing aberrant pricing from individual sellers. Either way, we are staying away from anything in double or triple digits.

NOTES

  • Great pictures of every Liebig card ever produced are available here, though it’s a little tricky to look for any specific set or person.
  • Some of the Newton cards I’ve listed include variations (e.g., regular vs. wide), which I haven’t always listed. One thing I recently learned is that the Liebig cards come in both German, French, and Italian varieties.
  • I haven’t shelled out the money, but the London Cigarette Card Company puts out an annual catalog that seems pretty comprehensive.
  • A fantastic site dedicated to cards of Ludwig van Beethoven is here.